Sarah Tuttle-Singer’s memoir about her year living in Jerusalem’s Old City is many things: maddening, moving, insightful, defiant, hopeful, lyrical — sometimes all at once. In some ways a lament for the rending of a once-whole city, this book recounts her admirable determination to know Jerusalem beyond its usual boundaries.
Tuttle-Singer fell in love with Jerusalem, and the Old City in particular, at the age of sixteen when her parents sent her to Israel for the summer. During that trip she was sexually assaulted on a kibbutz, and attacked by Palestinian boys outside of Damascus Gate. It was a while before she returned to Israel.
Back home in Los Angeles, her mother was dying of cancer. Soon after she died, Tuttle-Singer married an Israeli kibbutznik, had two babies, and moved to a kibbutz. “I was a mess,” she writes. Divorce followed. She decided to live in the Old City. She wanted, she explains, “to go behind the walls and see what’s hidden, what doesn’t meet the eye.” She would live there for a year, “as an inside-outsider, a visitor looking for community, but never really growing roots.” With her blond hair, nose ring, and mermaid tattoo, she didn’t seek to fit in, but rather to experience the city and gain insight from her outsider perspective.
This “rebellious Jewess” to whom self-expression is paramount, was also looking for herself, seeking to venture beyond her own walls and define her own boundaries. Then one winter night, those boundaries were challenged when she was assaulted by a Palestinian who worked at the hotel where she was staying. Tuttle-Singer feared that if she reported the attack to the police, they would frame it in racial terms which, in her view, was not what happened: “It happened because I am a woman and he is an asshole.” It would also, she knew, end any credibility she could earn with Palestinians. The assault went unreported, and she remained haunted by it.
For Tuttle-Singer, the Old City’s Jewish Quarter appeared to be of the least interest, even though the people behind its walls were as unknown to her as those in the other three quarters.
Nonetheless, thanks to her curiosity and persistence, Tuttle-Singer does open doors — or at least windows — into different areas of the Old City, especially the Muslim Quarter, sharing with the reader her determination to become familiar with the unfamiliar, and her resulting insights.