Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Don't say that it was better in the old days...

I keep seeing people posting 100+ year-old photos of men and women praying side by side at the Kotel, examples of an imagined paradise time when everyone prayed together and all was groovy.

The reason there was no mehitza (ritual divider between men and women) at the Kotel was that at various times the Ottoman authorities (and later the British) would not allow it. There is a reason you hardly see any furniture there.

The British at one stage had soldiers stationed at the Kotel to make sure no Jews sat down or brought benches or chairs, even beating Jews who tried to set up a mehitza or bring furniture to the Kotel.

Jews were not allowed to pray loudly and Jews were arrested by the British for bringing and trying to blow the shofar at the site. It was far from being a golden era, Jews prayed at the Kotel in fear and at their own risk.

Haj Amin al-Hussein, the senior Muslim authority at the time in Jerusalem tried to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment by implying that any Jewish furniture or hanging of lanterns at the Kotel was part of a Jewish attempt to eventually seize al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount from Muslim control. This eventually escalated in to anti-Jewish riots and the massacre of scores of Jews, including the infamous 1929 massacre of 69 members of the Hebron Jewish community. The British responded with even more draconian restrictions of Jewish access to the Kotel.

When Israel did finally gain control of the Kotel, setting it up as a place of prayer, with a mehitza, chairs and aron kodesh was a powerful symbol of Jewish sovereignty over this most sacred site after so many foreign rulers had forbidden anything that might be construed as Jewish ownership of the site.

All this isn't to say that the current situation is ideal, far from it, but we shouldn't pine for an imagined golden era that never was nor necessarily ascribe modern ideals and values to our 19th and early 20th century ancestors.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

O Jerusalem

It's a pleasantly chillyish (by local standards) June evening in Jerusalem.

City traffic is fouled up for a change by a US diplomatic mission motorcade, with more streets closed off around the Old City for Ramadan prayers and festivities. Business as usual in this city of religious holidays and shuttle diplomacy.

In the swank Mamilla pedestrian mall the foot traffic is every bit as busy. Elegant and expensively dressed Muslim Jerusalemites are enjoying the magic of Ramadan nights buying new clothes in the upscale shops for the upcoming Eid el Fitr celebration, feasting at the popular restaurants and cafes, many with stunning views of Jerusalem's trademark Old City walls.

Among them throng the first of the summer tour groups, Christian and Jewish students and pilgrims, massive groups from China who seem as fascinated by the religious tourists as by the locals themselves, all part of the Jerusalem experience.

There's no shortage of Israeli Jewish pedestrians either of every type and every level of religiosity (or none), some local, many who've come from out of town especially for the free show being projected three times a night, every night for fifty nights in commemoration of the city's reunification in the June 1967 Six Day War.

The railings facing the 40 foot walls leading up to the Jaffa Gate are packed well before the start of the show, spectators already getting in to the mood with the medley of Jerusalem songs playing over the loudspeakers, many singing along.

My children watch the clock counting down with eager anticipation. They know the words to almost all these songs, most of which were already "oldies" when I was a child. Maybe I'm an old fogey but I've been raising them with the household soundtracks of my youth.

And with a dramatically projected ticking clock it begins. Verses from Psalms alternate with flashes of Jerusalem's pivotal role in Jewish history, from Abraham and Jacob, the founding fathers of our people, to Solomon's Temple and its destruction at the hands of the Babylonian Nebuchadnetzer, Jerusalem's rebuilding in the time of Ezra and Nehamiah, destruction by Rome and centuries upon centuries of gradual Jewish return in dribs and drabs from the many lands of our exile, culminating in the city's dramatic restoration process begun by Moses Montifiore in the 19th century, and which continues to this day.

I am not usually one to get the weepies, but seeing the words of the Psalmist "If I forget thee O Jerusalem" writ large upon the Old City ramparts I felt my heart swell with such emotion and my eyes start to tear with a mix of awe and joy and stunned wonder that I here I was in a generation privileged to see such things.

I remember as a child visiting Jerusalem with my mother and her showing me where in her student days in the late 50s and early 60s she and her friends would go in the then divided city to catch glimpses of the Old City and the Jewish sites that lay forbidden in Jordanian occupied sectors of the city, beyond the wall and the barbed wire.

They were warned not to take out cameras, lest a trigger happy Jordanian soldier on the wall take a pot shot. The Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Rachel's Tomb - Judaism's most sacred places, were a dream many Jews feared they would never live to see.

About twenty five years later she would point out where back then there had been barbed wire and no man's land but where today we walked freely across the road, or which areas had been considered dangerous because they were within Jordanian sniper range, including exposed chunks of the terrace in the legendary King David hotel. 

We would walk along the old "seam" between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors with her pointing out the tenements on the Israeli side which faced the armistice line, their windows narrow slits on the side facing the Jordanian guard posts for fear of sniper fire. It wasn't even twenty years then since Israel had unified the city.

Strolling down Jaffa Road to the Old City in those days required passing by a chunk of wasteland, a mix of derelict buildings, historic structures and open land, scars from the time of the city's division.

This evening I walked with my children through that very place, the beautifully refurbished and renovated Yemin Moshe, Mishkenot Shaananim and of course, the glittering Mamilla pedestrian mall. Jewish and Arab families enjoying the mild June evening as they watched the fountain display in Teddy Park, and yet more people filling the nearby restaurants of Hutzot Hayotzer.

I have quite literally seen so much of Jerusalem rebuilt within my lifetime I can only imagine what it must be like for those older than me who've seen so much more.

Oh Imma, would that you could see what it has become now, you who thirty and twenty years ago marvelled at the city's rebirth in the wake of its 1967 reunification. how much it has grown and developed only in the last decade.

And so I could not hold back the tears at the scenes of the liberation of the Old City by the Israeli army in 1967. The paratroops wending their way through the alleys, the iconic photo of the tired but elated faces of the three soldiers at the Kotel, the historic radio message "The Temple Mount is in our hands". All bold text and lifelike pictures projected on to the city's 40 foot walls where once enemy snipers held the city's Jewish residents in fear of their lives. Two thousand years of blood, exile and tears brought to life on these walls which symbolised the hope of our people to return home from every remote corner of our exile.

I wept too because I grew up hearing this story first hand from people who lived it, from the tragic fall of the Old City to the Jordanians and subsequent exiling of its Jews during Israel's War of Independence to the fraught battles around Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. The restoration of Jewish sovereignty to our ancient capital and most sacred city may be miraculous, but it certainly has not been without cost.

My uncle told me how he visited the Kotel for the first time merely days after its liberation, the Old City still freshly scarred from the battles, exhausted dirty soldiers with vacant eyes trying to comprehend the whirlwind events, weeping soundlessly as they caressed the ancient stones.

My grandmother's eyes would grow moist as she recalled her visit to Jerusalem in the summer of 1967, part of a sea of Jews from across Israel and the world who descended on the Holy City to finally behold Judaism's most sacred heartland with their own eyes for the first time in their lives.

Fifty years later here I was with my family, my daughter celebrating her bat mitzva birthday in the year of Jerusalem's unification jubilee, watching the mix of history, Psalms, poetry and yes, also sentimental Israeli kitsche, play across the walls, broadcasting our love and yearning for Zion across the years and exiles.

This Jerusalem which today is the biggest and most sprawling it has ever been in all the thousands of years of its history, teeming with Torah learning, science, art, music and such a mix of peoples, languages and cultures, but at its heart, once more the living, breathing centre of Jewish life as in the days of ancient Israel. And my tears were tears of joy and tears of awe at this wonder of wonders.