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Going crazy for Jerusalem

by michael June 10 2008
Municipal newsThings to do

 Ben Yehuda Street: ground zero for Jerusalem's various messiahs

In most of the world, madmen swathed in white robes furiously proclaiming to all within earshot that they are the embodiment of God sent to redeem humanity are kept out of heavily-trafficked public areas and hustled off to more environs more receptive to their message, like television. But in Jerusalem, crackpots who woke up one morning and found themselves Jesus are as accepted a part of the urban landscape as falafel and tight pants. The affliction, as every Jerusalem resident knows, is peculiarly local, and the city has given it its name: Jerusalem syndrome. Jerusalemites view the various babbling avatars of the Lord with something approximating affection: they're crazy, but they're Jerusalem's own special one-of-a-kind crazy, and even psychosis can be an excuse for civic pride.

The rest of the world is catching on, too. The Toronto Star recently published an article all about the history and various manifestations of Jerusalem syndrome. The most interesting find? People suffering from Jerusalem syndrome in its most advanced form are all Protestants.

In the medical literature, the condition is referred to as a form of "psychotic decompensation" or a "unique acute psychotic state."

Or, to put it in layman's terms, the City of Gold can have a strange effect on some people's heads. About 100 people a year, on average.

There's even a name for the sometimes-unnerving result.

They call it the Jerusalem syndrome.

It seems there is something about this lofty city of limestone walls, winding streets and cypress groves, a city redolent with the ancient histories of three great world religions, that makes some people go – not to put too fine a point on it – insane.

"People come to Jerusalem with deep religious convictions, and they go over the edge," says Jeremy Milgrom, a local rabbi.

In its so-called "pure" form, the phenomenon tends to follow a fairly consistent, if bizarre, pattern.

Within a day or so of arrival, some visitors to Jerusalem will gradually cease to interact with their travelling companions, first becoming obsessed with personal hygiene.

Before long, they are apt to don a white toga-like robe – hotel bedsheets are popular – before setting off on foot for the Old City or the Mount of Olives, where they will typically begin to preach a sermon, usually a plea for a return to a simpler, more spiritual life.

"They think they are Jesus themselves or they are someone who predicts Jesus's return," says Sigal Manor, an Israeli businesswoman who conducts organized tours designed around the phenomenon. "Every two or three months, I see something weird."

The pure form of the syndrome seems to affect Protestants almost exclusively, especially those from highly religious backgrounds.

So are the Catholics and Orthodox cooler customers overall, or does God simply prefer to speak through the medium of Protestants? Christian ecumenism may never be the same.

The article goes on to mention that, curiously, Muslims are not affected by Jerusalem syndrome. (Wait until that nugget of information pops up in the Jerusalem final status negotiating room.) And fortunately for all the putative scions of David out there, it seems the vast majority of syndrome sufferers quickly recover without any lasting ill effects.

Jerusalemite is curious to know how those suffering from the most extreme cases of Jerusalem syndrome - the ones declaiming and waving scepters in the streets - manage to make enough of a living to support their, um, hobby. Also, where do they get the rad scepters? To be accepted into the Jerusalem syndrome prophet's union, do you have to go the Jedi route and build your own, or is there a one-stop-Messianic-delusion-shop somewhere in the Old City market?
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