Coming Home to Jerusalem: A Personal Journey

Coming Home to Jerusalem: A Personal Journey by Wendy Orange, Simon & Schuster, $25

Do you ever yearn, reading “objective” journalism or trying to get the news from the fatuous sound bites of television, for some honestly subjective perspective, some reportage able to probe immediate events with intelligence and information but also human feeling? For me, the journalism of Wendy Orange, written in Israel in the early 1990s, provided precious glimpses of what felt like genuine truth. Her descriptive powers were those of a novelist, her homework was always done, she seemed miraculously able to elicit from interviews (with Jews and Palestinians, politicians, soldiers, peace workers and peace haters, and ordinary men and women) the essence of their personal experience and convictions. All this took place within the cauldron of history— and irony and compassion were the twin laser beams of her Jewishness. I trusted her. Now in this memoir of her love affair with Jerusalem and Israel, I see why.

Twice-divorced in her early forties, working as a psychologist in Cambridge, Mass., suffering for years from “mysterious dejections and a sense of exile,” Orange on impulse attends a peace conference in Jerusalem—and is smitten by the city, the land, by “wave after wave of extroverted Mediterranean energy.” A few weeks after her return, she is packing clothes, toys and books on Judaica, Israeli history and politics. With her five-year old daughter, Eliza, and a 17-year-old foster daughter, Jackie, she makes aliyah.

Most of Coming Home to Jerusalem is the personal chronicle of the three years Orange spends immersed in the nuances, languages, friends, views, food, and, of course, the politics of Israel. Urged by a New York editor to write about Israeli-Palestinian relations, she decides to overcome her fear of Arabs. Meeting Palestinian journalists and activists, lawyers, psychiatrists and elderly refugees, shopkeepers and children, men who describe being tortured in Israeli prisons and women who serve sweet tea in homes adorned with photographs of boys killed in the Intifada, she tastes “the varieties of Palestinian consciousness, sweetness, depression, generosity, cunning, frustration, along with the more predictable black hate that fills some hearts.” She spends time with Rapprochement, a group that organizes face-to-face and family-to-family dialogues between Jews and Palestinians, learns that its techniques were used in the year-long secret talks culminating in the 1993 Oslo Accords, and comes to see one of its leaders, Judith Green, as the Jewish equivalent of the righteous gentiles who protected Jews during the Holocaust.

We see Orange oscillating between hope and despair at newsworthy events and personal ones. Her romance with a Sephardi taxi driver illuminates class conflicts among Israelis, as her middle-class Ashkenazi friends cannot accept him, and vice versa. When she leaves Israel because her daughter is diagnosed as severely dyslexic and needs to attend an American school, we share her heartbreak at being wrenched from the one place she has ever felt at home. Return trips after Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination, suicide bus bombings and Israeli elections leave her still committed to the peace process, grieving over the obstacles created by extremists on both sides. Yet it is not ideology that, in the end, dominates this book. Rather, it is Orange’s attention to individuals and to the emotional tone of events that makes her writing so appealing. “As we who are parents tune into our children,” she remarks toward the close of Coming Home to Jerusalem, “I felt shifts on the ground in an unmediated, intuitive way.” I wish more journalists resembled her.

Poet Alicia Ostriker is a former poetry editor of Lilith.