Loving Jerusalem, the City of Many Stories

The hottest piece of spiritual real estate in the world––the walled off heart of Jerusalem that has given faith and purpose  to Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world, a place where each story is one of many in the city of pieces––is also just a city.

And it is a city of many stories and many truths. 

For instance: 

It’s true that from each roof you can look out on a mosaic of faith and peoplehood, and it’s also true that there’s this roof where the Four Quarters meet, where ultra-Orthodox kids play and Palestinian kids play, but I’ve never seen them play together, except this one time when the Jewish kids’ ball landed over by the Arab kids, and one of the boys picked it up as though it might explode.  

He held it in his hands as though touching it were dangerous, but then he looked at the ball as though it were something precious, and he held it in his hands for three long seconds before he threw it back.  And it’s true that this was the closest I’ve ever seen Arab kids and Jewish kids play together.  

It’s true that  Islamic charities give out food stamps to poor families, and they buy bread that way — because living in Jerusalem is expensive, and it’s hard to make a living. Sometimes, the shopkeepers go an entire day without making a single sale. And it’s true that thousands of pilgrims pour through Jerusalem each day, but they only come to visit the holy sites, and they don’t always see that the people who need to make a living off a crappy t-shirt or an old menorah or are just as holy as any stone or cistern or tomb that they flock to touch and photograph with a selfie stick and a smile.  

And it’s also true that the Islamic authority officials on the Temple Mount give little pieces of stale bread to the cats and birds who eat the bread, in quiet coexistence.  

It’s also true that Jewish fathers and mothers sell red string to tourists––“it’s a blessing on your head!” they say. Each string is a few shekels. They don’t do it because they want to take your money. They do it because they’re poor, and that’s all they feel they can do.

In the Old City, it’s true that the Jewish kids are afraid to walk in the Muslim Quarter, and the Muslim kids are afraid of the soldiers. The soldiers are probably afraid too, sometimes. They aren’t much older than the kids, and some of them even still wear braces––that’s true, too. A  little Muslim girl cowers behind her parents on Jerusalem Day. 

A little Jewish girl dances ahead of everyone in the flag parade down Al-Wad Street in that same parade. Neither girl notices the other.

It’s true that there’s a yeshiva on the street near Damascus Gate in the heart of the Muslim Quarter – and late at night you can hear the boys singing, and it’s true that the boys hand out coffee to the Border Police in a little stand at the bottom covered in Israeli flags.  

Sometimes they hand out cookies, too.  I asked once if they ever gave to any of the Palestinians in the Old City. 

“They never ask,” they said.  

It’s true that the yeshiva is protected by young guys in black pants and black [WHITE??] shirts with black yarmulkes on their heads and black guns on their hips, and the children who study there are escorted to and from the Western Wall by at least one armed guard.  They walk quickly with measured steps, even the little ones, and they don’t slow down until they reach the Jewish Quarter, and then the kids are kids again, silly and giggling and all smiles. 

And it’s also true that there is a guy who runs a change station next to the yeshiva. He was born in the Muslim Quarter.  His father was born in the Muslim Quarter.  His grandfather was born in the Muslim Quarter.  He has the old metal key from the old door to his house––the same house ––but a different door.  He started smoking when he was 11.  He still does, even though they took out his voice box a few years ago.  He whistles when he talks, and it’s high like the wind through the cracks of the buildings on the first night of autumn.  But if he likes you, he’ll press on his windpipe and sing something beautiful in Arabic by Fairuz or Oum Kalthoum.  It’s true that he likes almost everyone.  

It’s true that some days the street smells like coffee and rosewater, or like saffron and old coins.  You can buy sweets soaked in honey, and pink and blue almonds, and zatar for just three shekels 

-And it’s also true that some days the street smells like the smoke from a stun grenade, or raw sewage.  Because even though the Old City is called the Holy City, it is also just an old city.  

It’s true that church bells ring several times a day, and five times a day you can hear the call to prayer, and on Friday afternoons, there’s the Shabbat siren, and it’s also true that late at night, the Old City is as silent as a tomb beneath the layers, until  a rooster crows––especially loud when the moon is full.  

It’s true that in Jerusalem, old men play backgammon, smushed into metal chairs. They’re the kings of the street and masters of their own fate… until their wives call them home.  

And it’s true that you can measure the seasons of the year based on what the old women are selling by Damascus Gate.  

Mangoes in the summer,  sweet figs at the start of autumn, strawberries in the spring and artichokes in winter, and it’s true that everything tastes sweet and good except the bitter greens they sell no matter what season.  And it’s true that these women look very very old, but they probably aren’t.  

And in the Old City, it’s true there are the Border Police who are stationed at the major intersections of the Old City —and it’s true that they mostly point their guns down, until they don’t. 

And I’ve seen them buy coffee from the old guy who sells juice and popsicles and other drinks one day, and then interrogate and frisk his son the next.   

And it’s true that in the Old City, you can see it all — where all the colors and all the textures and all the smells come together, in one sweet river of people and faith: The Christian pilgrims carrying the cross up from Lions Gate, wafting past the shops, stopping at each station, singing, praying, sorrow by sorrow on their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Muslim guys heading toward Aqsa with their prayer rugs, the young women in hijab, and moms pushing babies, buying candies, or going to pray. 

The yeshiva boys heading to the Western Wall for Shabbat, and whole families—beautiful families, with six or seven kids, all dressed in their finest, their faces scrubbed and their hair shining—going to pray, too, or maybe going for a meal, or just walking together during the holiest time in the holiest place. The children––all of them.  The babies crying, and you can’t tell if they’re Jewish or Muslim or Christian because all babies sound the same.

And it’s also true that in the Old City my Palestinian friend got beaten up by Border Police when he was nineteen because his papers had expired the week before. Where a soldier the exact same age kicked him in the head. Over and over, until his face was a strawberry pulp. But when my friend looked up, that soldier was the one crying.

“Why did you come here?” The soldier asked. “Look what I’m doing to you.” 

And it’s also true that in the Old City, I carried this grey kitten with the moth’s wing fur, like my two cats that disappeared, only this one was rescued by Palestinians in the Muslim Quarter, and I took him to a woman in the Jewish Quarter who is caring for it to this day. 

And it’s the street where the Border Police, and the yeshiva kids, and the Palestinian merchants, and even a random priest have asked me separately and on different days, “How’s the kitten?”

And in the Old City it’s also true that the streets flow in two directions where we drink coffee, where we talk.  Where we haggle with each other over the price of pretty coloured lights or pretty coloured almonds, and where we barter with God for just one more day.  

In Jerusalem, especially in the Old City, this is true and this is true, and all these things are true––and so are the headlines and photographs and the footage and the 90-second clips. But the stories of the people are truest of all — their sorrow and their joy. Their fears and their hopes, all the broken pieces that are part of the mosaic of this place.  

It’s true that the city erupts in violence and that all the cups of coffee and kenafe in the world can’t fix everything or make it all better.

But it’s also true that Jerusalem is a place of possibilities and of miracles––a place with the potential to connect all who love her.

And what I’ve learned by being there is that when you look people in the eye and you tell the truth about who you are, they’ll look you in the eye and tell the truth about who they are. And that’s where the possibility for real love begins.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer, author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel, She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems. She now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people – especially taxi drivers. In fact, she is currently working on a book of taxi driver stories from the Holyland.   Sarah also loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives.