November 18, 2018

COVER STORY: Jerusalem Miracle

Three women, three Sabbaths and one tiny kitten that saves the day

The first time I fell in love with Jerusalem was on a rooftop overlooking the Old City.

A cliché, right?

Whatever. I was 16 and awestruck, and I just stood there in the fading light, the sky the color of a dusty ripe peach, while below me the Old City glowed like seashells washed up on the shore.

In the last rays of light, The Dome of the Rock shone molten golden, the Western Wall turned all pearly and the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre took on a deep silver against the sky. Little green lights flickered from various mosques as the sky darkened, but you could still see church spires reaching toward the sky and Israeli flags’ Star of David moving in the breeze. 

It was drop-dead gorgeous, this mosaic of faith, peoplehood, different ways of loving God and living on the land. And this was when I fell in love.

It’s a love that’s stayed with me, that inspires me every day to live in the Old City — inside the mosaic — and explore what it’s really like. 

Atop that little roof all the little pieces seemed to fit together, but the reality on the ground is much different. When it comes to actually living within the Old City’s walls, where time is marked by the muezzin’s call to prayer, the pealing of church bells and the Sabbath siren, the pieces often don’t come together. We who live here are like rocks in a rock tumbler. Sometimes our edges are jagged and rough and hurt one another. Other times we can come out shining.

I want to take you on a three-day trip I spent with the three faiths that left me bruised, baffled and heartbroken one moment, and reeling with joy and possibility the next.

I love faith, and I have a lot of it. I am the kind of Jew who gets that sweet and tingly feeling from my head to my toes when I sing “Shalom Alechem” on Friday nights. I love the words “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” I’m also the kind of Jew who believes that the things we have in common far outweigh the differences that divide us —  which is also why, even though living in the Old City is at times complicated, I still want to be here to see where there are ways to smooth the jagged edges.

But it isn’t all about the spiritual. Residing in the Old City means really and truly living in it, and getting to know my neighbors. We all buy eggs from Ahmed, bread from George and halva from Simcha; celebrating the good moments, mourning the difficult ones and worshipping side by side.

Sarah Speaking with a Nun | Photo by David Abitboul/Jewlicious

Weekends are especially interesting because we have three holy days, one after the other: Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians. When I think about sharing a story of what that experience is like, I worry it could be too simple — like just pulling three distinctive rocks out of the tumbler and describing each one. While each one is special and beautiful, I don’t want to do that.

Instead, I want to take you on a three-day trip I spent with the three faiths that left me bruised, baffled and heartbroken one moment, and reeling with joy and possibility the next. It was during the Temple Mount riots in July 2017.

FRIDAY
Jerusalem is seething. It’s a white-hot day and the air is thick and dusty. My friend Fadi and I are following the crowds of Muslim worshippers to Lion’s Gate, where thousands are praying outside the Temple Mount in an act of protest against the Israeli government for installing metal detectors and security cameras there after a terror attack a week earlier. Guns had been stashed on the Temple Mount and used by Palestinian terrorists to murder two Israeli police officers.

Fadi is a Muslim and Palestinian, and for him those are one and the same. He’s from Hebron, in the dusty hills southeast of Jerusalem. Walk out of Jaffa Gate, hook a left, keep walking and you’ll reach Hebron. That’s why in Arabic, Jaffa Gate is actually called “Bab Al Halil” — the Gate of Hebron. 

Fadi’s family lives in Hebron. He has a wife and three kids, but sees them only on his days off — Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The rest of the time he stays in Jerusalem because, he tells me, getting through the checkpoints is difficult, even with his work permit.

Fadi is angry and resolute about The Temple Mount closure. His fists are clenched. His eyes are fixed and determined.

“But,” I try to tell him, “every time I go to the Western Wall I have to walk through a metal detector. So what’s the problem?”

“It’s just one more humiliation we Palestinians have to endure,” he says. “That’s the problem.”

He stops and faces me.

Jaffa Gate/Hebron Gate | Photo by Sarah Tuttle-Singer

“Do you know what happened the last time I left Jerusalem? I rode with Tawfik — you know, my uncle. He’s an old man. He walks with a cane. He’s half blind. A woman soldier younger than his granddaughter came up to him and asked to see his permit. She looked at it, threw it back to him and said, ‘You have a curfew. You need to be back by 10 at night.’ My uncle! My respected uncle! And this is how Israel treats him. You can go through your little metal detectors at the Western Wall because you have all the power. Even our old men are treated like children — or worse, like animals.”

Our talk is interrupted. The call to prayer is coming from several minarets,  echoing off the walls of the Muslim Quarter. Each muezzin has a distinctive voice, and each one starts a few seconds before or after the other. One guy sounds like he may be from New Jersey, although he probably isn’t. Another sounds like he studied opera with Pavarotti. At times the sound is dissonant; at others, it is the most harmonious thing I have ever heard.

We get to Lions Gate in a throng of people. I’m wearing a long, black dress with a shirt over it. My hair is pulled back and wrapped with a black hijab. I’m wearing dark glasses. I’m not trying to “look Muslim,” I just want to blend in — to see, but not be seen.

What I see are three old women dressed in long, black Palestinian dresses embroidered with red thread. They’re yelling at the border police who stand looking grim and restless.

I see Muslim people handing out water bottles to Muslims; the Israeli soldiers and police pass water bottles among themselves. But again, like rocks in a rock tumbler, jagged edges grating against each other, no one really interacts. They just exchange wary glances.

Suddenly, I see a flurry of activity. The head of the Waqf (the Islamic religious trust that controls the Temple Mount) arrives. All around him men are chanting, “With fire and blood, we will liberate Aqsa!”

I see a guy I know shouting with them — he’s Fadi’s friend from the Muslim Quarter. How can he say these things? We’ve sat together. We’ve eaten hummus off the same plate. Fadi once told me that when you share hummus it means you can’t be enemies, but here we are.

We pretend not to see each other.

“Don’t worry,” an old man with a long, white robe and an even whiter beard says to me. “One day, Inshallah, everyone will accept the truth of Islam and then we can live in peace.”

The crowd quiets and the worshipers spread their prayer mats. Facing east toward Mecca, they kneel and pray. Then they rise, hands in supplication, eyes toward the heavens, lips moving.

“Allahu akbar” — God is great.

We walk up the stairs together, one by one — two lone soldiers, a yeshiva student, and a guy from Toronto who met another guy at the Western Wall who is cousins with the best friend of the hosts’ second-oldest son.

That’s how it works in the Old City.

I don’t pray with them. I’m not a Muslim, and it feels like it would be an invasion, especially now when tensions are high. I stay in the back while they pray. A young man with gelled black hair weeps. The sun beats down on us, and the air is thick with dust and sweat. In the silent spaces between each prayer utterance, there is only the buzzing of flies and the sound of traffic from down in the valley of Hinnom,  where the kings of Judah once sacrificed children — the Valley of Slaughter, the Valley of Hell.

After prayers are finished, Fadi and I walk together for a while, saying nothing. It’s way too hot to speak. In the distance, we can hear the protesters shouting again: “With blood, with fire, we will liberate Aqsa!” and “Death to the Jews.”

The sound swells around us and then — BANG! — a stun grenade explodes and sends hundreds of people running toward me. The same people who were chanting “Death to the Jews” only moments ago. The same people who were so angry. But now their faces are stricken with terror — eyes bulging, mouths pulled back into a rictus.

I have never seen such a thing and I am afraid too. I run with them, and in that moment alongside Fadi I am just as Palestinian as they are, or at least appear to be. I’m not, of course. I’m Jewish, and whoever fired that stun grenade did so with thoughts of protecting people like me. But now I am in this terrified mass of people, shaking with fear. If someone shoots us with rubber bullets, I, too, would be hit. We are all here, sweat dripping, fingers splayed, and I can smell my fear — like that of a wild animal: rotten and feral.

Oh God, we are so human, with our blood and our sweat and our stench from fear and yearning. We are so easily torn apart and broken, like corn husks left to dry in the wind.

Fadi and I lose each other in the river of people, and his phone is off when I call. So I circle back around the walls of the Old City, shivering outside the Valley of Hell.

FRIDAY NIGHT-SATURDAY
My little room has these big purple windows that look out onto the rooftops of the Old City. After my day at Lion’s Gate, I just want to hide and let the whip-whip-whip of the fan lull me to sleep. But I have Shabbat plans, and Shabbat is sacrosanct. 

As I walk through Zion Gate on my way to the place where I’m staying, I see beautiful families, pink-cheeked and dressed in their Sabbath finest, heading toward the Western Wall. The whole world smells like chicken soup and challah, and I feel a little better.

I’m still shaky from running from the stun grenade, and even though the incident happened just a 20-minute walk from where I am right now, it feels like it happened in another world. That’s what the Old City is like sometimes. We have our little communities behind the ancient stone walls and guilded doors. Only the cats seem to move smoothly between the worlds as they leap from windowsill to windowsill. 

I want a Shabbat Shalom more than anything else — a Sabbath of total and complete peace — although I don’t know how to feel whole right now in the middle of this brokenness all around me.

I get back to my little room with the purple windows and take a shower. The dust from Lion’s Gate runs off my feet in muddy rivulets.  I stand there for a very long time. 

I know the way to the house where I’ll be welcoming Shabbat. It’s right in the middle of the Jewish Quarter, near the playground. The courtyard is quiet, except for the birds, and the front door is open.

The host family is a special family that opens its home every week to anyone who requests a space at their table — travelers from far-flung places, seminary girls and yeshiva boys (maybe there will be a match!), and lone soldiers from all over the world. The hosts are strangers until you step into their glowing, little world. Suddenly you’re home and they’re your beloved aunt and uncle. The only caveat? You’d better be prepared to talk about the week’s Torah portion. 

“There’s a kitten trapped in the pipe,” he tells me. “Just a baby. We can hear him meowing.” He puts his hand on the guy hammering the pipe. “Stop. Let’s see if it’s still alive.”

There are a few of us who were invited. We walk up the stairs together, one by one — two lone soldiers, a yeshiva student, and a guy from Toronto who met another guy at the Western Wall who is cousins with the best friend of the hosts’ second-oldest son.

That’s how it works in the Old City.

Up three flights of gleaming marble stairs, we enter a room with huge windows overlooking the Old City. The table is covered with a white, hand-stitched tablecloth and laden with the best silver settings and china. The hostess wears all white with what appear to be real diamonds sewn onto her dress and turban.

She looks like a queen.

About a hundred candles already have been lit on a table near the window. It’s after sundown,  already well into Shabbat. In my head I hear my mother’s voice, saying as she did on every Friday night: “We welcome and honor Shabbat. May the warmth and calm of these flames bring us love, joy and happiness as individuals and as a family. We say the same words now the Jewish people have said for thousands of years and say tonight wherever they may live: Blessed are you, Eternal One, Ruler of the Universe, who commands us to light these Sabbath Lights.…”

Around the table the singing is joyful and rousing. The wine is dusky and the challah sweet. I ease into the night softly, buoyed by the joy around me — until I remember, with a prickle of fear down my back, how it felt to run with Fadi and the others from the stun grenade. I think about their nights over in the Muslim Quarter and in East Jerusalem while their community seethes, and how it must feel to be them right now.

And then the host — distinguished with his natty beard and black yarmulke — offers a prayer for the brave sons and daughters of Israel defending us in Jerusalem and throughout the land.

Everyone says “Amen” and takes a moment of silence to think about what is happening outside this room. I think about the border police and soldiers I saw today, how grim they were and how young they are. I think about the Muslim worshipers too — the old man with the long, white beard; Fadi’s angry friend; the young guy with the gelled hair who wept as he faced Mecca and prayed.

I think about Fadi too.

And then I think about how frightened I was running from the stun grenade. I feel my heart racing.

Shabbat-observant families don’t use electricity from sundown Friday until three stars shine in the new week’s sky on Saturday night, but I’m still a journalist, and I still work for a newspaper that publishes around the clock, and there are still riots throughout East Jerusalem, so I slip into the kitchen where four women from the Philippines who aren’t Jewish are serving the meal. This is allowed in Judaism. “I’m sorry,” I say, embarrassed, pointing to my phone. 

One of the women smiles and shows me where I can use my phone in the bathroom. I turn on my phone and one breaking news alert after another fires across the screen. The news is grim. 

I recall a family story that has been passed down from generation to generation — to my mother from her mother who got it from her mother:

There was a family — a father, mother and two children — and when the father was learning with the rabbi, the two children died. This was before the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day, when time slows and the world all around rests. The mother put her two children’s bodies in one of the back rooms, and when her husband came home and asked where the kids were, she said, “I’ll tell you about it when the Sabbath ends.”

The parents lit the candles and ate the festive meal. They prayed and sang and talked and laughed. And the following evening, when Shabbat had ended, only then did she tell him the truth about their children.

“Why didn’t she tell him sooner?” I asked my mother.

“She wanted to give her husband one last joyful Sabbath before he found out the terrible truth,” she told me. “There would be time enough for them to grieve.”

I’m thinking about this story as I’m crouching in the bathroom of this magnificent home in the Jewish Quarter, checking my phone. Because, while we were eating and drinking and singing and arguing about the Torah portion, there was a terrible news alert: A Palestinian terrorist burst into a family home during the Sabbath meal just an hour ago and butchered several people — how many isn’t yet known. At least one is dead.

That’s all I know. In Halamish — not far from this very house where people are celebrating and praying for the children of Israel — a family has been ripped apart and their blood is all over the kitchen floor.

I think about my mom and my family, and my children with their father, and I think about that story my great-grandmother passed to her daughter and to her daughter and to me.

So I turn off the phone and say nothing to diminish the Shabbat joy in the room.

As I walk home that night in the moonlight, through the streets steeped in Shabbat Shalom, I cry.

Saturday morning, I wake up angry. I’m angry at the Sheikh of the Waqf. I’m angry at the men I saw protesting in front of Lion’s Gate. I’m angry at Fadi. I’m angry at the whole stupid, rotten world. 

I read more about the murdered family. I picture them minutes before the attack, gathered around the table as we all were last night — singing, laughing, joking, trying to focus on the good.

In my little room with the purple windows, I can’t think about anything else. It’s eating at me like a nasty little worm. I can feel my anger atrophying into hate. And then I am afraid.

Without me thinking, my feet take me out of my room, down the stairs, past the spice market and through the shuk until I’m standing in front of the place where Fadi works in the Muslim Quarter.

I don’t say anything. I am too angry. I stare at him. He stares at me. Finally, he speaks.

“Tea?”

“Fine.”

We sit down at a rickety table and just stare at each other, daring the other to speak first. Why is he angry? I ask myself. How dare he be angry.

“Do you know there was a massacre in Halamish last night?” I ask him, practically spitting.

“And do you know that three boys were murdered protesting in East Jerusalem?” he asks me, his jaw clenched.

Again we say nothing. The air is dense like water. I want to hit him. I want to cry. His eyes are black pools.

“Why don’t you say you’re sorry?” I ask him.

“Why don’t you?” he asks me.

He pushes the glass of tea toward me. It smells like sweet rain.

And then I soften. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I know and trust Fadi, and I remember what he told me about his uncle. I remember, also, what it was like to run from the blast of the stun grenade, the sound echoing in my brain as I coughed from the smoke all around me. Maybe it’s because yesterday, on the Muslim holy day, I saw my fear reflected in his face and in the faces of his friends.

Maybe it’s because it’s Shabbat, when we are supposed to let go of our grudges and move into the new week with our arms and hearts wide open.

“Tell me about the boys who died,” I say.

He does, and it’s unbearable to hear. 

When Fadi finishes, he wipes the sweat and tears from his face and looks at me.

“Now you tell me about the family who died,” he says. 

And so I do.

It isn’t a Shabbat Shalom that Saturday in the Old City, but we’ve looked each other in the eye and told the truth about who we are and how we feel, and that feels one step closer to wholeness in the middle of all this brokenness.

Pilgrims in the Christian Quarter | Photo by Sarah Tuttle-Singer

SUNDAY
I’m walking with a group of pilgrims on the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A guy from Guatemala is strumming a guitar and singing with full-throated gusto. Another is waving a tambourine. The Old City isn’t as crowded as usual because of the protests around the Temple Mount, but there are still the streams of the faithful, carrying the cross, measuring each step that they say Jesus took along the Via Dolorosa — sorrow by sorrow — on his way to being crucified.

I love the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, how it smells, the flicker of the candles that the faithful light inside, the crosses carved on the walls made by the hands of pilgrims and crusaders. I like going there alone, even though it isn’t my sacred place, but it’s wonderful to be heading there with people really excited about going. Their eyes are shining with faith as they sing and pray and stop by each of the Stations of the Cross.

On this Sunday, this tiny kitten has been a bridge between those worlds — the guys from the Muslim Quarter, the Yeshiva students, the praying pilgrims.

Everyone seems most excited about the fifth station, where some believe an indentation in one of the walls was left by Jesus when he stumbled on his way to being crucified. Although, maybe the indentation is merely there because so many thousands — maybe millions — believe that was the spot; and so, day by day, year by year, they’ve helped make that indentation by placing their faithful hands against the stone.

I touch it. The stone feels warm.

As we keep walking up Via Dolorosa, the heat of the day around us, I hum along with the pilgrims’ hymns because I don’t know the words.

Between the sixth and seventh stations of the cross, there’s banging and clanging. It’s loud. Cacophonous. I remember the stun grenade and begin to shake.

But then I look around and see what’s happening. A group of Palestinian men, sweating and smoking, is huddled around a drainpipe. One has a hammer. There’s a nun too — one of the Little Sisters of Jesus — and she’s praying. A Muslim cleric, who I recognize from Lion’s Gate, stands to the side, his face is stricken.

There’s a guy waving his arms, directing traffic and yelling at the guy with the hammer.

“A little harder! No, not there! Hit the part that’s lower! Yes, that’s right! Give the man some space!”

He’s sucking on a cigarette, and the whole street is full of smoke — not just from him but from five other guys standing there too. Fadi is one of them.

“What’s going on?” I ask him. 

“There’s a kitten trapped in the pipe,” he tells me. “Just a baby. We can hear him meowing.” He puts his hand on the guy hammering the pipe. “Stop. Let’s see if it’s still alive.”

Three big men with their shirt collars unbuttoned, hair poking through and gold chains around their necks, put their ears against the pipe. One of them is the same guy who shouted at Lion’s Gate: “We will liberate Aqsa with blood and fire!”

This time, his tone is different. “The kitten is alive,” he says. “Praise God!”

“Praise the Lord!” one of the pilgrims replies.  

A group of Russian pilgrims stops and begins to sing. The nun crosses herself again. The guy from Guatemala with the guitar plays something loud and festive. The screw on the pipe comes loose and Fadi unfastens it. The man who’d been shouting about blood and fire cups his hands gently underneath the space in the pipe and takes out the tiny kitten. It’s gray like soot and not much bigger than a chicken egg. Its eyes are closed, not because of dust or dirt or out of fear, but because it’s only a few days old. It sneezes. 

“We can’t just leave him,” someone says. “He’ll die.”

“I can take him for a little while,” Fadi says, “but I have to go to Hebron next week, so someone will need to be with him then.” 

“May I hold him?” I ask.

The man I saw yelling at the riots places him softly, almost reverently, in my arms. “Be careful,” he tells me in Hebrew. “Watch his neck.”

I cuddle it.

“I have an idea,” I say.  As I caress this tiny little creature, I call a friend in Jerusalem who has about a million cats.

“Hey, what do I do with a newborn kitten with no mom?”

“Are you in the Old City?”

“Yeah, Muslim Quarter.” (In an area where most of my Jewish friends have never walked.)

“Call the Cat Lady in the Jewish Quarter. She rescues cats.”

I know about the Cat Lady. She’s a hero. When the British first brought cats to Jerusalem during the Mandate years, the cats took the whole “be fruitful and multiply” thing very seriously. Jerusalem is now overrun with cats. Many are hungry and most have no home. Bracha — the Cat Lady — wants to change that, so she sets traps for cats all over the Old City and takes them to be fixed. Then she releases them where she found them. She cares for the sick ones until they’re healthy.

Sarah on the roof where the four quarters of the Old City come together | Photo by Sarah Tuttle-Singer

My friend gives me the Cat Lady’s number, and I call her.

“Hello?”

“Hi, are you the woman who rescues cats?” I ask, while the tiny ball of fur snuggles against my chest. 

“Who wants to know?”

She sounds wary. I don’t blame her. She’s encountered problems with people in the Old City, and even with the police.

“I have this kitten that I found in the Muslim Quarter. He’s a newborn. Eyes are still closed. I don’t know what to do with him.”

“Well, you can feed him,” she says — like, duh, it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

“I can’t,” I repy. “He’s too young.”

“It isn’t rocket science,” she insists. “Get an eye dropper.”

“I can’t keep a kitten this young,” I tell her. “My life is too unpredictable.”

She heaves a long sigh that sounds like it comes all the way from Brooklyn.

“Fine, fine, I’ll take him,” she says. “Bring him to the main square in the Jewish Quarter and I’ll meet you there.”

She hangs up before I can thank her.

“Well?” one of the men asks.

“I know a woman who can take him,” I tell him. “She’s in the Jewish Quarter.”

“Oh, the Cat Lady? We know about her.”

The sweating, smoking men line up one by one to pet the kitten. The pilgrims too. The nun says a prayer. A few kids from the Muslim Quarter have come, too, and everyone wants to touch the tiny creature. 

Cradling the fragile little survivor, I hurry down Via Dolorosa and turn right onto Al-Wad / Ha-Guy Street — the street that connects Damascus Gate to the Western Wall, the street where Via Dolorosa intersects, the street where everything comes together. 

The Old City is densely packed. People live right on top of one another and, yes, they often buy their milk and eggs and bread from the same places. But the worlds of the Old City are divided too. 

On this Sunday, this tiny kitten has been a bridge between those worlds — between the blonde Swedish tourists, the guys from the Muslim Quarter, the yeshiva students, the border police, the Waqf guard, the praying pilgrims, the dude with the guitar, the laughing children, the priest, the imam, the rabbi … .

First, people see the kitten. Then, they see one another. 

That thought hits me in a flash, and I feel warm all over.

The kitten purrs and nuzzles against me.

I stop hurrying. As I walk more slowly down the street, people from all faiths and walks of life approach me to touch the gentle, innocent creature in my arms. Only minutes before, its situation was dark and uncertain, with apparently no way out.

 “Where did you find the kitten?” a border policeman asks.

“He was rescued by some guys in the Muslim Quarter,” I tell him.

“Where are you taking him?” a Muslim-Palestinian kid asks.

“I’m taking him to the Jewish Quarter.”

As I reach my destination, tears are streaming down my face. In the epicenter of everything that makes up the Old City -— where tension thrums, where the pieces all seem broken, where we lose perspective on how life could and should be, and where we tumble against one another without ever really connecting — some days we need a miracle to keep us going.

And some days we just get really, really lucky — and we get one.


Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem.”