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A Not Quite Golden Jerusalem Still Shines

An American friend of mine once asked me to list my favorite places in Jerusalem, not long after another American friend expressed his jealousy that I was in Jerusalem for Passover and he was not.

In honor of Jerusalem Day this Friday, then, I want to clarify something for all prospective questioners: I, a kosher-keeping, davening Israeli identifying with the Conservative movement, hate Jerusalem. It’s dirty, under-managed, filled with crazy people, and stands at the very heart of what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so intractable.

“What’s the one good thing about Jerusalem?” the Israeli joke goes: “The road to Tel Aviv.” The joke is itself a fair indication that no few Israelis agree with me. Indeed, when my husband and I used to leave our Tel Aviv home every other Friday for Shabbat in Jerusalem with his parents, our friends would, literally, express sympathy.

I know this flies in the face of everything Jews are meant to feel. Anyone who knows I’m a convert — from faith; I met my husband a week after my mikveh — might suggest I can’t understand. I would counter that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

I lived there. I lived in the Old City for a year, worked in the New City for three, visited regularly for 14, and now that we’re in America, I spend a couple of weeks there annually. If anything, it’s gotten less pleasant.

One source of frustration for many Israelis is that Jews elsewhere often construct an alternate Israel to the one on the ground. This other Israel is above daily reality, not sullied by inept decision-makers or garbage strikes; the Bible is revered in schools, and people serve in the military with exalted purpose.

Diaspora Jews often don’t take into account that Israel is also where, for those members of the Reform and Conservative communities, their form of worship is officially unrecognized. Young women more often dress like gentlemen’s escorts than modest maidens, and frequently, a kosher restaurant is hard to come by.

Small surprise that many immigrants go through a period of painful disenchantment. Olim know about it, talk about it, give in to it. There’s no seven-year itch, per se — just an understanding that there comes a time when expectation and reality have clashed too often and if you’re not careful, you become bitter and angry. The question is if you’ll adjust.

If you do, and you’re lucky, you come back in your heart to the real Israel, and find you love it more than you guessed. The wonderful things — the warmth of the people, the sound of Hebrew, the mixing of raw newness with ancient longings — rise above bureaucracy and brutish conflict, and cling to you. You don’t shake them, no matter what you do: Eight years after leaving, well more than 20 after arriving in the first place, and Israel is still the only place I feel fully alive.

And so, no matter where I am, I still have to make a place for Jerusalem. “Hate” is too simple, and ultimately not the truth. I also love it. I love the sunset. I love the mountains. I love the Kotel.

More importantly, I love what Jerusalem can sometimes be. The notion of a holy city has for centuries inspired people to destruction, but on occasion, people of all faiths allow Jerusalem’s sanctity to guide them. They rise above the grime and the horror and work for peace. And there are far more of them than the official intransigence would lead us to believe: A poll conducted by Hebrew University found that 76% of Israelis and 73% of Palestinians prefer that any further withdrawal take place within the framework of negotiations.

This week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented the Bush administration and Congress with his government’s plan to surround greater Jerusalem with a wall and call it ours. He says this is the best chance for ending the bloodshed, but how can there be peace if we’re not speaking with the enemy? He says the Hamas-led government has to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and I agree; but doesn’t he know that Israel has also to recognize the Palestinian right to have a hand in determining their own borders?

I suppose the complete truth about my relationship with Jerusalem is that I hate not it, but the ugliness around it. I hate that on both sides, we have yet to fully understand that our passion for the city is mutual, that the only way to live a truly holy life there is to share it.

What are my favorite places in Jerusalem? The places within those hearts that beat in faith and hope, desperately fighting to allow the city to live up to its name: City of Peace. In those places, in that hope, I have a home.

Emily Hauser, an Illinois-based freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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