Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yom Yerushalayim Part II

Today, Jerusalem Day, I see throngs of Jewish youth and families clad in blue and white, clutching flags and glowing with the joy of the day as they pour in to Jerusalem from all over Israel.

Call me a soft touch but I still get a warm fuzzy feeling from seeing parents and children all clad in their Sabbath finest in honour of Yom Yerushalayim, starched white shirts gleaming in the sun, their faces overcome with the awe and gratitude of meriting to live in an era when Jews are free to come to the holy city once again ruled by a Jewish government after the millennia of our exile.

I too am awed at the privilege of being able to so casually walk over to the Western Wall to pray, of riding a bus whose route just happens to take us past the iconic walls of the Old City. I remember only too well my family's stories of visiting Jerusalem in the 50s and 60s, when not only were Judaism's holiest sites barred to Jews by the Jordanian occupation, but the city itself was divided through the centre by barbed wire and concrete barriers and walking through much of the city centre put Israelis at risk of Jordanian snipers who would from time to time take pot shots at civilians on the Israeli side of the armistice line. 

For all the problems and disputes faced by modern Jerusalem, how different it is today when older border areas like Mamilla, once a slum in the shadow of Jordanian snipers are now a glittering shopping and entertainment district where Jews, Arabs, Christians and tourists mingle in the just outside the walls of the Old City. I am not so naive as to think that Jerusalem's problems are solved, but neither am I so ungrateful as to ignore the improvements made in the last decades since the city was reunited. There is still much work to be done, but I am always hopeful.

More than anything though it is this everyday coexsitence, whether born of ideals or of practicality, that inspires me on Yom Yerushalayim. 

At one of my classes this morning the lecturer, a gifted man who is Bible scholar, historian and local tour guide, was talking about ancient Jerusalem in the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Not the most joyous of periods. The most striking concept I took away from that talk was his idea about Isaiah's prophecies in that bleak period.

A new world order was developing thoughout the region, Assyria ascendent was a new power bent on military and cultural domination on a scale not seen until then.

Assyrian kings like Tilgat Pileser and Sanheirib marched across the ancient Middle East sweeping the smaller ancient kingdoms and city states before them, relocating vast numbers of people in what was effectively cultural genocide, erasing historic cities, nations, faiths and languages in their wake, uniting the region under a cruel regime, one language and by default, increasingly one culture emanating from Ninveh. 

Alone in this tide of destruction Jerusalem managed to survive, even as Sanheirib's forces laid waste to the northern kingdom of Israel and the other major cities of the kingdom of Judah, most famously Lakhish. Jerusalem herself suffered siege, waves of refugees flooding the city, but at the end of the day whether one calls it divine miracle or luck, Sanheirib was forced to retreat in disgrace, the walls of Jerusalem unbreached, a lone beacon of resistance.

This was the backdrop for Isaiah's famous prophecies of peace, brotherhood, the wolf and the lamb and swords in to ploughshares, an ideological resistance to the crushing militarism being broadcast from the Assyrian capital Ninveh, its palaces adorned with images like the famous Lakhish frieze depicting in gruesome details the destruction of that Judean city, the torture of captured Judean officers and the pitiful Jewish refugees fleeing the scene. Isaiah's response was to respond with a rival vision for the region, embodied by emphasising the message of Jerusalem as a city of peace, compassion and the humanity.

The modern day ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital Ninveh are adjacent to the modern Iraqi Kurdish city of Mosul. It sits on the frontline of the regional war between the forces of the Islamic State (ISIL) and those Kurds, Shiites and Iraqi government forces opposing their advance. Modern Mosul and the nearby Assyrian ruins have been sacked by ISIL, the proud remnants of Assyrian power, their idols, temples and friezes, laid waste by ISIL weaponry because of their heretical pre-Islamic character. Were the Lakhish frieze not safely ensconsed in the Assyrian gallery of the British Museum it too would have met the same fate.

Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to the flames whipping around our region. Despite the conflicts and tensions, occasional acts of violence, its message is one of people who on a daily basis are managing to live together, to make the city work, whether by accident or design the closest emodiment of Isaiah's prophetic vision in the Middle East today. Jerusalem is far from perfect, but one of the messages of Yom Yerushalayim is very much this voice of Isaiah, an Israeli ruled Jerusalem which is open to all faiths and all peoples, a message that we can live together in this most sacred of cities.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Yom Yerushalayim Part 1

I'm delighted that this year I've been able to return to my Torah studies in Jerusalem, even more so that it's with my daughter in tow, having a chance to share with her not only the pleasure of in depth Bible study with some amazing scholars but also to have a weekly date with her in Jerusalem.

One of my greatest joys has always been spending time in Jerusalem, just walking her streets, riding the buses, being part of this wonderful frustrating holy impossible city and giving my daugher a more in depth knowledge of the city beyond its holiness and major historic sites, an appreciation for how special she is even in the mundane workings of her streets, neighbourhoods, markets and buses.

The Jerusalem stories that make the headlines tend not to be the everyday observations that are truly what make this city function. News reports only seem to pick up on points of tension, of Arab against Jew or rigid old school religious populations clashing with the city's more liberal populations. And it's true, yes, there is no shortage of problems here, of cultural conflict, of political and national aspirations doomed to butt heads it seems for all eternity.

And yet for me this is not the true headline of Jerusalem, this isn't the real news story. I can never read books when riding the buses, I'm too busy watching the people, my fellow passengers, the stories of the people outside my window. My Jerusalem is one which despite the international news reports to the contrary is one of de facto coexistence, disparate peoples thrust together and united by their love and connection to the city.

My Jerusalem is the young Hareidi ultra-Orthodox man hopping off the bus to aid an elderly lady, her gnarled hands trying to juggle hoisting herself on to the bus and her bulging bags of produce from the market. He nimbly grabs her bags in one hands, offers her his other to help her mount the steep step up from the street, and then gives up his seat to her so that she can sit quickly near the front of the bus before it lurches off on it's route.

It is the middle aged woman who sees a heavily pregnant woman and her frail elderly companion get on a crowded bus and who immediately sets about rearranging the passengers, Jews, Arabs, Christian clergy and tourists, so that these women will have somewhere to sit near the front. 

Or the older man who looks like he's doing an impression of the Fonz, all slicked dyed black hair, tight white t-shirt and gold medallion who sees an elderly couple struggling to get off the bus at their stop and hails the driver loudly "Driver, driver, wait up, what if these were your grandparents trying to disembark!" while at the same time holding the door open for them and lending a hand as they gingerly step down to the pavement, then helping a mother with a baby pram on to the bus, offering to go to the front to swipe her bus pass for her so she can stay with the unwieldy buggy and baby.

It is the teens and college students who've organised a sort of voluntary squad of helps who offer to carry heavy shopping for those doing their groceries at the Mahane Yehuda Market. The Arab produce vendor who seeds a poor Hareidi woman telling her children they can't afford the latest in season fruit and they'll have to make do with just the basics, so while she's rummaging in her purse he slips a an extra bag with fine winter red oranges and strawberries into her meagre shopping basket without her noticing. Turning to me, the next customer, he says, "It's a big holiday coming up you know (this is just around Hannukah), and the Sabbath soon, she should have something special for the children."

It is the fact that according to several studies and surveys beggars make more money in Jerusalem than anywhere else, this despite Jerusalem being one of Israel's poorer cities with many populations who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.

It is the young modern Orthodox Ethiopian yeshiva student in his white shirt and knitted yarmulka learning Gemara while riding the bus. An older Hassidic man gets on and sits next to him, peers over his shoulder at the page of Gemara, hesitates, and then in heavily Yiddish accented Hebrew asks the younger man about his studies. They spend the rest of the ride discussing the sugya. I'm sitting behind them and can just about make out that the matter at hand is Masekhet Brakhot, the section dealing with the blessings one makes over fruits and how one decides which to bless and eat first.

It is the ambulance pulling up to help someone who has collapsed in the street, and the paramedics who leap out of the vehicle are a modern Orthodox young woman and an Arab man. The ambulance driver looks Hassidic.

This is what I see every week as I wend my way across neighbourhood after neighbourhood, through the bustling Mahane Yehuda market and central bus station, quiet suburbs and historic stone clad streets in the heart of ultra-traditional Hassidic Jerusalem. This is my Jerusalem.