18: Sky

Other questions: What is transitory in Jerusalem, and what is permanent. Why are the colors different here, the autumn colors and the evening colors.

-Amos Oz, The Hill of Evil Counsel

There is something special here about reaching the top of one of the city’s many hills, or climbing to the roof a building, and having the vast sky open up and enfold you.

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Like the letter-writer in the Amos Oz story, I wonder about the colors, about the twilight, about the thirty minutes after the sun goes down, when the sky takes on a silvery-purplish blue that I have seen nowhere else. It is a sky that makes me think I understand things.

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I have been on mountains, in airplanes, in wide open deserts. It is somehow not the same. The sky feels closer here, almost palpable. Evening is a slowed-down version of the beginning of a planetarium show, an artificial glow projected onto a screen, almost near enough to touch, and then gradually dimmed to allow the stars to emerge.

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17: Chopin

In the fall of 2005, along with most of my freshman classmates, I joined Facebook. This was in the early days of the site, when it was only open to those with a .edu email address but also when, with your alternate .edu address, you could create a profile for whomever or whatever you wanted. This was bizarrely exciting at the time, and I can still remember the day when I saw that one of my classmates was friends with none other than Frédéric François Chopin. Chopin! What interesting new people I was meeting! After a moment’s nervous hesitation, I clicked the button asking if he would be friends with me, too. Miraculously, he accepted, and Chopin became my first and only fake Facebook friend. Ten years later, Facebook is no longer the unexplored frontier it once was. Other fake accounts have been gradually removed from the site, but Chopin has been allowed to stay, and we remain friends.

On the morning of November 14, in the quiet of a Jerusalem Sabbath, I walked to campus and settled in for the day in the lounge of the math institute, where I could partake of internet and espresso, both of which are absent from my apartment. I glanced at my iPod as I entered the building and saw a curious notification from Facebook: “Frédéric François Chopin was marked safe during Paris Terror Attacks.” This is how I found out about the previous night’s events.

That evening, I walked across the city to a Palestinian cultural center in East Jerusalem to attend the 2015 French-Arabic Film Festival in Palestine. The film being shown that night was Une Histoire de Fou (more cumbersomely named Don’t Tell Me the Boy Was Mad in English), a movie about an Armenian family living in Marseilles in the 1980s, whose son leaves home to join a group of Armenian terrorists in Lebanon who carry out a series of increasingly violent attacks throughout Europe. Walking to the festival, I found myself wondering how the organizers would discuss the movie, how they would speak of recent events. Given the venue, given the movie, given the past month in Jerusalem, and given the past days in Beirut and Paris, I felt that they would surely say something.

But shortly after we settled into our seats in the Al Quds Cinema Hall, the lights dimmed and the projector started. And soon after the closing credits began to roll, the lights were raised, and we filed out in near silence. And, after my initial surprise, I began to think that perhaps this was correct. Perhaps there was simply too much. Perhaps it was best, for this night at least, to leave the audience to themselves, to let us knowingly and nervously laugh when the Armenian mother, talking towards the end of the film to a French victim of her son’s first attack, refers to part of Turkey as “Occupied Armenia,” to let us shake our heads in a kind of sad wonder as we emerged into the cool Jerusalem night, to let us walk slowly back to our homes and listen to Chopin nocturnes on our balconies.

16: Sand

The sands never rested. Gently but surely they invaded and destroyed the surface of the earth.

-Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes

It’s 4 AM and I’m lying awake, my body not yet adjusted to its rapid displacement around the world. So far, I’ve listened in the dark to two episodes of Answer Me This!, one of Planet Money, and 1.5 of This American Life. Now it is quiet.

It appears that there is more light coming in through the windows, but I know that dawn is still some ways off. The sky is a luminous reddish-brown. I get out of bed and walk to the balcony. It looks as if I have emerged onto an alien world and feels as if I am at the beach. The air is full of sand, and it is reflecting the city’s lights back at itself. I go back inside and decide I should probably close the windows.

Mid-afternoon, the sand is still there. I am back on the balcony to assess the situation. Past a few hundred yards, everything dissolves into a formless tan. Last night, when I thought that the sky was a luminous reddish-brown, I was wrong. There is no sky.

It seems wrong to call it a sandstorm, as there is no wind. It just hangs there, indifferent.

I have to go to the market; there is no food in my apartment except old garlic, olive oil, and black rice. Some people there are wearing masks. Luckily, the sand has not yet settled on the day’s batch of rugelach.

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Reddish night again. I try to sit on the balcony to read, but I admit defeat after a few minutes. My feet leave prints in the accumulated sand and should be dusted off before heading back inside.

The next day, it remains, though in lesser quantities than before. Haaretz says that it came from Syria, where it has grounded Assad’s air force. They say it is unprecedented, that sandstorms usually come from North Africa, accompanied by heavy winds.

Day 3: I think I can see some blue sky filtering through the sand, but it might just be my eyes playing tricks on me. The streets are packed with people preparing for the Sabbath and Rosh Hashanah. Next to me, a rabbi tries out shofars in a sidewalk shop, searching for the perfect sound.

At night, the familiar reddish-brown returns, but particulate levels seem diminished, temperatures have dropped, and a breeze has picked up, so I decide to open up the windows. Sounds immediately enter the room. In the alley, children playing and stray cats fighting. In a nearby room, people playing music: percussion, an accordion, and human voices, joyfully awaiting the new year.

There isn’t much more to say, really. On the Sabbath, the fifth day of sand, as the city rests, the wind picks up and clears the sky. On Sunday morning, the sound of people sweeping off their porches and balconies accompanies breakfast, and the sand that had blanketed the city for days vanishes into dustbins and drains.

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15: Chamber Music

On a recent Sunday, a friend of mine, a set theory post-doc from Germany, asked me if I wanted to go to a chamber music concert. A small string ensemble would be playing some Mozart and Strauss at the Jerusalem campus of Brigham Young University. It was free, though we should arrive early to pick up tickets. We agreed to meet at the shuk at 6.


The BYU Jerusalem Center is a distinctive landmark in East Jerusalem, with its many-arched facade visible from a number of spots in the city. It was built in the 1980s and immediately sparked controversy. Its most vocal opponents came from the city’s Haredi community. The following is from a local weekly newspaper:

The Mormon organization is one of the most dangerous, and in America they have already struck down many Jews. At the present the Mormons are cautious because of the tremendous opposition their missionary activities would engender, but the moment their new Center is completed, we won’t be able to stop them.

-Kol Ha’ir

A 1986 pop song by Mordechai Ben David contains lyrics such as:

Overnight – a massive construction
Atop our Jerusalem mountains.
A campus luring innocent souls
To drink from the forbidden fountains.

and

You better run for your life
Back to Utah overnight
Before the mountaintop opens wide
To swallow you inside.

After protests, death threats, a no-confidence motion against the Israeli government, and a letter signed by 154 members of the United States Congress, the center opened in 1988. It has regularly hosted chamber music concerts ever since. The school was closed to students from 2000-2006 due to security concerns during the Second Intifada, but the concerts continued as usual.


Neither of us had been to the BYU campus before; however, I remembered seeing it from the Tower of David, so, in my mental map of Jerusalem, it was adjacent to the eastern walls of the Old City. Easily walkable. We thus headed off confidently down Yafo Street. A half hour later, though, upon reaching the eastern walls of the Old CIty, we realized we had made a slight miscalculation. We could indeed see the BYU campus, but it appeared to be as far away again as we had already walked, and there was no evident direct path there; our map was not terribly helpful, and our best bet appeared to be a somewhat meandering road that would take us down and across a valley and up Mount Scopus on the other side. With a shrug, we set off downhill.

Upon reaching the bottom, we were greeted by a sign informing us that we were entering the neighborhood of A-Tur. A-Tur (or At-Tur, Arabic for “the Mount,” referring to the Mount of Olives, on which part of the neighborhood is located) was a familiar name to me, largely through newspaper reporting of recent unrest in East Jerusalem. I did not know this at the time, but the previous day, April 25, had seen two separate confrontations in the neighborhood between Palestinian residents and Israeli police, one of which led to the death of a Palestinian teenager. Three days later, police violently dispersed a protest against the closure of the neighborhood’s main road, an action taken in response to the events of the 25th.

On the evening of the 26th, though, the neighborhood, at least the portion we walked through, was calm. It was a warm day; kids were playing outside, adults were chatting on sidewalks and porches, and, perhaps as a result of recent events or perhaps because the neighborhood does not get much foot traffic from outsiders, our passage attracted a number of stares.

Children were especially interested in us. Coming up on a street corner, we were spotted by a boy who appeared to be about 10. He beckoned to his friends down a side street, and soon we were surrounded by a small group of boys walking along with us. One of them tossed a soccer ball at my friend. Another did a practice karate kick in his direction. A third came up to me and said, “You. Are. Fat.” before the group dispersed.

Later, about halfway up the other side of the valley, we came upon what looked like it might be a path through some green space and up to the BYU campus. In mild danger of being late for the concert, we did not want to take a wrong turn, so my friend approached a little girl who was playing nearby.

“Hello. Do you speak English?” he asked.

She shook her head.

He pointed toward the BYU campus looming above us. “How do we get there? Can we take this path?” he asked, gesturing.

She smiled and shook her head again, pointing her finger straight up.

We understood. “Todah rabah,” my friend said, and we continued up the street.

“What’s ‘thank you’ in Arabic?” I asked him, suddenly embarrassed to have lived in Jerusalem for almost eight months without learning this.

“Ah, of course,” he said, and he called back to the girl, “Shukran!” I don’t know if she heard him.


We made it to the concert on time, and we were rewarded for our efforts immediately. The wall behind the stage of the auditorium is made of glass and, upon entering the room, we were treated to a breathtaking view through the building’s iconic arches of the sun setting over the Old City, the Dome of the Rock glistening in the last light of the day. It was a wonderful backdrop to the music, which was beautifully played by members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert opened with a Strauss Prelude and continued with Mozart’s String Quintet in C minor, whose first movement is among my favorite of his works. The best was saved for last, though: Strauss’s sublime Metamorphosen, arranged for string septet. It is a fascinating and complicated piece, written to mourn the destruction of Germany at the end of World War II, and, on this night, in a Mormon university overlooking the city of Jerusalem, during a particularly quiet passage, the seven musicians on stage were joined by an eighth, playing a part not notated in Strauss’s score, as the sounds of the local muezzin reciting the call to prayer filtered into the concert hall.

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14: Einstein

May the book bring some one a few happy hours of suggestive thought!

A few happy hours of suggestive thought is a perfect afternoon. Suggestive thought is a precious commodity; it can be surprisingly elusive. I am spending two years at the Einstein Institute of Mathematics. I am here to engage in suggestive thought. The hope is that it will be productive thought, as well. DSCF2606 Gian-Carlo Rota, in “Light Shadows,” wrote, “Purposeless delectation in ideas may be as educational as intensive study.” I read this essay in the summer of 2009, at the beginning of my graduate studies, and this sentence has stayed with me. It has stayed with me because of the delightful phrase, ‘purposeless delectation in ideas,’ and because of the profound yet easily neglected truth it conveys, and because it serves as a convenient excuse for procrastination.

The mind first needs to be prepared, but then it needs to wander. The best thoughts happen more often when walking through a garden or taking a shower or drifting off to sleep than when sitting with pen and paper in an office. And this is why I feel no guilt when I leave the office and spend an entire Tuesday afternoon on a park bench reading Relativity: The Special and General Theory, whose preface is ended by the quote at the top of this post.

Einstein's general relativity manuscript, 1916

Einstein’s general relativity manuscript, 1916

It feels right to be reading Einstein while working at the math institute bearing his name, at the university he helped found. Relativity: The Special and General Theory was written in 1916 to explain the basic ideas of relativity to a lay audience. Effectively describing a revolutionary theory to the general public so soon after its germination without resorting to excessively distorting simplifications is a tall order, and what astonishes me about this book is not so much the scientific content, which is, admittedly, rather astonishing, but with which I am already passingly acquainted, but rather the ease with which Einstein accomplishes his task. Everyone knows Einstein as a great scientist; he was a great communicator of science as well, and this is in some ways just as impressive.

I reach the end, where I decide to skip the derivation of the Lorentz transformation in the appendix. I return from the park, inspired and rejuvenated, my mind filled with suggestive thought.

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13: Election Night

We arrived at Sirtaki (a Greek cafe/bar whose owner had, in a minor act of protest, just the previous week provided Benjamin Netanyahu with change consisting of “an unnecessarily large number of coins”), around 9 pm on the night of March 17, 2015, a night which managed simultaneously to be the night of Israel’s parliamentary election, the night of St. Patrick’s Day, and the night of All You Can Consume Greek Tapas and Wine. Sirtaki is located on the main covered pedestrian thoroughfare of the shuk, and, at night, after the neighboring shops are closed, it colonizes their entrances and the intervening walkway with a small army of folding furniture.

The bar was understandably busy that night, with about fifty patrons huddling under space heaters in the crisp night air. A large screen, on which election coverage was being projected, had been hung across the passage. I understood little of it except a clock counting down the minutes until the release of the exit poll data. Meanwhile, soon after we took a seat, our first glasses of red wine were poured (we decided to decline the green-dyed white wine popular at other tables) and, about half an hour later, we were presented with the beginning of a steady parade of miniature delectables. Tiny quiches, bruschetta, tarts, salads, cheeses. Everything was delicious and everyone was friendly.

As 10 pm approached, attention shifted toward the screen. When the countdown reached 0:00:00, two faces appeared: Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union. Beneath Netanyahu’s face: 28. Beneath Herzog’s: 27. A shocked gasp, which quickly dissolved into a low murmur, arose from the spectators, many of whom were wearing the distinctive blue t-shirts of the Zionist Camp campaign. (The reaction would no doubt have been even more extreme had the exit polls more accurately represented the true results, released the following morning, in which Netanyahu’s Likud received 30 seats to the Zionist Camp’s 24.) The most recent pre-election polls, conducted five days prior, had the Zionist Camp leading Likud by 4-5 seats. Both parties seemingly did better than expected, but Netanyahu’s gains, largely attributed now to his sharp rightward turn during the campaign’s final days, were staggering. The news coverage moved on to show how the other, smaller parties fared, and, at the end of the list, a small cheer finally arose from the crowd when it was revealed that Meretz, a left-wing party in danger of failing to muster the four seats necessary for representation, had passed the electoral threshold, while Yachad (which, confusingly, is the name Meretz went by for a short time in the 2000s), a far-right party whose electoral slate included an acolyte of the infamous Meir Kahane, had not.

And then another round of food was brought from table to table, the wine resumed its flow, and conversation regained its normal volume. The news anchors on screen, now largely ignored by the other bar patrons, started discussing various possibilities for the makeup of a governing coalition. Shopkeepers, carefully avoiding the sprawling tables of Sirtaki, started wheeling in merchandise for the next day’s business. Two young American men, cutting through the market, stopped briefly to look at the screen. “Whoa, Shas has seven seats, bro?” one of them said, and they continued on their way. Around midnight, sated and tired, we paid our bill and started walking through the market, across Sacher Park, past the Knesset, and back home.

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