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September 25, 2005 - Addictive Jerusalem

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Addictive Jerusalem

By Sylvain Ubersfeld

Friday, September 23, 2005


The Old City of Jerusalem is like a drug.  Those who tasted it once may very well get addicted.


The Old City, whose appearance has of course completely changed from the Biblical time, is not, in itself, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  It was probably destined somewhere the I would discover it one day and fall in love with its walls and small roads.  Sure enough, my agitated professional life lead me to discover and re-discover the place on many occasions, in winter under the snow (Yes, there is snow in Israel!) in the spring, summer and fall.


This Old City has cast a spell upon me, and the spell is so strong that it seems to have penetrated my skin, not even mentioning my heart.  Don't get me wrong - I am not a religious person.  If I were, it would be more or less safe for me.  It is worse than that.   I am one of those people who dwell in mysticism, and Jerusalem has acted with me like oxygen blown on a fire.  I have become fully, unconditionally, terribly, dreadfully addicted.  I realize that there is no cure for it and that I am forever attached to the Old City.  I questioned myself many times, trying to analyze the reasons of this addiction.  Is it the houses?  Is it the sanctity?  Are the people living there different from the rest of the population?  Is it the smell of the spices in the Arab part of the old town?  No, it is none of that.  It is something else which does not have a real name.


My encounters with the Old City frequently remind me of the first woman which I ever loved for real but whose name has escaped my memory: now, these days, it seemed like I had always known her and that our first encounter was predetermined by fate, that it was in the stars, that it was planned somewhere, by someone, simply in order to leave in my heart a deep scar that would never, ever leave me.  I have no reason to belong in the Old City of Jerusalem, but it feels like I belong there, any day, anytime, for ever, in the past, now, in the future.


There is a chemical reaction that took place without my knowing.  I have been permeated by some form of spirituality.  Nothing to do with God, nor religion, as I am far too undisciplined to accept any dogma or in-depth faith.  It was magic, it was simply coming from deep inside me, some kind of elation that cannot be explained but reminded me also of the lightness and immense strength one can feel when one has been indulging in coca-leaf based products.


When I was working in Iceland, I met one day one of these clairvoyants whp are often used there as "Doctors of the Soul."  Surprisingly enough, this man told me that in a previous life I belonged to a community of monks - and I had been thrown out for not abiding by the strict rules of chastity and religious discipline.  So I have often wandered through the Christian Quarter to see if some of my roots could be found there.  I saw pilgrims bursting in tears inside the Holy Sepulcher which hosts the grave of Jesus Christ, guarded day and night by strict Greek Orthodox priests, each fully fledged with black robe, a beard and a funny little hat reminding me of a chimney top.  I met with Armenian clerics in Saint Jacques Cathedral and discussed the genocide with them.  I ran across a procession of Greek dignitaries including the Metropolite (1) of Jerusalem.   I went to Bethlehem, just a few miles away to go down in the cavern where Jesus was born.  I expected to find a crib, some hay, along with animals, but I did not find what I expected.  So I backtracked to the Jewish Quarter, full of Orthodox Jews dressed in black and white, their wife and kids following behind, on their way to the Wailing Wall.  There, a member of the Chabad (2) tricked me in exchanging ten shekels in return for his benediction and a short piece of red thread that he tied around by left wrist.  So, already blessed by this Holy Man, I continued on to the male side of the Temple Wall and some Lubavitcher (3) seized me - and in a few seconds I ended up with the Tephilin (4) reading the phonetic version of the morning prayer.  Right after that, as required by the tradition, I inserted between two stones of the wall a small paper note in which I was asking God to help me finding my roots, and left the Jewish quarter to enter the Arabic part of the Old Town.  Out of nowhere came a French archeologist - mandated by the city hall to excavate remnants of yet an other layer of houses located  20 feet under the actual ground level of the old town.  He showed me the heating system of a 15th century sauna, an oven used to bake Arabic bread, and pieces of ceramics worth millions.  I saw children playing football, men playing chess in the street while smoking water pipes, I smelled spices, I saw colors, but I did not find Allah in spite of the presence close by of the Dome of the Rock, dear to Muslims.


Every now and then, some men or women, from various origins, faith, and some fully atheist until then, "jump over the fence" and start acting funny.  Some believe that they are in fact the Messiah, other believe that they should take the path of Christ.  I have even met, not long ago, a "woman of sin" who came from Europe and took Maria-Magdalena as her model to get redemption.  These changes of path are known to mental health professionals in Israel as "The Jerusalem Syndrome."   It can be the result of the psychological shock of the encounter between lost souls and the Old City - although some do believe that it could be the result of a divine intervention.  But unlike the flu, unlike arthritis or allergy, the pharmaceutical drug that can be used to prevent the ailment has yet to be fond.  I will simply have to fight the symptoms.


So, In the same way that tobacco-makers or health ministries around the world warn people against the risks associated with cigarette smoking, it might be wise to put a large sign close to Jaffa Gate (5) to alert visitors about possible addiction until some special patches may be developed and sold in pharmacies.




(1) Greek Orthodox religious dignitary, about the equivalent of a Bishop

(2) A Jewish religious movement extremely active and proselyte.

(3) Another religious movement originating in Eastern Europe

(4) Phylacteries worn on the head and the arm during prayer - containing selected excerpts of Jewish scriptures

(5) Jaffa Gate: One of Jerusalem's Old City gates, called Jaffa Gate as it was the point of entry for people taking the road coming from Jaffa - the main coastal town long before Tel Aviv ever existed. Cedar wood used in the building of the Temple of Salomon under the supervision of architect Hiram were arriving in Israel through the former port of Jaffa.



Copyright 2005 – Sylvain Ubersfeld




Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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