Why Is Jerusalem Always in Twos?1
Why is Jerusalem always in twos, one of Above
And the other Below
And I want to live in a Jerusalem of the middle
Without turning my head above and without
Wounding my legs below.
And why is Jerusalem in the language of pairs, like hands
I only want to be in one Jerusalem
Because I am only one, there are no more.
Miriam-Webster defines “Zion” as “a dwelling place of perfect happiness for the soul after death,” and gives it synonyms such as “above,” “bliss,” and “paradise,” and antonyms such as “Gehenna,” “pandemonium,” and “perdition.” Zionism, then, is almost by definition an ideal — either a dream of national liberation or a mode of redemption.
Zionism has unearthly origins. For centuries, it held a mystical place in the minds of Jews. And it maintains a sense of that original unearthly quality. Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s most famous authors, talks about the first time he saw the Jewish Brigade after the Holocaust — that it was a “messianic revelation.” And historian Zeev Sternhell, an outspoken secular leftist and expert on fascism, has said that the establishment of the State of Israel produced in him an “almost religious exaltation.”
I grew up with that same notion of Zionism as a “messianic revelation” and a “religious exaltation.” I attended a religious Zionist summer camp where we simulated Israeli military actions and lived the sort of collectivist identity promoted by Israel’s first kibbutzim. When we said the Birkat Hamazon, I included (and still do) the words, “Harachaman hu yivarech et medinat Yisrael, reishit tzmichat geulatenu,” for which a feeble English rendering might be: “May the Merciful One bless the State of Israel, the beginning of our redemption.” I subscribed to Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s teaching in the first chapter of Orot HaKodesh (titled Eretz Yisrael) that the Land of Israel is tied in its very lifeblood to the “uma,” the “nation” of Israel. According to the author Micah Goodman, this is Kook’s version of the Hegelian dialectic: The uma is a living, creative organism with Body and Soul. Its Soul is Jewish culture, religion, being, and its Body is the land of Israel. This makes the Diaspora effectively a soul without a body. Bringing the soul back to the body — Judaism to Israel, or Zionism — is t’chiyat hametim, or the resurrection of the dead, rebirth. I so loved that idea then (perhaps differently from the way I love it now), that when I was 18 years old and living in a settlement, I believed that I was on a redemptive journey, seeking an ethereal Zion by connecting to the land.
Slowly — and painfully — I discovered that Israel, though it has a soul, is not just a vessel for a religious people — in other words, for me. It is a place, and it contains multitudes. It produces both excellence and suffering. It is a reality of flesh and blood.
Today, many who take the term “Zionism” for their battle cry tend to find their political home on the radical right — both in Israel and America. In growing numbers, they are proponents of the Greater Land of Israel — willing participants in the internationally condemned occupation of a people, funders and actors in projects that essentially steal property and deny civil liberties. Often, these are the same people who allow the otherworldy to enter into their political discourse. They speak of the redemptive powers of nationalism; they insist that God is in their political camp. But this insertion of otherworldliness is inappropriate and dangerous. In fact, it makes me want to fight against Israel, against a perverted Zionism.
But reclaiming Zionism may not be impossible, and perhaps a clue to how we can do so can be found in the Talmud, in Ta’anit (5b), which quotes Rabbi Yochanan who, in turn, quotes God: “I will not come to Jerusalem of above (Yerushalayim shel ma’alah) until I have come to Jerusalem of below (Yerushalayim shel mata).” The Talmud asks the obvious question: What is “Jerusalem of above”?
If we understand “Jerusalem of above” as the ideal — a romanticized, beautiful, important national liberation movement of another era — we can begin to reorient ourselves. First, God (or we, as the case may be) must go to the “Jerusalem of below,” to the realm where redemption means placing one’s feet ever more fervently on the ground. To reclaim a Zionism of the earth, we need to talk about what is happening on it — the physical realities we are creating and how those realities are changing us. Because if we make the mistake of treading in “Jerusalem of above” when we should be striding through “Jerusalem of below,” then we do ourselves — and our own redemptive projects — a gross disservice.
When Zionism was a dream — when it brought to mind the “Israel of above” — it was epic: heroic, powerful, and profoundly worthwhile. But now that Zion has become a reality, we must reorient ourselves. There is much we need to do in order to live in the Jerusalem of below. We can start by ending the occupation. God will come to “Israel of above” only after coming to “Israel of below.” That is the Jerusalem we should be building up.
1 A note on translation: Some nouns in Hebrew form their plural by using a “dual” suffix. This form is often used to indicate that the noun comes in pairs, like eyes, breasts, hands, feet, or ears. The sound of the dual ending is “A-IM” just like that of the end of the Hebrew word for Jerusalem, “YerushalA-IM.” Amichai is claiming that the ending of the word “Jerusalem” denotes that it is a dual noun — a pair of Jerusalem(s).
This poem is reprinted with the permission of Hana Amichai.email print