How can so many people who have never been to this city, love this city? That is the mystery of Jerusalem.
Few places loom so large in so many imaginations for so many thousands of years. For more than 3,000 of those years, Jerusalem has been the Jewish people’s capital city. The Bible refers to it 823 times. And every day, wherever Jews are, whenever they pray, they pray in the direction of Jerusalem.
For 2,000 years, Jerusalem has been the founding city of the Christians, and whenever they think of Jesus, they think of him living, preaching — and dying — in Jerusalem.
And for 1,400 years, Jerusalem has been one of the three holy cities of Islam – with Muslims all over the world today viewing the Dome of the Rock as symbolizing Jerusalem, al Quds in Arabic.
“Next year in Jerusalem, bashana haba’ah beyerushayim.” Jews have shouted this for thousands of years, and still end every Passover seder by singing it, expressing an eternal hope of return and redemption.
In the 1970s, when Rastafarians wanted to express their longings and hopes, they put Psalm 137 to music, singing “By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept.. when we remembered Zion,” the central mountain of Jerusalem.
A city of many names
One way of understanding Jerusalem’s magic pull is to consider four of its nicknames.
Three thousand years ago, it was the City of David — the Jewish capital, the city that King David united in 1000 BCE, the city where King Solomon built the first Holy Temple 40 years later, the city that became the symbol of the Jews’ love of God, of the Jews’ unity throughout the ages, of the Jews’ national values
– and, through two destructions and years of exile, the universal Jewish symbol of loss and sorrow.
Shortly after one of Napoleon’s great victories, he passed by a synagogue, filled with Jews crying and howling. “Why aren’t they celebrating?” Napoleon asked his lieutenants indignantly. “They’re Jews, this is the day they all mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and their two temples, more than 1700 years ago. Impressed, Napoleon said “a people who remember their past so intensely will surely return to Jerusalem – and rebuild it”
The name Jerusalem, Ir shalom, city of peace, evokes the mystical calming power so many Jews felt in it, that Jesus preached about, and that Muhammad dreamed about. On an earthly level, it doesn’t make sense.
Other cities are more lush, nourished by mighty oceans or rolling rivers. Other cities are more grand, defined by magnificent monuments or majestic towers.
Jerusalem is a desert city in a mountain range most famous for its stones. And for most of its many years, the natural beauty of its surroundings clashed with the Jewish tragedies reflected in its ruins.
The founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl himself, disgusted by “the musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance, and uncleanliness” which “lie in the foul-smelling alleys,” said after his one visit to the city in 1898: “When I remember thee in days to come, O Jerusalem, it will not be with pleasure.”
But perhaps it is in the city’s very sandy, rocky simplicity, in the absence of some overwhelming natural or man-made presence, that so many people could put material concerns aside and find a sense of godliness, of the supernatural, right there.
And the magic certainly lies in its extraordinary ability to be a blank canvas, stirring people’s dreams and moving them to make it their own.
Inspired by “the silhouette of the fortress of Zion, the citadel of David,” Herzl would write: “if Jerusalem is ever ours, and if I were still able to do anything about it, I would begin by cleaning it up.”
That spiritual pull also made Jerusalem “The Crossroads of the World” – its third name. It has long been a central trading route, an intellectual center, and, alas, a corridor of power for empire after empire to plow through.
This, then, has been the great cost of being Jerusalem…. During its long, legendary history, the city has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice.
The Babylonians and the Romans, the Byzantines and the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottoman Turks, the British, all came, ruled, and went. Each empire left something behind, after it was conquered – making Jerusalem one of the great architectural “tels” or mounds of debris in the world, while keeping Jerusalem’s history alive and layered and a reflection of so many peoples across the world and throughout the ages.
And finally, a fourth name, Tzion, Zion, again honors King David, for he first conquered that mountain. The name evokes Jerusalem’s latest incarnation as the old- and new – capital of the democratic Jewish state of Israel, now symbolizing the Jews’ return to their homeland, and the sense that today, after thousands of years, Jews still feel connected to one another and to Jerusalem, their capital city, and Israel their homeland.
Jerusalem and Israel
Just like its history over thousands of years, Jerusalem’s history over the last hundred years has been a roller coaster ride too. In 1948, Jews couldn’t believe it. Just three years after the Nazis killed six million of their people, Israel was reborn. They had dreamed of this state for nearly 2,000 years.
But amid all that joy, when Israel’s war of Independence ended in 1949, losing part of Jerusalem left a hole in many Jews’ hearts.
Israel won – successfully fighting off six Arab armies — but it lost the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Kotel, the Western Wall, and the entire Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
“Even your foes knew you as the children of the loftiest Mount,” the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg wrote, “And your kings’ psalms spring forth from their mouths… Israel without that Mount is-not Israel.”
For 19 years, the New City of Jerusalem, West Jerusalem grew and flourished, like the rest of the new country of Israel. But day by day, the Old City, East Jerusalem, languished, was neglected, and vandalized.
The Jordanians who controlled the Old City, banished the Jews who had lived there for centuries, blew up ancient synagogues, defiled hundreds of holy scrolls and desecrated the Mount of Olives cemetery where thousands of Jews had been buried for centuries, using many Jewish tombstones to pave new roads up to the Intercontinental hotel.
Popular legend has it that only one of the Old City’s 35 synagogues remained undamaged, as the Arab custodian whose family had taken care of it for decades continued doing his job, telling no one he had the keys.
All that pain, all that destruction, all that frustration is why, nineteen years later in 1967, when Israel fought off another joint Arab attack, in just six days, and reunited Jerusalem, Jerusalem’s liberation felt so miraculous to so many people, Jews and non-Jews around the world. Recognizing the city’s international importance, democratic Israel wisely allowed Jews to administer the Jewish holy sites, while Moslems and Christians each administer their own holy sites.
To Jews, Israel with a full Jerusalem represents the ancient heart and soul restored to the renewed body of the Jewish people.
Today, when most people enter Jerusalem’s Old City they don’t walk alone. They wander around imagining someone from history on their shoulder – be it religious figures from Mary Magdalene, the follower of Jesus to Mattathias – the high priest and father of the Maccabees, or friends and relatives – a grandmother, a great-grandfather – who dreamed of visiting the Holy City but never actually made it.
And so when Jews enter Jerusalem today, they also do not walk alone – they dance with King David, judge wisely with King Solomon; they purify the Temple with the Maccabees and live simply like millions of their ancestors; they model a new approach of protecting the holy sites of their Christian and Muslim neighbors; and they dream of ever-improving this ancient city that now houses high-tech firms and cutting-edge hospitals along with government offices and educational institutions – in short, they swim in Jewish history, steep themselves in Jewish values, absorb the glory, the dreams, the ideals, the values, the stories, the heroes – and the pain – of Jerusalem, the City of David, and Ir Shalem, the Crossroads of the World and Zion itself, the holy – ancient – modern city which is the forever-capital of the Jewish people, while precious to humanity all over the world.