Memories make possible flickers of hope for Jerusalem

Has Jerusalem deserted her? Are the changes tenuous in her mind, only real for this moment in history?

Changes like waking up weary after a night of love to find herself aging, flesh crinkled about the chin. All the glaring imperfections of daylight, the realities of late 20th century living: intrusions of technology, materialism, factionalism, the ordinariness of what could be extraordinary — provided she live outside historical time, not in the space her body currently inhabits.

Who can keep the myth alive? Surely not she, who visits Jerusalem every few years, trying not to see with the eyes of a tourist but with those of the inhabitant she once was, one with a young family who had come to Israel in 1967 and had finally learned to laugh at her own naiveté about the amenities of daily living and the possibilities of a lasting peace.

She'd once been an English teacher at the oldest kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, astonished at the number on the arm of the cook that would not wash off in harsh suds; astonished at the lack of competition among students; at the turtle dove that freely flew about the communal dining room. On long school holidays according to the calendar, she discovered Jerusalem.

True, she remembers those historical wanderings that brought her closer to the din of davening, the chime of church bells, the call of the muezzin, unlike the secular settlement where she'd lived.

She remembers an unreal mauve sunset; a single Jerusalem street vendor, his cart of pretzels wrapped with plastic, and how he hummed an unexpected niggun on wet nights before its alleyways were dotted with dark Ethiopian faces and light Russian ones.

She remembers the young German Lutheran woman minister of the Church of the Holy Redeemer; she remembers a bus ride filled with sounds of a Yemenite father crooning to his infant; and a tiny pension, where the Moroccan cleaning woman called her "mutik" (sweety).

She remembers, too, her students who taught her to identify birds and plants, and words to children's rhymes in Hebrew: yellow warbler, stork, butterfly. Surely their names are similar in Arabic — so many are. Surprises that moved her more than holy sites.

But that intimacy has waned. Thirty years later, a new generation, one she does not know, has arisen. The lover grows disillusioned; the present intrudes on the past; parking garages, bureaucracy, hatreds — large and small, inflation, unemployment, soiled linen, pollution, an impossible assassination, materialism overlying a foundation for fear the country remain "Levantine" — obscuring legacies that lurk beneath walls and terraces of stone.

Which of them is true?

Across oceans and continents, another day dawns in America with its enticements, and the latest news of Jerusalem simply portrays one more troubled spot on the globe, about which her current students know nothing, one she can't begin to explain and rarely tries.

Instead, the staged voice of commentators leap from greed to corruption to the next cunning commercial. Jerusalem, just another city in a country where every kind of violence is possible: where 12-year-old kids returning from a Tel Aviv theater are blown up at a local bus station, where Arab kids get caught in crossfire and learn to breed hatred: a violence from which no citizen can shield herself.

This morning, the news obscures history: Centuries pile up but do not quite come alive at the Wall of Stones; at the costly shops in the Old City's Cardo; even if she stings with memory of Ammunition Hill, of Ein Kerem, where her brilliant, red-haired cousin, a young professor of psychology, had lived and taught and had first written to her in daring, calligraphed pen that she too must come to Israel, become the maverick persona of the 1960s' American Jew.

But her cousin has died; her closest Israeli friend, an English teacher with a love for Shakespeare and deep red lipstick, has died; the one Arab teacher she'd known has fled the country; and the bearded men in black who guard the Wall pray only in their way of European shtetls, not her own.

Still, if she could set aside her obligations and enter another dimension of time and place, wrap a many-colored cloth about her head, learn to tie it in perfect knots, and immerse herself in study, simply for study's sake — not to pray like the men — nor to change minds or borders, but merely to take what she can from the past, and offer what she can to the present, then perhaps she can revive her memory of love — and with it, the understanding that when she least expects it, the impossible can still happen in earthy Jerusalem — the smallest, unrecognized miracle.