Sarah Tuttle-Singer’s spirit creature is a mermaid, someone who inhabits two worlds but never fully belongs to either. She grew up in California, often feeling like a misfit. She made aliyah to Israel, taking on the ‘outsider-ness’ that comes from living in a second language. But there’s something else that explains why Sarah so identifies with mermaids. Mermaids transcend boundaries. They come ashore and tell us about the deepest corners of the sea. They return to sea carrying stories of the people they encountered on land. Mermaids see and hear things that others don’t. So, when a mermaid speaks, it’s wise to listen to her.
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, new media editor for the Times of Israel, has written a mermaid’s chronicle in her forthcoming book, “Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem”.
Each quarter is a world unto itself. “I don’t quite fit in anywhere, which means I can go almost anywhere, between the quarters, and also between walls and into different worlds, like a mermaid,” Sarah writes. In her trademark style familiar to her many followers (and detractors), Sarah brings you face-to-face with an astonishing array of people and experiences.
Moving between worlds is not without fear — she writes candidly about that. But Sarah operates according to the principle expressed beautifully by author Frances Mayes, “The world cracks open for those willing to take a risk.”
Her book is a love story of staggering beauty. She credits, in part, her love of the city to her mother and grandmother. Each woman lived her own unforgettable Jerusalem story, whose traces Sarah senses on the Old City’s rooftops and stone alleys. But it’s more than family memories. Sarah feels Jerusalem’s pull in every fiber of her body. I recognized that visceral, primal connection at once. It’s exactly how I felt the first time I set foot in Jerusalem, some twenty years ago–and every time since. It is a love like no other.
Sarah captures Jerusalem’s sounds, moods, scents, pathos, layers, and intensity. “Space in Jerusalem can’t just be measured side to side,” she writes, “you have to think in four dimensions to understand all its layers.” Sarah takes us through those four dimensions, in lush, lyric prose, accompanied by photos that will make every lover of Jerusalem ache with recognition and longing.
You will meet a panoply of the Old City’s remarkable residents along the way. The tattoo artist who inks a mermaid on Sarah’s forearm—the shop has been in his family for seven hundred years. You’ll meet the Map Seller and the Fabric Merchant, Abu Ibrahim the jeweler, and Rivka, the orthodox mom with secrets, to name but a few. Not everyone Sarah encounters is wonderful. Some of what happens to her are the stuff of nightmares. She recounts these harrowing experiences with unfettered, and at times shocking, honesty. As well, she shows us the gaping wound left in her heart by her mother’s untimely death, recounts how her marriage fell apart and shares the exhilaration and exhaustion of raising her young daughter and son.
What sets her book apart, and what I think will make it a ‘must-read’ for many years to come, is that Sarah brings a fresh approach to an old story. Bookshelves groan under the weight of the volumes written on the history and politics of the region— and we need those books. But we need other things too. Like this.
Sarah lets the Old City’s inhabitants tell her who they are and she does the hardest thing of all. She listens. Even when they say things that are very tough to hear. She forces herself to wrestle with complexity alongside her unshakable love for Israel. You don’t need to agree with Sarah’s politics to see the necessity of this approach. I can’t think of a better model for our young people— those who are questioning their connection to Israel, those who are disenchanted, even the most ardent Zionists.
No matter where you stand or what you believe you know, “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered” will rattle your certitude.
It will also inspire you. It takes courage to do what Sarah Tuttle-Singer did and emerge with undimmed optimism.
“The world is full of broken pieces,” she concludes, “and the world is full of people who want to put them back together. There are scorpions and there are the righteous and I am a mermaid in between all of these things.”