Poem of the Week / A Skeptic's Guide to Jerusalem

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Jerusalem Couplets

Rachel Tzvia Back

The horse flew because the stone
on which he stood was wet.

Under red rugs the stone
still is damp.

Soldiers on all the rooftops:
by the Sixth Station, where

she wiped his bloody brow, another
had his head blown off

last night, in the alley’s
last light.

The seventh gate is blocked
with rubble and stones

hauled up from the valley
to stop the second, or third,

coming. The priestly stairs:
they lead nowhere.

The old road down to Jericho
was paved with gravestones.

Other small bodies are stolen
away from army mortuaries

wrapped in dark. Tell
how the children died.

No one will believe.

A faith that asks
no questions, is fed

by loss.
Keeps its eyes

and ears closed
through the telling.

From "Azimuth," Sheep Meadow Press, 2001.


In a talk in Minneapolis last year, Rachel Tzvia Back, an American-Israeli poet and translator, explained that although she is comfortable within the world of the Jewish scriptural, midrashic and liturgical texts she was raised on, she defines them as “a primary and primal place that obviously, as such, need to be pushed against and queried.” As in this poem, she does so through “political engagement and the rejection of Jewsh exclusivity.”

The stone in line 1 is under the golden Dome of the Rock. The Koran reports the Prophet Mohammed’s flight there on a journey “by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque (Al Masjid Al Aqsa).” The Hadith (Muslim commentaries) put Al Aqsa in Jerusalem and describe Mohammad’s winged steed, Buraq, as “a white animal smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey,” to which later traditions attribute a beautiful face.

At the Sixth Station of the Cross, Jesus is said (in legends) to have left the imprint of his face on the veil Veronica used to wipe his bloodied face.

The seventh gate is the Golden Gate (in Hebrew: the Gate of Mercy), on the site of the priests’ entrance to the Temple. It has been blocked since 1541, when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sealed it, either as a defense against the Crusaders, to prevent the entry of the Messiah of the Jews and the Christians or in compliance with Ezekial 44:2: “And the LORD said unto me: 'This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, neither shall any man enter in by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it.” Ezekiel gives Jerusalem 12 gates, as does Revelations, but today there are only eight.

The gravestones used under Jordanian rule for paving and building are from the Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery, where according to tradition the resurrection of the dead will begin. Back says the stolen corpses are from an incident she “knew/read about, from way back – but more specific than that I can't be.” However, by this point the cumulative iconoclastic effect negates the importance of details and in the final stanza the poet draws the moral.

*Why does verse 4 of “Jerusalem Couplets” have a stray single line?

*Listen to Reverand Gary Davis sing “Twelve Gates to the City”: 

Buraq, the Prophet Muhammad’s winged steed, reproduction of 17th century Indian (Mughal) miniature. Credit: Wikipedia
Rachel Tzvia Back.Credit: Uri Nevo

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