When we first met, my wife asked me to join her in Jerez, Spain, where she wanted to spend two weeks studying with one of the best teachers of flamenco. There was no room at the fancy hotel where the rest of the students were staying, so we ended up at a cheap pension in the rough part of town. It was a ramshackle old building with a chessboard marble floor in the lobby and a worn banister running up in elegant oblongs to ever dingier flights near the skylight. The room was small, we left the windows open at night, and that was when, amid the noise and the cats yowling and the smashing of glasses, we heard the singing.
The songs wafted up long after midnight. What were they about? I couldn’t tell you; I don’t speak Spanish. My wife does, but she maintains that it’s impossible to translate canto jondo, which literally means “deep song.” What makes it so haunting is the tone, the cry, the mournful, lamenting attitude of the singer. It’s easy to make fun of, and afterward we did, composing pseudo-laments like “And the cheese/the cheese on my toast it was melted/but the crust/the crust on my toast it was hard”—another instance of what’s lost in translation. But if you’d heard those street people singing outside our window in the early morning just as the heat started to give way to a cooling breeze, it would have stirred your blood.
That is what the kinot—Hebrew dirges sung on Tisha b’Av—reminded me of the first time I walked into a synagogue on a kibbutz in Israel and heard them being sung just after the chanting of Eikhah, the biblical book Lamentations, which is the greatest kinah of all. How could Jerusalem have been destroyed? How could the Almighty have done that? What is this life about, anyway?
The city of many peoples—like a widow,
The minister of nations become a tributary.
Weep she shall weep at night
And her tear on her cheek hangs
She has no comforter
Of all her lovers;
All her friends betrayed her,
And became her foes.
Judah was exiled through want
And from the weight of the labor.
She sat among the nations and found no rest,
All her pursuers overtook her
Between the straits.
The roads of Zion are mournful
Bare of pilgrims
All her gates are desolate
Her priests groaning, her virgins sad
And she too is bitter.
Her persecutors have become great
Her enemies are tranquil
For God made her suffer for all her crimes
Her whelps went captive before the foe.
And there went from Zion’s daughter all her diadem,
Her ministers became like deer that found no grass
And went off weak before the poacher.
Jerusalem recalled in the days of her wandering
All her delights that had been in days of old
How her people fell in the hands of the foe
And no one helped her,
Her enemies saw her
And laughed at her being stilled.
Jerusalem sinned a sin
That is why she became an exile
All who respected her despised her
For they saw her bare.
She too groaned and recoiled,
Her stain is on her skirts
She did not remember her conclusion
And she fell miraculously,
There is no one to console her.
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Hear ye all the nations
And see my suffering
My maids and lads
Have gone in chains.
I called those who loved me
They deceived me:
My priest and elders
Starved in the city,
For they searched for food for themselves
To restore their souls.
Look Lord how I am sorry
My guts have sizzled
My heart has overturned in me
For I raised a rebellion.
Without, the sword has severed sons,
The house within is like a prison.
They heard me for I groan
There is none to comfort me. . . .
After Jerez we went on to Cordoba, where Jews, Muslims. and Christians once briefly coexisted, and where you can see a bust of Maimonides and the street where his family lived, as well as a bust of his Cordoban contemporary, the Muslim philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd). The house is now a museum of paper. The last room is, inevitably, a gift shop, and there I met the owner, a woman in her sixties, Middle Eastern, with her hair covered, Mrs. al-Faroukhi.
There was a leather bag there, amid the bric-a-brac. I asked the price. She told me, and I was astonished. It was a lovely, square leather satchel the size of a mailman’s pouch but lined with silk and with Arabic lettering hand-carved on the flap. I asked her what it said, and she replied that Allah would bless the bearer, or something benign like that. She told me it had not been made to sell but for herself. But, beautiful as it was, it was too heavy for her to carry. “I am an old woman,” she said, and this was a bag for a young man. And so we haggled, very gently, not actually talking about price.
Somehow or other we got onto Jerusalem and the fact that her family had owned warehouses there along the main road. She said anyone who lived in Jerusalem knew those warehouses. My eyes lit up and I asked her if she knew my great-grandfather’s warehouse in Jerusalem. “Your great-grandfather?” Yes, I said, my father was born in Jerusalem, and I was the tenth generation on his mother’s side.
“Your father was born in Jerusalem after 1948?” she said.
“No, before. He was ten years old in 1948.”
Now she was confused. She had come to like me, and I liked the bag, and since we had been speaking English she thought I was British. Now suddenly I had a father born in Jerusalem. I didn’t tell her that in 1967, hours after the IDF entered the Old City, my father could be found happily rummaging around his former haunts in the Arab market and running afoul of the patrols who had barely secured the Western Wall and certainly didn’t want sentimental unarmed tourists under their feet, potential hostages.
Mrs. al-Faroukhi agreed on a price and waved me away—she liked me, she saw I would appreciate the bag, and she didn’t want to prolong discussion of my father and Jerusalem. So we paid and I took the bag and then sat on the old wall in the square in Cordoba as the sun set and my wife went for a walk.
It is a beautiful bag and there is nowhere like Cordoba. Perhaps Jerusalem has the same mix of timeless stone and peace and reverberating spiritual depth, but in Jerusalem the depth is filled with echoes of violence. In Cordoba the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews have all left their faces on the stone, and the stone wears them all in peaceful, rippling succession. In Jerusalem you can always hear the beat of hooves or screams coming or going.
As I sat there in the setting light a terrible dread fell upon me. What if it all went wrong, what if this bag, this trip, ended unhappily? What if this bag was a memento of some happy time and in the end would be a memento of every place I’d been happy but could never go back to again? I made a prayer to God, in English if memory serves. I prayed for myself and my wife and for the peace and safety of Jerusalem. Then I got up off the wall and took the bag and greeted my returning wife and we went home. And every time I carry the bag to Jerusalem or anywhere else, I think about Mrs. al-Faroukhi and that sunset, about what we carry with us, and about what baggage is.
And so far God has answered my prayer and my Jerusalem is not destroyed. I do believe I can still go back there. It is not destroyed.
To the daughter of Zion
Throw from heaven to earth
The glory of Israel
And not remember His footrest
On the day of His wrath?
The Lord swallowed and did not spare
All the fields of Jacob,
Ruined in His rage
The strongholds of the daughter of Judah:
He brought to earth and despoiled
Her kingdom and ministers,
Lopped off in His rage
All the horn of Israel
He drew back His right hand
From before the foe
And burned at Jacob like the fire of a flame
As it ate all around.
He drew His bow like a foe
Stood at His right like an oppressor
And killed all that the eye adored
In the tent of Zion’s daughter
He poured His fury like fire:
The Lord became like a foe
And swallowed up Israel
Swallowed all her palaces
Savaged His own strongholds
And made much of weeping and wailing
He pruned His Temple like a garden
Savaged His sanctuary
The Lord made Zion forget Sabbaths and feast days
And cursed in His wrath king and high priest
The Lord deserted His altar, despised His temple
Betrayed to the hand of the foe
Its fortresses and palaces,
They raised their voices in the house of God
As if it were a feast day.
The Lord resolved to destroy
The fortress of Zion’s daughter
He drew a line
And did not draw back His hand from ruin
And brought mourning on fence and fortress
All together were miserable. . . .
My wife recently went to Berlin for the first time. She found it disturbing. I’d first been to Berlin long before I ever met her, in 1985, when it was split and the eastern part was still a gray echo from the past. I remember walking through underground passageways devoid of color where people took care not to be seen breaking into a trot in a public place. The streets weren’t much different, all still in the hues and designs of the cold-war 60s.
Today the wall is down and my wife says, “It was disorienting.”
“Why? The sense of the past?”
“No. It reminds me of Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem, where every inch of space is being built on. Jerusalem, where you constantly feel the driving need to tell a story: “For a long time this wasn’t ours, it was a place that people told stories about. But I’m telling you now what the story is: we will build it.”
“All that,” my wife says, “is going on in Berlin, too, as they rebuild the eastern part and make it disappear.” But in between, there’s the ghost of the war-torn city; here and there, it winks out of the gleaming spires and says, “I’m still here.” In Jerusalem you have not a half-century but thousands of years peeking out, but the aim of the building is the same, to say, “This is ours now, again. We will never lose this again.”
I do not pretend to know what will happen to Berlin. I do not pretend to cast, as Macbeth’s doctor is invited to do, the waters of a country. In Israel’s case, and in Jerusalem’s, the biblical tea leaves are clear: Jerusalem fell because it was corrupt; both private and public morals were rotten. But today I rejoice in being able to live in Jerusalem. I love the stone, I love the hills, I love walking with my daughter on the Sherover Promenade that overlooks what was no-man’s land in 1948, as well as the glory of the al-Aqsa mosque gleaming gold on the Temple Mount, impossibly beautiful and heartrending in the morning silence.
But for those who speak confidently of the beginnings of redemption, I recall the philosopher Santayana’s warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As I write these words and bombs are falling on my relatives in Tel Aviv and friends in Jerusalem but somehow failing to explode and kill them, thanks to the new technology, I remember that when I translated this lament, this Eikhah, what I heard in my ear were the kinot in that synagogue on a kibbutz in Israel, and the lament of the canto jondo in the streets of Jerez, and—who knows?—perhaps the lament of the blues that made their way across America, feeding the deep song into English. This is the song of when the world ends, this is the blues when God destroys the world.
Jerusalem is not yet destroyed.
Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. His previous essays in Mosaic are “The Preacher’s Air” (on Ecclesiastes), “Esther in Des Moines” (on the book of Esther), “The Love of Their Youth” (on the Song of Songs), and “Thomas Hardy in Judea” (on the book of Ruth), all accompanied by original translations.