Longing for Jerusalem

A masterful look at the paradoxical city on a hill coveted by so many through the ages, often with violent results

(Thomas Fuchs)
By David M. Shribman
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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O Jerusalem! Home to the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the hill of Calvary, the tomb of Adam, the Ethiopian Monastery, the Latin Patriarchate, King David’s Tomb — and that’s only a partial list. Some 30 denominations call it home, 15 languages are spoken there, employing seven alphabets. What a rich stew. What a profound place. What a repository of hope, conviction, and devotion to God. What an ungodly mess.

From the start, Jerusalem was marked by its ability to unite peoples’ hopes and to widen their divisions. The city attracts, and fosters, the world’s greatest ideals and its worst impulses. It is a city of peace wracked by war, a city of faith marked by betrayal. It is the world’s city, reflecting its hopes — and its woes.

This is how James Carroll sets out the conflicts:

“Divisions and dispute, rivalry and tribalism, turf fight and hurled anathemas: ultra-Orthodox Jews against the secular children of Ben-Gurion; European Ashkenazic Jews against Sephardic Jews of the Middle East; Russian-immigrant Israelis against native-born sabras; Latin Catholics against Greek Orthodox; Turks against Armenians; dark-skinned Ethiopians against racial elites of various traditions; Franciscans, preaching love, against Dominicans, emphasizing mind . . .’’

Enough! The sentence does not end there. It goes on for five more lines and ends with this summary: “all boiling down to a contest of life against death.’’

But Jerusalem, as Carroll shows us in his magisterial portrait of the city, is as much a place as it is an idea or sets of ideas, created then amplified by “the overheated dreams of pilgrims who, age in and age out, arrive at the legendary gates with love in their hearts, the end of the world in their minds, and weapons in their hands.’’

And yet Jerusalem is also a place of conflict and consolation, prayer and protest, resurrection and insurrection. “Disappointed hope defines Jerusalem more than fulfillment,’’ Carroll writes, “but the very disappointment confirms the permanence of desire.’’

Such are the contradictions of desire and diaspora, history and human nature, and as a result Carroll has produced a book that is both a journey to Jerusalem and an account of the journey, spiritual and intellectual, of James Carroll, rebellious son of an architect of the Vietnam War; former Catholic priest; student of religion and faith; above all pilgrim, temperamentally and temporally.

He went to Jerusalem to understand his faith and himself. He bids us there, a fertile mind contemplating the Fertile Crescent, to understand faith itself and our own fate, and the product of his reading, thinking, and traveling is a meditation unlike any book published this season, indeed a meditation for all seasons.

Beware: This is a troubling voyage, no joy ride. Along the way we see the fateful and frightful relationship between religion and violence, and we come to understand that Jerusalem — what Carroll calls “the golden object of desire’’ — is ground zero for the big questions, like the meaning of life and how the world works, and what God means and how God works. Some of this makes for hard going; this is not a travelogue or even an examination of the Decalogue. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem’’ may be a tour de force of religion and history, but it is not a tour book.

The centrality of Jerusalem, which we might think of as God’s home on earth, is so basic that it hardly bears emphasizing. The destruction of the First Temple, for example, brought important turning points for Jews, forcing the Sabbath, as Abraham Joshua Heschel argued, to play substitute for the Temple. For Christians, the new Temple was Jesus. Muslims know that Muhammad faced Jerusalem when he prayed. “He did this for the simplest of reasons,’’ Carroll writes, “understanding his revelation as coming from the God who had made a home in that city, in its Temple.’’

No wonder Jews, Christians, and Muslims battled over it. The Crusades and the fights that preceded and succeeded them were struggles for far more than land.

This convulsive violence, where mosques were replaced by churches in a city where the Temple once stood, is the principal characteristic of Jerusalem and the religions that call it home, preach peace, and produce violence. Indeed, warrior monks and Knights Templar alike looked longingly at Jerusalem. Carroll calls this phenomenon “the legitimized tradition of sacred violence [that] found its way into the genetic core of Western civilization.’’

In our own time, Jerusalem would be the focus of many of the struggles that defined our time, beginning with the first stirrings of Zionism to the Balfour Declaration to the Arab Revolt, the Nazi-prompted migration to Palestine, and seven wars, including the 1967 conflict that gave Israel possession of the entire city of Jerusalem for the first time since the start of the first millennium. And, of course, the tumult that crowds our news reports every day.

“The Palestinian refusal to acknowledge the Jewish state’s legitimacy matches Israel’s refusal to reckon with its role in Palestinian suffering,’’ Carroll writes, adding: “Until these twin grievances are resolved, there will be no peace between these peoples or in the place of their dispute.’’

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is how Carroll shows that the promise, and, alas, the violence, of Jerusalem played out in the New World, where colonists as early as 1630, when John Winthrop used the phrase, spoke of a city upon a hill.

Indeed, all the elements of old Jerusalem were present in the New World:

“The reenactment of the Exodus journey, an entry into a new Promised Land; the purification of the Reformation impulse, and the act of separation from the religious wars of Europe; the establishment of a model community of faith, which by its example, would bring about God’s kingdom on earth. The name for all of this was — Jerusalem!’’

All true. Need I add that this review was written by a native of Salem, Mass.?

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at

JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World
By James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 418 pp., $28