Sacred Places: Real, or Do We Make Them Up?
In the first phase of my life my “Jerusalem” was a pond. It lay along the golf course in Clifton Knolls, a development near which I grew up. (It was in the town of Clifton Park, New York. You can see the pond here down on the left.)
For the wild bunch I hung out with in my teens, the golf course was a haven—at night. The cops—though their cars roamed the streets of the development assiduously, the bright beams splitting the night—almost never bothered with the golf course. You could get drunk out there under the stars, feeling the world was yours, spacious, endless.
That wasn’t, though, what made the pond a sacred place. That happened later at night—past midnight, when the silence out there was total except a sound a frog made like a bass string being slowly, pensively plucked. This was something even more clandestine than the drinking with the buddies; it involved sneaking out of a bedroom window, a tryst at a street corner, and making our way in the darkness to the “place by the water” (a paraphrase).
This went on for a few weeks during one of the summers. In an adolescence bedeviled by shyness and frustration, I had somehow found someone to go there with, alone. The magnificence, for me, of the intimacy; the beauty of the setting—breezes rustling the leaves along the pond—all this was overwhelming. The girl went away; I never understood why, until e-contact with her—over the past couple of years—provided some clues.
But the memories did not go away. A sort of religion of the pond—of itself, without my prompting—formed in my mind: the deep, ineffable tranquility, the sense of a different dimension, secluded, peaceful, and final. In the coming years I would drift back to it often.
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.
It has taken another twenty-five years or so to start to see what links the pond and Jerusalem.
Perhaps, since the differences are so vast, it’s not surprising that it’s taken so long. On the one hand, a lonely, poetically sensitive kid responding to some stolen hours “by the water.” On the other, a city whose name resonates through history and major religions like no other.
But just as one could say that the lonely kid imposed a significance on the pond, one could say the ancient Israelites did the same with the mountain town. Just a pond beside a golf course, like so many others; just a city, perhaps with some nice effects of color, light, and mood, like so many others.
Or, one could say that certain places have qualities that allow us to be touched by the transcendent, and so become “holy places” for us. That those qualities inhere in the places already, and aren’t something we invent.
True, my pond is not considered a “holy place”—but I doubt that many people have known its more intimate self as I have. As for Jerusalem, it’s been having that effect on many people for a long time, and it keeps having it.