Viewing Israel: Image And Reality

The vast majority of Jews who have ever lived, never saw the Land of Israel. More Jews by far have lived outside the Land in diaspora (or galut) than have ever lived there; the number of Diaspora Jews who have visited Israel has been a small - often negligible - percent in every generation.

This is not to say, however, that most of those Jews who never saw Eretz Israel through the ages have not had a picture in their mind’s eye that has represented for them the real Land of Israel, and specifically, Jerusalem. We can find physical evidence of some of these mental pictures all over the Jewish world, in synagogue decorations, on Jewish artifacts, in paintings done by Jewish artists and in literary texts that have come down to us. Some of these are very strange to the modern eye: pictures of a mythical Jerusalem that never ever existed, even remotely; maps of the Land of Israel that bear no relation whatsoever to any physical landscape.

This should not surprise us. Fed by numerous images and dreams, and watered by countless texts, legends and prayers, Eretz Israel and Jerusalem became, for most Jews, a mental construction that each person made for themselves. In each mental picture, therefore, there were elements of both reality and imagination.

Let us take as a single example the wonderful story (Where To, or Whither), written by the late-nineteenth-century Hebrew writer Mordechai Ze’ev Feierberg. It is a tale of a young Jewish child growing up in a small town in Eastern Europe. At one point, the writer gives us a picture of the house on the night of Tisha BeAv, the date that commemorates, among other things, the destruction of the two temples. On this night the child goes to sleep as usual but wakes in the middle of the night to witness the following scene:

Suddenly a ray of light breaks in on him from the next room. The door is slightly open, and he sees his father sitting on the ground in the corner; the candle in his hand spreading a dark light throughout the house. His father’s thin and sad face projects gloom and grief; the corner is full of hidden secrets which pour out into the rest of the house. His father sits silently leaning on one arm, and his honest face with eyes immobile sends forth a terrible sorrow - and he constantly sighs. A few more moments and he hears his father’s voice, broken, halting. “Let God remember what we had - let him look and see our disgrace.” And the voice goes on in a whisper, slowly, word after word - and the words, awful, awful words. “Oh, God, the heathens have come into your inheritance, they have defiled your Holy Temple… they have given the dead bodies of your servants a food to the faith of the heavens…”

He slips off his bed and creeps silently to the door; and now he sees his father from nearby. The picture is terrible and full of holy dread. The sad chant penetrates the depths of his heart.

“I have set watchmen on your walls, oh Jerusalem…” and he sees before his very eyes the Wailing Wall, as two large tears roll down its stones, and a jackal creeps in and runs through its cracks… he stands among the ruins by the holy wall, and sees a crowd of Jews stretched out on the ground and weeping audibly. Here are the ruins of towers, and from out of the rubble he hears a voice “Oh to the father who sent his children into exile, and oh to the sons, exiled from their fathers table.”

M.Z. Feierberg

This scene was written by a young man who never left his native region: it was constructed entirely out of his imagination. It was not only Jews who re-imagined reality: Christian art is also full of images of the Land of Israel and Jerusalem that are very far from any reality that exists except in the artist’s imagination. Let us look at the following examples, all seventeenth-century woodcuts or drawings that represent Christian pictures of Jerusalem and - one case - the arrival of the Messiah on a donkey. This Jerusalem never existed, yet it was clearly real in the imagination of the artists who, in turn, would influence generations in constructing their mental pictures of the city.



What are the origins of this distortion, this imagining of a country that had no connection with reality? Perhaps the first example of the phenomenon lies in the famous 137th psalm, which records the reactions of the Jews taken away into the first exile, to Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
When we remembered Zion.
There on the willows we hung our harps.
Our captors asked us for songs,
Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
They said “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
But how can we sing the songs of the Lord
While in a foreign land?
If I forget you Jerusalem,
May my right hand lose its cunning.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Psalm 137 vv. 1-6

In this psalm we hear how the Babylonian captors mocked the exiled Jews. The form that their mocking takes is interesting: they asked the Jews to sing patriotic songs about their land that had now been utterly destroyed - a cruel demand.

Understandably, the Jews’ first reaction was bewilderment and, perhaps, refusal. How could they possibly sing those songs in the current situation? However, second thoughts appear to have prevailed, and in the end, the Jews demonstrated a very different attitude: determination to sing, pride in their lost country and the taking of a vow never to forget it.

Presumably they sang of the land and of their capital city, Jerusalem, but we may well ask the question: which land did they sing of? Which Jerusalem did they see in their mind’s eye as they determined never to forget it? W would almost certainly be correct in supposing that the land that they remembered and sang about with pride was not the reality that existed in their day, rubble and destruction, but rather the land as they remembered it, with its towns and cities flourishing and its Temple intact.

We suggest that this scene may be the first example known to us of the split between the ideal and the actual, of dream and reality. Centuries later, with the dwindling of the Jewish community in Eretz Israel at the end of the Second Temple period, this phenomenon began to flourish. For many centuries, a mythologized picture of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel - unreal, sometimes, to the point of the surreal - replaced the real place that, of course, continued to exist simultaneously.

An interesting example of this is the poem by the great medieval Spanish poet, Yehuda Halevi. Near the end of his life, in the twelfth century, he appears to have undergone a personal crisis that took the form of a conviction that he was living in the wrong country. His place, he felt, was not in Spain but rather in Eretz Israel. He found himself constantly thinking and dreaming of the Holy Land. Finally, feeling that his life in Spain was meaningless, he made the journey to Eretz Israel. His state of mind is well illustrated for us by a series of poems, his - Songs of Zion - that represent one of the finest achievements in Hebrew poetry throughout the ages. One of his poems specifically concerns Jerusalem:

Beautiful heights, joy of the world, city of a great king,
For you my soul yearns from the lands of the west.
My pity collects and is roused when I remember the past,
Your glory in exile, and your temple destroyed.
Would that I were on the wings of an eagle,
So that I could water your dust with my mingling tears.
I have sought you, although your king is away,
And snakes and scorpions oust Gilead’s balm.
How I shall kiss and cherish your stones.
Your earth will be sweeter than honey to my taste.

Yehuda Halevi

Halevi, unlike the exiles in Babylon, sees the city in its destruction. He wants nothing more that to walk among the dust and stones, the remnants of destruction on the Temple Mount. His Temple is fallen, destroyed. When he sees the city in his mind’s eye, it is clear to him that it is in ruins. That is the city towards which he desires to journey.

However, it needs but a moment’s reflection to realize that the city as he saw it had nothing in common with the real Jerusalem that existed at that time. The real city was fundamentally a Moslem city. It had in fact recently been taken over by Christian Crusaders, but they had made comparatively little mark on it at this time, besides reviving and starting to rebuild some of the great old Christian churches that had graced the city in its last Christian incarnation centuries previously. On the Temple Mount, rather than the dust and rubble that Yehuda saw, there were two large and beautiful mosques and shrines (that are still there), at that time already centuries-old. Once again, imagination had parted company from reality.

This whole process of mythologizing the land was well recognized by the Hassidic Rabbi, Nachman of Bratzlav. He visited the country at the end of the eighteenth century and made the following observation, as recorded by his followers:

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlow said that when he was in Eretz Yisrael, many of the more prominent people with whom he spoke, among those that had come to make their home there, told him that prior to coming to Eretz Yisrael they could not have pictured to themselves that it was an actual place in this world. And that they were convinced that Eretz Yisrael existed in another world completely, because of the degree of holiness that attached to it according to the explanations in books and the descriptions in the Torah… and because of this they could not imagine that it was really of this world, until they came there and saw that Eretz Yisrael really is part of this world. Because physically, Eretz Yisrael is like all other countries, and the dust of the land is like the dust of all other countries. There is no difference. Nevertheless it is extremely holy - its holiness is absolute and very awe-inspiring.

The writings of Nachman of Bratzlav

Nowadays, the situation has changed as mass communication - and particularly television - has made Israel an accessible reality for Jews and non-Jews alike around the world. In these times, there is less room for personal mythologization, though it still exists in one or two different directions. There are those who picture Israel as a battlefield, an unsafe place, where normal life is impossible. This, of course, is a result especially of the second Intifada, which started toward the end of the year 2000.

The process of mythologization sometimes takes another direction, however. This was well illustrated by many of the entries into a ‘Picturing Jerusalem’ contest that was held all over the world a number of years ago. Children were invited to submit paintings that represented their view of how they saw Jerusalem. The results were extraordinary and very interesting. We show here some examples of the entries.


What is the balance of illusion and reality in the students’ minds? It is to this that we now turn.


Picturing Israel, Seeing Jerusalem

The aim of this activity is to examine perceptions of Israel and Jerusalem as they appear in the students’ minds.



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04 Dec 2006 / 13 Kislev 5767 0