A Tale of Two Cities


Two cities, fused. Both are Jerusalem. 

I will call the first Yerushalayim Aleph. This city is Yerushalayim ir HaKodesh. Built around the even haShtiyah, the foundation stone of the world, where Shlomo HaMelech built the first Beit HaMikdash as the focus for all prayers. Where the Sanhedrin met and issued rulings. Where throngs on Sukkot celebrated the simchat beit haShoevah. Where Jews suffered and mourned the tragedies of two destroyed Batei Mikdash. Where Jews, dispersed in exile for millennia, dreamt of returning to. Where so many fought and gave their lives in 1948. Where Rav Shlomo Goren blew the shofar when the city was reunified in 1967. 

The second city, Yerushalayim Bet, is the capital of the modern State of Israel. People live and work there. They fight traffic and honk at each other for getting in the way. They tend their gardens and shop for hardware or high fashion, eat falafel at kiosks and drink lattes at cafés. They walk their dogs and step around stray cats. They ferry their kids to school and take in a movie at the Cinematheque. They help complete strangers with heavy packages or flat tires, or refuse, on point of high principle, to pay va’ad bayit building maintenance bills they think unjust. 

People everywhere live everyday lives. Few need to do that against a background of cosmic historical and religious significance. Though some might relish such an opportunity, many others would prefer otherwise. 

The fellow who comes to assess our possessions for renter’s insurance – Shuli’s flute, my tefillin – grew up in Jerusalem but lives in Yavneh. “I come here for work sometimes,” he says, unasked. “But I leave as soon as I can. I don’t like it here.” 

I am walking past the entrance to the Mamilla Mall when a group of high-school kids on a field trip walks by. A boy of about 14 with light hair stops me. “Do you live in Jerusalem?” he asks. I tell him I do. “Why?” he asks. 

Jerusalem does not do well in surveys of urban satisfaction. A survey from 2018 placed it 13th out of 14 Israeli cities.

Respondents voice practical objections: housing is hard to find and costly; traffic is tough, parking impossible. The city is said to be dirty. Some complaints strike class notes: too many charedim, too many Anglos, too many Arabs. Nightlife is poor. 

All these sound plausible, justified to those who express them. Yet it seems to me that they express them with more asperity than needed (is Jerusalem really 12 rungs lower than Bat Yam?). I may be wrong, but something else is going on here. Perhaps too much sanctity, too close by. 

People appreciate sanctity, in principle. They value it, in its proper time and place – but not necessarily where they hang out every day. Having sanctity close by all the time can be irritating. 

I first sensed this not from growing up in Jerusalem, but from being raised in a rabbinical household. Those of us who did call ourselves PKs – Preachers’ Kids. PK mutual understanding is deep, and ecumenical. Progeny of rabbis, ministers, imams can all relate in surprisingly similar ways (though it’s trickier if Pop is Catholic). 

Clergy themselves bask in imputed purity. They chose their vocation or answered their call. Yet shall the piety of the parents be visited upon the children? 

So we PKs sometimes find ourselves unwillingly putting off pals who want to tell an off-color joke without lowering their voices, or pursue a pastime of no redeeming social importance without the company of those presumed to be focused always on loftier things. 

Likewise, there are times and places for spiritual significance. In Jerusalem, these are hard to avoid. Holy places, and the people who run and patronize them, are everywhere. And time – historical time, transcendental time – weighs heavily. All the time. 

Of course, it can be awkward to complain about that out loud. It can be uncomfortable even to think about it. Easier, perhaps, to talk about heavy traffic, poor trash collection, and subpar nightlife. 

A Shana Tova email from a relative who lives in the US: “It must be an amazing experience,” he writes, “to be at the holy city during this time of the year.” He means this in the kindest, most sincere way, yet needs to define his distance, spatial and spiritual. It would perplex, not edify, him to hear that picking up a few pre-chag items can mean dodging grocery carts in supermarket aisles, only to find that the checkout computers have crashed yet again. This triggers feelings, none of them amazing – even in the holy city. 

The gemara says that there is a Jerusalem in heaven that matches the one on earth. A lovely thought. Many regular folk might still choose the one down below. Where would those who dwell in the heavenly Jerusalem direct complaints about municipal services?

A great deal has been written about Jerusalem, most of it about Yerushalayim Aleph, the first city. Much of this evokes glory, splendor, kings in regal garments, kohanim in holy vestments, pageantry, triumph, the agony of destruction and exile, the consolation of hope and its fulfillment. Thus, Yishayahu: “Awake, awake, Tzion! Clothe yourself in splendor; Put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city!” (52:1)

But even in Tanach there is a passage, often quoted, that strikes an apparently banal note, one that at least at first seems more suitable to Yerushalayim Bet, city of everyday life. This appears in Zechariah, a prophet given to mystical, even grotesque images: red horses, flying tubs, flesh melting in empty eye sockets. Yet he also says this: “There will yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city will be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares” (Zechariah 8:4). 

These days you don’t see many oldsters out and about leaning on canes. For one thing, joint replacement surgery has put off for many the use of canes until walkers or wheelchairs are needed. For another, air conditioning keeps elders indoors on warm, sunny days, of which there are many here. 

Still, the image’s apparent banality can be misleading. The vision Zechariah evokes is a prophecy, not a postcard. It shows three generations doing what each generation is supposed to be doing: children running around playing games, parents absent from the picture, busy doing what people in midlife do to keep families afloat, and old-timers sitting around to watch. 

His prophecy is not that this might happen. His prophecy is that it will be expected to happen, and to keep happening. The key word is the first: עוֹד, “again.” Once again. Again and again. Not just soon, but always. Two generations hence, the children running around should be the ones leaning on their canes. Zechariah’s prophecy is not of kids playing in the street. It is about autonomy and social stability. 

Zechariah applies this prophecy to one specific place: Jerusalem, to which the exiles he was speaking to in Bavel yearned to return. 

To put it this way is to make clear what everyone knows but prefers not to talk about: that the first flowering of redemption is not the final version, and that ongoing stability and peace, for the children now playing as their elders watch, are anything but assured. Knowing this may lend the sight of a pleasant and utterly banal tableau an aching poignancy that can be all but unbearable. 

Which is not of course to suggest anything like despair or loss of hope. Nobody who spends ten minutes around here would discern either of those. The fellow who added the words od lo avda tikvatenu, “our hope is not yet lost” (once again: עוֹד, yet, again) to what would become our national anthem wrote them when a nation that would need an anthem was barely a flight of fancy. Yet here it is, bursting with life, riotous energy, and youthful enthusiasm, despite everything, then and still now. 

Jews have learned nothing if not how to wait and hope. Lately, we have also learned to take action to bring about what is waited and hoped for. 

“Our feet stood inside your gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together” (Tehillim 122:2–3).

Two cities, both on earth, knitted so tight they cannot be pried apart. With vistas terrestrial but heavenly. 

We have been everywhere. Now we are here. Where else would we go?


Rabbi Dr. Avi Rockoff and his wife Shuli have lived in Newton, Massachusetts for many years and are currently engaged in participatory research on the complexities of making Aliyah.

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