The world arose without our participation, but is incomplete without it

[Editor’s note: Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, and essayist who is a laureate of many awards, including “Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize"™ (2020), sponsored by the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE) with the support of the NGO "Publishers' Forum" (Lviv, Ukraine). His trip to Israel in the summer of 2023 for presentations and research was supported by UJE. The text was written in July 2023, three months before the events of October 7. Now, it is perceived as a pre-war memory.]

By Vasyl Makhno

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Zbruc.

I can see Jerusalem’s Old City from where I’m sitting on the terrace of my hotel. Well, I can see part of it, mostly the roofs of low-slung buildings that I could step along and jump over. But this is only a metaphorical desire. The ever-noisy Jaffa Road falls silent come Saturday. The streets are empty. The particularities of its climate mean Jerusalem gets cool around evening. The moon hangs in the night sky like it got stuck right over the Old City. All I can make out from the evening landscape is some frozen light that looks like the honey from inside baklava.

Whatever we might say about Jerusalem, the sacredness of the place will always come to the fore. I thought about this from my white plastic chair alongside dozens of men at the Western Wall, which they still call the Wailing Wall. Some with tallits over their shoulders swayed to a melody only they could hear; others pressed their foreheads to the stone; still, others — tourists — took pictures at the wall, smiling widely. The municipal workers watched from behind tables displaying books and brochures written in Hebrew. Later, they would easily move these tables on wheels elsewhere. A sudden movement and a worker’s inattentiveness led one brochure to fall to the ground. I saw how quickly the Hassid picked it up and kissed it before returning it to its place. Not far off, a group of Sephardic Jews was celebrating a bar mitzvah. The center of attention, a thirteen-year-old boy surrounded by his male relatives, had performed the ritual that all believers undergo. From the other side of the high fence that divides the men’s and women’s parts of the Wall, women were adding their excited voices to the family affair and raising their phones high to take pictures.

The cracks in the Wall were filled with hand-written notes. A few men sat near me, writing their wishes on small scraps of paper. Then they went to the Wall and spent a long time choosing the best place to leave their desires materialized. Why do they have to be written down? Why can’t they just be thought? Obviously, the municipal employees dig the notes out of the gaps in the rocks and throw them in the trash. If they didn’t, wouldn’t the supplicants’ litter heap have by now grown larger than the stone walls of the Old City?

Two pigeons and a young turtledove were perched among the wall’s chipped stones. Motionlessly, as if they had grown into the rock, they accepted their avian duty as ordained by the Creator. I wondered if they ever needed to fly off in search of food or water. I stared at them and they at us, standing and sitting at the Wall. I realized that the birds were so used to the Hebrew prayers that they subsisted on them.

Funnily enough, some people do live in the Old City. There are apartments and courtyards home to adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, each in their own quarter. When you walk along the crowded shopping streets, you always glance off to the side and see water flowing down the stairs of the side streets that split off. They hose down the hot stones, washing away thousands of tracks left by thousands of feet.

This time, I found myself a guest in an apartment that overlooked the Western Wall. I left the Wall and climbed the stairs to Misgav Ladach Street. I found the right address and entered the archway, where a winding staircase led to the second floor. I was met by a dog, rather, a dog’s bark, as soon as I rang the bell. The door opened, and dressed in a black suit and white shirt, my host invited me in with a smile. The dog was less welcoming. It continued to yap at and sniff this newcomer for a while before finally allowing me to sit on the couch at the coffee table. What can one talk about in the Old City not far from the Western Wall? Obviously about man’s relationship to God, about Judaism and Christianity, about possibilities and one’s own will. “The world emerged without us,” I thought when I was saying goodbye to my host, “but without us, it is incomplete.” I returned by the same streets I had taken to the Western Wall, now going in the opposite direction. The shopkeepers were still lazily sitting on the steps of their shops, the juice pressers were calling out at the top of their lungs, and my feet, gliding along the smooth Jerusalem stones — some of which date to the Roman Empire — were looking to exit via the Jaffa Gate.

All at once, the flow of bodies made it feel tight.

Out of nowhere came hundreds of people carrying rugs they unfurled for their Friday prayers. The human stream carried me along, and not until I got to an intersection did I manage to turn left and free myself from the viscous flow. The streets and passageways of the Old City are plaited together in a way that makes it hard to get out, to hold on to you. Why? That’s for you to decide.

Shadows in Jerusalem are life-saving. They’re cast by buildings and trees, and even the smallest are trampled by thousands of feet a day. It’s nearing seven p.m., just before dusk. A coolness is coming in from the outskirts of the city. Every evening, Jaffa Road is full of people, but its emptiness on Saturday testifies to the necessity of quiet, that is, time for thought. There is generally enough of it in Jerusalem, but on Saturday, it is overpowering.

I unexpectedly ran into Buchach in my hotel. After my appearance at the Agnon House, where the wind picked up and blew the notes and books I had prepared for my reading off the table, I met a man from Buchach who had been living in Jerusalem for eight years. I didn’t ask if he’d been at the Agnon House or read the works of his countryman, or if he liked reading much at all, for the most important word Ukrainians exchange when they meet somewhere in the world is war.

Both at the Western Wall and in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, my words were petitions for peace.

Agnon had also once walked these same streets of Jerusalem to his synagogue and probably also prayed about war and called for peace. Now, he reminds us of his presence as the wind in his own garden and a photograph on the menu of a restaurant on Jaffa Road.

Jerusalem, whose air is woven from questions and light from meetings, farewells, pigeons, turtledoves, street cats, and alms collectors, holds the main axis between the earth and sky for all of us.

July 2023

Translated by Ali Kinsella