Jerusalem: The place where faith and insanity converge

Jerusalem: The place where faith and insanity converge

Alex Galbinski speaks to Sarah Tuttle-Singer about her new book, exploring the diverse cultures of Israel's capital

Alex Galbinski is a Jewish News journalist

Jerusalem's iconic skyline
Jerusalem's iconic skyline

Sarah Tuttle-Singer’s ‘safe place’ is Jerusalem. More specifically, it is the Old City, where she makes connections with people all faiths and backgrounds.

In her first book, Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem, Tuttle-Singer, a blogger and online editor for Times of Israel, reveals its intricate, beautiful and complicated layers.

Tuttle-Singer fell in love with Jerusalem 20 years ago, aged 16. Her parents had sent her to Israel for two months with others from her native Los Angeles. She visited again over the next two years and, at 29, she made aliyah with her Israeli husband.

From childhood, her parents and her Reform Jewish community had imbued her with a love for her adopted country through stories and songs.

“We always talked about things as though they had happened to us,” she explains. “Just like at Passover when we say, ‘we were slaves in Egypt’, all my life the stories of our people have been told to me as if were there… weeping by the waters of Babylon, when the Temple was destroyed, in Auschwitz…”

While her parents weren’t strictly observant – indeed, Tuttle-Singer’s father is not Jewish –her mother, Maida, felt a “deep commitment to observing tradition” and they would attend synagogue on festivals.

Maida, who died of cancer when Tuttle-Singer was 23, had also told her stories about when she had been in Israel, between July and October 1967.

She must have loved something about the freedom to walk though those ancient streets in the Old City, to be soaked in history and a living example of the endurance of the Jewish people.”

Tuttle-Singer’s book reads like a love letter to Jerusalem, to the people of the Old City, to coexistence and, not least, to her late mother, whose painful absence she continues to grieve.

Her descriptions are vivid of the Old City’s winding streets, taking us along as she drinks coffee and eats kenafe with friends old and new, as she meets a fabric merchant whose cardamom-infused shop is sited above a crusader church, and watches groups of older men playing backgammon.

Tuttle-Singer feels a spiritual connection to the city that is at the heart of so many religions.

“I’m not a Torah Jew by any stretch, but I love God; it takes me by surprise how much that informs my sense of the world,” she admits.

“And it’s not a God that is mutually exclusive to Jewish people. Maybe it’s the idea of the God, the goodness, within all of us, to create and make things better, to reach out and build bridges.”

Yet for all its charm, history and warmth, Tuttle-Singer has suffered difficult times in the city (and country). She writes emotionally about being sexually assaulted, and physically attacked, and the repercussions.

The author in Jerusalem’s Old City. Credit: Ala Khalaily

“Like life, it’s complicated,” she explains. “It’s not always sunshine, rainbows, happiness and dreams, and there are very painful parts. I’ve gone through experiences that were haunting and gut-wrenching, but overall it is a love story, and I hope that’s what people walk away with when they read it.”

She surprised herself by continuing to live in the Old City after her year was up – she spends half the time in a place between the Christian and the Armenian quarters and half the time on a moshav with her two children, having separated from her husband a year after moving to Israel.

“Jerusalem is the love of my life. I’m madly in love with the Old City. I like who I am here, I like what I get to do here. It’s not easy, but I like the challenge. My heart is here.”

She thinks of herself as a mermaid, an “inside-outsider”, owing to her freedom to move between areas, never quite fitting into any one place.

The Old City is where, she writes, “faith and insanity overlap, where the streets are overrun with scorpions and the righteous, this is ground zero”.

It is where people live cheek by jowl, but rarely cross meaningfully into each other’s worlds, where “you can watch Palestinian kids dancing Darbuka and ultra-Orthodox kids going off to daven, and it’s beautiful and it’s sad, because they’re the exact same age and they pass each other, like the other is a ghost…”

How would she suggest crossing the boundaries? “Wanting to do it is the first step. Having very basic conversations to begin with, and building from there.

If one conversation can lead to a second, a third, that’s the beginning of some kind of relationship where trust is established over time. A lot of good things in life are not easy and part of the beauty of getting there is going through the challenge of taking those steps.”

The diversity of Jerusalem’s Old City is laid bare in the book

She humanises the ‘other’ and calls out the imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians.

“People say we don’t have a partner for peace, and we don’t – because a partnership is between equals and we are not equal.

“We have to get to a place where there is equality, otherwise there is going to be this imbalance, which only breeds resentment, fear, frustration and anger on both sides.”

Yet when asked whether she thinks there could ever be peace, she is optimistic. “Anything can change, and sometimes you’re building something stone by stone, and other times change can come in a tidal wave.

“I’m always hopeful that something will change and until we get to that point – and we may not get there in my life – I’m going to keep living as though it’s on the horizon. If we do that, I think we can bring that day that much closer.”

Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem by Sarah Tuttle-Singer is published by Skyhorse Publishing, priced £17.99. Available now.

read more: