Israel Stories

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Blue Suede Jews

Blue Suede Jews

A man was arrested a few weeks ago outside the Jerusalem’s Old City trying to crucify himself. Claiming he was the incarnation of the messiah, he wished to die to save the world. Luckily he was unable to drive the nails through his hands and as one Policeman put it – he couldn’t nail a picture up let alone himself. The latest sufferer of the infamous Jerusalem Syndrome was led away for psychoanalysis.

So what is Jerusalem Syndrome? Well in short, next time you’re at the Kotel and man swans over to you with a sky blue towel on his head, strumming a harp and claims to be King David, you know you’ve had your first experience of JS.

Surprisingly, a study has shown that the majority of people who have JS have no prior mental illness. Sufferers include would-be messiahs, misfits, the misguided and self professed spiritualists. Their preferred dress is generally white robes because most of them choose to identify themselves with a character from the New or Old Testament.

Its something in the air, in the very makeup of Jerusalem that propels people to the bounds of insanity declaring themselves the savior or the incarnation of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The most popular character is the Messiah. I suppose it’s the easiest one to get away with. No one knows what he looks like and it’s easy to tell everyone to beat their swords into ploughshares.

Interestingly enough the majority of confirmed JS sufferers seem to be non-Jewish tourists. Suddenly they are whisked back two millennia to the time of Herod and the Roman occupation. They see the Western Wall, the Temple plaza and walk the Via Delarosa. Boarder guards become Roman legions and tourists become pilgrims. The smell of the spice markets, the textures of the ancient buildings, the sounds of prayer, the taste of middle-eastern food overwhelm their senses. This is where is all happened and this is where they feel they belong. Even the most discerning tourist cannot escape Jerusalem’s intoxicating atmosphere. For most Jews it’s the epicenter of our religion. Every shul faces towards this city; we mention the city at every opportunity in our prayers. It is our holy city and so we feel spiritually connected. Yet even the sanest visitor can be drawn in too deep until another messiah emerges like a butterfly from a cocoon. I suppose, said Dr Udi Stern, if you enter the Old City searching for spirituality and enlightenment and don’t find it you create it yourself and that can be a very dangerous thing. It’s easy to convince yourself of anything just to block out reality and Mr. X the lawyer from New York suddenly becomes Bar Kochbah or King David wearing robes and brandishing a spear or a harp.

Most sufferers are harmless but some end up in psychiatric hospitals. Kfar Shaul Hospital, Jerusalem, where my wife worked for a while, is the place where JS patients are treated. Some of them need a ‘drying out’ period and are sent home, some of them are treated with medication. Dr. Bar El was the man who first coined the phrase, Jerusalem Syndrome. The stories he tells run into volumes but one that sticks out is the classic face off between the Messiah in the left corner and the Messiah in the right. One of them must be wrong, he says, but which? In the end they decided to hail each other as the Messiah and agree to split the responsibility of saving the world.

The Messianic Elvis Society is the embodiment of the JS. Their platform is the claim the Elvis is the messiah, he died for the sins of the world and has been resurrected. He chooses only to reveal himself to a select few. When I was in Yeshiva I decided to meet a friend for lunch in the Old City. We dovened Mincha at the Kotel and as we turned to leave we were dazzled, in the afternoon sun, by five men all dressed in white flares, greased back hair, medallions and big sunglasses. People politely stared as the Elvis’s marched down to Kotel singing Amazing Grace as only Elvis could. Lunch was postponed; I wasn’t missing this for anything. We followed the Elvis’s as they approached the Kotel, where they all donned cardboard kippot. The police were more than interested in this group, and shortly a small throng of people gathered around them.

Their spokesman then delivered a short speech, cut even shorter by angry worshippers, about the messianic message of the King (Elvis, that is). Enough was enough and as they broke into a chorus of Glory, Glory Halleluyah, three border guards told them they were causing a disturbance and asked them to move on. Clearly disappointed one of them shouted ‘Elvis has left the Temple’. Despondent they walked away as my friend, in fits of laughter, started his own rendition of Heartbreak Kotel.


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