Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Think you are the messiah? Perhaps you have Jerusalem Syndrome.

Homer once got Jerusalem Syndrome
In some ways Jerusalem is unlike any other city in the world; home to the world’s three monotheistic religions and some of the most ancient and impressive architecture in the world.  In other ways it is like every other city. It is noisy, dirty and crowded. The buses belch exhaust at you as you walk down the street and the stray cats scamper between your feet as you make your way.

And like other cities in the world there is what I call the “personalities.” Those people who seem to make the city what it is. They are the people you see day- in and day-out who are as much a fixture of the city as the statues, fountains and buildings. 

In the time that my wife and I lived there we got to “know” several of Jerusalem’s personalities. 

There was “shekel shalom” who sat outside our apartment building on our way to work and school every day. We called him “shekel shalom” because we did not know his real name and that is all he ever said to us as we walked by. When you stopped and tried to talk to him he would simply repeat “shekel shalom,” even after you gave him shekel.

Just outside of Zion Gate was King David. Not the real one of course. This was a guy from Britain who dressed in a white toga and played a harp while singing to the tourists. He had a basket to collect money and a set of CDs for sale. This man was a panhandler’s panhandler. And the tourists loved him. He would greet them with a song as they got off the busses and they would respond with donations and the purchase of a CD or two. Rumor had it that he was putting his kids through college with what he made.

Inside the old city was a woman, dressed in a silky, purple toga. On her head was a purple turban with a metal menorah sown to the top. I am not sure what her story was, but she would sit in the Jewish Quarter and mumble or spin around in circles. I think she was predicting the return of the messiah, but I never was able to find out for sure.

What I did not see, however, was a genuine case of Jerusalem Syndrome. This is the name given to the condition suffered by those who, upon coming to Jerusalem, are overwhelmed and either think they are the messiah or the messiah’s messenger. WiredMagazine has an article this month on the syndrome and it is very interesting. They describe the syndrome as follows.

There’s a joke in psychiatry: If you talk to God, it’s called praying; if God talks to you, you’re nuts. In Jerusalem, God seems to be particularly chatty around Easter, Passover, and Christmas—the peak seasons for the syndrome. It affects an estimated 50 to 100 tourists each year, the overwhelming majority of whom are evangelical Christians. Some of these cases simply involve tourists becoming momentarily overwhelmed by the religious history of the Holy City, finding themselves discombobulated after an afternoon at the Wailing Wall or experiencing a tsunami of obsessive thoughts after walking the Stations of the Cross. But more severe cases can lead otherwise normal housewives from Dallas or healthy tool-and-die manufacturers from Toledo to hear the voices of angels or fashion the bedsheets of their hotel rooms into makeshift togas and disappear into the Old City babbling prophecy.

Treatment does exist and is often administered at the Herzog institute.

When people with Jerusalem syndrome show up at the hospital, doctors often just let them unspool their stories, however strange the narratives may seem. If the people aren’t dangerous, they are usually discharged. Violent patients might be medicated and kept under observation pending contact with their family or consulate. After all, the most effective treatment when it comes to Jerusalem syndrome is often pretty simple: Get the person the hell out of Jerusalem. “The syndrome is a brief but intense break with reality that is place-related,” Bilu says. “When the person leaves Jerusalem, the symptoms subside.”

But sometimes the victims are used for what seem to be cruel experiments.

Actually, it wasn’t that long ago that one respected Israeli physician put two patients who both claimed to be the Messiah in a room together just to see what would happen. Each rabidly accused the other of being an impostor, barking fire-and-brimstone threats.

In any case, as I said, it is a very interesting read. I have known a few people who acted like they were the messiah, but never met anyone who actually thought they were the messiah. But if you are planning a trip to Jerusalem you may want to read the article so as to be on the lookout in case one of your fellow tourists suddenly starts acting strange. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in a room with someone else arguing over who is the “real messiah.” Well, then . . . 


  1. I thought Jerusalem Syndrome was when folk become convinced they are one of the two witnesses from Revelation. Have you ever seen anything like that?

    1. Stuart, No, I have not. I think the syndrome manifests itself in different ways. Some people end up thinking they are other Bible characters and not necessarily the messiah or his messenger.