Perspectives: My Love Affair with Jerusalem
Everyone has their own love story with Jerusalem in their own way through their own history.
BY SARAH TUTTLE-SINGER
My love affair with Jerusalem is intense. It’s that kind of fierce love that makes me want to claw the ceiling and leaves me trembling.
This love began for me when my ancestors walked through dust and over jagged rocks, past the occasional spring with sweet green grass, to see the Holy City shining on the hill.
It’s also the center of many more of my family stories:
My mother had been to Jerusalem only once — just a few short weeks after the Six Day War, when Israel defeated Jordan and took control of the Old City. It was the first time in a generation when Israelis could visit the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray, and my mom was in awe, even decades later. Her eyes shining, she wove exquisite stories about walking through the ancient alleyways of the Old City, and how it felt to be there, so alive and thrumming in the pulse of history. She described Jerusalem in tones of burnished gold, deep amber and molten copper; how the whole world smelled like black coffee and cardamom, how the tea kettle hissed, and how when she ran her hands through a pile of old coins, it sounded like rain. She fell in love with Jerusalem.
And before that, my great-grandmother had been to Jerusalem, too, on another summer nearly 100 years before with her family. She climbed a rooftop in the middle of the Old City on a moonlit night and met a man who worked for the Ottoman sultan and she kissed him, and never forgot him, and even though she never saw him again, she remembered how he smelled, and how his mouth felt against hers. She was in love, too — not just with the man she kissed, but with the city that embraced them.
“I WAS, I AM, AND I WILL BE PART OF THIS PLACE, I PROMISED MYSELF, A LINK IN THE CHAIN.”
I grew up on other stories, too: About the scrappy fighters who fought tooth and nail against all odds. About how the oil in the Temple lasted for eight days for us instead of one, about how we defeated the Jordanian and Egyptian armies in just six. About how we made the desert bloom, and how we rose out of the ashes of the catastrophe of the Holocaust to make a home for ourselves in the same place where our ancestors had once watered their sheep and broke their bread and kissed their kids goodnight.
I fell in love with Jerusalem the summer I was 16, when I visited for the first time on a summer program. I was on a rooftop, just like my great-grandmother — only I wasn’t alone with an Ottoman official making out in the moonlight. I was standing with 120 other Jewish-American teenagers, and it was in that moment as the sun dipped below the buildings and the sky turned pink, and the stones all around me softened until they looked like seashells on the beach at sunset. I was there right in the middle of this sea of culture and faith and peoplehood, the rise and fall of civilizations like the tides all around me, and their pieces washed up on the shore to this spot, this very spot where the past and future collide. I looked out at the city below me, and heard the call of the muezzin, and the peel of the church bells — I saw an ultra-Orthodox family walking together and a nun dressed in navy blue, and an old man dressed in white. And there, on that roof, I felt a connection I had never felt before. I was, I am, and I will be part of this place, I promised myself, a link in the chain.
I went back the next summer and the next.
But on a night when I was just 18, while I stood by Damascus Gate, I was hit with rocks by a group of Palestinian teenagers and I became afraid.
It took many years, and a friend to get me back into the Old City — but I wanted to be there — essentially, to come home again after years in the desert.
After all those years of being away, I trembled in fear and in awe, but as I walked the old streets again, step by step — the same ones my mom and great-gramma had walked, and the same ones I had once walked and adored, I began to notice the other people around me. Not “the Arabs” — but the mother soothing her tired baby. Not “the Muslims” — but the old guys smushed into metal chairs arguing over who won backgammon. Not “the enemy of the Jewish people” — but pretty girls in hijabs, flirting with the brothers who ran the place with the fresh ground coffee.
I just saw people.
And I couldn’t believe how I much I had missed by being afraid.
So I climbed the roof I had been on the first time I had fallen in love with Jerusalem, and looked out at the world again: The same sea of stones, always overflowing just as my heart was in that moment.
And that’s when I decided I wanted to LIVE in the Old City, in the hottest piece of spiritual real estate IN THE WORLD, a place fraught with tension and meaning for so many, and fought over, a place where people have literally been willing to kill and die over. I wanted to buy figs and bitter greens from the woman on the corner, and bread from the guy by Damascus Gate. I wanted to walk through and feel like I was home — not just in the Jewish Quarter, but in every quarter, and every space.
Because even though we are sharing space in the Old City, we don’t see each other. We are like rocks in a rock tumbler in Jerusalem, bumping up against each other during periods of tension —while there are exceptions, we are mostly unwilling to look each other in the eye and see each other as equals, even friends.
And I wanted to go beyond the stones, into the heart of the place, and meet the different people living there — maybe even sit in a room and speak with the same people who once as teenagers had tried to hurt me on that night by Damascus Gate.
So that’s what I did. And I got to know people. And I wrote a book about it. It wasn’t always rainbows and eating hummus and singing Kumbaya — there were times that were scary and difficult and frustrating and sad. But I learned a lot by talking to people from all different parts of the same city we love so desperately. And this is what I now know: I have friends who love Jerusalem just as much as I do — they may face Mecca when they pray, or believe that Jesus was the son of God, but they live in Jerusalem, and have for generations, just as my family has yearned for Jerusalem for generations.
I learned when to speak. And I learned when to shut up and listen. I learned that when you look someone in the eye and tell the truth about who you are, they are more than likely to do the same. I learned that everyone has their own love story with Jerusalem in their own way through their own history, and while we may not always agree, when we share these stories with each other, there will be a connection. And the best part is, that’s where a new love story can begin.
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a writer and author based in Israel, where she and her two kids climb roofs, explore cisterns, open secret doors and talk to strangers. Sarah’s work about her life in Israel, her love of Jerusalem and her family has been featured in the Times of Israel, Kveller, TIME.com and Ladies Home Journal. But mostly she just writes about people. Follow her on Instagram at @tuttlesinger
Israel is a tiny country packed with diverse people and polarizing beliefs. That can spark tensions, but also create incredible love stories.
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