I haven’t been in Jerusalem for sixteen years and the first thing my friend shows me is the wall that separates them from the Palestinians. At first I don’t see it: I am tired after a long flight and my eyes hurt under bright sunshine, but slowly I realize what it is that I have to see: a greyish, silvery separation wall that slithers like a snake across the opposite hills. “It is terrible,” I finally mutter. My friend agrees and says that the very idea that they have to surround themselves with walls makes him angry, but the wall has stopped the constant flow of suicide bombers. He also points out that we are looking at it across the Valley of Gehinnom, where in ancient times Jerusalem’s refuse was burned. It seems that the valley lent its name to hell (gehenna in Hebrew), although it definitely doesn’t look like Dante’s inferno.
I’ve always thought of Jerusalem as the city of Yehuda Amichai, a great Israeli poet. The last time I came to Jerusalem he was somewhere in Europe, travelling from one poetry festival to another, so I missed the last chance to see him in the city he never stopped writing about. I did meet him once—in Iowa City, of all places, some twenty years ago. He was travelling across the U.S. on a reading tour and I was participating in the International Writing Program. Amichai, who was one of the truly great poets of our time, turned out to be a gentle, pleasant man, almost like a huge teddy bear, completely different from the way I had imagined him. He is dead now, I think, looking at the separation wall, and Jerusalem is not the same.
This time I have come to Jerusalem to attend a conference of Jewish authors from all over the world. In three days we have to solve an old riddle: what is a Jewish writer? I guess it is more complicated than the question of what is a Jew in general. Three days are simply not enough, as it seems easier to comprehend the differences between us than any similarities. We don’t even have a common language; each of us writes in his mother tongue. And during round-table discussions it becomes obvious that the Israeli writers have their own problems, so there’s almost no exchange of ideas between us.
“It’s always the same,” says my friend. “The Israelis are interested only in what’s happening here, they don’t care about the world.” He should know. He is an academic who teaches art history and takes part in many international conferences. He also tells me at one point that there’s no reason for me to worry—Nathan Sharansky and A. B. Yehoshua are not quarrelling on the stage, they’re just having a typical Israeli conversation. Yes, they are yelling, he says, but in a friendly way.
The following day, after a short stroll through the Old City, I remember lines from a poem by Yehuda Amichai: “Jerusalem is full of used Jews worn out by history, second-hand Jews, slightly damaged, at bargain prices.” And Jerusalem is also full of Russian Jews. I don’t remember hearing Russian language the last time I was here, but now you can hear it everywhere. And I also discover that “brotherhood and unity” can sometimes work in a strange way. We are all Jews here, but when I tell them that I am from Serbia, they suddenly become Slavs and we celebrate our Slavic background. “Milosevic was a brave man and Serbia did the right thing,” one of them tells me. I pretend I didn’t hear him. Who could have thought that I would meet a Russian Jew who is a Serbian nationalist in Israel? He repeats his statement and I tell him: “Yes, he helped me move to Canada.”
I go back to the conference centre. The young woman who is in charge of the international writers tells me that my cousin has called and left her telephone number. I tell her that as far as I know, all of my close relatives in Israel are dead. In fact, almost all of my relatives anywhere are dead and their graves are scattered all over the world: in Israel, Serbia, Bosnia, Brazil, North America. I tell the young woman that Amichai wrote a poem about having relatives buried in many different places: “So many graves are scattered in my past, how will I cover all that distance, how will I link all of them? Such an expensive railroad system I cannot afford to maintain. It’s a luxury.”
“Wow,” she says, “Amichai wrote about your relatives! That’s fantastic!”
I don’t explain. I tell her that I don’t know of any relative who lives in Jerusalem, but I still ask for the cousin’s phone number. She frantically searches her enormous bag but her search yields no number. “It was there,” she says, “just a moment ago.” She empties her bag on a table, which is almost buried under a huge pile of things, but the piece of paper with my relative’s number is not there. It seems that I’ve lost my relative before I had a chance to find her.
The young woman turns up her hands and shrugs her shoulders in a gesture I’ve seen here before. It means, I guess, “I’ve done everything I could, what else do you want from me?” So I tell her that it’s all right, I still think it was a mistake. That woman, whoever she is, was probably looking for somebody else.
In my hotel room, however, I begin to think that I’ve made a mistake. I should have searched the young woman’s bag myself. How often does one find a relative lost for who knows how many years? I call my friend and ask him to check the local phone book and see whether anybody with my family name is listed there. He calls me back and tells me that there are several numbers but most of them are Arabic families living in the Old City. They write their last name in a slightly different way, which is not, he says, the only reason they are not my cousins.
But there is one listing for a woman who lives in East Talpiot, not far from my hotel. After a brief hesitation I call her. An old woman’s voice answers and says something in Hebrew. I don’t speak Hebrew, so I tell her in English who I am and why I’m calling. She replies in Hebrew, so I switch to Serbian. It doesn’t help. The old woman continues talking in Hebrew. She talks for a while and then hangs up.
I hang up, too. I’ll never know whether she is my relative. Who knows where the other woman is? She could have called from any town, village or kibbutz in Israel. I lost her once and now I’ve lost her again. For a moment I feel the burden of terrible loneliness. I need somebody to talk to, but writers, Jewish or not, talk only about publishers, foreign rights and literary prizes. So I go out for a walk.
A strong wind, full of sand, is blowing outside but I go on stubbornly. At the corner I give up, though, turn around and go back to the hotel. My eyes are full of dust and tears flow down my face, and I think I see a small old woman waiting for me in front of the hotel. I hurry, my heart filled with joy, but when I get closer, I see it’s only a small stone pillar, placed there to prevent cars from coming too close to the entrance. It is built of the same white stone as everything else in Jerusalem. I remember Amichai’s words: “Jerusalem stone is the only stone that feels pain. It has a nervous system.” I touch the pillar and I know that his words are true. I can feel its pain and it can feel my loneliness, and I suddenly understand that I’ve found my lost relative.