Three Cities

January 1st, 2023

“I know I loved you then
I think I love you still
But this prophecy of ours
Has come back dressed to kill
Three stones on a mountain
Three small holes in a field
You’ve given me the big dream
But you can’t make it real

O, wicked world
Just think what could have been
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
All I do is lose, but baby
All I want’s to win
Jerusalem, New York, Berlin” – from the band, Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend is a relatively new band. Their music embraces a number of different styles. Many of their songs feature both a male and female vocalist, who play off each other rather well. The lyrics is their compositions are Dylanesque. The words are often obscure, and they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Each listener hears something different and finds a particular meaning from within his or her own soul.

I have been intrigued by one song from the group: “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”. It’s not the most melodic of their efforts, but I keep trying to figure out what the significance is of them naming those three locations. I guess part of my curiosity comes from the fact that I have been to all three of those places, and each of those cities has left an indelible mark on my memory.

What do these three cities have in common? All of them have colorful histories. That is not necessarily a good thing, but it’s a fact. Jerusalem has been involved in wars since the time of King David, and probably before that. New York has had a turbulent history, often filled with savagery (see the 2002 film by Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York). 9/11 was the latest example of wanton violence in that city. Berlin suffered almost total destruction at the end of WWII, comparable to the leveling of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the later devastation inflicted by the Romans.

Each of them was or is a focal point in the world. Medieval maps showed Jerusalem as the axis mundi, the center of the world. Jerusalem (Al-Quds القدس in Arabic) has for centuries been a fundamental element in each of the Abrahamic religions. Even today, much of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians concerns the status of Jerusalem. Jerusalem may not be the center of the physical world, but it is still often the center of the world’s imagination.

New York is a financial powerhouse, the home of Wall Street. It is also a center for visual art, for fashion, for music, for literature, and for politics. It is a place where a lifetime isn’t long enough to fully understand it. It is microcosm of the entire world, containing immigrants from nearly every nation. I have a friend who lived in Chicago, which is a little brother to New York. My friend told me that she felt the “oppressive weight of humanity” where she lived. How much more so in New York, where myriad cultures are packed tight next to each other. These various peoples live in tiny enclaves with unofficial but very real boundaries. Another friend of mine grew up in the Bronx. He told me that he could tell when he was in the wrong neighborhood just by the smell of the food cooking.

Berlin was for a brief period of time the focus of all the world’s attention. It was a source of terror. From 1933 to 1945 the city shown with an evil radiance. The energy that Berlin exuded caused endless destruction and misery. The rulers of Berlin murdered millions of people before the rest of the world united to crush them. In April of 1945 the ruins of Berlin burned in hellish fire that eventually turned to ashes.

From my limited experience, I would say that all three cities have (or had) a restlessness and a tension that is omnipresent. I was in Berlin in June of 1983, during the height of the Cold War. I saw the Wall, and I passed through Checkpoint Charlie. I looked at the bullet holes that still decorated the walls of the Reichstag. I saw the libertine chaos of West Berlin, and I wandered through the drab grey paranoia of the East. Both halves of the city had this edginess that was infectious. I never felt at ease.

I was in Jerusalem for a few days in December of 1983. Jerusalem wasn’t quite as scary as Berlin, but it was a close second. The Israeli military was everywhere, and even though I was in the Army then, I wasn’t comfortable with seeing soldiers with Uzis on nearly every street. Jerusalem felt like the capital of a garrison state, a place where violence could occur at any moment. There was always a wariness and a need for constant vigilance.

I visited New York back in the late 1970’s when I was a student at West Point (think about the movie Taxi Driver, once again from Scorsese). I visited the city again a few years ago. New York is fine if a person has an extremely high tolerance for chaos. People and objects are continuously in rapid motion. The action never stops. It is like a city on meth. I found it exhausting after only a couple days there.

A final link between all three cities is Judaism. The religion plays a role in all of them. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the goal of every observant Jew. I have a friend from the synagogue who grew up in Brooklyn. His youthful experiences in New York and his Jewishness are closely interwoven. He told me stories about the Rebbe and about the Chabad. He talked to me about the Crown Heights neighborhood. And Berlin…it is connected with Judaism in a horrible, apocalyptic way.

One more story…

I have another friend at the synagogue. Leonid is an old man, a refugee from Kyiv who came here when Soviet Union collapsed. Leonid’s father was an officer in the Soviet Army during WWII. His father was in Berlin in April of 1945 with the victorious Russian forces. Leonid’s dad stood near the devastated wreckage of the Reichstag. While he was there, he picked up a piece of coal and drew a Star of David on the side of the building.

Jerusalem, New York, Berlin

One thought on “Three Cities”

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