Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Ninth of Av

Today is Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Roman empire in 70 AD. The Temple and its fate are bound inextricably to the city of Jerusalem, so I offer this essay; appropriate or not, I do not know; to mark the occasion.

I know that a city exists whose name is Jerusalem. It is a city made of old stones and new stones, perched atop a series of ascending hills which look down on a valley leading out into the unknown lands over which a Jew may not traverse in safety. The city's skies are blue and its summer sun a deceptively harsh white orb. People live within its walls. They work, pray, die, sicken, embrace, make love, and do such banal things as buy milk and cereal at corner kiosks and American-style chain stores. They are ordinary and extraordinary, confident and listless, sad and ecstatic; much like in any other city.

It is a city which posits extremes of shape and dimension. Its vistas of hills and valleys give way to tightly cramped streets and decaying slums. It has verdant, blooming corners and plazas of steel and concrete which stun the eye with the monochromatic violence of any industrial wasteland. It is a city which lives its moments as cities do.

There is another Jerusalem; one which I have traversed only in glimpses and dreams. It is an amorphous cipher, a riddle without an answer, a labyrinth of twisting walls and vertiginous descents. This is the Jerusalem of two thousand years of numinous fantasias. It has whispered to prophets, madmen, apocalyptics, conquerers, mystics and messiahs. Its streets have swallowed oceans of blood. The Jerusalem of the Maccabbees, Bar-Cochba, of Vespasian's legions, of Sallah Al-Din and the Crusading knights; the city of massacres and the sword; the city in which the Temple of my people was consumed by the flames of an empire against which they had hurled the last full measure of their messianic hopes and transcendant rage.

Neither of these two cities escapes the other. Below the stones, sidewalks, porticos, stairwells and shopping malls of the Jerusalem of banality beats the ominous heart of the other city. This city has always drawn and terrified me. In my dreams it is a sleeping princess, waiting to be a awakened with a kiss; or a demon with obsidian eyes waiting to burst forth and swallow the city and its sojourners whole. It is a beloved's melody and a siren song. One feels it coursing beneath one's feet when one stands among the stones and sky; like the heart of a leviathan pumping black blood through its titantic veins.

I have never once thought of this Jerusalem as masculine. Some cities, like London and Berlin, appear to display a male character to the beholder; but Jerusalem, like Paris, is utterly feminine. She sleeps, and she awakens when she chooses. Once, standing on the ramparts of the Old City, upon the ruins of my people's Temple, she spoke to me. A great procession of conquerers spread out before me over the valley; their weapons shining in the setting sun. King David, Saladin, the Knights Templers, the Ottoman sultans and General Allenby; all those who had held the princess in their grip and then passed into shadows. David's son had written from these ramparts that all was vanity; and he was wise enough to have his reasons. We are all but jesters upon her stage. No man conquers this city, no man divides it. No man violates her chastity; or can resist her entreaties. She will choose her lovers, and use them as she will; and so will conquerers fall, terrors beset the afflicted, and happiness come to the annointed and to victorious kings; but no man decides. The city will decide, in her own good time. She will decide who will rule for his sojourn, and then pass on, devoured by the stones.

I have known Jerusalem as a city of love and a city of fear. She is beautiful, but I fear the blood that pulses beneath the gray stones. She requires no pleas, no prayers, no entreaties, no adorations; she will decide.

I am speaking here, perhaps, of amorphous things; of retrograde superstitions and crude invocations to shadowy ghosts and translucent spirits; but I can merely write of what I have seen. No man can look upon Jerusalem and fully retain his reason; and to stand within its walls is to be at constant war between ecstatic derangement and the calculating mind of the modern. No wonder so many lost souls haunt her streets, no wonder so many madmen lurk its alleys and traverse its shadows. I am speaking here of elementary forces, of primal movements, of something sensed as one senses the movement of the wind upon the hairs of one's arm. Man has lost the moment these things were set in motion, so ancient are its origins. It stirs the primitive memory, the indivisible core which some men name God and others call History. I do not know its name, and I do not seek it. Each man who dies within the walls is a testimony to their frivolous quest; to grasp at that which cannot be held. Jerusalem proves the vanity of man; and yet we return to her. To the princess and the demon whore, to the beauteous monster. She fears nothing; and all who love her must also fear her, as one fears the impossible eternity; and all she loves, she loves as a luminous queen adores her subjects; as a God might love his creation.