45. Hearing Jerusalem

It is unavoidable. The sounds begin as early as 4:20 AM and last until midnight. I constantly hear Jerusalem.

I hear the Muslims of Jerusalem. Either the call to prayer or a recitation of a Koran surah begins at 4:20 AM and lasts until 4:25. Then I hear another Muslim reciting from 4:35-4:45. At times, these sounds are beautiful even when I don’t know what is being chanted. At other times, I grimace and cover my ears because the minaret 100 feet from Ecce Homo has a very bad PA system!

I hear the Jews of Jerusalem less. As I walk near the Damascus Gate, I hear them whispering prayers. The sound may come from an orthodox Jew making his way casually to the Western Wall; the sound may come from an ultra-Orthodox Jew who rushes to the Western Wall so that he will have as little contact as he possibly can with the goyim, the non-believers such as me as a Christian. If I had attended a Jewish Pesach service, I would have heard Jews reading the Tanak and singing songs. As Debbie Weissman said to us at Tantur, “If I had to choose between a Pesach meal with good food or one with good singing, I’d always choose the one with good singing.”

Of course, I hear the sounds of Christians this Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, the procession from Bethpage to the Old City’s Lion Gate was filled with sounds of singing and instruments such as tambourines, guitars, and trumpets. On Good Friday, we sing “Remember Me, O Lord” and “Kyrie Eleison” at the service of the Veneration of the Cross. On Easter Sunday, I hear “Christ is Risen” in English. But, I also know, or at least suspect, that I hear “Christus Afhnfi” in Coptic, “Christos Vaskrse” in Russian, “Christus Resurrexit” in Latin, and “Christo Recucito” in Spanish.

I hear other sounds than religious sounds. While I find it hard to believe, I can even hear at sunrise the cooing of pigeons, the chirping of other birds, and the cock crowing at Ecce Homo in the Old City. I’ve heard the voices of young and old shouting as loud as they can and their voices amplified by bouncing off the stone streets and walls. I’m sure their voices could be heard a mile away, if other voices weren’t also shouting just as loud! I hear tour guides, priests, and Israeli soldiers saying some version of “Hurry!” “Move faster” “Avante! Avante!” I hear stall owners saying “Looking is free. Come inside and have a look.”

There are some sounds that I don’t hear as much. In India, I became an expert detecting which horns belong to which size and type of vehicle. In Jerusalem, I don’t hear the constant, ear-splitting, blaring horns. In India, I would also hear the beautiful sounds of the sitar or the enchanting hymns of bhakti devotees and swamis. In Jerusalem, I don’t hear the same type of melody or instruments. I know which country by its sounds.

Jerusalem can give one “cultural vertigo.” As I mentioned in a blog at the outset of my sabbatical, I knew that I wanted to pay attention to my senses and what they divulged. As I work through the “cultural vertigo” of Jerusalem, I find that it is helpful, as Buddhism teaches, to be aware of my body. In being aware of my body, I can return to basics. My ears and my fingers help me make sense of some features of Jerusalem’s “cultural vertigo.” Although there is more to Jerusalem than what I hear or touch or see, I know that these senses allow me access to that higher sense of Jerusalem. Later, I can begin to put together in my understanding more of the many experiences and meanings of Jerusalem.

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