An old, yellowed copy of Saul Bellow's To Jerusalem And Back: A Personal Account from 1976 couldn't have been a better companion for my recent trip to Israel (courtesy of the Taglit/ birthright organization). So much of the landscape he describes hasn't changed:
The air, the very air, is thought-nourishing in Jerusalem, the Sages themselves said so. I am prepared to believe it. I know that it must have special properties. The delicacy of the light also affects me. I look downward toward the Dead Sea, over broken rocks and small houses with bulbous roofs. The color of these is that of the ground itself, and on this strange deadness the melting air presses with an almost human weight. Something intelligible, something metaphysical is communicated by these colors. The universe interprets itself before your eyes in the openness of the rock-jumbled valley ending in dead water. Elsewhere you die and disintegrate. Here you die and mingle. ...
The Western part of the Old City's sixteenth-century wall comes to an end in a narrow paved road. There is no reason this hill should have a voice, emit a note audible only to a man facing it across the valley. What is there to communicate? It must be that a world from which mystery has been extirpated makes your modern heart ache and increases suggestibility. In poetry you welcome such suggestibility. When it erupts at the wrong time (in rational context) you send for the police; these psychological police drive out your criminal "animism." Your respectable aridity is restored. Nevertheless, I will not forget that I was communicated with.
I was similarly moved in ways I'm still working to understand, but, like Bellow, the stunning beauty of the country led me to think even more of the political dilemmas that lurk in the shadows:
The slightest return of beauty makes you aware how deep your social wounds are, how painful it is to think continually of nothing but aggression and defense, superpowers, diplomacy, terrorism, war. Such preoccupations shrink art to nothing.
My trip was short, and I only befriended and travelled with eight young Israelis, who couldn't have been kinder. I've got neither the experience nor the expertise to understand the psyche of an entire people. I'm beyond grateful to know more and to have felt more (even if they were often conflicting emotions) than I had before. The day I returned home, the NYT reported on the recent spike in settlement developments. I've come away from my experience with a measure of sadness about how difficult the road ahead will be. More than thirty years after Bellow's journey there, his conflicting emotions and uncertainty about the way forward still resonate today:
The position is this: if we do not draw the line we will be dismembered. We must forget about political settlements and rely upon our strength. I don't know how much reality there is in this - little, I suspect. But there are no smooth alternatives. All of them are full of difficulty, vexation, heartbreak.
(Image by Flickr user premasagar)