"Letters from Jerusalem" is both fiction and truth. It is fiction because during the summer of 1989, when I studied at Yad Vashem Institute, Jerusalem, I neither wrote letters to nor received letters from any of my students at Trinity Preparatory School.
Letters from Jerusalem
A Reading for Two Voices
Ronald John Vierling
At the same time, "Letters" is a truth in every detail of my reaction to Jerusalem and my studies at Yad Vashem. In fact, "Letters" is the result of my wish to combine some of the lectures I presented shortly after my return from Israel with materials I had not yet used when I wrote the manuscript in 1992. Thus, I have tried to tell all of the truth I can muster in as forthright a manner as I could manage.
Ronald John Vierling
Male Voice: Letter Number One
July 4, 1989
The last time we talked as school ended, and I told you I was going to Yad Vashem Institute, Jerusalem, during July to study the history of the Holocaust, you said that if I had time I should write you a letter and tell you about my course work as well as give you my impressions of Israel generally and Jerusalem in particular. Consider this my first attempt to do so.
I will start with the most obvious. As I sat in the airport in Paris, I was very aware I was hearing all manner of languages save for English, which I must confess I found intimidating. Then as I flew from Paris to Tel Aviv, I was equally aware I was the only non-Jew on the flight, not because anyone did or said anything discourteous, but because, surrounded by people speaking Hebrew, I knew--as Dorothy in Oz might have said--I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
After we arrived in Tel Aviv and I moved through the Ben Gurion Airport, I wondered if anyone was looking at me and wondering why I was there. Of course, it's more likely that no one cared that I was in Israel; the Muslim or Jewish people all around me were too busy to be concerned with me. But I digress.
After I retrieved my luggage, and very tired from my flights from Orlando to Miami to Paris to Tel Aviv, I went out into the Israeli night and got a cab to take me up the mountain to Jerusalem so I could check into my hotel. The first thing I noticed was armed Israeli soldiers on duty at the airport. Yes, I know why they're there, but I suspect it's still not something most Americans get used to quickly.
The ride up the mountain from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was surprising. Did you know that Jerusalem is 2400 feet above sea level? I didn't. Even in the darkness, I could see shapes and shadows and looming forms in the distance as we ascended. I could smell pine trees and fog, neither of which I expected.
I was too late when I got to my hotel to go to the first meeting of the students and scholars I will join tomorrow. However, I will admit that even before I arrived in Israel, I recognized I was and am uneasy about coming. Yes, I know the Palestinians are protesting what they contend is their lack of civil rights under the Israeli government, and yes, I know the protests have at times become violent. Yet, interestingly enough, it isn't the Palestinians who make me feel the most insecure. Rather it's this business of looking for something akin to real truth, the kind that can't be rationalized away.
I have been warned that in the next four weeks I will be required to go very close to the moral edge and look into the abyss. I cannot know as yet what that means, except I suspect my studies will confirm my worst nightmares. Let me explain.
The nineteenth century American philosopher and theologian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on whose writing I was weaned intellectually, wrote that humanity was slowly but surely moving toward a general goodness. At the same time, something in my melancholy nature as I grew up also drew me to Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, which portrays humankind as otherwise, for Melville was a nay sayer. He argued that unless we were willing to face our capacity for corruption, we would never stop doing evil.
I have always suspected but never wanted to admit that Melville, not Emerson, was more correct. So what is study of the Holocaust going to tell me? That is, am I going to have my Melvillian sensibilities validated? Are we really as foolish, as easily misled, as capable of evil as Melville suggested?
In any case, the trip to Israel was not entirely unpleasant. On the flight from Paris to Tel Aviv, I had a wonderful conversation with an elderly Jewish man who was very interested in what I was going to do. When I became uneasy because no one responded to the stewardess's directions to sit down while we prepared to land in Tel Aviv, he told me not to be concerned. "They're all busy talking with friends," he said, laughing. "They'll still be standing even as we taxi up to the airport."
With all of that said, my immediate problem is that I have been awake for nearly thirty-five hours. I am in a hotel room halfway around the world from every place and everyone I know, and I don't have any idea what is going to happen when I leave this room tomorrow morning, except that the other fellowship recipients from Orlando who have preceded me here in summers past have said my life will be changed. The question is, am I up to the task? What will I do when the horror hits? Can I look the beast in the face and survive psychologically? When all of this is over, what will be real to me?
Well, it's very late, even by Jerusalem time. I'm too tired to read any of the books I've brought with me. I can't read the Hebrew magazines in my room, and I can't understand anything on Israeli television. By the way, do you speak Hebrew? I don't think I've ever asked you that before. Did you have to learn Hebrew for your Bat Mitzvah?
Write and tell me anything you and your mother think I should do and see and investigate.
Female Voice: Letter Number Two
July 10, 1989
Dear Mr. Vierling:
I'm not sure I could go to Jerusalem and study the Holocaust. Yes, because I'm a Jew, I've heard stories; I've been to classes; I've gone to the Holocaust Center, but I've also managed to keep it outside of me, away from my feelings. I don't think I'm unusual in that regard. Most of my friends who are Jewish have done the same thing. We haven't wanted it to penetrate, so we've kept it at arms length, even if we can see the pain that period in history caused our parents and grandparents.
The fact you felt isolated as you traveled to Israel is very interesting. I don't mean that I've felt isolated because I'm a Jew. I've never been confronted by anyone who was anti-Semitic, but I know it's possible I might one day. I know people who have.
More to the point, I want to hear about what you are studying. I cannot imagine how any historian could devote a career to the subject. I do think you should go to the Wailing Wall. I have never been in Israel, but if I ever do go to Jerusalem, I will want to go to the Wall. I assume you will, too. I don't know if you would be allowed to pray at the Wall. If you are, and if you do, I would like to know what it felt like.
My mother and I found the comment the old man on the airplane made very amusing. She laughed and said she would have expected as much; Jews going to Jerusalem are not going to a city; they are going to a neighborhood. My mother grew up in New York City at a time when people sat out on stoops and talked to each other on summer evenings. She said she thinks that's what the Jews flying to Israel are doing. They are walking around from stoop to stoop in their neighborhood. No stewardess is going to have much luck telling them to sit down.
Anyway, I want to know about the Wall. I want to hear more about the young soldiers you saw at the airport. My uncle says that when he was in Jerusalem, there were soldiers everywhere. Like you, I know why. However, I would still like to hear what it feels like to see them everywhere as part of the everyday.
Here's something else I think you should do. I'm not sure if it's something I'd like to do or not or if it's something I'd be comfortable doing, but I think you should. Some night, go into a Jewish neighborhood and stand in the darkness and just listen. I mean it; just listen. I think of that because I've seen you standing out on campus at school lost in thought, and so I can see you doing that in Jerusalem, except I don't think you'd be lost in thought. I think you would feel and hear everything possible in such an experience. And I want to know what you feel. I want to know what you hear.
I want to know what Jerusalem looks like in the sunshine. I want to know what the pine trees smell like. I want to know what it feels like to stand in the middle of Jerusalem and know you are really in Jerusalem. Does that sound strange? Do you understand what I mean? I remember you talking once about how it felt when you went to the valley in Wales where your mother's ancestors had lived and going to the village in Scotland where your father's ancestors had lived. So I know you care about connections to ancient places. I want to know if you think Jerusalem is really a holy place or if we Jews simply claim it is because we need to believe in it. (And yes, I did have to learn Hebrew for my Bat Mitzvah.)
Male Voice: Letter Number Three
July 16, 1989
I will try to both describe what I am studying and answer your questions. I also don't know how an historian could devote a life's career to studying and writing about and teaching the Holocaust, because I think the subject is very dangerous. Not that learning the truth about what I believe is the apocalyptic event in modern human history is wrong. It must be confronted; it must be defined and clarified and communicated. Rather it's dangerous because to engage the Holocaust is to engage evil, pure and simple evil. I simply cannot imagine any historian who takes on the era escaping from his/her studies unscarred.
As far as the course goes, we spent the first two days defining the difference between genocide and the Holocaust. My initial reaction was emotional. It seemed a futile and needlessly painful exercise. Both are wrong. Both are crimes against humanity. So I did not understand why we had to define the difference. It took me several days to understand.
Genocide is a crime. Yet, it is a crime--I almost hesitate to say this, because I do not want to be misunderstood--it is a crime which falls within the parameters of the possible. For instance, the Turks unleashed genocide against the Armenians during World War I. However, that unleashing occurred within a specific territory for a specific political and military objective. The Turks wished to clear the land under dispute of the Armenians. They had no ambitions to clear the world of Armenians or of all traces of Armenian influence.
I am not suggesting that the violence the Turks visited on the Armenians was not as painful as the violence the Nazis inflicted on the Jews. My point is that the nature of the Turkish campaign of cruelty falls within comprehensible human history. The Turks perceived the Armenians as enemies. Once the enemies were removed from the territory in dispute, the Turks did not pursue fleeing Armenians into the farthest corners of the globe. However, if the military assault of the Turks on the unarmed Armenian population was vile, what the Germans did between 1933 and 1945 is incomprehensible.
Holocaust itself is a word which had to be coined in the aftermath of the era to try to metaphorically describe the event, for the Holocaust lies beyond even the cruelest cruelty in history. The Nazi regime did not simply wish to remove all Jews from any territories the Nazi military captured; the Nazi ambition was to remove all Jews from the face of the earth; the Nazi ambition was to erase all traces of Jewish cultural and social influence from human history.
Such an undertaking had nothing to do with military objectives. It was a form of mad Puritanism which ended up turning nightmares into reality and reality into nightmares. That is what we have been trying to confront these past two days: nightmare reality. Yet, how can we, sitting in a classroom, removed from the events themselves, come to grips with even a definition of--let alone a realization of--such a campaign of violence? I don't know. I don't know how it could happen in history, and I don't know how I am going to comprehend it.
In any case, it is now more and more clear that the horror of the Nazi violence against the Jews is not just the violence, itself. It is the manner in which it was carried out. The Holocaust is not about screaming madmen raging about in the streets of captured towns capturing Jews and then in a frenzy of racist and religious hatred, murdering them on the spot. Such things have happened in the past. No, what distinguishes the Nazi ambition is its calculated, cold-blooded, bureaucratic nature.
A thousand frenzied Nazis did not murder six million Jews, one and one half million of whom were children. A great, sprawling, well-organized, bureaucratic, military, and engineering procedure murdered six million Jews, one and one half million of whom were children. Sitting in class, when that becomes a truth, something you can see, really see, then the horror burns suddenly and deeply and profoundly. The Shoah was the result of the Nazi ambition to eradicate all traces of Judaism from the world as efficiently and effectively as possible.
However, you asked about the classes. Let me give examples of the kinds of historical thinking we are trying to examine. There are now two schools of thought about the Holocaust, the intentionalists and the gradualists. The intentionalists argue that from the outset, Hitler planned to do exactly what he did: try to annihilate the Jews of Europe. They point to his speeches, from the earliest point in his public political career to the end of his reign. They contend his attitude toward the Jews, which never wavered, was the foundation of what erupted into World War II. They claim that his war against the Jews only incidentally became a campaign against the Western democracies and the Soviet Union, because he believed both capitalism and communism had been contaminated by Judaism.
The gradualists disagree. They point out that those same early speeches were little more than populist racist diatribes, not unlike many other speeches given by many other racists of the times. They point out that Hitler's hatred of Jews was couched in vile but vague language, designed to win him followers but not require he act against the Jews in any specific way. That is, they argue that Hitler discovered gradually that he could fulfill his madness without any serious opposition because his madness touched a common insanity in all of humanity. The lecturer who has disturbed me the most thus far, though, is Emil Fackenheim, for what he said was deeply troubling.
Fackenheim's focus is on Ashkenazic Judaism, the culture of Poland and Eastern Europe. His thesis is that first, the social and historic fabric of Ashkenazic Judaism was utterly destroyed by the Nazi Holocaust. The fact that a few individual Ashkenazic Jews survived does not mean they can ever reproduce the culture which flourished in Eastern Europe: they can only serve as reminders of what was obliterated. Second, that because Eastern European Judaism was the heart and soul of ancient Judaism as it had evolved in the Diaspora, when the Holocaust destroyed Poland's Jews, it destroyed the Judaic continuum. Third, the Judaism which now presents itself as the inheritor of the Ashkenazic tradition by returning to Zion does not express the same kind of longing for the divine which had once found its expression in the moral and spiritual and intellectual complexity of Eastern Europe. All of which is to say, Fackenheim contends, that the two delicately balanced tenants of Judaic thought, doubt and belief, have been undone, never to be recreated again. Thus, he argues that Judaism today is not an expression of the continuum; it is an expression of the undoing of Jewish history, a witnessing to the moral abyss of the twentieth century.
The reason I disagree with Fackenheim's thesis, which I contend turns modern Judaism into something like a geological dig among dinosaur remains, is that I have also seen Jerusalem, and at this point, I need to say something about the city, as much for me as for you.
At the end of our first week of class, we were all taken by a young man from Hebrew University around Jerusalem. We stood on a hillside and looked across at the lay of the land. If to my ancestors, Edinburgh, Scotland, is a "windy toon o'cloods an' sunny glints," then for you and yours, Jerusalem is a sun swept crown caped in pine green forests and pale blue skies that seem to go on forever.
I do not know if I can answer your question about whether Jerusalem is truly a holy city or whether the cross currents of religious belief have simply designated it as a focal point, which by association then turns it into a holy place in the imagination. The ancient Celt believed in the idea of sites where the confluence of spirit and place so intertwine that the Other world comes through, as if there were openings in the cloak hiding the spiritual from the corporal. Therefore, if Stonehenge is holy to me because I am a Celtman, then Jerusalem may well be such a place for those who understand and believe in its meaning.
Perhaps the best I can do is share a poem I wrote two days after the group was taken through the streets of the old walled city, for as you suggested I would, I found the Wall very important.
Traveling by bus through
shimmering waves of heat to the Wall,
our debate touched wearied nerves.
Was this ancient place marked in the dust
by the invisible hand of the Divine
so those journeying from old agony
toward distant hope
would recognize it as they arrived and
thereby understand the designation?
Or is this place simply the converging
Of profound desires
that shape the mundane poetry of our daily lives,
requiring we divide the sacred from the profane?
At the Wall, as the sun sinks on Sabbath eve,
a rising tide of voices sings joyfully,
and long gray shadows dash quickly
across the great white square,
embracing those who have come to engage
That which cannot be said,
making triumph out of all that has occurred,
order out of all that will ever be.
Hidden by the sweet smell of dusk,
I hear intonations in a language
I do not understand.
Standing in the gentle gathering night,
I hear intonations that
make perfect sense.
I will close for now with the promise that I will go into a neighborhood at night very soon. However, tomorrow I plan to visit the children's memorial. I have been avoiding it since I arrived at Yad Vashem, but I know I cannot do so any longer, for my intuition tells me that the moral center of everything I can or will learn in Israel is in that room.
Female Voice: Letter Number Four
July 22, 1989
Dear Mr. Vierling:
I have to respond to your summary of Emil Fackenheim's lecture. In fact, my mother and I wish to respond. Like you, we are troubled by his thesis. Neither of us wishes to be presumptuous; after all, he is the scholar, and admittedly, we have not read his work. However, what you wrote raises questions.
First, why was Ashkenazic Judaism the only heart and soul of global Judaism? What about the Sephardic tradition? When the Jews went into the Diaspora, did only Ashkenazic Judaism inherit the mantle of the Second Temple? Didn't the Jews in the Diaspora have to adjust, not just to the passing of time but to changing circumstances, too? If that is true, then how can any one claim that the heart and soul of ancient Judaism was somehow contained within a single evolving Judaic culture?
Yes, it is true, the Judaism of Poland and Eastern Europe cannot be recreated. It can be copied, but it cannot be recreated. My mother agrees that when something as complex and important as the Yiddish culture of Poland was annihilated, it cannot be reborn. However, she also agrees with my concern that Emil Fackenheim seems to be saying that the Judaism which continues in other parts of the world, here in the United States, for instance, is not Judaism but only a reminder, a remnant and a reminder. I don't feel that my religious beliefs and my religious practices are remnants or reminders. They are things which are very alive for me. They are part of the way I see the world.
If Judaism were only rigid cultural rituals, then Emil Fackenheim might well be right, but if Judaism is a living peoplehood-I remember that peoplehood is one of your favorite terms---then despite the terrible tragedy of the loss of six million Jews, despite the terrible tragedy of the destruction of Eastern European Judaism, the fact there are still Jews in the world thinking about the divine and evaluating their own conduct and practicing ancient rituals is a testimony that something important is still going on.
My mother believes Fackenheim is reacting to the fact that what happened was not evolution but destruction. Both of us agree that Judaism today may not be what it would have been had evolution been allowed to take its natural course. Yet, who can say for sure what Judaism would be today had the Nazis never gained power? And in any case, I refuse to be assigned to a place in a cultural and religious graveyard. My Judaism is not a dinosaur looking for a place to die.
I do not remember everything I learned when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, but I do remember being told that it was not enough for me to simply memorize the Hebrew passages from the Torah or memorize rituals practiced by the great rabbis of the past; I would have to participate in keeping Judaism alive, not just because I was a Jew but because Judaism was a way of thinking about God and the world which had value. Yes, the Ashkenazic world Emil Fackenheim must have loved has been destroyed, but that does not mean the heart and soul of Judaism has been destroyed. Not as long as there are Jews who are willing to think about what it means to be a part of the Judaic continuum.
My sense from all that I read is that Israel, even with all of its problems, is trying to do that. I mean, could a young Jew living in Warsaw, Poland, fifty years ago have said to a young Jew living in Jerusalem, Israel, today that she is not really a Jew? Could a young Jew living in Segovia, Spain six hundred years ago have said to the young Warsaw Jew that he was not really a Jew? Could a Second Temple Jew living in Jerusalem before the Diaspora have said to the young Segovian Jew that she was not really a Jew?
Now I want to talk about the second thing. You may well have already gone to the children's memorial at Yad Vashem by the time you get this letter, but in any case, I want to tell you that my uncle went when he was in Israel, and he said it was the hardest thing he has ever done in his life. I am not saying you should not go. You should. And from what you said, you would go no matter what anyone told you. It's just that when I read that part of your letter to my mother, her expression changed. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she knew that going to the children's memorial was going to be a very great agony for you. She is concerned about what you will feel when you are in the memorial as well as what you will feel once you come out. So both of us say you should be careful.
Male Voice: Letter Number Five
July 27, 1989
You were right. By the time I got your letter of July 22, I'd already been to the Children's Memorial at Yad Vashem. Your uncle was also right. The Memorial is a labyrinth. However, I believe it is important that I try to describe it to you.
To enter the Children's Memorial, you climb a narrow walkway that rises from the tree-shaded Avenue of Righteous Gentiles, which connects all of the facilities and buildings at Yad Vashem. Once you climb the stairs to the entrance, you then go through a white stone arch carved into the side of the hill in order to enter. Then you walk downward through semi-darkness and then into a room lit by skylights. In the room, you find a glass wall behind which there are three feet by four feet black and white photographs of the faces of children.
The faces themselves are beautiful, charming, lively, composed, mischievous--all of the things children are and all of the things children are supposed to be: dark hair, light hair, dark skin, light skin, dark eyes, light eyes; smiling and serious; male and female.
Then you go on. You descend further, and the hallway becomes more dark. You turn to your left and step into the great hall, into another world.
This will be hard to describe and hard to visualize, just as it was hard to experience, for two things occur. What appears as your eyes adjust to the intense darkness is a great triangular column in which there is one candle burning; beyond the triangular column there are panes of glass below you and panes of glass on your right side and on your left side and above you and behind you, so that as you move along the black catwalk, the panes of glass become candles reflected and reflect, a million and a half times, like constellations, the souls of one and one half million Jewish children, and you are held in a universe of children's lives shining white and clean and clear.
Then come the voices. Counterpoised against sonorous, liturgical voices singing and moaning--the call of the shofar--comes the alternating sound from different places in the chamber around you of a soft, expressionless male voice and a soft, expressionless female voice intoning names, ages, countries of origin. A name, an age, a country; a name, an age, a country. Then ahead of you a name, an age, a country. Then behind you. Then below you. Then from everywhere. A name, an age a country. A name, an age, a country. A name an age, a country. Until you...until you cannot...So you listen to the voices: a name, an age, a country. A name, an age, a ...country.
Then you move further to the corner of the triangular column and look at the reflections, which have changed because you have changed your position. Then you come to the second corner and the third corner. Then you stop. You just stop. Because the voices are speaking again, intoning again: a name, an age, a country. A name, an age, a...country. A name, an age, a...
They were Jewish children. They were Europe's children. They were the world's children. They were our children. And your children. And my children. And it was wrong! It is wrong! Then you go back outdoors because you cannot stay any longer.
I did not go back to class right away. There was a lecture going on, but I could not go back. I walked to the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, and I sat under a shade tree, and I looked out across a long sweeping valley. In the distance, white Jerusalem stone houses are being built by the Israelis. Children are playing in yards, running up and down hills, calling out to one another, singing songs and laughing.
I listened to the wind whisper in the trees over my head. I felt the soft heat on my brow. I heard school age children behind me descending from buses, which had brought them to Yad Vashem. Then I tried to not listen, for as they passed by where I sat, I could not keep from hearing a name, an age, a country. A name, an age, a country. A name, an age, a....country.
Yet, the day was not over. There was more to come. That is what has been both fascinating and difficult about Jerusalem. To try to penetrate its secrets, one has to balance complex and conflicting issues, and I know I don't understand how to do that, at least, not yet.
That evening, three classmates and I took a cab downtown to Zion Square, at the foot of Ben Yehuda street, a cafe-lined four blocks closed to automobile traffic.
We'd gone there to get away from the intensity of our studies and because we knew there would be street music playing. At Zion Square, a band was set up playing Chicago and Memphis style boogie.
The crowd that had gathered was happy. The night was cool. People passing by on the street paused to listen. Some stayed. Everyone was in good spirits. Then an interesting thing happened, not something that would catch the eye of an Israeli, but something an American would notice.
I have to preface my description with a brief explanation. You see, it is common place in Jerusalem to see young men and young women moving about dressed in army fatigue uniforms and carrying M-16 automatic rifles. They also carry backpacks, the way American school students carry backpacks of books.
That evening in Zion Square, there were young uniformed men in the crowd. There was even one young man with his M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder walking with his wife and infant daughter. His wife was carrying the child. He was carrying a bag of groceries. But that is not what is most important.
Three young men moved into the crowd ahead of where I was standing listening to the band. They stopped and listened and smiled and spoke to each other in Hebrew. Independent of the other two, each one began to move to the beat of the music in a kind of private dance, not unlike the kind of dance step I was doing as I stood and listened in the company of my friends.
Then the one standing in the middle reached over and put an arm around the shoulders of his companion to his right. Then he did the same with his companion to his left. Then each of the other two put an arm around the young man in the middle, so they stood linked together in a line. Then they began to move in unison, first to the right, then to the left, bumping hips playfully as they did: taking a step forward, then a half step backwards, then a hip slide to the right, a bump, then a hip slide to the left. Then a shrug of their shoulders. Then a lowering of their knees. Then another slide to the right, a slide to the left, a bumping of hips.
People standing around them moved back so they could dance, smiling as they cleared the way. For the young men were doing a group boogie. What is most important--what I saw--is that the three young men were doing exactly what any three similar young men would have done on any street corner in America if the same kind of music were playing, except that in this case, each of the young Israeli men had an M-16 rifle slung around his shoulders.
What's the connection between my experience in the Children's Museum at Yad Vashem and the experience of watching the three young men dance in Zion Square? It was the look in their eyes, Erica, because even as they danced, even as they laughed with one another and laughed with those of us who were watching and enjoying what they were doing, the look in their eyes said, "We will never give up our children again. We may have to give ourselves up, but we will never give up our children again."
The song they danced to, by the way, was an original composition by the lead singer of the band, a sprightly, sarcastic tune called "West Bank Boogie."
It is late at night as I write this last letter to you, Erica, for I will be leaving Jerusalem early in the morning in two days. I remember being warned that my experience at Yad Vashem would change my life. Well, it has.
In my first letter to you, I said I knew I was going to have to go to the edge of the abyss. I did. Now I have to come home. So I must see beyond the abyss as well, if I am to make any use of what I have learned. For me, when I try to do that, I see Jerusalem; I see Jerusalem the place and Jerusalem the dream.
The fog that comes in over the hills almost every night is sliding down across the face of the neighborhoods that rise up beyond my hotel. From my balcony, I can see the city disappearing into the blowing blue clouds of haze and cool. I am leaning back in my chair in the darkness and listening. I can hear nothing now from high up in my room except for the wind and an occasional taxi cab horn from the streets below.
Earlier tonight, just before midnight, I could not stand my room or my books any longer. I am enclosing the poem I have just written, which tries to portray what it felt like. I want to share this particular poem with you and your mother before I return because, for me, it is the only way I can make sense out of what I learned in class and what I learned at the Wall, what I felt in the Children's Memorial and what I saw in Zion Square when I watched the three young Israeli men dance.
Instructions for Seeing Jerusalem
Leave your hotel
after the city is quiet,
after the sun has gone down and
the shops have closed
and the tour buses are parked
and the crowds along Ben Yehuda Street
Have all gone home,
and start walking up any hill
into any neighborhood,
moving along the sidewalk in the shadows
until you come to a secret corner.
Then you stop and stand,
and it will come to you:
the sweet hum of families
in second and third story apartments,
windows thrown open to the night,
going about their ordinary lives--
talking, consoling, laughing,
eating a late meal,
a child being read to by an elder,
a song or two sung in Hebrew or English,
a smattering of French,
a touch of Portuguese.
Listen as a plate is moved on a table,
as someone says the coffee is ready.
Hear a door closing, a footfall
hurrying up marble steps.
Then a light goes out in a back room window.
A man rolls over in bed
to a woman who is waiting.
A child cries out in his dreaming.
A dog barks on a back porch.
A candle is lit. The wind stirs.
A cloud moves across the moon.
And you hold your breath and wait.
And it is finally secure.
You have seen the streets to their rest.
It is safe once more
until the sun comes up again
over the Jordanian hills at dawn.
But do not be afraid as you
go back down the hill
if a cat of some sort
crosses your path as you walk,
for the cats that prowl Jerusalem,
without regard for neighborhood,
more at home here than any who come to pray,
have been sent by the gods
who occupy the great gloomy hills
that encircle this ancient place
so you will be assured
that they are very much aware
of your passing.
Shalom, Erica. Shalom,
Copyright 1996 Ronald John Vierling
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