Fig­ur­ing Jerusalem: Pol­i­tics and Poet­ics in the Sacred Center

January 3, 2022

Fig­ur­ing Jerusalem explores how Hebrew writ­ers have imag­ined Jerusalem, both from the dis­tance of exile and from with­in its sacred walls.

For two thou­sand years, Hebrew writ­ers used their exile from the Holy Land as a license for inven­tion. The ques­tion at the heart of Fig­ur­ing Jerusalem is this: how did these writ­ers bring their imag­i­na­tion home” in the Zion­ist cen­tu­ry? Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi finds that the same dias­poric con­ven­tions that Hebrew writ­ers prac­ticed in exile were main­tained through­out the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. And even after 1948, when the state of Israel was found­ed but East Jerusalem and its holy sites remained under Arab con­trol, Jerusalem con­tin­ued to fig­ure in the Hebrew imag­i­na­tion as medi­at­ed space. It was only in the after­math of the Six Day War that the temp­ta­tions and dilem­mas of prox­im­i­ty to the sacred would become acute in every area of Hebrew pol­i­tics and culture.

Fig­ur­ing Jerusalem ranges from clas­si­cal texts, bib­li­cal and medieval, to the post-1967 writ­ings of S. Y. Agnon and Yehu­da Amichai. Ulti­mate­ly, DeKoven Ezrahi shows that the wis­dom Jews acquired through two thou­sand years of exile, as inscribed in their lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion, must be redis­cov­ered if the diverse inhab­i­tants of Jerusalem are to coexist.

Discussion Questions

Jerusalem, the most longed-for and fought-for city,” may also be the most writ­ten-about city in the world. In this bril­liant study, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi sets out to exam­ine and illu­mi­nate descrip­tions of the city by re-read­ing clas­si­cal texts rang­ing from the Bible via medieval Jew­ish thought (Mai­monides’ Guide) to Mod­ern Hebrew lit­er­a­ture (Agnon and Amichai). In the last few decades, schol­ars have raised our aware­ness of polit­i­cal the­ol­o­gy and the role it plays not only in pre-Mod­ern soci­eties but also in what we may call Mod­ern sec­u­lar soci­ety and its polit­i­cal sphere. Ezrahi’s Fig­ur­ing Jerusalem pro­pels our under­stand­ing of the con­nec­tion between the sacred and the here and now” and the ways it is con­struct­ed by trac­ing and val­oriz­ing the poet­ic and polit­i­cal pos­ture of the texts.

The con­tri­bu­tion of this study, or bet­ter to say, lit­er­ary archae­ol­o­gy, is man­i­fold; first and fore­most, it presents key lit­er­ary moments of the Jew­ish imag­i­na­tion as they con­struct their Jerusalem.” It presents a rig­or­ous and high­ly cre­ative method of read­ing canon­ic Jew­ish text,” seam­less­ly mov­ing between sev­er­al dis­ci­plines includ­ing lit­er­ary inter­pre­ta­tion, soci­ol­o­gy of reli­gion, his­to­ry, and polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. It chal­lenges and expands the con­ven­tions of the Jew­ish canon” as it equal­ly exam­ines Mai­monides and Agnon, Song of Solomon, and the poet­ry of the Israeli poet Yehu­da Amichai. Ezrahi’s insight­ful pre­sen­ta­tion is also a delight to read.