Oh Jerusalem, it took me a while to really get you, didn’t it?
The first time I went to Israel, in 2006, I didn’t even go to Jerusalem. But I remember, as we were on the move from the Dead Sea to Tel Aviv, our driver stopped on a hillside road to allow us to look over the capital. As I gazed at the city that I would not visit, I felt a bit like Moses in Deuteronomy – but without such a heroic backstory.
When I went back to Israel the following year, we sizzled for a few days in Jerusalem. We arrived on my birthday and had an astonishing experience touring the Old City with a very witty Arab guide. It was only when I got unexpectedly drunk that night that I realised how scary it felt to be in the city. I could hardly believe I was there. I think a part of me had always suspected that Jerusalem, which I had read so much about, was a mythical, rather than actual, place. Yet there it was and so was I.
During the rest of the trip we ate hummus in the Arab quarter, wept at Yad Vashem and felt inspired at the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre. I rode a camel called Salem, too. It was all very exciting but it felt intense and strange when compared with Tel Aviv.
The third time I went to the Holy Land, in February 2010, I bussed it to the capital for a day. My friend Tal and I walked through the Kotel tunnels and prayed at the wall itself. Then we went to the Mahane Yehuda market and I seemed to get barged out of the way wherever I turned. All day, everywhere I looked there was another hat signifying another religion. It felt like a spiritual tinderbox just waiting to blow into something astonishing. I wanted to stay forever and I wanted to escape to Tel Aviv. I escaped to Tel Aviv.
But when I returned to Israel five months later, I stayed in Jerusalem for two weeks, sleeping in the apartment of a Rehavia family. This proved significant. Perhaps you haven’t really visited a city until you’ve slept in someone’s home in a residential area.
Over those two weeks, I fell head over heels in love with Jerusalem. I stood on the Temple Mount, went to Friday night service at the Kol Rina Synagogue, ate with Gilad Shalit’s family at their protest tent and stayed up late at various bars. I found my emotional and navigational bearings in the city. I discovered that, if you know where and how to look, it isn’t quite so different to Tel Aviv as tourist book clichés, with their love of ‘contrasts’, would have you believe. Consequently, I made so many new friends that when, on my final night, I was queuing to buy some fruit at a local store, I bumped into three different people I knew.
National Geographic have made a film about my beloved which, judging by the trailer, could be stunning. They will be showing it at Imax and other giant cinemas. Some will screen it in 3D. I’ll have to check it out when it comes to the UK.