How Places Let Us Feel the Past

T. M. Luhrmann

WHAT gives certain places their extraordinary power to move people so deeply?

Many years ago, I met a man who as a teenager had been irritated that the comfortable, middle-class Jews he met in his Northern California synagogue did not take God seriously. He’d see them in the temple on High Holy Days — the only time many of them came to services, he thought — and be appalled at the flirting and the gossip. He would look around at the congregation and think: Who are these people? But he also felt like one of them — ignorant of the Torah, naïve about his faith.

So he went to Jerusalem. There, he met God. At least, one night he had an experience so remarkable, so terrifying, so powerful and so grand that, years later, when he told me about it, he made me turn off my tape recorder and swore me to secrecy about the details. The morning after his encounter, he made his way to a rabbi. The older man listened carefully and told him that while his experience was important, he should keep it private for now, and focus on his study.

Jerusalem has this effect on so many people that experiences like this have a name: Jerusalem syndrome. Roughly 100 tourists a year become sufficiently overwhelmed by spiritual experiences that they end up in a mental health center. They see themselves as biblical characters or as messiahs, or they feel that they have been given a special task, like moving the Western Wall. Often, but not always, they have had previous psychiatric diagnoses. Some seem to lose touch with reality, and then never do so again. The sheer intensity of being in so holy a place is enough to bring some people to an apparently psychotic state.