From the Moment Archives: June, 1998-A Visitor to Jerusalem shares his experiences:
Night Musing in Jerusalem
The Peculiar Weight of Being a Jew
by P. David Hornik
JERUSALEM. The word evokes holiness, history; donkeys, dust, alleys, markets. But not to me—not anymore. Jerusalem is what’s outside my window: a summer dusk, the voices of a leafy, peaceful street. The sense, too, of a vibrant city awakening—meaning the “New City,” whose downtown section is fifteen minutes by bus from where I live in the northern neighborhood of French Hill. Now that I’m free and footloose, I could go there; the question arises every evening. It means venturing out, alone, into the “night life”—the sea of animated faces at the outdoor cafes, or, if I wanted to be braver, the bars of Nahalat Shiva Street and the Russian Compound, which start to fill up at about eleven and stay open all night.
But as for the myth- and history-laden Old City, I haven’t been in it, by day or night, in years, and the thought doesn’t occur to me.
To be newly single, alone, uncertain, and confused in Jerusalem is to be newly single, alone, uncertain, and confused. Jerusalem is neutral; it doesn’t solve anything. Maybe tonight, if you went downtown, you’d meet someone—an American tourist woman, for instance, who’d be impressed by your having lived here for 12 years, your having toughed it out here, your ability to deal with the waitress in Hebrew. Or maybe that’s folly…they say you can’t really meet anyone that way. Maybe it’s better to stay here and enjoy this profound calm that you have now. After all, how long will this interval of solitude, unhampered reflection, last?
By nightfall the breeze is blowing, stirring the leaves along the street, wafting in cool waves through the window. Every summer night in Jerusalem is breezy; no night is oppressively warm. This is one definite difference between these nights and summer nights in the small upstate New York town in which I grew up: those were often windless and eerily still, so that if I sneaked out my window after midnight it was like entering a hushed, entranced world.
Not collective myth—not the myth of Jerusalem’s history—but my own private myth is what awakens as night settles and the city turns murmurous and
resonant. It took years before this began to happen; years in which I felt dazed and displaced here, radically removed from my very distant past.
Now, though, my mind is no longer impressed by distinctions. Jerusalem-Clifton Park, Jewish-gentile, southern-northern. No, it’s a summer night. The vegetation is different, the feel and smell of the air, even the weather a little; but it’s the same basic phenomenon, same planet, same mood. In my personal myth, “summer night” is a call, a taunt, a painful, indestructible surmise that life can be lived much more fully, that the only adequate response to summer night is to go out into it, be in it and of it.
The call is the same, whether it’s Clifton Park in 1970 or Jerusalem in 1997. Logic would say that the call is easier to heed at 15 than at 41. If you’re 15, you can sneak out of your house because there are parents living in your house who don’t want you to do things like that. If you’re fifteen, your chances of finding someone who will agree to tryst with you out there after midnight are greater; she, too, will have to sneak out. Escape, evasion, and secrecy hold great appeal to many at age 15.
If, on the other hand, you’re 41, you’re free to go anywhere, anytime you like, and the idea of meeting someone out there at a bizarre hour, just for the sake of escape or adventure is silly. If you’re 41, someone you would meet would very likely have small children sleeping in her apartment anyway—minded, perhaps, by a baby-sitter who can stay until midnight or so, but not until some strange hour.
The best thing would be to get these thoughts, this mood, out of my head; then I could at least do something—read, for instance—instead of just lying here by the open window. Summer night. If only I could answer the call.
In 1983, soon after I decided to make aliyah myself, I published an intensely polemical article exhorting other American Jews to do the same. To look at its pages now is to feel
It’s shrill, to begin with. Everything is Grand Abstraction—the demons of Assimilation and Intermarriage are menacing you, your only succor is Israel. It’s obvious that the author exalts and idolizes this thing called Israel, that the very sound of the word thrills him. Israel: noble, suffering, brave—while we sit here, lazy and decadent. Of course, nowhere in the article or in the contributor note is it mentioned that the author has never seen the place and doesn’t know a word of Hebrew.
For another thing—who did I think I was? The moralism! The ability to castigate other adults as hypocrites and reprobates! A moralism, of course, made easier by the fact that I was a fairly young and unsettled adult; when one is beset with both troubled finances (which the article rather ingenuously mentions) and a troubled marriage (which it doesn’t), it’s easier to heed the thrilling call of rebirth and renewal in far-off, noble, struggling Israel. But no—in making aliyah, I will be doing the One Right Thing to Do. All the rest of you—no matter how successful, established, or content you think you are—must follow suit or be damned to disappear into the Exile as you deserve.
Summer night. The night has made progress—it’s about nine o’clock—but I am no closer to resolving the limbo it has cast me into. I neither venture into the city nor use my tranquil, pleasant hours to do something worthwhile, like read—as opposed to thumbing despondently through old magazines.
Not that I was the only one. Until five or six years ago—when, it seems to me, it stopped—there were other voices, some of immigrant Israelis and some of natives, loudly badgering Diaspora Jews to come live here. The change may have to do with the huge wave of Russian immigrants that’s arrived since then. Suddenly Zionism seemed, perhaps, vindicated—by perennially clogged roads in our cities, an army with more recruits than it could assign meaningful tasks—that preaching it was sheer overkill. In other words, “post-Zionism”—not in the politically contentious sense, but in the sense of Israel’s having become a distinct, solid, self-sufficient entity that no longer needs an ideology, a moral contest with a Diaspora to validate itself.
Still…what do I think? Do I still have views on this great subject of where Jews should live, what they should do? And if I have such views, do I still even know, now that this place is no longer an abstraction to me but a multifarious reality, what they are?
I still, after all, come across Diaspora Jews sometimes—in my occasional visits to the old country, to the States; Diaspora Jews, that is, mostly of the assimilated variety. How do I feel about them? Is there still an issue between us, or are we just people who happen to be of different nationalities, meeting to talk and muse about the things people talk and muse about?
I feel irritated when I see them. Why? Not because they’re not packing their bags and preparing to make aliyah—to demand that of them is indeed to be a strident ideologue, blind to psychological reality. No—it’s the ignorance about Jewishness, Jewish things, Israel. Or, not ignorance exactly, rather the assumption, the unconscious assumption, that such things aren’t even interesting or worth knowing about.
And why should that disturb me? No one, after all, expects Italian Americans or Greek Americans to study the history of Italy or Greece or even to take an interest in their current affairs. If I am really a “post-Zionist,” nonideological, why can’t I just accept these people as Americans who happen to be Jews—not be ill-disposed toward that fact, nor particularly concerned about it?
There’s the rub. Jews—it’s too special a thing, too unique, solitary, and unlikely an identity to more or less ignore or allow to melt a way. I don’t feel anymore—I don’t think I do—that these people have a moral obligation to the overcrowded State of Israel to take an interest in it, or a moral obligation to history, to the Jewish God, or even to them selves. It seems more a question of authenticity. If one aspires to be conscious, worldly, how then can one be more or less indifferent, at best furtively concerned about this peculiar and weighty fact of being a Jew? What authenticity can there be when so large and distinctive a part of the self is set aside with a shrug?
I suppose, then, that if I talked honestly to these people—which I don’t—I’d say: Take an interest in it. There are all sorts of fascinating aspects to it and all sorts of books about those aspects. Of course, once you take an interest, you may find that it has a way of insidiously drawing you in—to the point that, beyond reading and thinking, there are things you feel compelled to do. But whether or not that happens, you’ll at least have illuminated a large part of yourself that’s necessarily—no matter how overwhelmed, on a conscious level, by Americanness—determinant, in considerable degree, of who and what you’ve become.
But I’m preaching again.
All that, at any rate, doesn’t occupy me anymore. At least, not very often. Now that I’ve gotten ideology out of the way, now that I’m here, I’m occupied by the ordinary concerns of life—waking up and going to sleep, making a living, getting divorced, adjusting to divorce. Having Jerusalem as a backdrop doesn’t change these basic elements. It’s just a city—though, I admit, a strangely intense, rather beautiful one.
Near ten-thirty, the hour when, downtown, things really get moving. The bars start to fill, the sidewalk cafes to jam. Too late for me to go, right? I had my chance earlier, would have had to decide then. Even though it’s Thursday, and I don’t work tomorrow, to leave now is to risk (I know of what I speak) void, bleakness; getting back here at three o’ clock, falling into a poor, fitful sleep and waking, after a few hours, to a sluggish, low-capacity day.
No. Better to stay here and listen to the leaves rustling along my street. Summer night. No doubt there should be something better to do than just lie here, thumbing through magazines and musing about the Jewish question.