Jerusalem Syndromes
Tue, 08/03/2010
Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.
Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.

 Summertime, and my hometown is filled with tourists from the Old Country. Women in wide-brimmed hats and men in Ralph Lauren shirts clutching bottles of water, poring over maps. They wedge notes into the Western Wall, trudge the Via Dolorosa, browse the Arab shuk, eat long lunches in the German Colony. You can spot them a mile away. God bless them all. 

What does this mean for those of us who live here? The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) hit the mark in his poem “Tourists,” in which the narrator, carrying “heavy baskets,” sits down to rest near an Old City gate, and hears a tour guide point him out: “You see that man?  Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period.” But I’m alive, I move, says the poet to himself. Messianic redemption, the poet says, will come only when a guide says, see that Roman arch? “It’s not important: but next to it . . . sits a man who bought fruits and vegetables for his family.”  

Yes, of course, but the heavy baskets of history cannot be depleted. Indeed, they stoke our economy. Rare is the tourist who comes to Jerusalem mainly for the food, the art, the nightlife. This is the Holy City, ir hakodesh, Al-Quds — not Florence or Barcelona (or for that matter, Tel Aviv). Visitors are drawn by expectations that transcend aesthetic or sensory delights. People come with spiritual cravings. They come to commune with David and Solomon, Judah Maccabee and Jesus. In Jerusalem, tourists are also pilgrims — a tradition that goes back to antiquity. 

In January 1857, devastated by the commercial failures of “Moby Dick” and subsequent novels — the public preferred his early South Seas yarns, “Typee” and “Omoo” — Herman Melville, 37 years old, landed in Jerusalem, seeking to revive his spirit. His goal, he wrote in his journal, was “the saturation of my mind with the atmosphere of Jerusalem, offering myself up a passive subject, and no unwilling one, to its weird impressions.” With high hopes he visited, more than once, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the tomb of Jesus — but came away disillusioned: “All is glitter and nothing is gold.” The church’s façade, he noted, “looks like so much spoiled pastry at which the mice have been at work.”  

Melville’s impression of tour guides prefigures Amichai: “’Here is the stone Christ leaned against, & here is the English Hotel.’ Yonder is the arch where Christ was shown to the people, & just by that open window is sold the best coffee in Jerusalem.” His conclusion: “No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine — particularly Jerusalem.” 

There’s the point. The tension between lofty dreams and quotidian realities is especially acute around here, as we locals (American immigrants not least) well know, and as Mark Twain, in his famous travelogue “The Innocents Abroad,” quickly gathered: “I can see easily enough that if I wish to profit by this tour and come to a correct understanding of the matters of interest connected with it, I must studiously and faithfully unlearn a great many things I have somehow absorbed concerning Palestine . . . The word Palestine always brought to my mind a vague suggestion of a country as large as the United States. I do not know why, but such was the case. I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history.”

Published in 1869, when the author was 33, Twain’s seriocomic classic was born of articles he wrote for a San Francisco paper as he accompanied a group of American pilgrims on a trip to the Land of Israel, two years earlier. It sold more copies, during his lifetime, than “Tom Sawyer” or any of his other books. Americans of the 19th century were fascinated by the Holy Land, much as they are now. And then as now, they harbored preconceptions. Wrote Twain:

“I am sure from the tenor of books 

I have read that many who have visited this land in years gone by were Presbyterians, and came seeking evidences in support of their particular creed; they found a Presbyterian Palestine, and they had already made up their minds to find no other, though possibly they did not know it, being blinded by their zeal. Others were Baptists, seeking Baptist evidences and a Baptist Palestine. Others were Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, seeking evidences indorsing their several creeds, and a Catholic, a Methodist, an Episcopalian Palestine. Honest as these men’s intentions may have been, they were full of partialities and prejudices, they entered the country with their verdicts already prepared, and they could no more write dispassionately and impartially about it than they could about their own wives and children.”

That incisive passage, from Chapter 48 of “The Innocents Abroad,” is not often quoted by modern authors, though it should be. Instead, contemporary works of Israel advocacy are replete with quotations and images plucked from Twain’s book, adducing these as welcome proof that pre-Zionist Palestine was backward and desolate. A noted example is a lengthy pastiche of Twain quotes served up by Alan Dershowitz in his influential and controversial 2003 book “The Case for Israel,” beginning as follows: 

“Stirring scenes ... occur in the valley [Jezreel] no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent —not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings. ... Come to Galilee for that ... these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never, never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and faint into vague perspective; that melancholy ruin of Capernaum: this stupid village of Tiberias, slumbering under its six funereal palms. ... ”   

But Twain himself was a bundle of “partialities and prejudices,” which renders him less than an ideal witness. “The Innocents Abroad” is loaded with derogatory descriptions of Arabs. He writes, for example, of Bedouins “with very long spears in their hands, cavorting around on old crowbait horses, and spearing imaginary enemies; whooping, and fluttering their rags in the wind, and carrying on in every respect like a pack of hopeless lunatics.” He was often no more sparing of his fellow Christians and had a satirical field day at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

“It is a singular circumstance that right under the roof of this same great church ... Adam himself, the father of the human race, lies buried. There is no question that he is actually buried in the grave, which is pointed out as his — there can be none — because it has never yet been proven that that grave is not the grave in which he is buried ... 

I leaned upon a pillar and burst into tears. I deem it no shame to have wept over the grave of my poor dead relative. Let him who would sneer at my emotion close this volume here, for he will find little to his taste in my journeyings through Holy Land.”

Is Adam really buried in Jerusalem? And is King David buried on Mount Zion? Is the Via Dolorosa the very route that Jesus really walked? Have verifiable remnants of David’s palace been unearthed in Silwan, an Arab section of Jerusalem where Jewish excavation and construction have become a bone of political contention? Scholars may differ, but tourism has a truth of its own, for better and worse, as Twain and Melville well understood. “Travelling is a fool’s paradise,” carped Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” but he was wrong. Travel, especially in Jerusalem, sets the mind spinning.   

 Stuart Schoffman is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.