This is a strange time. Having followed its politics and listened to its heartbeat with the long stethoscope of distance, it is a different and otherworldly experience to be back. I have a job again, which means I rise regularly to a soothingly melodic alarm, the poetry of the city in my ears like a half-remembered song, resonating gently at the back of my mind.
The city is full. Full of contrast, opinion and the suppressed violence of abundant dialectic, the pulse of which is almost palpable, like an adrenalin-fuelled artery, close to the surface. The haredim move uneasily, weak-eyed with study, hurrying past the goyim, the less religious, the reformed and the seculars, as if to touch would be to contaminate, their slight variations in clothing proclaiming their rabbinical allegiances. Young, bright-eyed, confident people laugh and sometimes dance in the streets to the music of whomever is playing there, drink arak and grapefruit juice in the bars, curly black-haired girls shriek at the tram stops. The Old City, eternally patient, throws open her ancient doors to the world, her marbled streets once rough now worn smooth, polished and slippery with pilgrims’ sandals, as they follow crosses down the Via Dolorosa. Queues still form at dusk to enter the tiny sanctuary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, guarded by unsmiling, black-cowled Orthodox monks. Tiny, ragged bookshops, exchange and new, are full of welcome and freedom to browse. I buy rather fewer hard copy books these days – the encroachment of technology allows me to buy whatever I need online and read it on an iPad, slim and luminous. Yet, the smell of old books – everything from leather bound volumes on Jewish thought in Hebrew to dog-eared copies of ten-year-old Stephen King novels reminds me of school libraries and the fustiness of long-abandoned rooms. A book caught my eye. It is not often that one chances upon a masterpiece, peeping shyly out between the poetry and travel sections. Not since Brigid Brophy’s “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept” have I been so moved.
This is no Tolstoy, great with pages. Thin with hungry prose, “Yosl Rakover Talks To God” begins with this, found inscribed on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where some Jews remained hidden for the whole of the war.
I believe in the sun, even when it doesn’t shine
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it
I believe in God, even when He is silent.
Truly, this is a city of cursed believers, of poets, artists, thinkers and dreamers, pregnant with optimism, rage and fragile hope.
There is no place like it in the world.