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The Issue That Cares

Messiah Hunt

I had just removed my shoes in the hot sun outside the Dome of the Rock when an elderly man emerged from the shaded interior and shook his head with practiced firmness. "No. Muslims only."

by Sam McPheeters
Sep 15 2011, 12:00am


Collages by Tara Tavi

I had just removed my shoes in the hot sun outside the Dome of the Rock when an elderly man emerged from the shaded interior and shook his head with practiced firmness. “No. Muslims only.” I’d been profiled—religiously, if not racially—but my first thought was that he’d made a simple mistake. I was thinking of the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer visits Jerusalem and winds up addressing a throng inside the Dome of the Rock. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that the show’s writers could have sacrificed facts for laughs.

Before I could reply, a second man, also American, barreled up. He too was greeted with an outstretched hand. “Muslims only,” said the guardian, this time with a bit more authority, as several other men emerged from inside.

“What are you talking about?” the American demanded. “I went inside in nineteen-nine—”

A few of the Muslims laughed and cut him off. “Blame Sharon,” one of them said to the confused tourist. I understood. In 2000, Ariel Sharon visited Al-Aqsa Mosque, adjacent to the Dome of the Rock within the vast plaza of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The narrow hill is home to Islam’s third-holiest site. It’s also the locus where Jews believe the Divine Presence rested, the spot where the world and man were first created. Sharon’s visit was a naked display of force by a high-profile Israeli politician who would soon become prime minister. The perceived audacity of his pilgrimage ushered in the second intifada. I knew this—had read it many times—but simply failed to grasp the gravity of its consequences.

Then again, at that particular moment, I was having trouble grasping a lot of things. Later, while attempting to decipher my mental state—a potent combination of jet lag and sunstroke—I thought of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. His descriptions of high-altitude oxygen deprivation, specifically its symptoms of bad decisions and perilous oversights, seemed strangely familiar. In this altered mind-set, I had two realizations: I could stand here all day, perfectly still in the hot sun, and enjoy the endless procession of tourists attempting to argue their way into the Dome. And, less rationally, if I could just get a word in edgewise and explain The Simpsons episode in enough detail, getting all the jokes right, surely they’d let me in. Superimposed over these competing thoughts was a third, dim awareness: I wasn’t 100 percent myself.

I was whacked out in the land of the whacked out, seeking the even more whacked out. I was on the hunt for casualties of the Jerusalem syndrome, a sudden psychological affliction with messianic overtones that some visitors, primarily Christians, suffer shortly after their arrival to the city. They usually wash up in police custody or emergency rooms, suffering from dehydration and self-neglect of, well, biblical proportions. A handful of patients are treated every year at Jerusalem’s Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center. Many recover from their episodes and resume their lives (sometimes falling right back into their previously scheduled tour itinerary). A select few allegedly do not, winding up on the streets. They live on as case histories, stripped of names and nationalities.

There are several diagnostic types of Jerusalem syndrome. There are the traditional crazies—travelers with profoundly skewed worldviews, acutely religious, who find themselves caught in Jerusalem’s psychic force field. Some come with claims that they have decoded religious secrets, such as the date of the Messiah’s return, the location of Eden or Golgotha, or the exact criteria for heavenly ascension. Others arrive to act out particularly grisly Bible passages. Many of them are practitioners of what the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture terms “psychotic asceticism.” (A 2008 MHR&C study described one lonely pilgrim who was found, emaciated and helpless, on a street bench. God apparently told her to “die of famine on the streets of Jerusalem.” By the time she started to doubt her instructions, she was too weak to ask for help.)

The Jerusalem syndrome’s second, more severe type concerns false messiahs. These are the high-profile cases, people who arrive in Jerusalem and abruptly claim to be Jesus (or John the Baptist, or a variety of other notable biblical figures). Many of these people have strict religious backgrounds and an intimate familiarity with the Bible. Often they have been given a “secret message.”

The third type, “pure” Jerusalem syndrome, follows all the rules of type two, with one crucial exception: These people have no prior psychological problems. They are professionals, students, retirees, and housewives whose long-treasured visions of Jerusalem are shattered by the grime, tension, and commercialization of any other modern city. The result is a long and dramatic detour from reality. And for once the stereotype of a lunatic draped in bedsheets is appropriate; many of the pure raid their hotel’s linen for garments before setting out, reborn, into the streets.

This pious psychosis is by no means a modern phenomenon. Jeremiah 29:26 condemns “every man that is mad, and maketh himself a prophet,” and specific accounts of the symptoms of the condition date back to the Middle Ages. A surge in reported cases coincided with millennial fever in ’98 and ’99, which is the last time the press paid Jerusalem syndrome any serious attention.

Jerusalem syndrome occupies a gray zone in academia, and religiosity is an unloved subject in mental-health circles. Psychiatrists and psychologists are culturally less religious than their patients, and some (notably Freud) have gone so far as to pathologize mainstream religious belief. Certain subjects—for example, the effects of Orthodox Judaism’s rituals on practitioners’ mental health—are far too controversial and problematic to fund for study. And the private turmoil of the deeply religious, even those who believe in their own mythical status, is a difficult metric to gauge. One could surmise that Jerusalem syndrome exposes the paradox of all organized religion. The American Psychiatric Association classified religion as beyond “tests of falsity.” Simply put, one cannot question whether or not a religious belief is delusional, because there’s no observable evidence to test the validity of any sort of spirituality.

Jerusalem is a great city to get disorientated in. By law, all buildings are white, made from pale, locally quarried limestone that amplifies the heat and glare of the already unrelenting desert sun. From a distance, the skyline looks ancient. Combine this with the brain melt of jet lag and the confusion of a bustling commercial city, and you’ve got the makings of radical culture shock. Anyone arriving with an inner vision of the City of Peace faces certain cynicism.

Nowhere is this nexus between disorientation, religiosity, and insanity more enshrined than at the Temple Mount. This 37-acre plaza is revered by Jews as the site of the Second Temple. The Romans’ razing of the temple in 70 AD was, perhaps, the second-largest political miscalculation, after the Crucifixion, in human history. In the intervening 1,941 years, the destruction of the temple has lived on in the present tense for an entire faith.

Centuries of territorial disputes between various faiths have created an endless source of friction, plots, and delusional thinking. In 1969, the Al-Aqsa Mosque was set ablaze by a deranged Australian evangelical who wished to hasten the Second Coming. According to writer Amos Elon, when the Australian turned himself in, he said, “Good morning, boys. I burned the mosque. I did it to make Jesus come back to Jerusalem and save the people there.” In 1982, a deranged American shot his way into the Dome of the Rock with an M-16. Since his very public trial, more than 20 different extremist groups have plotted violence on the Temple Mount, including several well-developed schemes to explode the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some Jewish leaders have prophesized that the Third Temple will descend from heaven, squashing all structures on the Temple Mount like a Wile E. Coyote gag (over the centuries, fanatics of both faiths have vouched for a duplicate Jerusalem floating over the earthly city: 18 miles above earth, say the Jews, 12 according to Muslims).

A firm grasp of Jerusalem’s complex history is key to understanding its corresponding syndrome. It’s one of the few ancient cities to have survived through modern times, both in memory and as a functioning municipality. And surely it is the only city in history to have weathered at least 20 full-scale assaults, resulting in at least 11 ruling faiths throughout the ages.

Such a city can be a breeding ground for mass delusion. In 1962, during the protests over the legalization of medical autopsies, outraged Orthodox students decided it would be appropriate to paint swastikas on the doors of fellow Jews. As the Al-Aqsa Mosque burned in 1969, hysterical Muslims convinced themselves that the Jewish firemen on the scene were spraying the flames with gasoline, not water, and wrestled away their hoses. In this city of disinformation, eddies of self-enforced fantasy swirled long before those propagated on the internet. To what degree these factors provide catalysts for mental illness are, of course, unknown.



Throughout the uptick in press coverage of Jerusalem syndrome during the millennial fever of 1999, one location popped up again and again: the Petra Hotel. The building has operated as a hotel or youth hostel since 1830. As the oldest lodging in the Old City, Petra once hosted Mark Twain and Herman Melville. In the premillennial Holy Land, it earned a reputation as a magnet for the delightfully insane. Some reports described polite arguments between competing incarnations of the same prophet in the hotel’s lobby.

I arrived at Petra just inside the Jaffa Gate, one of seven entrances to the walled Old City and the entry to David Street’s covered bazaar. Even at this prime location, the facade seemed startlingly austere and inconsequential. It resembled a portal into an opium den. Up a dingy flight of stairs, I found a lobby so grubby it seemed I might get an eye infection if I stared at one spot for too long. Except for a few buzzing flies, the room was silent. Had I expected false Elijah quarreling with false John the Baptist? Maybe, a little. With a small pang, I realized I had just joined the ranks of every disillusioned pilgrim who’d ever stepped into town. My expectations and mental picture of Jerusalem hadn’t lived up to the real city before me.

A teenage clerk listened to my questions. He told me that he had yet to see anyone who appeared to be afflicted with Jerusalem syndrome during his employment at the hotel. But I wanted to be certain, and in a back office, we roused the manager from a nap. He groggily stared at me from a couch, and I felt myself flush with embarrassment when asking my questions. I might as well have been grilling the manager of a Motel 6 in Dallas. Wherever the crazies went after the turn of the century, it wasn’t here.

I needed the opposite of out-of-the-way. I continued into the bustling Christian Quarter of the Old City, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This building has served as a vital pilgrimage destination for the past 16 centuries, despite several lengthy intermissions in which the structure was annihilated and rebuilt. Although the church’s name comes from the sepulchre within—the “tomb of Christ,” built over the alleged cave in which his body lay and then arose—it houses several other key sites of Christianity. For many visitors, the Holy Sepulchre is the spiritual center of the universe. Sometimes it’s the actual center as well.

Here, too, I arrived with a preconceived image. In my memories of 1980s Manhattan, Times Square was never without a glut of street preachers and religious maniacs screaming at and pleading with passersby. As a hub of gluttony and sin, pre-Giuliani New York was the spiritual antithesis of the Holy Sepulchre. But both places acted as magnets for believers of all stripes, including the piously psychotic. Each offered an external stage on which the delusional could act out their dramas.

Inside the dome of the rotunda, I circled around the sepulchre itself, a stone kiosk surrounded by a long queue of dutiful, deadpan tourists. Far overhead, beams of sunlight, visible in the dust, provided divine mood lighting. And yet I did not see or experience any form of awe. In the basilica next door, the only serious emotion was six stories straight up, plastered on the face of a pissed-off Jesus who glared down from the mighty mosaic of the Pantokrator. I thought of Israeli soldiers capturing the Wailing Wall in 1967 and then dropping their weapons to bawl in religious joy. I recalled a video I’d once seen of Hajj pilgrims weeping involuntarily at the sight of the Kaaba. Where could I find that sort of emotional intensity and, more important, the people driven insane by it?

Jerusalem’s indigenous Christian population has declined sharply since Israel’s founding. The Holy Sepulchre seems to reflect this diminished status. Muslims have the Temple Mount, offering ornate mosaics on a platform of supernatural proportions. The Jews have the Wailing Wall, which looks like a corner of the Great Pyramid fell out of a UFO. The Holy Sepulchre, by contrast, is a cramped and dim maze.

This most holy of churches also lacks the authenticity of its respective Jewish and Islamic counterparts. Archaeologists and historians have long disputed this spot as the location of Jesus’s hillside Crucifixion. Many would say it’s downright suspicious that a single location, under one convenient roof, houses the sites of Adam’s tomb, Christ’s tomb, Golgotha, and the actual stone on which Christ’s body was prepared for burial.

Outside the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa—the supposed path of the Crucifixion—is no more authentic. That may be because it was largely invented in the Middle Ages, with additional stations of the cross springing up in the 1800s. And yet the route endures as if it were the gospel truth, in equal parts reverent itinerary and gaudy shopping mall (near station eight I discovered a box of thorny crowns selling for $5 each; in my wobbly mental state I bought one, only to come to my senses two blocks later and perch it respectfully on a pile of trash). For those who prefer to reenact their savior’s suffering, crosses made of smooth olive wood rent for $40. They’re slightly taller than an average man, meaning still significantly smaller than the real cross the real Jesus had to drag through the streets. Eastern Europeans prefer heavier crosses; Western Europeans like the lighter ones, closer to 35 pounds. I later watched one stoic tourist lug one of these stage props through the crowded market and wondered: Does anyone ever volunteer to be the thieves who flanked Jesus?

If one were inclined to find the absurdity of faith (in Jerusalem or the world), the Holy Sepulchre would be a bounty. Six warring denominations managed to reach a truce in 1852. The result was an uneasy coalition of Catholics, Coptics, and Greek, Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox, who divided the edifice into six “compounds.” At certain points in the day, one can hear a cacophony of holy men holding mass in Aramaic, Coptic, and Latin. Disputes have broken out over rugs moved mere inches, or dust swept from one compound into another. In 2002, monks fought with fists and iron bars after one moved his own chair. In many ways, the absurd territoriality is a perfect reduction of Jerusalem as a whole.


Every local I asked about Jerusalem-syndrome sightings laughed and said, “They’re everywhere.” One wonderful YouTube video from 2007 shows a female Jesus melting down on shoppers on Ben Yehuda, near Zion Square, just blocks from where I was staying. She wore a robe and a blond crew cut and challenged wary pedestrians with cries of “That’s a lot of bullshit!” Her ardor provoked the same dismissive mockery and catcalls that had plagued Jesus in his day. A different video showed this same prophet competing with a bedraggled Moses, as if the overflow of insaniacs ensured a scene on every street corner. But on my daily trips up and down Ben Yehuda, I found only shoppers. The street had an audience but no performers.

My hunt became a riddle. Where did all the crazies go? Several times I overheard people yell loudly, and with seemingly messianic force, from what sounded like one street over. On arrival I would find that it was just another argument between pushy urbanites. On the other side of Zion Square, the new, futuristic tram slid down Jaffa Street with joyful cling-clangs. But the train was still in its third month of “test mode” after a long and costly construction, and its sleek seats remained covered in bubble wrap. It seemed, somehow, mocking.

Seeking relief from the oppressively dry heat, I wandered around Zion Square and stopped at Bizzart Tattoo. When I asked proprietor Daniel Boulitchev about Jerusalem syndrome, he brought up a folder of JPEGs on his computer. I saw several stunning portrayals of Christ, Calvary, and various saints and angels. One woman in her 90s, herself part of a family of tattoo artists, had come to Bizzart to receive some strikingly amateurish religious art—her own—on bluish forearms of loose leather. According to Daniel, she’d just felt the time was right. “Jerusalem syndrome without the craziness,” he said by way of explanation.

Daniel also showed me dozens of photos of cross tattoos, often requested to commemorate a specific year or visit. These didn’t resemble the blocky Jerusalem crosses worn by the Crusaders, but they served the same function: proof of faith and/or pilgrimage. Receiving the city’s mark is a tradition that extends back for centuries (a young King George V allegedly had the symbol tattooed on his nose, having it surgically removed before his coronation). I remembered the stairs to the Chapel of St. Helen, in the bowels of the Holy Sepulchre. In the gloom, I’d first seen hundreds, and then thousands, of crosses carved into the stone over the millennia. In some spots, the etchings had been worn smooth from the slow erosion of tourists’ wandering hands. It was easy to feel humbled by the untold throngs of pilgrims who’d braved animals and disease and bandits and unpaved roads (although not the lesser cognitive peril of jet lag) just to mark this one spot. Sitting in the back room at Bizzart, it seemed odd that those meager etchings would probably outlast every tattoo Daniel would ever ink.



Walking around Jerusalem, even the hip nightlife regions west of the Old City, I was continually struck by the absence of smiles. Only the sweat-soaked tourists laughed at the novelty of metal detectors guarding the post office or the entrance to the Gap in Mamilla Mall. Everywhere, reverent men charged down the sidewalk with severe intensity, swaddled in overcoats and hats, seemingly oblivious to the summer sun. The ultra-Orthodox wage the same slow war of demographics against Israel that Israel itself has waged on its own Arab population. As their numbers increase, so does their political gravity. It’s a stern city, and a stark contrast to the international image of joyful young Israelis cavorting on the beaches of Tel Aviv.

Still disappointed by the lack of grandeur at the Holy Sepulchre, I visited Mount Olivet, just to the east of the Temple Mount. Although primarily a necropolis of 150,000 Jewish graves, Mount Olivet—literally, the Mount of Olives—also occupies an important spot in the theology of all three religions. The path led downhill, descending into a graveyard of stones that was devoid of plant life. It was the kind of barren and otherworldly landscape one would associate with the sudden onset of psychosis. Far overhead, tarps draped over scaffolding on the Temple Mount resembled a shrouded cross. Two muezzins wailed in the distance, and for a moment the pair harmonized with an almost cinematic quality. Everything took on a twinge of the exaggerated exoticism of the Middle East as seen in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It was easy to see myself getting disoriented here. With the oppressive heat, sun, and long gaps of unnerving silence between calls to prayer, it wasn’t a particularly hospitable environment for humans. I smelled something acrid and for a moment thought I was having an olfactory hallucination. Turning, I saw someone had apparently run out from the low, unshaded graves, lit a huge trash fire, and just as quickly evaporated. Another movie came to me: The Omen.


After a week of limbo, the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center granted me an interview with one of its head psychiatrists. The facility is located in the relatively sleepy outreaches of western Jerusalem. Before the establishment of Israel, the site was an Arab village known as Deir Yassin. In the 1948 war, Zionist paramilitary groups massacred more than 100 civilians here, an event both uncontested and unobserved by modern Israel. Today the grounds offer a quiet respite from the civilian world. After a cursory security check, I found myself among subdued patients, who were shuffling between pleasant stone buildings—the remains of Deir Yassin—or sitting quietly and smoking in the shade.

The term “Jerusalem syndrome” was coined by the late Dr. Carlos Yair Bar-El, Kfar Shaul’s media-friendly head psychiatrist, during the spike of reported cases in the late 90s. In Bar-El’s absence, I sensed a guardedness from the staff regarding media visits. When I was greeted by Dr. Gregory Katz, a Russian psychiatrist, I detected the wariness of someone who frequently takes time out of his busy schedule to meet with reporters. He ushered me into his office, and I asked how many cases of the syndrome he had treated and how frequently they occurred. Once a week? Every six months?

“In the 1990s, we saw one case every month,” Katz said. “Today, we see maybe two or three cases per year, which is maybe connected to the general decrease in religiosity in Europe.”

I asked whether he’d be able to rank the assorted biblical personas adopted by the syndrome’s victims. “The highest percentage must be Jesus,” I assumed.

“No, it’s not Jesus. Usually it’s Saint John, Saint Paul, or the Virgin Mary.”

“I’ve read that in a couple different places that Satan was the third most popular personality,” I continued.

“I haven’t seen a lot of cases like that, so I wouldn’t say so.”

He confirmed that the vast majority (“95 percent”) of all Jerusalem-syndrome patients are Christian, mostly Protestant and Pentecostal. “Very few Jews,” he said. “And maybe only two cases of Muslims.” Jet lag, he agreed, was a major contributor.

I stifled an involuntary yawn from my own jet-lagged superstupor and asked whether people traveling through seven to ten time zones (Americans) could be more prone to the syndrome than those living just a few hours behind (Europeans). No, he said, the split remained even between visitors from both continents. Although there were so few cases these days that it was hard to build up good statistics.

“Are the afflicted usually aggressive?” I asked.

“The problem is not the aggression,” Katz said. “Some are brought in by the police, but it’s not because of their aggression. The problem is if they are trying to persuade Jews to convert in holy, Jewish places. It could be dangerous to them because they would be victims of aggression. In Jerusalem, you have to behave yourself properly, because if you don’t, there can be problems.”

“And are most patients confined against their will?”

“I would say in most of the cases they are involuntary. They were brought to the police stations. In some less severe cases, we can obtain their signature if they agree to stay in the hospital. But in most of the cases, they are involuntary.”

“What are the methods of treatment?”

“If we speak about pure Jerusalem syndrome, we usually try to use minor tranquilizers, not serious antipsychotic medications. And even if we give them antipsychotic medications—in low dosages because it’s a short-term condition—usually in a few days or a week’s time we see improvement.”

This was a serious shock. A major component of the treatment process was letting the afflicted get some rest and naturally reset themselves. I’d assumed that part of the cure would entail an intensive and structured deprogramming, similar to what cult members and disoriented hostages undergo after reentering the real world. Jerusalem syndrome, after all, involves not just a personality shift but an extreme ideological imbalance. Katz was telling me now that there was no set action plan—therapeutic or pharmacological—for these people. Most returned to normal after a few days without the need for intensive treatment or programs. Those who can’t shake their messianic mental state usually have long histories of psychological problems.



What would it be like to spend a week believing you were John the Baptist? Would you remember it? If so, what would this memory resemble? A dream? A bender? Before my discussion with Katz, the oblique integrity of giving up on civilization and living on the streets had a dopey, romantic sheen. I hadn’t given any thought to how lonely and sad it must be.

“I think I know the answer, but I feel I’m obliged to ask this next question,” I said, hoping his answer would surprise me. “Would there be any way for me to contact any former patients?

“Absolutely not.”

I told Katz I understood the need for confidentiality. He added that he didn’t currently have any Jerusalem-syndrome victims under his care. It’d been at least six months since his last case.

“About 15 or 16 years ago, someone came here from NBC or CBS or Nightline. And there was one patient here who recognized the journalist, and he wanted to be in it. He insisted he wanted to be on TV. It was not allowed, but it was only that one time, so he got special permission to be interviewed. There was a lawyer and everything.”

I got the feeling this was a well-worn story, told and retold by someone who had long since grown bored of discussing this anomaly of his career. I started to feel a bit guilty about intruding into his workspace.

“Is this something people ask you about socially once they find out where you work?”

He smiled again: “Occupational hazard.”

Based on Katz’s recommendation, I made a Hail Mary play: one final pilgrimage to a place called the Garden Tomb, to see whether I could stumble across a faux Jesus wrapped in hotel curtains. I’d read about this tourist stop in guidebooks but dismissed it as a minor absurdity, an alternate supposed Crucifixion site that offered a respite from the hustle and bustle of the Holy Sepulchre. The garden was founded by General Charles George Gordon, an Englishman who one day decided that he knew the exact spot of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. In 1883, in a field just north of the Old City’s Damascus Gate, he created a leafy way station for fatigued tourists wanting to catch their breath (the Anglican Church briefly endorsed the garden).

Somewhat exhausted, I found the garden’s calm refreshing, what I imagined to be the public equivalent of Kfar Shaul’s private sanctuary. A short path leads to a platform overlooking a tiny hill that Gordon believed to be the true location of the Crucifixion. If one squints imaginatively, its rocks form a massive human skull. As Golgothas go, it looked a little skimpy. The constant wafts of exhaust from the bus station directly below smothered any sense of wonder.

I came here because Katz had told me he’d noticed a slight preference for the site among his “pure” syndrome patients. Near the front entrance, I found the garden’s version of Christ’s tomb. A three-foot-tall, cookie-shaped slab rested nearby, like a decoration for a minigolf course. It wouldn’t have covered the tomb of a child, let alone the Son of God. A staff member passed, and I asked whether he’d encountered any false Messiahs recently. He seemed to give this serious thought, finally telling me no. He was, however, constantly removing odd items left in the tomb as offerings: photos, clothing, the occasional hard-boiled egg. Sometimes people arrived with the ashes of a loved one, planning, with willful naïveté, to spread them throughout the garden.

I smiled in frustration. Perhaps a tiny part of me expected a fake Jesus to pop up from the bushes. Miracles happen, sometimes. Nearby, an American church group sang a short hymn. It was lovely, until a competing Indonesian church group drowned them out with their own holy hymn. I left.

Walking the meandering route back along the Via Dolorosa, realizing I didn’t have much time left in the city, I tried to think of other places where false prophets might lurk. I passed the Petra Hotel and exited through the Jaffa Gate. On the path leading west, toward the shops of modern Jerusalem, I suddenly spotted a man standing on a grassy embankment just off the sidewalk. He was wearing a white shirt on which he’d indignantly scrawled, “Name of God Is Jesus Christ NOT Father Son Holy Ghost.” There was more text below this, several sentences’ worth, although I couldn’t quite make it out. It wasn’t a bedsheet, but something in his demeanor, almost imperceptible, placed him beyond the level of street preachers I’d encountered decades ago in Times Square.

I approached. He said he was offering people food, although he didn’t have any that I could see. He seemed wary of me. I asked where he was from. He said Minnesota, although he had a slight accent, as if modern English wasn’t his first language. Next to him, a miserable man, bearded and filthy, sat slumped in a dirty plastic chair. They seemed bound together in the vast, invisible web of homelessness and mental illness that plagues every city.

I asked how long ago he’d come to Jerusalem. He squinted into the jarringly harsh midday sun and finally answered: “I don’t know that that is any of your business.”

I blinked. He was right.