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A Walking Tour of Secret Jerusalem

From the mundane to the sublime, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, author of a new book about the city, knows its mysteries, earthly and divine

Armin Rosen
May 18, 2018

“Jerusalem is built on layers, and each layer is true,” Sarah Tuttle-Singer writes in Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered, a memoir published earlier this month. Over the course of five-odd hours on a Sunday in March, the Times of Israel’s new media editor took me on a top-to-bottom tour. We didn’t get to every layer or every truth, something which would of course be impossible. “You need a million years to collect stories about Jerusalem, and it will never be enough,” an antiques dealer and character from Tuttle-Singer’s book mused in irresistibly literary fashion, later handing me an ancient and vaguely daisy-shaped one agurah coin as a keepsake. But we got to enough layers for one afternoon: We climbed on rooftops, met residents of every Abrahamic faith, plumbed an earthy bowl of Hummus Arafat (not as good as nearby Hummus Lina, but people of good conscience can disagree), encountered additional characters from her book, twirled glistening ribbons of knafeh (Jafar Sweets Company—write it down), and also narrowly avoided witnessing a deadly act of political violence near the Damascus Gate. What more could you ask for? After parting ways, standing before the Western Wall under a coral twilight sky and seeing news break that a Palestinian from Nablus had stabbed a 32-year-old Israeli man on Hagai street in the Muslim Quarter— the explanation for the seemingly dozens of policemen who had exploded past me near the Jaffa Gate about 20 minutes earlier—the dome of holy madness, delusion, and wonder that separates Jerusalem from the Ramles or the Ramallahs of the world felt vacuum-sealed even tighter than usual.

Tuttle-Singer’s book, which she said she wrote in only three weeks, attempts to return Jerusalem to earthly tangibility while also reveling in the city’s weirdness. Our first activity was all too tangible: Clambering over a fence, an air conditioning unit, and a disintegrating concrete barrier to reach the upper rooftops above King David Street in the Christian Quarter, which she noted was an excellent spot to drink or smoke at sunset. Gravel and maroon-rusted barbed wire were crushed flat into the ground, if indeed you could call it “the ground.” Shopkeepers hustled kippot and sheshbesh boards on the tunnel-like street below, and the near-distant octagon of the Dome of the Rock gleamed at what appeared to be eye level, static and inscrutable as the moon.

Since she had just written a book about Jerusalem, it felt fair to ask: Was the key to existence somewhere in this town, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims seem to think it is? Tuttle-Singer is a sunny California blonde (a compliment!) with a West Coast jauntiness that a decade-plus in the Jewish state has done nothing to kill off. “There are times you can look up in the sky and say, ‘thanks, homie, I appreciate it!,’” Tuttle-Singer admitted. Jerusalem: The city where God is your homie. Humans, not always: In an early episode in the book, an unknown assailant nails Tuttle-Singer in the head with a rock near the Damascus Gate. One theme of the book is that people are no more moral in the Holy City than they are anywhere else. Tuttle-Singer had been assaulted and abused in places within eyeshot of the rooftop, incidents that her book describes in appropriately unflinching detail. Human nature doesn’t change in Jerusalem, even if the stakes feel higher. “It brings the best and the worst of the world and from ourselves,” she said. And then later, while walking through the butcher’s market connecting the Muslim and Christian quarters: “I went from being terrified of this place to more at home here than anywhere else.”

We traced an east-west path through the heart of the walled city. There were stops at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where monks chanted before a wall of smartphone cameras—“I love seeing faith showing in people’s eyes,” Tuttle-Singer said. We walked past white-robed Ethiopian monks crowded into a cellphone store, and then reached the Cotton Merchants Market, a central axis of the Muslim Quarter that ends just feet from the Dome of the Rock, a structure that feels impossibly far away even when you’re standing next to it. Tuttle-Singer has two kids from an early-20s marriage to an Israeli man; one of their great-grandmothers grew up in the Muslim Quarter nearly a century ago, at a time when the Cotton Merchant’s Market had a kosher wine seller and Jerusalem was an almost entirely different place. We arrived at a junction of streets near a spot where an Arab shopkeeper had broken up a knife attack on Jewish passerby, Tuttle-Singer noted—which was also close to where an Orthodox Jewish man had once been stabbed and bled to death as he cried for help, itself not far from where Israeli border cops had beaten a friend of hers.

The city’s more mundane tragedies only become visible with experience. “One of the things that makes me sad about the Old City is everyone loves it so much but won’t look each other in the eye,” she said. Tuttle-Singer explained that her book, which largely recounts a year of living throughout the Old City’s four quarters, had helped her pierce some of the place’s many invisible barriers. She recalled a man named Abdullah: “Short, surly, grouchy. But when he finds out I’m writing a book he opens up, tells me his whole life story. Suddenly he’s prancing around naked—metaphorically, at least….I wanted to live in the Old City, and you can get away with a lot when you’re writing a book.”

As someone who’s happily burned through days or even weeks wandering the Old City, I can confirm Tuttle-Singer is qualified to write a book about the place. How did I go so long without ever learning of Saint Helena’s cistern, an ancient underground chamber with a heavenly echo where it’s cold enough to see your breath even when the surface temperature is in the low 80s? You can apparently swim in it, assuming the Coptic pope gives you permission. Tuttle-Singer bought a small wooden cross from a vendor before we descended a damp, steep staircase cut straight into the rock. “I like to hand out crosses in America,” she said. “If there’s a guy named Jesus at Trader Joe’s, he’s getting a cross from Jerusalem”. The Austrian Hostel—which Tuttle-Singer says has excellent showers—is no less sublime, a Viennese mansion shaded under high palms and surrounded by the pulsating streets of the Muslim Quarter. Over espresso, conversation turned to her kids, who lived with her in a trailer in a kibbutz. “They dream in Hebrew, laugh in Hebrew, argue in Hebrew,” she said. “I ended up raising Israeli children.” She had ended up becoming an Israeli parent, too. “What kind of person, what kind of soldier will he be?” she often asked herself about her older child. “Will be ever have to measure his life against someone’s else’s because there’s no other choice?”

There is a chance that while heading down Hagai Street, on our way to the Damascus Gate, we unknowingly walked past the killer of Adiel Coleman, a father of four who was stabbed to death about an hour later during the uneasy period of lengthening shadows and glimmering stone that presages the attack of a Jerusalem dusk. We sat on the plaza overlooking the mighty crenelated portal, a place that, Tuttle-Singer said, Palestinians refer to as “the gate of warm embrace.” Below us, a construction team put the finishing touches on a small shelter just to the right of the entrance; above us, next to the the street-level stairway leading down to the plaza, border guards sat in temporary scaffolding, placeholders for what would obviously become a more permanent structure. The bases of the upper guard posts were built of Jerusalem stone; Tuttle-Singer noted that the hut on the lower level had a plug-in kum-kum, or kettle.

Arabs, Jews, and Christians came and went amid the whine of an electric drill. We had walked from one end of Jerusalem to the other, just to arrive at evidence of the city’s pathologies becoming ever more visible and permanent. Pay attention to the young Arabs passing near the border police post, she advised: “You can see people get all tense. It’s different from when you’re Jewish and they’re there to protect you….you see things and you realize these young guys or girls are probably scared.”

Would the new lookout posts make anyone any safer, Tuttle-Singer wondered? Whatever their impact, they helped mark the distance between hope and reality. “The Jerusalem I want to see is where people look at each other and are aware of the other Jerusalems and other worlds,” she said.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.