The Jerusalem Syndrome

Before I went to bed, I made sure I was clean. I purified the tub with all the soap in the tiny shampoo bottle. Immersed myself in steaming water. Held my nose. Submerged. I envisioned the ritual baths called mikvehs that we had read about in a Judaism class I had taken in college. The class had been offended by the idea of women having to purify themselves monthly. But I no longer saw it that way. I scrubbed at my feet and my hands to make sure that they were unsoiled. Clean and pure: I made up a pallet of blankets from the second bed on the floor. Faced my sandals toward the east. I slept without dreams.

I woke at midnight and ripped the sheets from the unused bed, wrapped them around me. Kind of like my fourth grade attempt at being a Joan of Arc for Halloween. I didn’t have to think about wrapping it as I did then, though. Instinct: like how the robin knows to return to my yard on the brink of spring, every year like clockwork. Like the robin, I was returning to my ancestral home, the one place where I belonged.

My Birkenstocks on my feet, a small prayer book secured in the waist folds of my tunic, I left the hotel in the middle of the night. The tour group would head to Masada today, but I was headed to the Old City. My chest puffed out. Confident. Giddy, even. All was clear, as brisk as the nighttime desert air.

The streets of Jerusalem were still at night. Unlike the raucous streets of my home city: New York. Calm. Even the cobblestones were quiet under my feet. They led me. I could feel the history of the place as I walked back in time, the centuries fell away with each step.

I passed down the Via Dolorosa in almost pitch black and then emerged into the softly lit plaza of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I bowed in reverence. But that was not where I was headed.

Before I could arrive at the Western Wall, I passed through a military checkpoint. The soldiers, young, in tan uniforms looked at me askance. But I was doing nothing wrong. Carried no weapons. They let me pass. And finally I was there, the wide expanse of stone, aglow in the soft light of spotlights glinting off the rocks. I approached. Kissed it. Prayed before it. I backed away. One should never turn one’s back to The Wall.

“When the tour leader arrived at the hospital he suggested that I leave Jerusalem. That attacking unassuming Orthodox men would do me no favors in this country.”

I secured my toga, stood in the middle of the plaza, facing east, toward the wall, the sunrise. I began to speak. Without considering the words, without knowing their origins. I told the world to repent. To atone for their sins. To embrace the word of God. I read from Ecclesiastes. I threw my arms to the sky. “Listen!” I bellowed. “I am a messenger from the Lord. I am your messenger from the Lord. A prophet!”

I turned to the right and saw a man, about my age, also in a bedsheet.

Also preaching. He held an olive branch above his head. I shook my head. He looked ridiculous. Sounded ridiculous. I rushed at him, head low to the ground like a ram. I was the sacrificial ram.

He mumbled his prayer. My head connected with his stomach. Low and with more power than I expected to have. He grunted. Stepped back. For a split second, I saw a dark suit instead of a toga. Perhaps I was seeing his future. He fell to the plaza.

Tan uniforms swarmed. But I was not afraid. I needed to defend against false prophets.
They led me away.

When the tour leader arrived at the hospital. He suggested that I leave Jerusalem. That attacking unassuming Orthodox men would do me no favors in this country. Just an idea: I could return to New York. Alternately, Eilat was lovely this time of year. That I would feel better if I would just leave the city.

I assured him that I had never felt better. He held out my old clothes to me, jeans and a Derek Jeter t-shirt. I said he could have them. Give them to a person in need. I had my clothing now. He suggested that I call my parents. I resisted. I had found my calling. I was home now.

According to the Israeli Government, each year approximately 30-50 people are afflicted with an intense religious psychosis called the Jerusalem Syndrome—which is believed to be triggered by a visit to that holy city. The condition, which affects otherwise sane people, is generally resolved by leaving Jerusalem. This is a fictional account.