Tag Archives: holidays

Sukkot: The Holiday of Harvests

Date palms of Mevuot Yericho, in the rain shadow of the mountains of the Judean desert
Date palms of Mevuot Yericho, grow in the rain shadow of the mountains of the Judean desert

When we received the announcements of tours for the intermediate days of Succot, I looked to go somewhere we hadn’t been yet, do something new. The One Israel Fund trip to the area east of Jerusalem looked interesting, especially since it promised we would pick dates in Mevuot Yericho, in the Jordan River Valley. We’ve been to a date farm but had never picked the fruit, so we signed up for the trip.

Dates are one of the Biblical Seven Species that grow in the land of Israel. In the Book of Deuteronomy (8:8) the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is described as a land of “wheat, barley, grape vines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey.” So how do dates get to be included among the Seven Species?

In ancient times, “honey” did not refer to the substance made by bees that we are familiar with. Wild bees were too hard to find, and collecting their honey could be dangerous. But dates were readily available, especially in desert areas. In those days there were more species of dates than today. The Romans recorded fifty different types of dates that grew in the area of Jericho alone. Many of them were softer and more moist than today’s dates. The dates were boiled and the syrup used as a sweetener, called honey.

The traditional seven species could never appear on a table together, because each one ripens at a different time of the year. The agricultural cycle in Israel is reflected in these products, and each one is associated with a particular holiday.

The first holiday of the cycle is Passover, celebrated in the Spring, at the time of the barley harvest. Seven weeks later, as the wheat is ripening, we celebrate Shavuot. Shavuot is referred to in the book of Exodus as Hag hakatzir, the holiday of wheat reaping. The Fall holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, occur during the gathering of grapes, figs, pomegranates, and dates.

I’ve been watching the pomegranates and figs ripen on neighbors’ trees. Both fruits have noticeably ripened in the last few weeks. So I was looking forward to picking some ripe dates.

Or perhaps not. Date trees grow straight and tall, with one central stem, like grasses. The date palm does not have branches. The leaves all spread out at the top of the growing trunk, and the fruit hang down from that point as well. By the time the palm is old enough to be producing a crop, the tree is tall—very tall. On trips to the Jordan Valley, I had noticed the special fork lift trucks that are employed during the date harvest. A platform was raised high above the ground for the pickers to stand on. The more I thought about standing on an open platform, reaching up to pick dates, the less enthusiastic I felt.

Doron in his orchard of 13 year-old date palms at Mevuot Yericho
Doron in his orchard of 13 year-old date palms at Mevuot Yericho

Doron, the head of date farming orchard at Mevuot Yericho escorted us on a walk through the orchard. He told us he had grown up in France, but had felt out of place. He wanted to live in a place with more Jews and to connect with our land. After studying biotechnology, Doron made aliyah seventeen years ago and settled in Mevuot Yericho  An agricultural research station was being set up here, which matched his interests– to grow a crop suited to the desert and connected with Jewish tradition.

I ancient times date trees were symbolic of Judea and Israel. The date palm even represents Judea on some Roman coins minted in the area. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, many Jewish farmers went into exile. With no one to care for them, most of the date species in the land became extinct. By the tenth century CE, no date palms could be found in the land.

When the Jewish pioneers returned in the 19th century, they wanted to reintroduce date farming. They traveled all over the Middle East and brought as many species of dates to Israel as possible. As part of determining which species matched the land’s growing conditions, they also had to learn how to cultivate the plant.

The date is one of the few plants which cannot sexually reproduce by itself. An individual tree is either male or female. The pollen produced by the male date palm is spread by the wind to pollinate the flowers on nearby female trees. As the fruit begins to develop, the farmers carefully, and quickly, cull the smaller fruits from each date cluster, so the others fruits will grow to larger size. Then each stem which supports a hanging cluster is hand tied to a nearby leaf to support the developing fruits. As the time for harvest draws near, workers tie mesh bags around each cluster to protect it from insects and birds.

Surprisingly for a plant which grows in the desert, the date needs large amounts of water. To get it, date roots grow very deep. However, it does not need fresh water to survive. The date palm is one of the few plants that can use brackish water, water with a higher amount a salt in it.

Doron reached into the leaves growing out of the trunk of one of the trees, and isolated a leaf that had not opened yet. It was folded in on itself, with a triangular cross section. This was a lulav, the long palm leaf that we combine with branches of myrtle and willow and the etrog (citron) to wave during the special Sukkot prayers. He cut it off and passed it around for us to examine.

I looked around the orchard and noticed the trees here had no dates hanging from them. Where were the trees we would pick dates from?

Then I realized that I had forgotten an important thing about the agricultural cycle– the calendar. The Jewish Calendar is a lunar calendar, so the year is eleven days shorter than the solar year. Adhering to a strict lunar calendar would quickly mess up the holiday-harvest synchrony. Therefore, periodically, the Jewish year has to catch up with the solar year. It does so by inserting an extra month seven times in a nineteen year cycle.

Last year was a leap year. An extra month, Adar II, was inserted after the regular month of Adar. Thus all the holidays since last Passover have been “late,” as reckoned by the secular solar calendar. Doing so caused the date harvest in the Jordan Valley to end before Succot started. I was more relieved than disappointed that I wouldn’t be hoisted up in the air to participate in the harvest. My date picking experience was reduced to picking a box of them to buy from the stack on the table.

Medjool dates
Allen holds Medjool dates

Doron opened a box of the Medjool dates for us to taste. The Medjool dates are the big brown ones, two three bites of delicious sweetness. No wonder Europeans pay 100 NIS for a kilo. Here at the farm, we paid 35 NIS for a kilo.

Dates are considered a perfect desert food. They are easily portable and full of slowly digested sugars. The small Deglet dates have about 25 calories each, while the large Medjool dates are about 66 calories each.

But when confronted by a plate of dates, like most people, I don’t think of calories, I think of the taste. It’s Succot; the date harvest has just ended. It’s time to enjoy one of the Seven Species.

Location of Mevuot Yericho:

Rosh HaShanah: Counting Guests

Symbolic foods for Rosh HaShanah Photo by Susie Lubell via Flickr Creative Commons
Symbolic foods for Rosh HaShanah: apples, honey, carrots, beets, pomegranate, leeks, dates, head (usually fish or sheep head, here head of cabbage) Photo by Susie Lubell via Flickr Creative Commons

I once read about a tribe somewhere on an island in the Pacific, or maybe it was in Africa, that had such a primitive culture that they counted “one, two, many.” I felt like I had suddenly joined them on Rosh HaShanah this year.

As on almost every Shabbat that we are home, we had invited some of the students at Machon Meir to have a meal with us. Sometimes, Allen (known to them by his Hebrew name Baruch) says to someone in his Gemara class, “If you don’t have other plans, would you like to join us for dinner Erev Shabbat?”

Most weeks the invitations are second hand. Baruch tells the madrich  (dorm counselor) that we have room for two or four guests, and the madrich sends us guys who have signed that week’s “Hospitality Needed” list.

Almost every week we also end up with last minute guests. Somebody forgot to sign the list, or suddenly couldn’t face a noisy dinner with a hundred other students, eating institutional food and singing Shabbat songs through the meal. Sometimes a young man, still unfamiliar with the neighborhood, forgets where his host for the evening lives. Or perhaps he was supposed to meet his host at evening services, and the host didn’t show.  

Whatever.

Baruch returns from synagogue bringing an unexpected guest or two.

I’ve learned to cope with it. I cook generously for Shabbat. We always have what to feed hungry students. We have plenty of chairs—we have a stack of plastic chairs we bought to use outside in the Succah. The problem can be finding room at the table. Which brings me back to Rosh HaShanah.

I thought I knew how many guests I was feeding at each meal. I had made menus and cooked, complaining about the lack of a big freezer as I did so. Back in the US, I cooked during the summer for the holidays. By the end of August, the freezer was filled with gallons of chicken soup and vegetable soup, lasagne and chicken casseroles, apple and peach pies, and pumpkin, chocolate chip, and chocolate cakes. Maybe I’d made some round challahs, studded with raisins, for the holidays and frozen them as well.

But my Israeli top-of-the-refrigerator freezer won’t hold all that. So I started cooking the week before Rosh HaShanah. After squeezing chocolate chip cakes in, I could barely close the freezer door. To accommodate liters of chicken soup, I moved two chickens and the brisket into the refrigerator, where they could defrost slowly before being cooked. The lasagne would stay in the refrigerator from Thursday until Tuesday. Friday morning and Sunday then became marathon days of cooking and cleaning.

By candle lighting time, I was ready for Rosh Hashanah. I walked to Daniel and Aliza’s house for dinner. I felt secure in the knowledge that all I would have to do on Monday and Tuesday would be to warm up the main courses and chop some parsley to add to a salad.

And that’s where it all began to go crazy. I had planned a dairy meal for lunch on the second day of the festival. Four meat meals in three days is too heavy for me, so I prefer to have at least one dairy meal. The second day Daniel and Aliza were coming for lunch, and I knew they like lasagna. Except, as Aliza reminded me, Moshe and Sara don’t eat lasagna and would probably refuse to even taste the corn pudding. Rather than serve them plain pasta for the festive meal, I mentally changed the menu to pot roast and chicken. There were sure to be enough left over from the previous two meals

Baruch set the table for eight people for lunch before he left for synagogue Monday morning. The pot roast had cooked on the plata (warming tray) all night; when I got home I put the cooked potatoes and salmon on the plata to warm up.

Since none of our guests from the Yeshiva had ever been here before, Baruch stopped there before coming home. Although most of the students were new this year, they were not strangers. I had met them all during the English department’s Shabbaton in Tekoa, just two days earlier. One of the expected young men was a no-show, so I quickly removed one place setting from the table.

Monday evening everyone arrived at once. It seemed like a large crowd. By the time Baruch came in, at the end of the line, I didn’t need him to tell me we had three extra guests. That made eleven people to fit around our table, a table made to seat eight people comfortably when the extra leaf is in place, and ten if they don’t mind a little crowding.

 While Baruch, with the help of several guests, added three place settings and chairs to the table, the sister of one of the students came into the kitchen to help me. She is spending this year working as an intern at a high-tech company in Tel Aviv, and had stayed overnight with us during the summer. That weekend, as now, she helped with last minute preparations for the meal. While she washed three wine glasses, I put six or seven chicken schnitzels on the plata,  and got the salads out of the refrigerator.

I moved the symbolic foods for the holiday to the table: apples, to dip in honey so we have a sweet year and pomegranate, so our merits increase to the number of seeds in a pomegranate. Some of the foods are eaten because their Hebrew or Yiddish name lends itself to a fortuitous play on words. Thus, we also eat carrots and black-eyed peas to increase our merits, beets so our enemies will be removed, dates so that our enemies will come to their ends, and pumpkin or other gourd so that decrees against us will be torn up.

Lunch the second day was Daniel, Aliza, and their four children. Two friends our age also came from the Yeshiva, one of whom was expected. But we had enough leftover pot roast and roast chicken, plus another package of store-bought chicken schnitzel for the main courses, enough salads, and enough cake and apple pie for dessert to make sure no one went away hungry.

Later I reflected on  the holiday. We served meals to 22 guests, plus Baruch and me at each meal. Five states and eight different countries–Switzerland, Poland, Germany, India, Namibia, South Africa, the US,and Israel (native born)– were represented at the table. We all spoke English, with an occasional smattering of Hebrew thrown in for good measure.

Thank G-d for the stores that sell disposable dishes and flatware. If not for them, I’d have spent half the day washing dishes and silver. As it was, I had to wash all our silver kiddush cups, the wine glasses, and every serving spoon and dish that we own, twice. 

Hachnasat orchim, hospitality to guests, is considered an important mitzvah. In the morning prayers every day, we include this in the list of mitzvot whose “fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come.” We have been in the habit of inviting friends, Yeshiva students, and Birthright participants to fulfill the mitzva. And it’s always fun to see what we have in common with people from all over the world, and to learn how people manage in places where there are few Jews.

Of course, I’m not the only one who cooks for an unknown number of people on Shabbat and holidays. I was discussing the situation last week with Ruth, who lives in the Old City. Her late husband frequently brought tourists who were at the Kotel home for Shabbat dinner. She said, “But of course, you always know in advance the number of people who will be at your table—many!”

So I’m not the only woman in Jerusalem who counts, ”one, two, many!”

Kaytana Savta Keeps Grandparents Busy


August is the end of the summer, the last month of Hofesh hagadol, the big vacation. Even the Yeshivas with eleven-month academic years give students three weeks off at this time of year. The professionally-run day camps have completed their sessions. Children are freed from all scheduled activities. But—and herein lies the problem—most parents still have to work.

The solution? Grandparents. IF you’re lucky enough to have some on call. And IF they are energetic enough to keep up with the grandchildren.

Kaytana Saba is in session. Or in my case, Kaytana Savta.

Four weeks ago, we had all three Bernstein girls overnight. We spent most of one day at the Bloomfield Science Museum. I’m not sure if they learned any science, but they had fun playing with the blocks and levers, looking at the plants, and playing with the optical illusions. We also saw a 3D video that compared the lives of two small rodents facing life-threatening challenges in very different habitats. The young chipmunk in a northern forest had to find and store food for the winter, fighting a larger older chipmunk to protect his supplies. The young desert rat had to find food and escape from a large snake on his first foray from the nest into the surround desert. Who would have thought you could care so much about the fate of these tiny creatures? But we all held our breath and rooted for these brave little rodents to make it through their day.

I don’t do well at 3D movies; an ear infection when I was studying pediatric nursing has left me with a tendency to get dizzy. Closing my eyes at a few critical junctures got me through the film without losing my breakfast.

I was not the only grandparent at the museum that day. A quick glance around the auditorium revealed me that audience members were either under the age of 12 or over 60. Not that I needed proof by then. All morning I had heard children calling ”Saba!” or “Savta!” No child called for their father or mother to come see what they had just discovered.

On Wednesday we had gone to a “multi-sensory show” about Jerusalem. That’s how the publicity describes it. The video screens surround the audience, not just on the sides, but on the floor and ceiling as well. The seats were equipped with safety belts and a safety bar.

The seats tilted and vibrated as the video swooped through the city’s narrow streets and over the red rooftops. Again, I had to control my dizziness by closing my eyes in a couple spots. The kids loved the experience. And once again, I sat in audience of people my age and their grandchildren. Kaytana Savta on a field trip.

As soon as we left the theater, the girls announced they were hungry. Unfortunately, we were in the Mamilla mall, an upscale shopping area in what for years had been falling apart ruins by the Old City walls. Given my granddau

Reaching up, to try to kiss the mezuza on the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem
Reaching up, to try to kiss the mezuza on the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

ghters’ tastes in food, I was not about to pay Mamilla prices for lunch. But I knew a pizza place in the Old City. “The Jaffa Gate,” I said, “is up there, at the end of the stores.”

I’m not sure they would have agreed to pizza in the Rova if they had known it would be a half hour walk. But they were eager to go. We spent a few minutes at the Jaffa Gate as Yael clowned around trying to reach up to kiss the large mezuza.

Walking to the pizza place, it struck me. Here I was, in the heart of the Holy City, walking through the Jewish Quarter, as if it was a normal thing to do. I grew up thinking of Jerusalem’s Rova the same way I thought about the moon. It was there, but inaccessible. The moon was inaccessible because of physics; the Old City inaccessible because of politics. Both situations changed in the late 1960s. And although I’ll never walk on the moon, walking through the Jewish Quarter has become so ordinary, I thought nothing of taking my granddaughters there for a slice of pizza and an ice cream cone.

When I was a teenager, any access to the Old City of Jerusalem for Jews was a dream. Today it is a reality. My grandchildren are growing up taking for granted their ability to walk the streets of the Holy City.

May they always do so.

Tisha b’Av Around the Walls of the Old City

Marching around Jerusalem's old city walls on the eve of Tisha b'Av. The Mount of Olives is in the background
Marching around Jerusalem’s old city walls on the eve of Tisha b’Av. The Mount of Olives is in the background

Saturday night, in observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av (Ninth of Av), I walked around the walls of Jerusalem, with more than a thousand other people. Our route took us past the New Gate, Damascus Gate, and Herod’s or the Flowers Gate. We stopped at the Lions’ Gate, also once called St. Stephen’s Gate to listen to some speeches.Then we continued past the Gate of Mercy, sometimes referred to as the Golden Gate. The official march ended at the Dung Gate, the closest one to the Kotel.

The Ninth of Av, known in Hebrew as Tisha b’Av, is a day of religious mourning for many tragedies in our history. The fast has become the day on which we mourn the destruction of Beitar in 135 CE and the horrors of the Crusades and the expulsion from Spain. But it is the destruction of the First and Second Temples that set the observance.

The destruction of the First Temple and the burning of Jerusalem by the Babylonians occurred on the Ninth of Av, 586 BCE. Eicha, the Biblical book of Lamentations, was written by the prophet Jeremiah to record the horrors of that period. It is this book we read on the evening of the fast. A little more than six hundred years later the Romans destroyed the Second Temple on the same date.

Women in Green revived the old practice of walking around Jerusalem’s walls on Tisha b’Av twenty years ago, in keeping with their motto, “The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.” People came to the public reading of Eicha in Independence Park. We then walked around the Old City, as an expression of love for the city and resolve to keep Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

The gates we walked past were familiar to me—I’ve often ridden by them on the bus. But the gates in the northern and eastern walls have been increasingly dangerous lately and I have not gone anywhere near them. I did approach the New Gate last month while on a walking tour of the Christian Quarter. It was constructed in the nineteenth century across the street from the Notre Dame Convent to give Christians living in the new city easy access to holy sites. Using this new opening, they could travel to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher without having to walk through the Muslim Quarter.

The Damascus Gate, about 500 meters east of the New Gate, has received much publicity in the last few months, most of it negative. As one of the gates into the Muslim Quarter, it has been the site of several terrorist attacks against both Jewish civilians and police. The Damascus Gate, called Sha’ar Shechem in Hebrew, offers the most direct route to the Kotel from the north. For this reason, religious Jews built Mea She’arim and several other neighborhoods close to it in the late 19th century. Their location put these neighborhoods directly on the border between Israel and Jordan after 1948. But since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, residents of Mea She’arim once again walk to the Kotel through this gate.

For most of the time since 1967, the Damascus Gate has been peaceful. It is the largest and most beautifully decorated of all the gates to the Old City. About twenty years ago, Allen and I walked on top of the walls from the Jaffa Gate to the Damascus Gate. We then descended to below the level of today’s gate to see the remains of the Roman guard post and the base of the two thousand year old gate, under the present wall. I would not do that today without a well armed escort.

Chani in front og the Damascus Gate also called Sha'ar Shechem
Chani in front og the Damascus Gate also called Sha’ar Shechem

There were many border police along the route we walked. Three to five officers stood at almost every corner. Five of them stood on the other side of the barricade, watching as Chani, one of my guests for the weekend, posed for a photo near the Damascus Gate. Barricades prevented us from actually going down to the gate. It seemed to me, by the way they looked at Chani, that their sole purpose Saturday night was to stop anyone from jumping over the fence and running down the stairs to the gate itself. But I was able to snap a good picture and we moved on without incident.

The Tisha b’Av crowd continued to walk east on Sultan Suleiman Street. The wide street is named for Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Emperor responsible for rebuilding the city walls from 1536 to 1541. Opposite us, we could see small groups of Arab gathered in the shadows at the ends of the intersecting streets staring at us. A woman who had been on the march around the walls the last few years said that the Arabs had shouted at them as they walked on Sultan Suleiman. But this year they were quiet. For the most part, those marching talked quietly to each other. There was none of the provocative loud singing that accompanies Israelis when they march en masse into the Old City to the Kotel on Jerusalem Day or Independence Day. But then, Tisha b’Av is a day of fasting and mourning, not celebrating.

We walked past Herod’s Gate and around the northeast corner of the Old City. As we walked along the eastern base of the city wall, we could see the Mount of Olives rising out of the Kidron Valley to our left. Lights allowed us to identify buildings on top of the hill: the observatory tower at Hebrew University, the steeple of Augusta Victoria Hospital, the Seven Arches Hotel. The slopes of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives were visible in the light from the city walls.

At the Lions’ Gate we stopped for speeches by dignitaries. Chani and I found a spot to sit on the curb almost directly opposite the speakers. We were able to hear them clearly, without any echo. Speakers included Jerusalem’s deputy mayor Dov Kalmonivich, Deputy Minister of Defense Eli Dahan, and Member of Knesset (MK) Yehuda Glick. The speaker I remember the best, however, was Professor Arye Eldad, perhaps because after he spoke in Hebrew, he repeated it in English.

Dr. Eldad started by talking about the bronze bust of Hadrian, which was found forty years ago in Beit Shean. Every year his father, also Prof. Eldad, went to the Israel Museum on Tisha b’ Av. He would stand in front of Hadrian’s bust and say “Nu? Nu? What do you say? Where is the great Roman Empire today? Where are we? Your bones are just dust, but we, we are here.”

He continued, the story is not simple, because although Hadrian did not destroy the Jewish spirit, he still hovers over us. He had wanted to destroy the memory of Jews from Jerusalem. Hadrian renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and changed the name of the Roman province from Judea to Syria Palestina. The name still pursues us today. Eldad concluded, now we need to erase the name Palestine, and reclaim our name and our city.

From the Lions’ Gate, we continued along the eastern city wall. On this side of the city. The hill is too steep to see much of the wall. Although from a bus window, you can see the Gate of Mercy, standing in the roadway, you can’t.

Not that there is much to see. The Muslims closed the gate with large limestone blocks in 810 CE prevent the Moshiach (Messiah) from entering the city. This part of the wall, complete with its non-functioning gate, was still standing seven hundred years later when Suleiman included it in his new city wall. It remains standing today. No doubt it will still stand there when the Moshiach arrives at the End of Days, at which time it will miraculously open.

From the Kidron Valley, we turned west to walk along the southern wall up to the Dung Gate. It’s a steep climb. The hour being almost midnight helped us. We couldn’t see landmarks clearly, so did not realize just how long the climb is. With the coming of darkness, the temperature had dropped, so it was no longer as hot as it had been during the day. I was surprised when we arrived at the Dung Gate—I had expected the walk to take longer. Much longer.

Like many of the other participants in the march, we entered the Old City, and

Women's section of the Kotel at midnight on Tisha b'Av
Women’s section of the Kotel at midnight on Tisha b’Av

walked down to the Kotel. The plaza was crowded. The custom is to sit on the ground or on a low chair. Nevertheless, I was grateful to find a regular chair to sit on so I could rest my aching back and hips. A large group of men was singing quiet songs appropriate to the mood of the day. On our side of the mechitza, a large group of women was also singing. The voices blended in a beautiful harmony that put me in a contemplative mood. I’d have been willing to sit there for hours, listening, if I hadn’t been so tired. The idea of falling off my chair kept me just barely awake until my friends were ready to leave.

The number 1 bus picked us up at the exit from the Kotel Plaza. I watched out the window as we drove through the Dung Gate and past the Tanners’ Gate. Most people don’t know that this opening in the wall a short distance west of the Dung Gate even has a name. Built in the old walls in the middle ages, it was re-opened in the 1980s to relieve some of the pressure from the gate just to its east. Like the Damascus Gate, the Tanner’s Gate is for pedestrians only.

As we drove up the hill, we passed the Zion Gate, invisible from the road because of the curve of the slope. Although we drove along the western side of the Old City, the road curves away from the walls before it reaches the Jaffa Gate. But then the road curves again. I looked out the window and saw the New Gate, completing my circle. Even if I didn’t walk the whole way, I traveled past all the gates of city on Tisha B’Av.

Link to map of the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, indicated by yellow stars. The Gate of Mercy is labeled Golden Gate , on the eastern side of the Old City. For some reason known only to Google Maps, on the northern wall, Herod’s Gate is labelled in Hebrew שער הפרשחים.

>https://www.google.co.il/maps/@31.7786535,35.2266621,15z/data=!4m2!10m1!1e1?hl=en

Remembering 23,447: Yom Hazikaron

Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.May 10 2016.
Yom Hazikaron ceremony of Noam School.

The white-haired man walking in front of me put down his briefcase and stood at attention. The soldier at the bus stop across the street removed his overstuffed backpack and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring towards the sky. One of the clerks came out of the health food store and walked to the curb, where he stood saying quietly saying Psalms. Two people who had just entered their parked cars got out and stood next to the open car doors.

The siren blared.

The bus stopped a few feet past the bus stop it had just left. All the traffic stopped—nothing moved. Some drivers got out of their cars and stood in the middle of the street. The light rail halted between stations. At the military cemetery on Har Herzl, Allen reported, everyone stopped in their place; no one continued walking to the grave of their loved one.

On and on the siren blared, for two long minutes. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, enveloping us.

Each of us stood alone in our thoughts, yet united in sorrow.

It was Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. This year we remember 23,447 dead soldiers and civilian victims of terror . In a country as small as Israel, each one of those who died is known. We know their stories. We know their grieving parents, wives, husbands, children. We remember meeting them on Shabbat or working with them. We remember seeing their names in the newspaper, and reacting, “Oh no!”

Although this is our fourth year here, it is the first time I witnessed everything come to a halt in a public space. In ulpan, the siren sounded during our break time. We stopped chatting, put down our containers of yogurt or bags of Bamba, and stood in silence. In a friend’s kitchen, we put our cups of tea on the counter and stood looking towards the Temple Mount. At home, I pushed my chair away from the computer to stand next to the desk by myself.

Standing on the sidewalk, in the company of strangers, and watching traffic stop carries the experience to a different level. Kanfei Nesharim, four lanes wide, is a busy street, used by eight bus routes. I’m used to seeing it empty of all traffic on Shabbat. The rare car can be heard many blocks away. But to see the usual weekday heavy traffic– all the cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles– come to a stop and sit there for two minutes impresses the gravity of the moment on the memory.

23,447. So many killed. Too many.

I thought of the ceremony I had attended the night before, in the Jerusalem forest south of the city. Noam school takes its fifth and sixth graders on a hike the day before Yom Hazikaron. They end at a monument to fallen soldiers where they hold memorial ceremony in the evening. The principal said in his opening remarks that every year the school goes to a different monument, one that is not visited often. This year the ceremony was held at the monument to the soldiers who died in Operation Lulav against Kfar Husan in September 1956. Kfar Husan, at the time on the Jordanian side of the armistice line, had been a base for the fedayeen who carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. Operation Lulav was triggered by a Jordanian attack on an archaeological conference at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, in which four archaeologists were killed and sixteen others wounded. During the action, the IDF destroyed the fedayeen headquarters, killing several of their leaders. Terrorist attacks in the area ceased. But nine members of the IDF were killed.

Most of the memorial ceremony was carried out by the sixth grade boys. They started by lighting flames, one flame in memory of each of Israel’s wars, plus one for victims of terror.

One of the speakers had been a member of the IDF squad which attacked Kfar Husan. He described the action. Six soldiers had been killed because they were too close to the building when it blew up; the fedayeen killed three soldiers. Their names are on the small monument near the clearing where the ceremony took place.

The school rabbi spoke about Shia, his best friend from childhood–how they grew up together, went to Yeshiva together, and were hevrutot (study partners). They enlisted into different units in the army. After the 1973 war, he discovered Shia had been killed. He talked about our duty to remember not to forget those who died.

The ceremony was timed so that the 8 PM memorial siren would be heard about halfway through. I noticed the principal checking his watch several times to make sure the siren would not interrupt any of the prayers or poems.

At exactly 8PM, the siren sounded. I was amazed at how loud it was out here in the middle of nowhere. We heard the sirens from both the city of Beitar to the south and from the town of Tsur Hadassah to the north. Everyone stood in absolute silence. No moved for a moment after the siren ended, until we heard the echoes of sirens from distant towns die away.

This is the second time I’ve attended a memorial ceremony held by the boys’ school. Both times, during the two minutes of silence, my mind drifts from thinking of those who gave their lives to protect the country to the boys in front of me. In a few years, they will all be in the army. I say a small prayer, asking G-d to protect them, and to protect us and the land of Israel.

May we know no more wars

Run-up to Pesach (Passover)

Advertisement for children's activities a week before Pesach: helping to make the biggest matza on record
Advertisement for children’s activities a week before Pesach: helping to make the biggest matza on record

In our old apartment, it was easy to tell Pesach (Passover) was imminent. The children in the day care across the street stopped singing about Purim and started singing parts of the Passover Haggadah. Instead of “It’s Adar, increase joy,” they sang the four questions.

But in our current apartment, there are no nearby day care facilities. So the musical cues of coming holidays are few. Although the sound of two dozen three or four year olds singing at full force isn’t exactly music.Two days ago, when I walked to the grocery store, I crossed paths with a man taking his young child home. As they walked, I could hear him helping her learn one of the four questions. As I type this, several children in the parking lot below my window are practicing the questions.

Passover is coming! Seder is Friday night.

Ad by young man looking for work cleaning for Passover
“A capable young man, known in the neighborhood, is interested in cleaning houses and courtyards” Ad posted on street

We’ve been cleaning the apartment for weeks. This year, we got smart. We hired a young man from the yeshiva to help us. He’s not some kid from the neighborhood. Although Til is from Germany, he studies full time in the English program at Machon Meir with Allen. He knows what is required in the way of Pesach cleaning, and is smart enough to follow through on instructions. Although he and Allen together moved the refrigerator and the bookcases in the salon,  he was strong enough to move the stove by himself to clean behind it. Nine hours of cleaning help from someone who knows what he’s doing makes a big difference.

Now we’re just about ready. The year-round dishes have been put in one cabinet, the pots moved to a box on the balcony, and the Passover utensils are sitting on new shelf paper in freshly cleaned cabinets. The stove is so clean, it looks new, and the inside of the refrigerator shines. Of course you can’t see that; the shelves are full of fresh vegetables for the week. The three dozen eggs I need for the holiday take up a good amount of space as well. Three dozen eggs may not sound like much for this egg-intensive holiday, but I’m not making seder. And we don’t eat sweets, so I’m not baking much either.

A month ago, around Purim time, the supermarket rearranged some displays, moving the flour and other baking supplies to where the peanut butter, jams, and condiments had been. The peanut butter and other spreads that were not strictly off limits on Passover were moved to the longer shelves where the baking supplies had been. As usual, this move drove half the customers crazy as they searched for that one last kilo of flour or package of baking powder that they will use up before the holiday. Schools are off for two weeks before the holiday and parents get desperate for activities for their children. Day camps proliferate. Many of them are run by preteen girls for neighborhood children. But Yakov and Moshe, Daniel and Aliza’s sons, are lucky; they attend a sports camp held in local park.

This is also a time when grandparents are very busy. Not only do we prepare our homes for the holiday, but we are on call for child care. This year Yocheved spent two days with us. Monday afternoon we participated in making the largest matza ever made. The activity was held at First Station, so named because it was the first Jerusalem terminus for the railroad from Jaffa. It was one of the few things built during the Ottoman period to bring the province of Southern Syria into the modern age, and opened in 1892. After many years of disuse, the station area was rehabilitated and modernized. It now houses several restaurants, stores, and amusements.

Before the actual matza baking, the children completed holiday-themed crafts projects. Yocheved colored a flat piece poster board that when folded up would be a matza box. She also decorated a bag for hiding the afikomen, the piece of matza saved for dessert at the seder.

Then it was matza baking time. One of the organizers mixed the flour and water and kneaded the dough, which he then parceled out. The children rolled out the dough and then carried it to where the big matza was being assembled. To be kosher for Passover, less than 18 minutes must elapse between pouring the water into the flour and the baking to be complete. This was not going to be a kosher-for-Passover matza. The organizers kept mixing batches of matza dough as someone else carefully pressed the small pieces of dough together.

They attached the big matza to a framework that looked like wire fencing. Another piece of metal was put on top after which they measured it: 344 centimeters, big enough to set a new record.      

Using blowtorches to cook the world's largest matza ,at First Station, Jerusalem, Israel
Using blowtorches to cook the world’s largest matza

But how do you cook a matza that is more than 11 feet across? Surely there was no nearby oven big enough. They used blow torches, of course. Two men cooked one side, and then the other side.

The matza looked all right, but we didn’t stay there to taste it. I knew none of the children had washed their hands before working with the dough and Yocheved mentioned she had seen people step on the dough as it was being assembled. Since it looked like matza, we just assumed that’s what it tasted like.

The public bulletin boards are covered with holiday related notices. Most of them are  advertisements for stores or activities. But one plain black print ad caught my attention. I have translated most of it here because I have never seen a poster like this one.

Forbidden because of fear of hametz!  

Warning against using cigarettes on Passover
Warning! Cigarettes contain hametz and are not suitable for use on Passover

Rabbi Elishav, of blessed memory:

“It is forbidden to use cigarettes without clarifying that they do not contain substances that are made from hametz.”

Rabbi Karlin:

“Using cigarettes violates the prohibition against getting pleasure from hametz during Pesach”

Rabbi Sternbuch:

“Most cigarettes are completely hametz!”

The  Rabbinical Council ofAmerica:

Philip Morris uses hametz.

Don’t smoke cigarettes during Pesach.

 I guess any reason not to smoke is a good one. I just find it a little odd that these rabbis are more worried about people violating the commandment to refrain from using hametz during this one week holiday than they are about people violating the commandment to guard their health during the rest of the year. But that opinion is just a result of my own experience taking care of critically ill people who destroyed their hearts or lungs by smoking. 

The penalty for eating Hametz on Passover is considered more severe than the penalty for not taking care of your health. I have a hard time, however, appreciating that anything can be more severe than struggling for every breath you take. 

I just hope the person in our building who smokes in the hallway sees the poster and decides not to smoke over the holiday. Then we’ll be able to keep that clean scent of freshly cleaned cabinets, floors and furniture hanging around a little longer.

It’s Doughnut Season!

Sufganiyot, filled doughnuts, mad in honor of Chanukah celebrations
Sufganiyot, filled doughnuts, on racks waiting for hungry Chanukah shoppers

Chanukah began Sunday evening. Even if you hadn’t looked at a calendar recently, you would have known weeks in advance. Walking through town, you would have seen the increasingly large and elaborate displays of doughnuts, the holiday’s symbolic food, at every bakery and grocery store.

Symbols are supposed to remind us something. A symbolic food should should connect us to the history of the holiday it is eaten on and the values it embodies. So what is the connection between doughnuts and Chanukah?

Oil. More specifically, olive oil.

The central miracle of Chanukah is one of oil. After the Maccabees redeemed Jerusalem from the Hellenists, they found only one small jar of pure olive oil in the desecrated Temple. When the Temple was rededicated, the priest poured this oil into the Menorah. The jar contained enough oil to last one day. It miraculously burned for eight full days, until fresh oil could be made and brought to the Temple.

Plain sufganiyot for sale in Mahane Yehuda
Some bakeries like this one in Mahane Yehuda bake plain sufganiyot

Olives are harvested and gathered from October through the end of December. In the days before refrigeration and cold storage, once the season was over, no more olive oil could be made until the next year. That they could make fresh oil and bring it to Jerusalem is evidence that the Temple rededication did occur at this time of year.

Thus Chanukah’s symbolic food is oil, or, more exactly foods cooked in oil. The Ashkenazi food for the holiday is the latke, a potato pancake fried in oil. Today, most Jewish cookbooks include recipes for latkes made with zucchini, carrots, or beets. Last week I saw a recipe for Indian spiced cauliflower latkes. Our foremothers would surely have rolled their eyes at most of these versions. I know my own mother would have.

Many Eastern European countries have traditions of eating fried sweetened dough. The Russian ponchiki and the Austrian krapfen are two examples. The doughnut, or sufganiya, is the fried food adopted by the linguist Israel. The word, sufganiya, although created by Prof. David Yellin in 1896, has an ancient origin. The Talmud refers to a particular soft spongy food as sfog. Doughnuts are called sufganiyot because they tend to soak up the oil they are cooked in. 

 Traditional doughnuts, those fried in a deep pot full of hot oil, should not soak up much oil. However, even perfect doughnuts do have a slightly greasy feel.

Fancy sufganiyot (doughnuts) for Chanukah in downtown Jerusalem
Some sufganiyot look like they are symbols of the miracle of sugar

Almost since Succot ended, six weeks ago, bakeries have been making small batches of doughnuts. But in the last week, they have moved into high gear. It is hard to avoid seeing or smelling doughnuts; next week it will be impossible to do so.

Whereas once sufganiyot were all filled with strawberry jam, today the flavors are limited only by the baker’s imagination. Most stores sell sufganiyot with jam, chocolate, vanilla, and dulce de leche fillings. I’ve also seen sufganiyot with cappucino, blueberry crunch, mocha, halva, pistachio, Bavarian cream, Oreo cheesecake, and creme brulee fillings. But I haven’t tasted all of them. Some fillings, like the marshmallow or banana, don’t even tempt me. Nonetheless, I uphold my share of the seasonal consumption of 18 million sufganiyot.

But in all the doughnut frenzy, we should not forget the essential miracle of the holiday, the miracle of the oil, whose light has lasted for over two millennia.

In Search of a Succah

Succot in Jerusalem courtyard
Succot in Jerusalem courtyard

When we rented our new apartment, the biggest problem I saw was lack of built in storage space. The two closets were tiny, and the kitchen didn’t have enough cabinets for all the pots and plastic containers. Allen maintained that the biggest problem was that we had nowhere to build a succah.

Living in a succah, a temporary structure, is a requirement of the holiday of Succot. It is commandment given by G-d to Moses in the Torah. That means it is Important. We built our first succah in the back yard of our house in Pennsylvania when Daniel was four years old. For the next forty years, we erected the flimsy structure every fall. After we added a deck to the house, we moved the succah up there, closer to the kitchen. After we made aliyah, we bought a succah kit and put it together in the courtyard of our apartment building, neatly wedged in between the succot of two neighbors. Almost every meal out there was shared with invited guests.

Although in many parts of the world, “living” in the succah is interpreted as eating all your meals there for the week, in Israel many people also sleep in theirs. Why not? It is still summer, and summer means dry. The rainy season officially begins the day after Succot ends, when we pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret. Occasionally we have rain here during the holiday, but generally it is a light rain, barely enough to dampen the ground. Rarely, it rains hard enough to chase everyone inside.

Succot on Jerusalem Old City balconies
Succot on Jerusalem Old City balconies

We do have a succah porch in the apartment, technically. Although most of the balcony to our salon is overshadowed by the balcony of the apartment above us, ours is a little longer than the one upstairs. The extension is covered by a plastic roof that can be removed to make a succah. A very small succah, big enough for one person to sit in the dappled shade of a temporary roof of palm leaves or bamboo stalks; a succah for a solitary breakfast. IF we can loosen the rusty screws that hold the plastic roof in place. And if we can move the large closet out of the way.

The building has a small parking lot, but the spots are designated for specific apartments. Our apartment’s spot has been rented the man who lives in our storage area in the building’s basement. He has rented the storage area and parking space for 17 years. The parking spot is not available for our succah. We discovered that our parking lot, unlike many in the neighborhood, does not turn into a succah village for the holiday.

Without our own succah, we would have to rely on invitations from friends and family to observe one of the core mitzvot of the holiday. This would be both inconvenient and socially awkward. It would be inconvenient because we still would have no place to go for breakfast or most lunches. The idea of calling friends and dropping hints that we needed invitations for meals gave me the desire to lose my phone. I wouldn’t be dropping hints, either—I’d be begging.

Aviel, Allen’s chevruta (study partner), who lives in the next door

Minimalist succah at Old City restaurant: mesh walls just barely high enough to count, roof of plant origin
Minimalist succah at Old City restaurant: mesh walls just barely high enough to count, roof of plant origin

building, offered us his neighbor’s succah. The neighbor builds a large succah every year and after celebrating the first day in it, goes away for the rest of the holiday. The succah would be available, if we wanted to use it. Calling the neighbor, whose name I never learned, became our fall-back option.

As the holiday got closer we watched neighbors building their succot. Allen started scouting around for a possible spot to build our own. By Friday morning, two days before the holiday was to begin, two succot were built to the right of the building entrance, taking up several parking spaces. To the left of the entrance was a small garden space—a patch of ground that might be a garden if someone tended and watered it. It was empty earth, and no one had claimed it. But it was narrow and uneven.

Beyond that was another, wider area, similarly untended. But its surface was too uneven and rocky and also unsuitable.

The garden area was wider along the street, and fairly level. If we didn’t mind the sound of the light rail trains passing by every six minutes and the constant traffic except on Shabbat, it might work.

Allen carried two of the metal roof supports down to see if the place was big enough for our succah. It was.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

With the help of our grandson Yakov and Ann (Aliza’s mother), Allen started to build our succah in the area along Herzl Boulevard. When I carried some of the supplies down, I saw a man standing on the sidewalk and pointing at the succah. I asked him if he usually built in that spot.

“No,” he replied, in Hebrew much more fluent than mine. “We already built—up there.” He pointed at the succah on the top floor balcony across the alley.

He soon left, but his son, a friend of Yakov’s stayed a little while to help. A few minutes later, another neighbor stopped by and helped finish putting the metal frame together. Succah building, even when using a pre-fab succah kit, is a skill. It is a skill that religious Israelis master at a young age even though they use it only once a year.

Saturday night, Daniel and Aliza came over to help Allen put the roof on. We had a kosher succah!

Since no succah is complete without decorations, the next morning Yakov returned with Moshe and Sara to decorate. For a while, it looked like Sara’s help would be restricted to keeping out of the way by climbing up and down the extra step stool, brought down from the apartment specifically for her to sit on. But then she noticed all the decorations were being hung from the ceiling or at the top of the walls. So she undertook decorating the lower walls. This is the first year our succah has pictures hanging at knee level.

Now all we need is guests. Human guests.

Our succah on Herzl Boulevard at night
Our succah on Herzl Boulevard at night

As usual, our first evening we learned there was a nest a large black ants nearby. We had not brought any food into the succah yet, but there they were, crawling around inside, scouting out the opportunities.

The local feral cats have also explored our temporary structure. Tuesday, about five minutes after Allen set the table and came back upstairs, I heard a knock on the door. A young boy stood there. He introduced himself as living upstairs from us.

“There’s a cat on your table,” he said.

Not sure what he was talking about, I repeated, “A cat on our table?”

“Yes, a cat on your table.” He pointed down the stairs.

“Oh. How did he do that?” I knew it was a male cat because the boy had said chatul, not chatula. Despite my correct grammar, I think I sounded like the village idiot at this point.

“He climbed.”

Well, yes. So I thanked him for telling me, and he went back to his friends.

When we took dinner down to the succah, not knowing what the cat might have done once he had climbed on the table, I also took clean dishes, forks, and napkins. The cat was under the table; he ran out as soon as I walked in. During dinner, several other cats wandered by, hoping, no doubt, for a taste of our meal.

Part of the commandment to observe the holiday of Succot is to be “only happy.” You can sense it in the streets, particularly in the evening as people wander from succah to succah. We visit friends, sitting in their succah for a while, enjoying a little something to eat, and thanking G-d for the mitzvah of succah. As late as 10 or 11 at night, families are out walking, enjoying the holiday, even if the youngest need to be carried or have fallen asleep in their strollers. Who cares about bedtime? It’s a holiday, to be enjoyed.

Ascending Selichot Prayers

Pigeons feeding at the Kotel plaza before Rosh Hashanah
Even the pigeons come to the Kotel early during the Selichot period

Through the open windows of our apartment on Ben Zion Street, on many holidays and Shabbatot, I would hear the prayers from the Carlebach minyan down the street. A Carlebach minyan is one that sings the prayers to the beautiful tunes written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory. His settings of the prayers and psalms make them sound like joyous celebrations of life and the Creator—they are lively, and easy to learn and dance to. And dance the worshipers do, in the Orthodox fashion, men in the men’s section of the room, women in the women’s section, joining hands and moving in circles in time to the music. We go to the Carlebach minyan only occasionally, but on a Saturday night just before Rosh Hashanah we decided to go there for the Selichot prayers.

Our friend Aviel invited us to say Selichot at the Carlebach minyan with him. He said he had gone there last year and really enjoyed it. He warned us, however, that, like all Carlebach services, it would be long. Last year they had not finished until 2 AM.

Selichot prayers are special prayers said at the end of the year begging for G-d’s compassion as he decides our fate for the coming year. They are always said early in the morning, before the regular morning service. The custom among Sephardim is to recite them from the beginning of the month of Elul; Ashkenazim say them for the last five to ten days before Rosh Hashanah. The number of days varies because we always start reciting Selichot on a Sunday morning because G-d began the work of creation on the first day of the week. When Rosh Hashanah, which commemorates the creation of man, falls on a Monday, we start Selichot more than a full week beforehand in order to say them at least five days. And by early in the morning, I mean Early. The first set of Selichot are always said as early as possible—just after midnight Saturday.

When we lived in Pennsylvania, I had not often attended Selichot services. The congregation rushed through the prayers, and I could not keep up. I frequently lost my place or had to skip paragraphs to catch up to the parts said in unison. I felt like I got nothing out of them, and preferred to say them at home by myself at my own speed. But since the Carlebach group goes slower, I decided to go with Allen and Aviel. If I got too lost, or tired, I would go home and finish here.

I noticed one difference from most services immediately. The chazzan, the prayer leader, accompanied himself with a guitar. We started with a slow nigun, a wordless melody, which set the mood. With no words to learn, it was easy to pick up, and even someone like me, a newcomer to the group’s traditions, was singing along within a minute. When we stopped singing, the silence was complete and deep, waiting to be filled with prayer.

Psalm 145 acted as an introduction to the service. And then the chazzan recited the Kaddish, which praises G-d’s holiness, using the traditional High Holiday melody. Hearing the old familiar tune made me feel at home and opened my emotions to the prayers.

We went through the service at a pace that was comfortable for me. As is usual in Orthodox Jewish services, everyone recited the prayers quietly to themselves, and then the chazzan would repeat the last few lines of each hymn to keep the congregation together. But in a Carlebach minyan, the last few lines are sung to a lively tune, a different one for each prayer, and everyone joins in the singing. Many of the tunes go on as a wordless na-na-na following the last word, which gave me plenty of time to catch up and join in the singing.

In the first part of the service, after each hymn we recite a prayer praising G-d’s mercy, reminding ourselves that He is slow to anger, grants pardon for sins, and deals righteously with His people. And then we recite the ancient thirteen word formula He taught Moses (Exodus 34:6-7) when he begged G-d to forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf.

We repeated the formula several times during the service. Each repetition seemed louder and more unified than the previous one, as if we drew strength from our prayers. We knew we were relying on G-d’s promise to always forgive the people Israel when they recite the formula, the Thirteen Attributes of G-d: The Lord, the Lord, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who cleanses.

The emotional peak of the service is the recitation of the vidui, the confession. It is phrased in the plural: ashamnu, we have been guilty, bogadnu, we have been treacherous, gozalnu, we have stolen. Because the number of possible sins is infinite, the list is alphabetical, one representative sin for each letter of the alphabet standing for all the transgressions that begin with that letter. It is up to each of us to determine how each applies to our own life in our private words to G-d.

By the end of the service I felt uplifted and energized. So I was very surprised when Allen told me as we walked home that it was after 2 AM. When I told my friend Ruth that I had not felt the time passing during Selichot, she said it was because Selichot are outside time.

After the first day of Selichot, the prayers are said before the

Women reciting Selichot at the Kotel, 5:30 AM
Women reciting Selichot at the Kotel, 5:30 AM

regular morning service. Many people go to the Kotel to recite them at dawn, and I decided to join them Monday. Unfortunately, I did not hear my alarm go off, and missed the 4:40 AM bus, so I didn’t get there until most groups had finished. But I could say the prayers myself.

I opened my book of Selichot and started. I was not very far into my prayers when I heard the shofar sound near me as a group finished their service. A moment later, another shofar, farther to the back sounded. The two shofarot did not give their calls in the same sequence. Their sounds did not clash, however, but blended. The beauty of their call brought tears to my eyes.

Despite not reciting the penitential prayers with a group, despite the lack of singing, my prayers at the Kotel affected me the way my prayers in the Sunday morning minyan had. They brought me closer to the Creator, and gave me peace.

Later that day, over lunch with my friend Debbie, we talked about the power of Selichot. She agreed with Ruth, that Selichot are indeed outside time. When we pay attention to the words, they engage us totally, pulling us away from time, towards the Creator. Full engagement is not just the mind; it includes the emotions as well.

“So,” Debbie asked, “did you cry?”

“Only two or three times.”

She nodded. We had both experienced the timeless power of Selichot.

Yom Yerushalayim at the Kotel

The Kotel, Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount
The Kotel, Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the holiest site that Jews are permitted to pray at

Around 4 AM Sunday, I woke up thinking, “I should go to the Kotel.”

It was Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the day that commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem. For nineteen years, the Old City of Jerusalem had been in the hands of the Jordanians, and no Jew had been allowed to enter. For nineteen years, we had been denied access to our holiest site. On 28 Iyar 5727, corresponding to June 7, 1967, the Jewish world thrilled to the voice of Colonel Motta Gur on the radio. “Har haBayit b’yadenu,” the Temple Mount is in our hands. The paratroopers had entered the Old City of Jerusalem and recaptured it from the Jordanians.

A week later, thousands of people celebrated the festival of Shavuot by coming to Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. It is the closest we can get to the site where the Temple once stood.

The Kotel is a short bus ride from our apartment. It seemed only right that I would start the day marking its return to Jewish hands by saying my morning prayers there.

The first Line 1 bus to the Kotel leaves the Egged parking lot daily at 4:40 AM. I had just enough time to get dressed, stuff my pockets with necessities, and walk to the bus stop. Necessities include my small siddur (prayer book), change for tzedaka (charity), bus pass, tissues, and phone. Putting everything in its assigned pockets took longer than dressing did.

I made it to the bus stop with two minutes to spare. Three women were already waiting there.

The bus wound its way through several religious neighborhoods, gradually filling up. About two-thirds of the passengers were women, many of whom started their prayers while on the bus. So periodically, we would answer “Amen” to blessings said loud enough to respond to. There is a tradition that we should say “Amen” one hundred times every day, a number difficult to attain if, like most women, you don’t pray in a synagogue three times a day. Some women make a practice of saying the fifteen morning blessings in the presence of other women to give them a running start on their daily one hundred. By the time we reached the Kotel, I had said “Amen” more than forty times.

As we approached the Damascus Gate to the Old City, the bus stopped. The Damascus Gate is the only one in the city walls that you approach by walking walk down steps. The steps are broad and arranged in a U-shape. Hundreds of young men sat on the steps on the two arms of the U. I counted about a dozen large Israeli flags. The woman next to me looked at the traffic and said, “It’s Yom Yerushalayim. It’s going to be a balagan.”

Balagan is a word Israelis borrowed from the Russians, who seem to have taken it from the Turks. It means messy or chaotic, in the sense of the Ringling Brothers three ring circus in your living room the day the rug cleaner is there and the teachers’ union is on strike.

By the time we arrived at the Dung Gate, the one closest to the Kotel, we were not surprised the bus had to wait before entering. But eventually it was allowed in, and we descended at the regular bus stop. Security was efficiently feeling women’s purses and tote bags. The line at the women’s entrance moved forward quickly.

Men praying at the Kotel, Yom Yerushalayim
Men praying at the Kotel, Yom Yerushalayim

While crossing the Kotel plaza, I took a quick peek at the men’s section. White plastic chairs were neatly arranged in rows from the Kotel all the way to the back of the prayer section. About three-fourths of them were occupied.

In the women’s section, chairs were scattered in a rough approximation of rows. Women occupied less than a quarter of them. I found a seat close to the Kotel and continued my prayers from where I had left off earlier.

About half way through the central Amidah prayer, I started crying, which surprised me. Not the tears themselves—I cry almost every time I go to the

Women praying at the Kotel, Yom Yerushalayim , 2015
Women praying at the Kotel, Yom Yerushalayim

Kotel. I cry in memory of my parents and grandparents who never had the chance to pray here. I cry for the soldiers who lost their lives to gain us the right to be here. Or for the future of the country, and what my grandchildren might have to face. Or for some those on my list of the sick in need of healing. I just don’t remember ever crying while saying the Amidah.

While I was praying, periodically I recognized a tune wafting over from the men’s side. They were all tunes from the Hallel, the Psalms said in praise of G-d for a miracle.

The recitation of Hallel on Israel Independence Day and Yom Yerushalayim is controversial. Several Chief Rabbis of Israel have endorsed saying it on these two holidays. They feel the establishment of the state and the reunification of Jerusalem could not have happened without direct intervention of G-d.

However, some of ultra-religious hold that Hallel should not be recited because these events were the work of man. The State of Israel should not be celebrated; rather we should wait for the Messiah to arrive and establish it.

Allen and I recite Hallel on both holidays. We look around us, and see ourselves surrounded by many Arab and Muslim countries that wish to destroy us. We agree with David Ben Gurion, who famously said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

When I finished saying the morning prayers, I went forward and leaned my head against the wall. Its stones were cool and smooth against my forehead and under my fingertips. After saying a few private words, I left the prayer section of the Kotel plaza, walking backwards so as not to turn my back on the holiness embodied there. I gave tzedaka to several of the women begging for coins, and put a few more coins in the box dedicated to maintenance of the Kotel.

I watched the swifts flying in circles above the worshipers, and the doves nesting in niches high on the wall. The caper bushes growing in the wall have small white flowers at this time of year—I had never noticed them before.

I joined the stream of people leaving the Kotel plaza. For every one walking away, three or four were coming in. It was 6:00.

I felt at peace.

Yom Yerushalyim, entrance to the Kotel Plaza in the early morning
Entrance to the Kotel Plaza