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May 20, 2012

Jerusalem: Compass of the Diaspora Jew

A Guest Post by Avital Chizhik

We’re standing in a hall in downtown Manhattan, overlooking a dusky Liberty Harbor.

The girl standing next to me points to the river view: “Doesn’t it almost look like Jerusalem? That terrace over there and that tree? The way the sun is setting?”
I gaze for a minute at the view. We stand overlooking a dark Hudson River, a boat passing by, the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

No, it doesn’t look like Jerusalem in the least. Not here. This is most certainly New York. I muster a smile, trying to think of an agreeable response until I finally sigh and admit, “No, it doesn’t look like Jerusalem. Not at all.”

She’s not happy with my answer.  She’s fresh off a spring break Birthright trip and probably still seeking Jerusalem. But look, the tree, and the sunset? Why, you don’t see it? Something about those shadows.

I’ve learned to nod politely in these moments; I understand her. It’s like stepping off a plane in JFK and still smelling Jerusalem, hearing a loudspeaker and thinking for a second that it’s the call of the muezzin.

Somehow we always know how to seek Jerusalem, wherever we are: whether it’s by Babylon’s rivers or the Hudson.  It’s some kind of inner compass which directs us there – not just for times of prayer, but in everything, on our living room walls and our silk paintings, in our wedding invitation calligraphy, our whispered consolations to mourners.

Even in the Soviet Union. My mother tells me about her childhood in the far north of Russia, the wait for exit visas in the ’70s. She tells me of dark winter nights, secret copies of Exodus, gatherings with fellow Traitors of the State and political activists. Jerusalem: it was the magical formula whispered between activists. “Soon, we’ll be sipping coffee together in a Jerusalem café,” Mark Morozov, one of the activists, said upon farewell, as my mother’s family gathered to emigrate. A Jerusalem café – what does a Moscow Jew know about a café in the Middle East?

The idea of Jerusalem is ingrained in the subconscious of the Diaspora Jew, arguably a different image than the one preserved by the Israeli. A place, yes, but also a reality, an ideal to constantly face and strive towards. It’s become the perfect metaphor for all of Israel, and even for Jewish identity itself: a complicated place of winding streets, hills and valleys, divided, beautiful and tense. A fusion of east and west, ancient and modern, “always of two.”  As Yehuda Amichai notes in his poetry: it’s at once an object of fantasy and also entirely mundane.

And often, it’s the ordinary which penetrates the Diaspora Jew. It’s not just praying by the Western Wall or wandering the Old City, but it’s also about that bus ride you take and the kind old man who blesses you and hands you a bag of fresh lychees. Is it naive, perhaps, that I melt a little, every time I walk by children playing in the city’s streets? That I can spend months in that place, and still shake my head in disbelief over the miracles that took place there? Is it possible, to yearn for the place in which one already stands?

Some Israelis laugh when they watch us grow misty-eyed: “You’re impassioned with this place, aren’t you?” They tolerate it, wonder at our shameless romanticism, smile at our naiveté.

But I’ve come to be proud of my admitted naiveté. It’s that same idealism of standing by the Hudson and seeing Jerusalem somewhere in the distance, the same fervor of the early pioneers and their ruthless conviction, the same bright-eyed conversation held somewhere by the Arctic Circle and planning café outings.

Soon, we’ll be sipping coffee together in a Jerusalem café. That activist, who had promised to meet my family in Jerusalem, died in a Soviet prison seven years afterwards; my mother’s family settled in Brooklyn. But the stories of those wintry nights, of waiting for an exit visa, remain strong – we’re still seeking, straining to see Jerusalem from afar.

This Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim), I’m reaffirming my conviction to return, if for no other reason than to sit in that Jerusalem café, for the sake of those who couldn’t.

Avital Chizhik is a recent graduate of Stern College for Women and the outgoing president of the Yeshiva University Israel Club.  She hopes to make the big move to Israel before next Jerusalem Day.

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