Third Prize Winner of the 2016-17 Writing Contest

Angela Li, Class of 2018 (Jerusalem Civ, Spring 2017), reflects on her first visit to the Old City.

Photo of the Old City of Jerusalem


let me tell you a story of a jerusalem I once visited

before you arrive, the land is not quite real to you.
you are headed somewhere you have only imagined,
a dusty place of ancient days.
you are not sure
if you will find walls and streets and paths,
or if you will find cedars and gold,
priests and vestments,
blood and the altar.

you are visiting a place that your heart knows,
but your body does not.
you introduce your eyes, your feet, your legs to the city.
they take it and understand it,
becoming familiar with the terrain.

it is your head that causes problems.
you want the paths and the shards to explain themselves,
for some holy glory to reveal itself.
yet it is up to your guide to show you
what each ridge and valley means
to make this holy space in your consciousness.

despite your guide’s direction,
you look out onto the landscape
and remain separate from it.
your eyes play tricks on you,
so that you cannot quite tell which of the buildings
are in front of each other,
which of the layers of jerusalem you are staring at,
where you are in the city.
maybe you do not know
where you want to be in the city.

you focus instead on your body.
this, you can be certain about.
here, you are walking down
here, you are walking up
here you have turned a corner
and here you have stumbled over a narrow step.

you descend into the valley
that will engulf sinners at the end of days,
the kidron.
you think to yourself,
what a pathetic valley.
you expected something more abyss-like,
more cavernous and dark.
you imagine that you might be able
to cross the string alone on judgment day
if the small breeze that blows past falls still.
you feel guilty for such thoughts.

you begin your ascent.
it is hard to imagine,
as you trudge upward
and a car horn blares behind you,
but here! here is the origin of jerusalem!
it is a construction site.
this is where david’s men
climbed up a water shaft and took a city.

a flock of chickens,
wild red poppies,
decaying apartments.
and the site of the mythic spring, there.
where are the ropes, the onlookers, the signs
telling you that this is important?

soon you realize that the signs are elsewhere
forming a thick coating of the city.
there is enough here that is important.
too much.
you have entered the old city.
here are the gates and walls and enclosed spaces you cannot see
because you are a visitor to this place,
foreign to faiths beyond your own.

you content yourself with looking at the wall.
what strikes you is a rugged, jutting section.
this is, evidently,
where the steps to the temple stood,
the VIP entrance to the holy place.
you try to imagine yourself in the temple and cannot.
you think you would have rather been
under the arch,
down with the passerby,
left to wonder at the magnificent temple
and muse on what went on inside.

you find yourself wishing that you had grown up
separated from the world,
seeing nothing more splendid than this
so that all you see here could be your true, reverent, center.
this city should not be your foreign land
this city should be your highest joy.
how great you are, adonai.
your house is here.
you have blessed jerusalem.

you are surprised at what you find,
not because you did not expect jerusalem to be there,
but because your dreams of the city are hidden
in the stones and in yourself.
what you had hoped to be there
is partly in your imagination,
and in other cases what is there
is not in your imagination at all.

jerusalem cannot be what you have built it up to be
because it has been torn down and built up
in someone else’s vision.
and each day it is torn down and rebuilt
and today it is you
tearing down and rebuilding again.

Photo of the Old City of Jerusalem Photo of the Old City of Jerusalem