The Jerusalem Syndrome
By Leah Abramowitz
The Western ("Wailing") Wall is one of Israel's biggest tourist attractions. At all hours of the day or night, visitors stream to the Wall to pray, to take photographs, to participate in a demonstration or an army swearing-in ceremony, to attend a Bar Mitzva or just to absorb some of the historic and spiritual atmosphere that permeates the ancient site.
Late at night, when the indirect lighting dramatizes every crevice, every seam in the huge stones, when the night sounds meld in the open plaza, a special kind of person is drawn to this spot - those seeking a supernatural experience. Psychologists identify them as having the "Jerusalem Syndrome," and they too add colour and interest to the nocturnal scene at the Temple Mount.
They include the would-be messiahs, the misfits, the misguided, the spiritually involved, all flowering in the small hours. Those with the Jerusalem Syndrome are literally intoxicated by the Holy City. They revel in the special atmosphere of the Wall past midnight. They delight in the mystical aura they perceive there at night. Their psyches are inflamed by the historical holiness in which they feel enveloped at this lonely hour. Even though there are other places in Jerusalem which attract these characters, the Wall remains the favourite, especially among Jews. The Jerusalem Syndrome was first clinically identified by Dr. Yair Bar El, formerly director of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital and now district psychiatrist for the Ministry of Health. Bar El studied 470 tourists who were referred to Kfar Shaul for treatment between 1979 and 1993 and on the basis of his work with these visitors, who had been declared temporarily insane, reached some fascinating conclusions.
Kfar Shaul is the obvious place to carry out this study, as it is the duty psychiatric hospital for tourists who display mental health disturbances. Of the 470 visitors from all over the world who were hospitalized, 66 percent were Jews, 33 percent were Christians and one percent had no known religious affiliation. Bar El is quick to point out that it is not only tourists who demonstrate behaviour that indicates the Jerusalem Syndrome; in fact local residents can be temporarily or permanently affected as well.
The peak time for visitors who are "intoxicated" by the Holy City is, not surprisingly, during the holiday seasons, like Christmas, the Jewish High Holy days, Easter and Passover, or during the summer months of July and August. Bar El divides the patients into two broad categories; those with previous psychiatric histories (either diagnosed or undiagnosed) and those with no previous psychiatric history.
The pilgrim-tourists studied demonstrated remarkably similar patterns of disintegration. The symptoms generally appeared on the second day of their stay in Jerusalem, when they began to feel an inexplicable nervousness and anxiety. If they came with a group or family they suddenly felt a need to be on their own and left the others.
They would often begin to perform acts of purification, or cleansing, taking showers, or immersing in a mikva (ritual bath). Often the patients changed their clothes, the preferred dress being white robes, in an effort to resemble biblical figures, because most of them chose to identify themselves with a character from the New or Old Testament: women always chose to emulate a woman from the Bible while men chose a male figure. This type of behaviour does not, of course, inevitably lead to hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. Indeed most of those affected by the Jerusalem Syndrome do not cause any disturbance and are at worst a nuisance or a mild source of amusement. But a certain percentage of the people are severely disturbed and will often behave in a way that demands psychiatric intervention, at least temporarily. One Danish teacher, who had come to the Holy City five times in the last five years, felt it was the only place in the world where he could communicate with Jesus directly. However, when he started to talk at the top of his lungs to the Virgin Mary who he saw sitting on the roof of the Mosque of Omar, he required hospitalization. The fight which developed with the guards on the Temple Mount ended in his being brought to Kfar Shaul.
Sometimes, according to Dr. Bar El, the Jerusalem Syndrome victim will have definite religious goals, like the man from California who came to seek a red heifer for purification purposes, as directed in Numbers, 19. Others have political inclinations, which, in one example, led to the burning of the El Aksa Mosque in 1969 by Dennis Rohan, a deranged young Australian Christian tourist. David Koresh, who spent time in Jerusalem, may have been affected by the Syndrome, but its effect was protracted, since only after he returned to the U.S. did he proclaim himself the messiah and found his sect at Waco, Texas.
Some patients adopt magical health views or individual religious requirements, self-written prayers and idiosyncratic customs. However, an interesting sub-group which the psychiatrist identified consisted of 42 people out of the 470 studied, who had no previous psychiatric problems whatsoever. "Something just happened to me," is a common response when such tourists begin psychotherapy.
After four or five days, the patient treated at Kfar Shaul responds to the here and now approach favoured by the psychiatrists. "I feel like a clown," say some in embarrassment and cannot explain how they came to jump into a pond in the city park or sing hymns in the middle of the night from the top of the Old City ramparts. "They don't like to talk about the experience afterwards," says Bar El. When he tried to circulate a questionnaire to his former patients abroad, for a follow-up to his study, he got few responses and those that replied gave vague answers. "They simply don't understand themselves what happened to them," says the doctor.
Of the 42 who had no previous psychiatric history, 40 were Protestants, whose families were strict and devout Bible-reading, mid-American Christians. They had internalized the Good Book and had an idealized view of Jerusalem. Bar El believes that the shock of facing the earthly Jerusalem caused a psychiatric reaction which helped bridge the reality with the dream city. He consulted a number of religious authorities, including Catholic leaders, to sound out opinions as to why Protestants rather than Catholics fall prey to the Jerusalem Syndrome.
"I found three probable main reasons," says Bar El. "Protestants direct their prayers to an unfathomable Being, whereas the Catholics have the intervention of a priest, a tangible middle man." The second reason was that Jesus is the paramount religious figure in the Protestant creed, whereas the Catholics also have the Virgin Mary and many saints with whom to identify. Finally, Protestants, unlike Catholics, and followers of the Eastern religions and Islam, have little religious ecstasy incorporated in their rituals and few opportunities for spiritual fervour - which seems to be a necessary component of religious experience. In Judaism also, the psychiatrist feels, there are more opportunities for fervid religious experiences in the myriad rituals, deeds and customs incorporated in the Jewish tradition.
Dr. Bar El notes that the Jerusalem Syndrome is similar to the "Florence Syndrome," identified by Italian psychiatrists, who long ago noticed a tendency among tourists and visitors to that city to act in a bizarre and irrational fashion. In Florence, however, the phenomenon seems to be triggered by art works and the beauty of the city itself, rather than religion.
Another Jerusalem psychiatrist, Dr. Jordan Scher, claims that many disturbed people flock to the Holy City seeking the special spiritual atmosphere that imbues the capital, especially the Old City. "Jerusalem is flooded by messiahs; those who come to meet him, to wait for him or to settle the turmoil in their own souls. "
Many Jewish young people turn to yeshivas to enhance their religious drive. Dr. Scher observes that some who are accepted are expelled later when it is discovered that they are disturbed, while others are turned down to begin with. Many of them find their way to the Wall, which becomes a sanctuary. There each one evolves his own way of expressing this inexplicable intoxication with holiness.
For example, there is Motele, dressed all in white, grey beard matted and curling, yelling at a group of tourists, "Welcome America!" Motele has an enormous, bellowing voice: when he sings a prayer for rain, head flung back and hands outstretched towards the heavens, it sounds like a full symphony orchestra. Sometimes, for effect, he stands on top of the rabbinical office roof, roaring out a prayer. The uninitiated think it's a voice from heaven and some have been known to do instant teshuva (penitence), at least for the next half hour.
There is Gershon, traipsing down the steps in a hippy uniform, reminiscent of the Woodstock era, complete with coloured, Bukharan skullcap; blue eyes dancing and white beard prancing, looking for all the world like a Jewish Santa Claus. A lean, black-clad Bratslaver hassid paces back and forth outside the gates in the dark, reciting psalms to himself, twirling his meagre brown beard and concentrating on getting into the right mood. Yehia, the Yemenite, arrives. He favours the dress of his forefathers: a turban and long, flowing, but dirty galabiya and sandals, winter and summer. Yehia used to camp out in the German Hospice ruins, right above the Wall, but the police chased him out. Yehia is a blesser; he distributes blessings like others distribute candy, to those who want and to those who don't. In a pronounced Yemenite accent he bestows the blessings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the bowed head of the beneficed, murmuring quickly and without pause, until he sees someone else in need of his consecration. At the top of the steps, Amnon stands at attention. Day and night, winter and summer, he roams the Old City, dressed in a grey suit, tie and hat. He stands for hours, doing nothing, just being within sight of the Temple Mount. Is he waiting for the Messiah? Is he doing penitence? Nobody knows, nobody ever speaks to Amnon. He is just there, a silent sentinel on a silent mission of his own.
Miriam is a squat, scarf-clad woman, who appears at the Wall at irregular hours, sometimes with a baby carriage in tow, sometimes with a tot or two as well. She has been known to swab the flagstones, kindly asking women worshippers to step aside as she goes about the impossible job of washing down the huge plaza with a kitchen mop. Unsuspecting visitors think she's official, and feel sorry for the cleaning lady who has to work so hard at midnight.
These colourful characters at the Wall are not governed by canon or scripture. But they are drawn, as generations before them, to the spiritual centre of the universe, the hub of the three monotheistic religions. Some of these people, with problems, with extreme views and with otherworldly devotions may find themselves falling prey to this unique and still mainly incomprehensible phenomenon, the Jerusalem Syndrome.
Source: Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1996/102, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs