Jerusalem’s measure of beauty and suffering

The other day, for the first time in a long while, I climbed the broad staircase into the lobby of Israel’s National Library, seeking some solace in a city lately rent by mindless murders and reprisals, by rioting and racism, by the drone of extremists and of sirens warning of Gaza-launched rockets. A Jerusalem dispirited by violence latent and real — a fearful city.

The fear has seeped into daily life.

A Palestinian friend, a television journalist, apologetically canceled her invitation to an Iftar dinner at her family’s home in Beit Hanina, the Arab neighborhood from which Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, had been pushed into a car and driven to his ghastly death, allegedly at the hands of Jewish ruffians, in the Jerusalem forest. She hinted that it wasn’t the time for a Jew to be seen entering their apartment.

After days of attacks on Arabs by vengeful Jews and right-wing zealots chanting “Death to Arabs,” a Western-educated Palestinian professor living in another Arab neighborhood canceled our meeting at Cafe Aroma in the Mamilla mall. “I never thought I’d say this,” she said, “but I’m afraid to go into Jewish areas now. Let’s wait a little while.”

As we wait, fear drives us into ever more outlandish denials of communal responsibility.

Another Palestinian colleague remarked that the kidnapping and murder of Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrah, 19; Gil-Ad Shaer, 16; and Naftali Frenkel, 16, might have been an inside job. “It wouldn’t be far-fetched to think those who are so full of hate and evil to burn alive a young innocent boy and watch him die would kill the three young Jews and consider them martyrs for the cause of starting a genocide against the Palestinians.”

Meanwhile, an Israeli academic I know dismissed the calls for Jewish soul-searching and President Shimon Peres’ talk of “moral crisis.” (“Today shame goes forth from Zion,” Peres said.) My acquaintance refused to believe that Jews could be culpable in Mohammed’s death. “This may simply turn out to be the latest in a long history of blood libels.”

“Jerusalem is built on the vaulted foundations of a held-back scream,” the poet Yehuda Amichai wrote. Only now the screams are less and less repressed.

At the top of the library stairs, I found myself confronted by Mordecai Ardon’s stained-glass windows, among the largest ever made, an overwhelming but delicate interplay of saturated blues and radiant reds. Ardon’s masterpiece, which took two years to complete, is dedicated to Isaiah’s vision of peace: “For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.… And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The central window transfigures Jerusalem’s Old City wall into the Dead Sea Scroll of the Book of Isaiah, as though in this City of the Book, where everyone is anyway addicted to symbols, words are more real than stone. Above the wall, Ardon represents the divine emanations that connect celestial Jerusalem to the contentious city below.

I paused to think of the paradoxes of a place at once real and romanticized. “Ten measures of beauty God gave to the world,” says the Talmud, “nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest.” But also: “Ten measures of suffering God gave to the world, nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest.”

I’d passed the windows before. But this time I noticed scaffolding, and a French artisan repairing black lead strips between the panes on the right panel, which depicts guns and shells transformed into spades — Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled. The restoration represented a small gesture of hope, I thought, in a time of war.

After studying in the 1920s at the Bauhaus under Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, Ardon fled Nazi Germany to Jerusalem in 1933. In a letter he wrote three decades later to an Amsterdam museum director, he described the effect his adopted city had wrought on his art: “An odd thing happened on my palette: something foreign sneaked into the group of cadmiums, ultramarines and viridiums — it was Jerusalem — ascetic, with a sack over its head…. Sometimes it can be scared away and hidden behind the ivory black. But in vain — the next morning it settles down again in the midst of the cadmiums.”

Facing the windows, I resolved to wait, not with any kind of optimism but with the faith of the artisan and Ardon and ultimately Isaiah himself that Jerusalem may yet emerge from fear into the long-delayed, multi-hued illumination of its nine measures of beauty.

Still, if we are to attend not to the messianic future but to the messy present, this is not enough. Faith alone cannot accomplish this illumination, cannot redeem Jerusalem from a place in which no one feels safety and belonging to one in which everyone does.

What is required, I thought, is to be drawn out of a narrow self-love into the perspective of eternity. Why is the word of God said to go forth from here? Because divine teaching, like any law, is universal or it is nothing. Because, like Jerusalem herself, it only “works” when it belongs to all.

Later in the same letter, Ardon writes: “Jerusalem always gives orders: ‘Thou shalt,’ ‘Thou shalt not,’ like a black woodpecker Jerusalem keeps knocking on your bark — Thou, Thou, Thou. Thou and the orphan, Thou and the widow…. Thou and the oppressed.”

No coincidence, then, that the Bible registers Jerusalem as an ethical barometer: Act with virtue and compassion and the city will prosper; sin and it will suffer occupation and destruction.

Maybe to witness the beauty of Jerusalem is to take part in enlargement of self, in the humility that comes of seeing ourselves in the light of eternity. And to witness its suffering is to withdraw into self-regard and the long-practiced narcissism of our own all-too-real suffering.

Benjamin Balint teaches literature at the Bard College humanities program in Jerusalem.

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