Jewish World Review – When I was a youngster, I was greeted at my Jewish day school by a poster of an ancient map detail depicting Jerusalem as the world's center. The drawing, of course, was geographically inaccurate, but its message was a powerful one to generations of impressionable children living as a minority in a country that the Framers envisioned as the "new Jerusalem."
Years later, as a rabbinic candidate studying in the Holy City, the idea of Jerusalem's centrality took on a far more tangible meaning. It was the summer of 1989, and my father called me with a request. Distant, non-Orthodox cousins, he said, would be in town shortly. Would I be willing to forego my vacation to act as their tour guide? "Certainly," I said. It sounded exciting.
Though we lived only a few hours away by plane, it was halfway around the world, in Jerusalem, that our two very different worlds would first interface.
Marcel, a college professor, had grown up in an observant home and attended a modern Orthodox day school. He, his wife and their daughter were living a more secular lifestyle in California. Aspiring to be the consummate host, I immediately sought out places that I reasoned the family would find of interest.
We met a few days later at the now defunct LaRomme Hotel. When the conversation began to lag, I whipped out my list of sites, times and prices. I began to read proudly: "Israel Museum, Center One Shopping Mall…" but Marcel soon grabbed my hand and smiled. "We've been in the country for over a week. It's been an endless parade of museums, restaurants, kibbutzim and the like. We came to Jerusalem to see Jerusalem, not more of American exports and not more Western culture." It was a response I had not counted on.
For the next several days, a yeshiva-mate, Avrumi Sitko, and I took the cousins on a tour of Jerusalem -- as seen through the eyes of "ultra-Orthodox" locals. We traveled simply, by foot and, when necessary, bus, tuning our senses to the vibes of the city and the small details lost on large, fast-paced tour groups. We visited the holy sites and shared a Sabbath meal at the home of a famous rabbi, where all were impressed with our host's accessibility and humanity. We joined the joyous dancing as a new Torah scroll was paraded through Jerusalem's labyrinthine alleys. We watched Chasidic children pray and play and, to top it off, took a shopping spree in Mea Shearim.
Though Marcel's wife's clothing undoubtedly violated protocol of the religious neighborhood, she was not stoned, spat at or cursed, as she had been forewarned in America by some secular Israeli friends, yordim, who had given up life in the Land of Milk and Honey for the Country of Steak and Money.
Weeks later, I received a parcel from my cousins containing several photos and a letter. Of their three weeks in Israel, the note read, it was the time we spent together in Jerusalem -- sans the glitzy nightlife and more earthly distractions -- that was the most memorable. It was the one stitch of their trip that made them forget they were tourists and reminded them they were Jews. Indeed, the experience helped solidify their understanding of why Jerusalem, despite Jewry's seemingly infinite exiles, has always remained central in the Jew's life. It is the reason, I suspect, why someone, somewhere created that ancient map detail of my childhood.
Jerusalem is Jerusalem only because it remains Jerusalem -- center of the universe or, as the Talmud describes it, the place where Heaven first kissed Earth.
By Binyamin L. Jolkovsky – “Where Heaven Kissed Earth” – Jewish World Review