It’s New Year’s Day in Jerusalem and if I tell you it’s raining, don’t get the idea that you know what this kind of rain is like. It’s a rain that bypasses whatever clothing you’ve got on, a rain that goes directly into your bones. There needs to be a special weather designation here, something like a wind-chill factor. You might simply call it the Jerusalem-chill factor. That’s when 43 degrees, (which is what the thermometer reads here today) feels more like 43 degrees below.
Every surface in this town is stone. There is limited central heating, no carpeting of any kind, and the only rugs I’ve seen are the size of bathroom mats. This morning the ancient metal window shades outside my bedroom were groaning on their rusty hinges in a fierce wind. Each time they slammed against the stone exterior of the apartment I’d rented it sounded like a bomb going off. Maybe it’s just that I’ve still got a bit of PTSD from having been here in the early 2000’s when there were actual bombs going off, but each time they hit I jumped up in bed.
One reads about this place so often that it’s hard to remember that people actually live here, hard to picture that there are normal people shopping for hand lotion or looking for the best eggplant to prepare for their evening meal. Hard to know that there are babies in strollers here, bundled up from the rain or dreadlocked twenty-somethings walking their dogs. And with all the bleak news reports coming from this storied city, it’s tough to imagine that if you stood next to the music academy, which is directly across from my kitchen, you’d hear the sound of children trying their best to perform their major scales on their trumpets and their violins on most any weekday afternoon.
I’ve come to believe that it’s sheer laziness that allows us to slide into the mistaken idea that humanity exists only in those who dress like we do, who think like we do, who eat like we do. I liken it to a sort of psychological entropy whereby, under a certain minimum threshold of effort, our minds cease to see the ‘other’ at all.
There is of course, a certain necessity in not seeing, (or so we presume) otherwise, how would we get through a day? This morning for example, with the rain and the Jerusalem-chill factor hovering at around negative 43 degrees, I came upon a man, clearly homeless, with his hand outstretched, looking for some charity.
My first instinct was to walk on by – to slide on by as it were – without him noticing that I’d seen him. It was raining after all, and I was freezing cold and rushing to buy some chicken legs for a matzo ball soup I was planning to make. And then, I caught myself actually doing the slide, that decent into laziness I’d just described. I saw how easy it would have been, and how beneficial it seemed to me to avoid this person altogether.
Knowing exactly how I felt was effortless. I was uncomfortable, even in my many layers of clothing, even with my winter hat on and my raincoat. Knowing how he must have felt with his torn shirt and legs exposed to the elements came less easily. I was forced into seeing something inconvenient, something disturbing. The choice was mine – ‘do I, or do I not, react to what I’ve seen?’
When I gave the man a few bucks, he wasn’t particularly thankful; he was just desperate for more. That’s where I took the slide once again. I gave him a nod and walked into the store to buy my chicken legs.
What I’m driving at is the mess of it all, the lack of balance, the missing symmetry that is life itself. Clean lines, pure pitch, perfect balance… These are things we long for, that we strive for, to order the chaos around us. But as we all know, chaos is overwhelmingly more prevalent than order.
Arresting the slide is an ideal and yet, the practice of trying is still well within our control. Seeing someone who is different – as a human being – isn’t poetic, it isn’t some act of grace, or thing of beauty; it has much more to do with simply choosing to live within a world of truth, rather than within a world of fiction.
I believe that in 2016, I’m going with the former.