Sarah Tuttle-Singer has a complicated relationship with Jerusalem’s Old City.
As she reveals in her book, “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem,” published in May by Skyhorse Publishing, it’s the place of refuge she sought as a teenager, after experiencing a harrowing sexual assault in her adopted town up north, and where she underwent another traumatic incident after escaping there.
Now Tuttle-Singer, in her trademark jeans, tank top and high-heeled ankle boots, silver chains dangling from her neck and bracelets clanking on her wrist, is well-known along the cobblestoned alleys and narrow streets of the Old City.
This is where Tuttle-Singer chose to write her ode to Jerusalem and its people, in her singular, personal style familiar to her thousands of Facebook followers, sharing what often feels like deeply personal experiences that have affected her views on Israel and how she carefully considers her place in it.
It’s not necessarily easy reading every section of Tuttle-Singer’s book, divided into seasons and which jumps back and forth from the past to the present, from her fairly idyllic childhood in southern California to her initial visits in Israel and to her relationships, including an abusive boyfriend, her Israeli ex-husband with whom she’s on excellent terms, and all the people in between.
“By the time I’ve shared it, I’m over it, it’s been processed and that means I’ve let go of it,” said Tuttle-Singer.
(Tuttle-Singer had her father read the book beforehand because “he didn’t know about half of the things that happened and he was so sorry,” she said. “It wasn’t easy for him but that probably was the biggest hurdle.”)
Tuttle-Singer used pseudonyms and hid her locations in order to protect the innocent and the guilty, and to protect people who shared personal matters, whether it’s a friend in the Jewish Quarter or another friend in the Muslim Quarter.
“I put myself in situations where there’s a full life experience, good and bad, and most have been beautiful, gripping even, holy,” she said. “Just in this last year alone, there were experiences that I couldn’t have had if I hadn’t walked into one place or knocked on a door. But there’s a price for that too, and that is that I do find myself in vulnerable situations.”
From Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: “And later on that day, there was the boom of a stun grenade and hundreds of people were running toward me – the same ones who were chanting Death to the Jews only moments before, the same people who were so angry, but now their faces were all stricken – identical masks of sheer terror, eyes bulging, mouths pulled back into a rictus, shouting, screaming.
“I had never seen such a thing before, and I was afraid, too, because there was that loud noise, and there was smoke, and so many people, and I ran with them, and in that moment, I was just as Palestinian as they were, except I’m not, because I’m Jewish, and whoever fired that stun grenade did it to protect people like me, except I was in this terrified crowd of people, running suddenly afraid, and if someone shot at us with rubber bullets, I would be just as hit as they were, and we were all there, sweat dripping, fingers splayed, and I could smell my fear like a wild animal – like I smelled in that room the night with the Grey Man, like I smelled by Damascus Gate.
“Oh God, we are so human. So, so HUMAN with our blood and our sweat and our stink from fear and yearning, and our bones, too, we are so easily torn apart, and broken, so emptied, and left like corn husks to dry in the wind.”
Still, the Old City called to Tuttle-Singer, perhaps because of its pull on her deceased mother, who instilled a love of Israel and Jerusalem in her only child.
After moving to Israel seven years ago with her two children and soon-to-be Israeli ex-husband, and eventually settling and staying on the kibbutz where he was raised, she chose to spend a year of her life in the Old City, exploring the cross-sections of this complex set of neighborhoods within the larger complexities of Jerusalem and the state of Israel.
At Arafat Hummus, a popular joint in the city’s Muslim Quarter, she’s greeted by the manager, and later by a visiting professor from Vanderbilt University, who’s also eating hummus for brunch.
Walking through the market, proprietors say hello, sometimes letting her know if they have a new scarf or ring in their shop.
At one gallery, the owner consults with Tuttle-Singer about a new earring design, telling her that he’ll proudly display her book on his shelves when it’s published.
For Tuttle-Singer, spending time in the Old City helped balance her learning curve. She had conversations with all kinds of people, and her anger subsided, allowing her to see that one narrative is true but so is the other.
It’s one she feels she can navigate because she’s not a journalist, but rather a storyteller.
“If people hate what I’m writing, they still care, they’re still engaged,” she said. “Some kernel changes in them when they read a different perspective, I know it happens to me all the time. And sometimes the flip side is I care too much.”
Her politics began shifting a few years ago from a more traditionally centrist, American Zionist approach to something more liberal, as Israeli society seemed to drift more to the right.
“I was spending more time in Jerusalem and in the Old City, and thought about how it feels to know that your house can be entered at any time but you can’t vote for the minister who oversees your life,” said Tuttle-Singer, referring to the complicated legal status of many East Jerusalem Arabs.
While sitting at a Ramadan Iftar feast, overlooking the red-roofed houses of the Jewish town of Modi’in Illit, she considered the kids of the local Arab village, and how they felt looking into that suburban enclave.
“How would I feel about Jews if I looked at this hill?” she said.
“I can see how frustration can begin. It was all brewing in my mind, and I was getting angrier.”
It made her think about life for her own kids, about their typical Israeli regional school where they don’t come into regular contact with Arabs, Ethiopians or asylum seekers. As a result of her own experiences, she has slowly exposed them to her Arab friends from the Old City.
The Old City, however, is still a microcosm, a different kind of place where Arabs and Jews do cross paths, yet it doesn’t fully represent Israel, allowed Tuttle-Singer.
She thinks about living in the Old City full-time, on the seam between quarters, which is akin to her current status in the ancient neighborhoods.
“I think I’m supposed to live on the edge,” she said. “It’s not easy, but I like it. I’m filled by it and fed with it. I feel like I have a sense of Jerusalem’s rhythms. I’m sensitive to the feelings of people around me, and can feel when the city’s angry, when it’s more playful and I behave accordingly.”
She is, however, a survivor. She’s learned how to process all of these events that have happened to her and those around her, and she has toughened up.
“I yell now, I don’t take it,” she said, of the situations when someone, often a man, wants to scare her, take advantage of her. “My default is to want to share with people but I also no longer suffer fools. Each time gets a little bit easier.”
Tuttle-Singer has changed in the five years since she began working as the Times of Israel’s new media editor, following her blog post about the rabbi and the vibrator, a post that went viral.
She still shares, a lot, but she is more careful, and far more sophisticated about what she chooses to write.
“In some ways, my skin is thicker,” she said. “When you reach out to those who write cruel things, they end up apologizing and sometimes things end up reshuffling. One woman felt deep remorse and asked me to please forgive her and I said let’s have coffee next time you’re in Jerusalem. It’s hard to feel that when you’re meeting face to face.”
She doesn’t feel she deserved anything that happened to her, but she also acknowledges that if she’d stayed home, she wouldn’t have experienced any of it.
And while she’s a Jewish American Israeli, a lover of Jerusalem who still savors her vanilla lattes when visiting the States, she loves the highs and the lows of the Old City, the rooftops and “all the spaces in between.”