Sacred Places: Real, or Do We Make Them Up?

In the second phase of my life my Jerusalem has been Jerusalem. I went to live in it in 1985, and continued to live in or near it for 21 years. Its stone buildings, pines, mountain air, incredibly soft, hushed dusks seeped into the inner terrain and conquered it.

Sometime in the late 1980s I read the brilliant book The Zionist Revolution by the late Israeli scholar Harold Fisch. Published in 1978, five years after the Yom Kippur War, it argued that, to give the Israeli people the necessary strength to cope with a hostile environment, Zionism needed to be an essentially religious phenomenon.

Fisch wrote that the word Zion—a synonym for Jerusalem and the land of Israel as a whole—had “inevitable overtones” and was “semantically charged.” It was for me an arresting observation. I couldn’t deny it: for me, there was no way Zion or Jerusalem could be a word like Boston or Dallas. It was charged with a different content.

Those few words by Fisch—they’re on page 26 of the book—crystallized for me more than anything else what I was doing there in Zion. They didn’t turn me into what’s called an observant Jew; but they confronted me with a question: “Is Jerusalem a place like other places, or is it infused with something else, something outside of time?”

Already by then, having lived in it for a few years, the answer was clear.