Discovering Jerusalem: In Spirit and on Earth

When we focus only on the upper Jerusalem, the one of holiness and spirituality, we ignore the real Jerusalem: the Jerusalem of real people.

In a few weeks, at the end of the Hebrew month of Iyar, Israel will mark “Jerusalem Day,” a day that officially celebrates the transfer of East Jerusalem - especially the Old City - into the hands of Israel. Some will march in pride at the military accomplishment and what they see as the unified Jerusalem, while others will march in protest against what they see as the occupation of East Jerusalem and its largely Arab population.

However one relates to this day, it is a great day to reflect on the meaning Jerusalem plays in our lives as Jews. Jewish tradition has spoken about two Jerusalems. Not East and West, of course, but rather the upper Jerusalem (of the heavens) and the lower Jerusalem (on earth).

The Kotel, or Western Wall, Feb, 15, 2012.
Emil Salman

Like many Diaspora Jews, my first exposure to Jerusalem was to the upper Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of Jewish texts and Jewish imagination. It was the Jerusalem of the two temples, the Jerusalem of the Hanukkah story, a Jerusalem whose capitol building was not the Knesset but the Kotel, the Western Wall. My frequent visits to Israel with my family brought me mostly to Tel Aviv, where we went to the beach, went out to eat, spent time with extended family. But on every trip, we made time for a day or two in Jerusalem, since we certainly could not come to Israel without visiting the Kotel. But beyond the Western Wall, I knew nothing of Jerusalem as a city.

That changed when I was 17 years old, and I came to Israel for the summer with my youth group. Of course, on this trip, too, we visited the Kotel. But we stayed in Jerusalem for three weeks. While living in Jerusalem, I discovered my favorite pizza, my favorite local coffee shop, my favorite park. I was amazed that Jerusalem was a real place, full of real people who lived real lives. For the first time, the lower Jerusalem came alive to me.

As enchanted as I was with that Jerusalem - and I had undoubtedly fallen in love - I also held few disillusions. It was clear that Jerusalem, being a real place, was far from perfect. That summer, just a few months before the Camp David accords broke down and the second intifada broke out, I could also feel the tension in Jerusalem. For me, that made its charm even stronger. But in accepting the real, lower Jerusalem, I grew distant from the upper Jerusalem that I had previously known.

That changed for me five years later. I was preparing to move to Israel a few months later, and I promised myself I’d move to the same neighborhood where I had lived over the summer many years earlier (a promise I kept). That February, my grandfather turned 83, which, according to tradition, is when a man becomes a bar mitzvah for the second time. For my grandfather, this was the perfect opportunity to travel to Israel as a family and to celebrate at the Kotel.

The trip started like any family trip might. My grandparents, their two children, two children-in-law, and three of the grandchildren traveled to Israel to celebrate this special occasion. During the day we saw some tourist sites, we did some work we had brought from the U.S., and at night, we went out to restaurants. For the first time as a family, we were purely experiencing the lower Jerusalem.

Then, on Thursday morning, we gathered together at the Kotel (the men by the separation so the women could be closer by). For my grandfather, this was a dream come true. When he was 13, he could hardly afford a festive meal at his home in the Lower East Side, let alone a trip halfway across the world. When my uncle was 13, before the Six-Day War, Jews did not have access to the Kotel. But now he, an 83-year-old man, was given a second chance to celebrate his Judaism at our most holy place. During those moments, he was clearly at the upper Jerusalem.

That trip embodied for me the interaction of the two Jerusalems, and the importance each one has. When we focus only on the upper Jerusalem, the one of holiness and spirituality, we ignore the real Jerusalem: the Jerusalem of real people. These people live their lives as best they can, and have real problems. Any visit to Jerusalem will surely expose the tensions of the city, among people of different nationalities, ethnic groups, and levels of religiousness. But at the same time, Jerusalem must maintain its spiritual meaning as a place where we strive to act in a holy way and have boundless love for one another. In his song “Jerusalem,” Israeli-American singer Ami Yares declares “you talk about united, but you’re thoughtlessly divided.” As Jerusalem Day approaches, let’s all hope for a Jerusalem that is united - where the Jerusalem on the ground is united to our elevated concept of a holy, upper Jerusalem.

Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and a student at the Israeli Bet Midrash at Machon Schechter. The views expressed in the article are his alone.