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If I Forget Thee, Oh Jerusalem…

Illustration by Cookie Moon

I pull my mask down for a sip of water. The Delta variant is rampant in Binyamina and the platform is packed – but it's so humid that I allow myself a moment to hydrate, hoping I won't breathe in contagious particles. It's a memorable day: my first trip back to Jerusalem after having recently moved to the countryside in the north of Israel.

The mild winter was sublime: morning swims in the Mediterranean; afternoon walks on trails dotted with wild flowers, and star-gazing evenings in my luscious garden. In short I was wallowing in Eretz Yisrael Hayafah – and then…the humidity hit.

Life has come to a standstill. A sauna-like heaviness has descended on my perfect world and I am trapped inside my air-conditioned home. The sea, now ridden with jellyfish venom, is to be avoided. The garden has become a furnace infested with mosquitoes. Watering the plants demands dousing every inch of skin in repellent and then donning trousers and a long-sleeved shirt to deter those creepy-crawlies from penetrating the fabric of my jungle outfit. Sleep has become a battle. Ceiling and standing fan on, I clutch the aircon remote, and in a comatose doze, intermittently press the button to alleviate the hostile, thick air.

With paradise lost, nostalgia for Jerusalem begins to seep in. The breezy nights, cool mountain air, and draft on my skin seem like nirvana. The time has come to see from whence I came and escape the furnace for twenty-four hours.

The voice on the loudspeaker alerts us passengers to the upcoming Jerusalem station. I am not expecting the swell of emotion that floods me. Tears, yes real tears, gather. It isn't because Jerusalem used to be my home (I never had this surge when returning to London, as enjoyable as it was to walk again by the Serpentine and visit the Royal Academy). It isn't just the weather issue either. I just hadn't realized how much I had missed the ready accessibility of God-consciousness available in Jerusalem, and how my soul is nourished by the sheer proximity to the holiest place on earth: the site that houses the Foundation Stone, the Even haShetiya that God threw into the depths from which the world expanded. Like so many Jews before me, I too am making a pilgrimage, a quasi aliyah l'regel.

As I clamber for my bag and make my way towards the automatic doors, I feel a deep sense of grief overwhelming me: the woe of Tisha b'Av, the sorrow of Eicha. I have sat on the floor, eaten egg dipped in ashes, and sung the woeful lament, but never before have I truly mourned Jerusalem.

My mind turns to the halacha of tearing kria when entering the Holy City after a hiatus. Suddenly it makes sense. But I don't rend my clothing there on the never-ending escalator up to ground level, as I don't want to ruin my expensive shirt, and, moreover, I have had enough of that in the past: the loss of mother, father, sister. One heartbreak has triggered another and the tears won't stop coming.

Stepping out into the city, I wipe my face, access my stiff- upper-lip and look up in awe at the majestic buildings. Structures stale from familiarity are suddenly of great interest. The Old City walls I had taken for granted are breathtaking. Even the run-down Jaffa Road, that I used to equate with the slums of Delhi, seems fascinating, brimming with life.

I walk in the breeze, circling my arms over my head, taking deep gulps of air. My stiff limbs, used only to get in and out of the car for weeks, now enjoy the freedom, and I feel my body and soul reviving. I want to bottle this unique atmosphere and take this spiritually-imbued air back home with me. There are tins of Jerusalem air sold in the market not far from where I am walking now. Surprisingly I consider that they may not be such a ludicrous scam after all.

Twenty-four emotionally-packed hours later I am back in Binyamina. My mask intact, I relax in the country vibe where the pace is slow. The beauty of the kibbutzim all around reminds me that God is everywhere and all of Israel is holy.

As I step into the humid afternoon, my shirt sticking to my skin, rivulets of perspiration dripping from my brow, I reassure myself that it's only a short train ride away from an infusion of direct kedusha. That awareness allows me to modify the famous adage that we Jews declare on Seder Night and at the close of Yom Kippur, and I pray right there and then, in the train station, that I should merit next summer in Jerusalem. 

 

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Monday, 28 November 2022

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