By Graham Keelan
Sitting here at a pavement café under a sweltering heat in Yafo Street in downtown Jerusalem contemplating what to write for the celebration of Jerusalem Day next week, my thoughts are suddenly interrupted by the amplified airs of a professional busker on the other side of the street straining out the melody of Leonard Cohen’s well-known paean to love, “Hallelujah”. And whilst I cannot agree with the sentiments expressed in the lyrics, I can with its appellative refrain: ‘Hallelujah!’
This is indeed a city of praise to the God of Heaven and Earth. It has always been thus. And whilst today those cries may be somewhat muffled and misdirected, quieted and dulled, there is something about this city which transcends the temporal and reaches into the eternal. On every corner and everywhere you turn there are devout Jewish men offering their supplications to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. An air of messianic expectation permeates this place. And rightly so! Jerusalem is effectively a TARDIS – a time machine – and one can easily step back and forth through the ages simply by walking its long winding streets. A visit to the “Night Spectacular” at the Tower of David museum to witness a rather splendid “light and music” show projected onto the five hundred year walls brings a majestic 3D relief to that story, one told from the Canaanites to present day.
Over the last two weeks I have crossed the length and breadth of this city. I have walked on its streets and walked on its walls, ridden its buses and its trams. (It is really the only way to see, feel and taste the treasures tucked away here, as my bruised toes and blistered soles offer proof.) I have visited its monuments and museums, its citadels and churches. And with its bustling markets and street-side cafes, its many color bursting gelateria and haute cuisine restaurants, its tended beds, borders and parks of overflowing bougainvillea and geraniums, its tree-lined streets and balcony-adorned 5 Star hotels, its swanky new tramway which takes you from one end of the city to the other, you realize very quickly that Jerusalem is a very European city, one which ranks alongside the other great cities of Western civilization.
And yet throughout she has succeeded in retaining her unique Eastern flavors. But then it has always been believed that this city lies at the centre of the world, at the place where East and West meet and mingle quite comfortably, at the place where the old joins with the new. But there is simply too much to tell, too long a time to span to offer any sort of balanced insight. And yet there are peculiarities and incongruities to be seen here: Such as the young men and women entrusted with the security of the streets dressed in army fatigues patrolling with their magazine-clipped automatic rifles draped menacingly over their shoulders in one hand and very often a mobile phone held to the ear in the other. After a few days, though, even this sight appears normal. Not all is well in paradise, of course. The Jerusalemites, like a lot of Israelis, by their own admission, are a prickly people. There is not much deference shown here. They come across as an impatient people, seemingly always wanting to be somewhere else. Consequently there is much barking and short-shrift, and amidst the ceaseless bustle of daily life they do not easily smile. It is also nigh impossible to just browse the table tottering stalls laden with an abundance of fresh fruit, pastries and confectionary. This is particularly so in the Old City where some of the vendors can be quite hucksterish. The wild gesticulating to “part with the cash” and move on can be a little wearying. Nobody seems to queue for much either, which for an Englishman abroad is a little disconcerting. It is not in my make-up to part the sea of grey-heads before me to cross to the other side. Consequently I always seem to be the last to get in or on anywhere. But I have noticed that if you give the Israelis some sunshine and a day off, the countenance is visibly transformed. Just like the rest of us then. And yet strike up a conversation with any young barista working in the many coffee bars, or a young waitress working in the café, or even a student on the bus who is going home to the Galilee for Shabbat and you find them genuinely warm and friendly. And of course there is the greatest fun in making new friends with one’s fellow pilgrims who have descended here from the four corners of the globe, at which there is the ready exchange of phone numbers and email addresses. It is a city which effortlessly unites its devotees in purpose.
So when all is said and done (which admittedly seems to be an impossible feat here) one comes to the easy conclusion that Jerusalem is simply a marvelous city to experience. I fell in love with it when I first visited last year and I can say that after these two weeks the love has deepened and the affair continues. Night after night, I sat on my guest-house rooftop terrace with panoramic views over the city, its beige-stoned suburbia sprawling silently and slowly across the hills, and tried to imagine how it will look during the coming Thousand Year messianic age when she will finally reign as the first city on earth. Without question, this is a city to be celebrated and with that I can only raise my own uncertain tune to add to the strained melody coming from across the street and in unison sing: ‘Hallelujah!’
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