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Falling in love with the world’s hottest real estate

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Falling in love with Jerusalem was the last thing Sarah Tuttle-Singer could have imagined. However, the love story that would unfold between this American-born writer and the ancient Jewish city proves that their match was ordained from the start.

A journalist and the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered, Tuttle-Singer shared her story at eLimmud2 this past Sunday, 25 October. It began in the first summer she spent in Israel at the age of 16 in 1997. Raised in Venice Beach, California, today she lives in Israel with her two children and has made it her mission to come to grips with what it really means to live in the Jewish capital.

“Going to Israel was the last thing I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to hang out at the pool, go to the movies, and to the mall. But my parents had another idea, and I remember the afternoon my mother called me into her office.

“I walked in and saw her sitting at her old library desk, drinking her coffee, and smoking a cigarette. She said, ‘Sarah. Sit down.’ I wondered what sin of mine she’d found out about, but then she said, ‘I’ve decided it’s time for you to go to Israel, experience your roots, and meet the people who are your family.’”

Such a trip wasn’t a priority for her daughter, in spite of having grown up on stories of her mother’s travels in Israel in 1967, involving camels walking through Damascus Gate and the smell of rose water and the peals of church bells in the Jerusalem markets. But her mother remained adamant.

Her intuition proved right.

“I fell in love,” said Tuttle-Singer. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to explain why I kissed a mezuzah on the side of the door or explain why I didn’t eat shrimp tempura. It was the first time all the pieces of my identity came together, and it all made sense. I stood on a rooftop overlooking the Old City, and I fell in love. I felt at home.”

Tuttle-Singer swore she would return on aliyah, knowing that Israel was where she belonged and that the root of her belonging was in Jerusalem. She returned for brief subsequent visits, feeling connected to Jerusalem and its people, believing this was where she ultimately belonged. However, it didn’t occur to her that things weren’t as positive as they appeared.

“One night, I took a walk in the Old City, and ended up at the Damascus Gate,” she recalled. “I was standing there having a fantasy moment, and I suddenly felt a searing pain in my head and neck. I touched my head and my hand was sticky with blood. The pain hit, and I realised that someone had been throwing stones at me. I was terrified.

“I was standing there covered in my own blood. I ran headlong into the Muslim Quarter, and found myself surrounded by loud and scary Arabic, jarring sounds, and my senses were bouncing. I found two border police officers, they walked me out, and I sat at Jaffa Road and cried.

“I thought I’d never go back again.”

In spite of returning to America, Tuttle-Singer married an Israeli, and while they led comfortable lives in Los Angeles, they resolved to make aliyah. Plagued by fear and doubt, however, she was reluctant to leave the safety of home and return to Israel with her husband and two children. Still, she resolved to rediscover her love for Israel but chose to stay away from the Old City.

Reeling from a breakdown in her marriage and subsequent divorce, it wasn’t until colleague and journalist Avi Issacharoff convinced Tuttle-Singer to venture back into the ancient quarters that she slowly reignited the passion of her youth.

“My heart was in my throat, and I felt sick to my stomach,” she recalled. “It was my first time back in 15 years, and the last time I had been there was I hurt.” Tuttle-Singer gradually overcame her trauma, and with the help and care of local residents, rediscovered her love of Jerusalem.

“I slowly realised that I wanted to live in the Old City, to go into it as deeply as I could and be part of it,” she said. “I divided the year into four parts, just like Jerusalem is divided into four, and I wanted to be part of each community.”

Over time, Tuttle-Singer engaged with people across the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters, and came to a realisation.

“This is the hottest piece of spiritual real estate in the world,” she said, “and we’re afraid to look each other in the eye in spite of being in love with the same space. I resolved to go into the city again to see beyond the borders and the fear that divides us.”

While her experience has blended uplifting spiritual moments with physically frightening ones, Tuttle-Singer said that she learned the importance of connecting with others based on a shared love of the ancient city.

“I learned that you can have a treaty between governments, but unless people live by the treaty, it’s meaningless. We won’t live by it unless we know each other, unless we take steps to begin having conversations, it will never happen.

“One conversation may not change the world, but if it leads to more conversation, you have a friendship, and that can become a basis for positive change.”

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