Carmen FiranCarmen Firan


I arrived after sunset. Peace and quiet. Although the new city slumbers between white stone walls under palms and bougainvillea, the Old City is overrun by religious Jews in traditional outfits. Sukkot is on full swing. In all the improvised tents there’s eating, chanting and dancing until late. The Wailing Wall is overrun of people. Black hats and fur caps bow to the rhythm of prayers, like old pendulums faithful to the sky lord, over worshiped these days. Women are praying separately. You can’t get close to their section of the wall because of thousands of strollers parked by each other, through which children run stopping you in your tracks. I put the piece of paper I wanted to slip between the wall stones back in my pocket. Anyway, the Lord seems very busy tonight, so I’ll get back in the morning, on daylight, when the families are still sleeping, exhausted by the long prayer night.

I arrived in Jerusalem 15 years later from my last trip to Israel — holy land for some, badmouthed by others, coveted or repudiated, miraculous land and apple of discord in the Middle East. History books and tourist guides have Jerusalem as the center of all things, capital of two nations and the cradle of three religions, place of confrontation between rival civilizations, the border between atheism and faith, the kingdom of the one God who yielded time always claiming sacrifices. Risen on the hills of Judea, this mystery city faces over 3000 years of massacres and fanaticism, focusing the essence of sacred and mysticism, unwillingly becoming the center of the world, the place where some await the Apocalypse, some for Jesus and others prepare for its demise.

Complex city, where everyday life is a form of survival and resistance, but also rebelliousness, a biblical continuity and also a fracture in history, the place where people feel closest to God and where God is said to be upset on people. Beliefs and mysticism, legends and superstitions, prophecies and myths all coexist in this city which lives from contradictions and identity dilemmas, synthesizing world’s history.

From the Olive Mountain, mosque tops appear in the valley, church towers and synagogues, ruined temples rebuilt only to be destroyed again, overlapped civilizations, Arab bazaars and Jewish sukurs, the Armenian district, Via Dolorosa and the holy church where Jesus was buried and the stone on which he was laid after taken off the cross, Muslim, Christian and Jewish cemeteries all sharing the same land and paradoxical silence which comes from Judea’s Desert, climbs from the Dead Sea towards Galilee and gets lots on the heights of Golan Heights. Jerusalem is testimony of all the passings and wanderings, faithfulness and treason, life, death and rebirth.

Although for me it remains just a piece of intense blue sky. Over the years I kept checking with the ones that got there: „Did you see the Jerusalem sky? The white light, material, heavy, reflecting on the stone?” Some nodded politely, others had an enigmatic silence, an Israel-born professor who emigrated in New York even told me: „A sky like all the others. The story with the light is a legend. A cliché. No miracle there.” Then he added: „You can only live there if you are either religious or masochistic.” I kept quiet. To each his own piece of sky. To each his own imagination and reality. We live what we project outside. We are what we think.

In the early ’90s I attended in the Romanian Academy assembly hall at a conference held by Alexandru Şafran, one of the most respected European Kabbalists, former Chief Rabbi of Romania, then of Switzerland. I just got back from my first trip to Jerusalem where I felt that I grabbed God by the leg. I didn’t know anything about the Kabbalah, but I sipped the old scholar’s every word. He spoke simple, worm, modest. His parables humanized the Creator. You could ask justice from him for suffering and wandering, you could confront him, you were allowed to revolt, to question, to want and not want. And I felt comfortable with myself. Freer and closer to the sky. I wrote a poem that evening that I reread every time Jerusalem takes shape and spirit.

As I like to imagine cities as women and men, a knight in simple clothes came to mind, a desert prince whose only army was shelves of books and an olive branch. On this ideal painting’s background the canvas is shredded by bloody swords, pride and vanity. In Hebrew literature, Jerusalem is likened to a beautiful woman, sophisticated and sensual, sometimes lustful, betrayed by her lovers, other times a spoiled princess. Maybe Jerusalem is both man and woman, as is sky and earth, certainty and doubt, subjection and quarrel with the unproven God.

I live in German Colony, a central district in the new city, at „Saint Carol” Monastery, across the road from the old train station now transformed in a sort of Highline, like in New York, a promenade place, with gardens, coffee shops and restaurants. The monastery has a chapel where every morning and evening the nuns pray in Latin. When I meet them on the dark corridors they smile and talk to me in Romanian. They’re all Moldavian, arrived here through the Catholic Church, they know German, Hebrew, Arabic and English, they never were in Germany, they came directly to Jerusalem and they are the queens of the place.

The tourists, most of them German, eat breakfast in the long mess hall, with massive rose wood furniture, under icons and crucifixes. On the immaculate hand sewn tablecloths, flagons of fresh pomegranate juice, homemade orange and peach jams, cheeses and fruits handpicked from the monastery’s gardens are all waiting for us, generous domains that spread between two streets, surrounded by high fences and hard iron gates.

We reached the monastery late in the evening. Countryside darkness. Two lazy cats on the doorstep. Cats are highly respected in Israel, they are all over the place, protected and fed with care. A German voluntary handed me a fistful of keys and carefully explained the ritual of comings and goings, where the lifts are and the location of my room in one of the four wings of the medieval building. Any question that wasn’t about my stay at the monastery was carefully avoided. „Where can I convert some dollars?” „Sister Valentina knows.” „Can I get to the Old City on foot? Is it dangerous to cross the park at night?” „Ask sister Valentina.” „Can I extend my stay by one more night?” Only sister Valentina can answer you.” Valentina has blue eyes, a seraphic smile and long hands, she steps lightly like she walks on water and yes, she knows everything and she’s the head of Saint Carol.

We reached Paradise. In the morning I drink my coffee under the vines, near an orange and mandarin orchard. The muezzin can be heard far away like a lost bird screeching of loneliness. I pick the fat grapes that hang above my head, I walk on paths with huge cacti, through geraniums and lavender. The nuns put out on a rope to dry white embroidered towels and bed sheets. Being there makes me happy. Everything has a meaning, mother Valentina seems to whisper, tracking me with her gaze from one of the high windows which open in the interior garden.

During the four days I spent in Jerusalem I traveled the city far and wide. The narrow cobbled streets in the Armenian district or the Arab bazaar can become claustrophobic sometimes, strollers speed past you shaking the kids around, men in black anthers swarm around colored tourists and ecstatic pilgrims, we are all prisoners between sweets kiosks, pastry and spice shops. No bustle on Via Dolorosa. We take pictures of the places where Jesus is said to have stopped, leaned on the walls, fell taken down by the cross, only that under the history plates hang trousers, hookahs and slippers. There’s no better trade spot than Golgotha.

I climb the Mountain of Olives guided by Alun, an Arab who speaks Romanian because he works for a high priest from the Romanian Church in Jerusalem. He proudly shows me the holy places, the Christian and Jewish ones, then the gilded dome of the great mosque which dominates the landscape. I listen to his story, the way he knew it from his parents and grandparents. I discover his forced tolerance and the hope that one day, with the same key that they left with, his relatives will come back and open the same door, probably stuck or ruined for a long time. In the thin quietness, church bells, more numerous than synagogues, sound lively, they don’t have anything from the solemnity I felt when I was little and heard the bell on Sundays ringing like a clock of destiny with split hands. Alun has a gentle gaze, a pleasant and peaceful nature. He somehow reminds me of my boy, they are about the same age. We take pictures with Jerusalem’s panorama in the background. The white material light on the overlapped cemetery stones is there, although it doesn’t appear in any picture.

I luck out with Vlad, an old friend who lives from the age of 13 in Tel Aviv, medic and writer, an avant-garde enthusiast, lively spirit who traveled through his identity journey on his own terms, as he confessed in a series of essays „from kike to Jew to becoming Israeli”, and who leaves everything go and comes to Jerusalem to show me what would take a long time for tourists to discover. We pass through artists’ villages, he wakes up Greek priests from their slumber and has them open small churches that shelter legends, he shows me the Saint Mary spring and where John the Baptist was born, we wander through town until exhaustion, then through the Israel Museum, which he visited dozens of times. A fantastic art museum, laid out in steps on a hill just like the Getty in Los Angeles, now with a temporary exhibit dedicated to King Herod, with permanent collections of paintings and sculpture of great sizes from the most important artists. Here are the Dead Sea Scrolls, wonderfully displayed under special conditions in an impressive building.

Night catches me still in the Old City, in the Arab district. The strollers have vanished, and the black outfits of religious Jews too, the tourists have disappeared into the walls, the kiosks are empty, the streets deserted. On a dark alley three Israeli soldiers armed to their teeth watch me impassive. For a second I forget where I’m at. When. The past becomes the future, the future becomes past, says the Kabbalah, when the present spans like a lazy snake forcing you to live in the moment. And as the Word breaks the darkness, creates the world giving name to things, the Number splits the infinite in the finite existence and death. Alas, if we wouldn’t know how to count years, seasons, trees, could we have a chance at immortality? The Kabbalah doesn’t say a word about this.

In the last day I managed to slip my piece of paper between the cracks of the Wailing Wall, I folded my piece of sky, I took it with me and I left for Tel Aviv. Another way of life here, throbbing, bars and clubs bustling with young people, on the shore of the Mediterranean or on the lively streets. Over the last 15 years the development is tremendous. And the Israeli, brave men, fearless of God, live intensely every day like it is their last.

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