Photo: Botond Horvath/Shutterstock

The Jerusalem Syndrome: A Witness's Tale

by Robert Hirschfield Aug 10, 2011
Robert Hirschfield could have succumbed to it, but he didn’t.

TO GET A FEEL for The Jerusalem Syndrome, let me try to frame it in an American mythological context. Imagine Clark Kent, journalist, on assignment in Jerusalem. Finding himself in a phone booth in his Superman suit, he hears a voice that says to him, “Clark, there is only one Superman in the world, and it is I, the Lord, your God.”

Whereupon, were Superman to weep, beat his breast, race up to the Mount of Olives, and disappear into a monastery never to be heard from again, he would be said to have succumbed to The Jerusalem Syndrome.

I knew only one person stricken by that malady. His name was Calvin Bernstein, and once upon a time he sold cars on Long Island. That man had vanished into a black jacket and a black hat, and his face had become a bleached map of the vanished shtetls of Poland.

A face that could have been my own if I had worked on it. But I never wanted a face that could be mistaken for any other in the Hasidic landscape. “To lose everything and to find God,” the man lectured me, “is to find what can’t be lost.”

I was once tempted to go that route. But I lacked the energy to endlessly manufacture joy like it was renewable mint.

He would pound the table with his fist for good measure, and sing a little something in pidgin Yiddish to let me know he was happy. Reb Nachman, the great Hasidic master of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Bernstein’s teacher, always stressed the need to be joyous even when not, for he was a holy depressive. I was once tempted to go that route. But I lacked the energy to endlessly manufacture joy like it was renewable mint.

“What are you doing here among us?” he’d ask me.

“Contemplating you,” I wanted to say. But I’d answer, “Checking out Reb Nachman’s teachings.”

“That’s not enough.”

For someone who sold cars on earth, then journeyed to Jerusalem and tripped over heaven, my type was a waste of space. “You must give yourself totally to God. Remember Reb Nachman’s words: ‘The whole world is a narrow bridge.’ It is a dangerous place.”

Unlike myself who, as a boy, acquired the essentials of prayer, a smattering of Hebrew, and bits and pieces of Jewish knowledge, Bernstein arrived in Jerusalem knowing nothing of the religion he would embrace as the eternal bride in a child’s story book. He was a blank slate that passion covered over like an immense snowfall.

One day, mysteriously, everything came undone. I don’t know if what happened was something big, like rejection by other Hasidim. Or if his mind swung back without warning and snapped. I never found out. But one Friday afternoon I saw him in the grass by the Old Wall, holding his shoes in his hands, weeping. Weeping like he was three again, and his tears were the center of the universe.

Knowing nothing better to say, I said, “Good Shabbos.”

“Good Shabbos,” he answered robotically.

I never saw him again.

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