As I stood atop the Mount of Olives watching the sun set over Jerusalem several years ago, I had difficulty believing I was actually there. For a working class kid who’d only ever been to Canada before (and only because we lived not too far from Niagara Falls), this was a moment like a scene from the Bible itself. Jerusalem is a city of myth and dream, and it represents just how seriously mythology may be taken. A new book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll, was reviewed in Sunday’s newspaper. I have not yet read the book myself, but a couple of lines from Tom Mackin’s review leapt out at me: “Jerusalem is as much a symbol as a reality. Because most Orthodox males spend their time studying the Torah, they are unemployed. Piety brings poverty.” This is editorializing with parsimony.
Those of us raised to believe that pursuit of the highest calling of humankind is that of seeking the divine often end up forced to live the consequences. This pursuit does not pay, unless one is willing to sell one’s soul to become a televangelist. Unemployment has a way of sharpening one’s focus. The message repeatedly heaped upon you by society is that you have nothing of value to contribute. True, religious founders often declare the ineffectual satisfaction of lucre, but then, most of them didn’t have a child to put through college. Having spent nine years after high school studying the Torah (and Prophets and Writings and documents written long before any of this), I see now what could not be seen then.
When I watched the sun set over Jerusalem with some friends, a stray cat wandered over, looking for affection. Or, more likely, food. I had some scraps that I shared with the hungry kitten when it unexpectedly bit my finger and scampered away. My friends, concerned for rabies or some other infection, rushed me down the Mount of Olives and into the Holy City seeking a holy pharmacy. Little did I know at the time that a myth was being enacted at the expense of my aching finger. Acts of kindness are rewarded with the hand that feeds being bitten. I had to come down from the mountain, earn a doctorate, and be dismissed by well-groomed evangelicals before I could finally see that the symbol was the same as reality. I need to read this book to restore my faith in mythology.