The Jerusalem Syndrome: Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah
February 25, 2012
Shortly after his 40th birthday, the life of a man we’ll call Ronald Hodge took a strange turn. He still looked pretty good for his age. He had a well-paying job and a devoted wife. Or so he thought. Then, one morning, Hodge’s wife told him she no longer loved him. She moved out the next day. A few weeks later, he was informed that his company was downsizing and that he would be let go. Not knowing where to turn, Hodge started going to church again.
Even though he’d been raised in an evangelical household, it had been years since Hodge had thought much about God. But now that everything seemed to be falling apart around him, he began attending services every week. Then every day. One night, while lying in bed, he opened the Bible and began reading. He’d been doing this every night since his wife left. And every time he did, he would see the same word staring back at him—the same four syllables that seemed to jump off the page as if they were printed in buzzing neon: Jerusalem. Hodge wasn’t a superstitious man, he didn’t believe in signs, but the frequency of it certainly felt like … something. A week later, he was 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on an El Al jet to Israel.
When Hodge arrived in Jerusalem, he told the taxi driver to drop him off at the entrance to the Old City. He walked through the ancient, labyrinthine streets until he found a cheap hostel near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He had a feeling that this was important. Supposedly built on top of the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and three days later rose from the dead, the domed cathedral is the holiest site in Christendom. And Hodge knew that whatever called him to the Holy Land was emanating from there.
During his first few days in Jerusalem, Hodge rose early and headed straight to the church to pray. He got so lost in meditation that morning would slip into afternoon, afternoon into evening, until one of the bearded priests tapped him on the shoulder and told him it was time to go home. When he returned to his hostel, he would lie in bed unable to sleep. Thoughts raced through his head. Holy thoughts. That’s when Hodge first heard the Voice.
Actually, heard is the wrong word. He felt it, resonating in his chest. It was like his body had become a giant tuning fork or a dowsing rod. Taking a cue from the sign of the cross that Catholics make when they pray, Hodge decided that if the vibrations came from the right side of his chest, it was the Holy Ghost communicating with him. If he felt them farther down, near the base of his sternum, it was the voice of Jesus. And if he felt the voice humming inside his head, it was the Holy Father, God himself, calling.
Soon, the vibrations turned into words, commanding him to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. None of this scared him. If anything, he felt a warm, soothing peace wash over him because he was finally being guided.
Not eating or drinking came easily at first. But after a week or so, the other backpackers at his hostel began to grow concerned. With good reason: Hodge’s clothes were dirty and falling off of him. He had begun to emit a pungent, off-putting funk. He was acting erratically, hallucinating and singing the wordJesus over and over in a high-pitched chirp.
“Jesus … Jesus … Jesus …”
Hodge camped out in the hostel’s lobby and began introducing himself to one and all as the Messiah. Eventually, the manager of the hostel couldn’t take it anymore. He didn’t think the American calling himself Jesus was dangerous, but the guy was scaring away customers. Plus, he’d seen this kind of thing before. And he knew there was a man who could help.
Herzog Hospital sits on a steep, sun-bakedhill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Its sprawling grounds are dotted with tall cedars and aromatic olive trees. Five floors below the main level is the office of Pesach Lichtenberg, head of the men’s division of psychiatry at Herzog.
Lichtenberg is 52 years old and thin, with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he moved to Israel in 1986 after graduating from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and has worked at Herzog more or less ever since. It’s here that he has become one of the world’s leading experts on the peculiar form of madness that struck Ronald Hodge—a psychiatric phenomenon known as Jerusalem syndrome.
On a bright, late summer morning, Lichtenberg greets me in the chaotic lobby of the hospital, smiling and extending his hand. “You missed it!” he says. “We had a new Chosen One brought into the ward this morning.” We go down to Lichtenberg’s office; on top of a bookcase is a giant shofar, a curved ram’s horn that religious Jews sound on the high holidays. A middle-aged British man under the doctor’s care had used it to trumpet the Messiah’s—that is to say, his own—coming. Lichtenberg explains that allowing me to meet his latest patient would violate hospital policy, and he can’t discuss ongoing cases. He’ll talk about past patients as long as I agree to de-identify them, as I did with Hodge. “But,” he adds, “that doesn’t mean we can’t try to find a messiah of our own. In a few days, we’ll take a walk around the Old City and maybe we’ll find one for you there.”
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.
Lichtenberg estimates that, in two decades at Herzog, the number of false prophets and self-appointed redeemers he has treated is in the low three figures. In other words, if and when the true Messiah does return (or show up for the first time, depending on what you believe), Lichtenberg is in an ideal spot to be the guy who greets Him…