The Keys to Jerusalem
In my purse, I always have one key that I cherish the most. I have had it for a number of years now, and to me it is not just a key. From just a home. It is a key to the heart of Jerusalem.
Having a key to somebody’s home is always an intimate experience and can bring out a lot of underlying fears and emotions, in both the owner and the recipient. Suddenly you have the power and the trust to open the door at any time. You have become a part of the inner circle.
It can feel overwhelming, it can be too much. I once nearly had a nervous breakdown over keeping someone’s keys overnight, it felt as if they were burning in my pocket, and I could not explain why. Of course, the fact that I was in love with that person (something I wouldn’t admit even to myself over the pointlessness of it), but having the keys was merely an accident, could shed some light on that particular episode.
The sentiment is easily explainable by our cultural connotations. The symbolism of the keys to the kingdom, the keys given to St Peter (and figurative keys at that!), the key of the House of David from Isaiah 22, the keys of Death and Hades in Revelation, or the keys to the city given by the conquered to the conqueror – is all about delegation of power and trust.
And the fact that somehow I ended up with a key to a private home in the old city of Jerusalem still remains a mystery to me – and one of the greatest gifts
Think about it. When I was growing up, I was convinced I would never leave the Eastern bloc for the “free life” in the West. My parents traveled, my mother even went to Japan, but it was a hard-won privilege of a scientist. After the collapse of the Soviet Union we all became free to travel, and I didn’t much care how – working with children, in a bar, as an adult entertainer, and everything in between – as long as I got to regain some control over my life and finally be free. And the Bible I started reading as a child (in an atheist home, my first Bible was a gift from American missionaries), and the history books I read – all kept telling me about Jerusalem.
The Room of the Last Supper. The Mount of Olives. The Garden of Gethsemane. The Holy Sepulchre. The Via Dolorosa. The Western wall. It was the world legends were made of, the world of songs and sermons and books, but not anything real. When I first came to Jerusalem, I was terrified of walking in the old city after dark. I saw soldiers talking to Orthodox Jewish men and thought this was like a movie. But at the same time, I could see the Garden of Gethsemane from my roof. I thought I was going insane (Later, the guard at the Room of the Last Supper would brew me coffee and the guards at the Western Wall would ask me out – for some reason it seemed pretty normal by then).
I could never think we’d be friends when we met five years ago. Not enemies exactly, but I was a European left-wing Catholic working with Arabs and Catholics in a Muslim Quarter, and Tova was an Orthodox Jew. Like, real Orthodox. Wearing a skirt. Praying. Keeping kosher. To me, this was a world away. Literally, a world. Culture difference? Age difference? Oh please, this was like year 1500 meets the 21st century. They think we’re idolaters and they think we think they killed Jesus. And probably even me coming into the house would make it unclean. I was sure it would.
But then again, our first conversation was about prayer. And Tova said she could take me to pray at a special spot in the tunnel under the Kotel. And oh I was so shocked and amazed that I could discuss prayer with a Jew! I even had a diary entry about it. Because all my life, all my praying life, well… I thought the Jews needed to be taught prayer.
And Tova took me to that special spot – where I would come to pray many a time afterwards. But that very first time, I will never forget. Because it was then and there that time and space ceased to exist and God spoke. And it was magic. I just stood there, grabbing the railing because I was afraid to fall, and went in for the ride. Because when God speaks, all you can do is listen and go for the ride…
Tova introduced me to paradox in this way. It was something that could not be reconciled with what I used to believe in, and thus I either had to go insane and get a Jerusalem syndrome or to admit that God was bigger than my idea of him. Perhaps also, Tova introduced me to the paradox of Jerusalem. Her home was always open and her friends became my friends. They, too, became part of Jerusalem for me. The city kept pushing my limits and concepts every day, until I finally cracked. I looked into the mirror, and I laughed and I cried, and I said “I know who I am. I know who I am!” (And no, I didn’t really at the time… The remaining years in the country would make sure I would, though. I am surprised I’m still alive). I left… no longer left-wing, no longer staunch Catholic… Actually, I had no idea what I believed in any more. But as my friend said, you lost a religion – but you found faith.
Tova gave me a key to her home and never asked for it to be given back. And with the key, she let me into her heart, her home, her life, her religion and the tradition of her people, unlike anyone else I have ever known. For her, there was no age difference or culture difference or lack of time or lack of commitment. The people I met through her have changed my life. The opportunity she had given me, by being able to come and go as I pleased in the holiest place in the world is matchless and beyond words. Never in my previous life had I dreamt that I would have the keys to Jerusalem – the place of my longing and prayer, but never the place I had hoped to live in. And yet this was exactly what I was given. The keys to the heart of Jerusalem.
True, I was willing to accept them. Not everyone would. Some would ask for more, some would ask for less, it may not be appropriate or adequate or the right time or the right place. But in truth, accepting this key has been my greatest gift. And as I leave for the New World with it, I know I will always have Jerusalem at my back. I cannot imagine what or who else may one need…