Tag Archives: holidays

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

Yom HaZikaron 2015: 23,230

Flag at thalf staff on Yom HaZikaron at the Kotel
Yom HaZikaron at the Kotel Photo: © Moshé Anielewicz pour Europe Israël News

I was sitting alone at my computer when the siren sounded, signaling the start of Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for Soldiers and Those Killed in Acts of Terror. The siren blasts for one minute at 8 PM on the eve Yom HaZikaron and for two minutes at 11 AM on the day of the observance. Our first year here I thought, if I’m alone in a room at home, it doesn’t matter whether I stand or not. That night, I realized, it does matter. The siren pulled me to my feet within seconds.

Like just about everyone else in the country, I stop what I am doing, and stand in reflection, listening to the siren. The siren is loud–ear splittingly, wake the dead, painfully screamingly loud. It seems to go on for forever. Two minutes, even one minute, is a long time to stand, thinking of those who have given their lives. Today the total is 23,320.

Sixty seven soldiers died in the last year, killed in action in Tzuk Eitan. An additional 35 veterans died from the effects of wounds received in earlier service. Most of the dead were Sabras, born and raised in Israel. Three were lone soldiers, who came from the US as volunteers in the Israeli army. Some were young, out of high school less than a year, doing their compulsory military service. Some were veteran soldiers, called away from wives, children, and jobs, as members of the reserves.  

But we add to that number Gilad, Ayal, and Naphtali, teenagers killed by the terrorists who kidnapped them when they were hitchhiking home from school. We also include 3 month old Chaya Zissel Braun, killed by a man who deliberately drove his car through a group of people at a light rail station, and 4 year old Daniel Turgeman, killed by a Hamas mortar while playing outside his home. We add 4 year old Adele Biton, who was critically injured when terrorists threw rocks at her mother’s car, and who was almost completely unresponsive for the last two years of her too short life. And the dead include four men, brutally slaughtered by Arab workers while praying in a synagogue not far from where I live. I use the word slaughter deliberately, for what else can you call it when men peacefully praying are shot or have their heads split open with a meat cleaver?

Two of this year’s victims of terror were Arabs. Zidan Sayif was a

Memorial to victims of terror, Har Herzl
Memorial to victims of terror, Har Herzl

Druze policeman, who was killed while trying to stop the slaughter in the Har Nof synagogue. Mohammed Abu Khudair was kidnapped and burned alive by three young Israelis. He, and was originally included in the list as one of this year’s victims of terror. However, his family objected to his name being added to the monument to Victims of Terror in the cemetery on Har Herzl, and his name is being removed at their request.

On the morning of Yom HaZikaron, I attended the memorial ceremony at my grandsons’ school. As a fourth grader, Yakov was one of the participants.

The assembly for the boys in first through fourth grade. I watched them sit down, and fidget. They stood briefly while the school flag was lowered to half staff. Sitting back down, they fidgeted through the principal’s speech. He spoke about the commandment to remember–that we have both a duty and the privilege to remember. He also said that every soldier, in every war Israel has fought, has known that the war was justified. That he was doing the right thing. The principal has an excellent sense of timing. He finished at exactly 10:59:59. As the siren started to sound, the boys were on their feet even before he told them to rise.

I stared at them—200 boys, aged 6 to 10, standing still for two minutes. A few rocked at the waist, as they do when praying. But for the most part, I could been have watching statues for those two minutes. I wondered how many of them were thinking about an older brother or a neighbor who died last summer, or perhaps a cousin, father, or even grandfather, lost in an earlier war.

© Moshé Anielewicz pour Europe Israël News
Remembering at Har Herzl Military Cemetery. photo: Marc Israel Sellem, Jerusalem Post

Ten years from now, most of them will probably be wearing khaki uniforms on Yom HaZikaron. I prayed that we would not be mourning any of them at that time. And I prayed that they will not be mourning friends or family members.

The students lit memorial flames, one flame for each war: the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, Peace in the Galil I, Peace in the Galil II, Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge), and Victims of Terror. 

When the school’s Rabbi came up to speak, he first stood in front of the flames and read the names on each one. He then said, “So many wars. So many wars.”

He walked around the table holding the memorial flames. When he got to the microphone, he continued, “But we are still here.”

He didn’t speak very long–these were young boys he was talking to. His vocabulary and imagery were fitting to the audience, which was good for me as well. The simpler vocabulary enabled me to understand his message. He spoke about how in the siege of Jerusalem in 1948, children had to stay in the house all the time because it was too dangerous to go outside. The children were hungry and thirsty, and had to stand in line to get water. They could not even dream about snacks like Bamba and Bisli. The soldiers fight for us so we can be safe. So that we can walk outside, and play, and go to school, and even eat Bamba and Bisli and candy.

The fourth grade boys read some poems and Psalms, and the choir sang a few songs. The program ended with all of us singing “Ani ma’amin”–I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and with the singing of Hatikvah.

May the number of those we mourn today as victims of terror or war not increase. 23,320 is already too many.

May we know no more war.

Pesach (Passover) 5775

Chart of order of the Pesach seder, from Arthur Sczyk's Hagadah
Chart of the order of the seder, from Arthur Sczyk’s Hagadah

There are many requirements for observing the Passover holiday, and many of them are fulfilled at the Seder table. The most important ones are eating matza and maror (bitter herbs) and teaching children about the holiday. But in all the seriousness, we should not forget that the seder is a festival meal, a meal time for celebrating. In addition to fulfilling our obligations, we had fun at Seder at Sara and Danny’s house. The children have gotten older and their participation more intricate. This year they acted out several important points of the story told in the Hagadah.

After the matza was broken for the afikomen to be eaten later, the three girls lined up at the end of the table. Sara had been given a small part in this first presentation. She asked, “Who are you?”
The girls answered, somewhat in unison, “We’re B’nai Yisrael.”

Sara then asked, “Where are you coming from?”

“We’re coming from the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

“Where are you going?”
“To the land G-d promised us.”

“Is there something you want to ask?”
The girls then sang the traditional Four Questions.

It’s fun to watch the children’s development as their roles change. Yael, almost finished first grade, can read now. So she joined her older sister and the grownups, and got to read several paragraphs aloud.

This year’s biggest innovation was the enactment of the Ten Plagues. It was done as a poetic recitation, in which each verse repeats everything that came before it, complete with hand motions and sound effects.

First plague: Blood–ugly faces and cries of “Iksa! Iksa!” (Disgusting! Disgusting!)

Second plague: Frogs–jumping around yelling “Qvak! Qvak!” which is how Hebrew-speaking frogs croak.

illustration of plagues 6 -10 from Yaakov Kirshen's Pesach Hagadah
Yaakov Kirschen’s illustration of plagues 6 -10 from his hagaddah

Lice and boils involved running around, scratching or swatting at the air, and yelling some variation of a gargling, coughing, croaking sound. For the eighth plague, they made satisfying crunching sounds to imitate the locusts eating everything in sight. For darkness, they ran around bumping into each other.

I wondered how they would show the tenth, most devastating, plague. Yocheved and Adina stood together, and suddenly Yocheved dropped to the ground. Adina yelled, “Akhmed!” She got down on her knees and shook Akhmed, who did not respond. She then put her head down on “his” chest and pretended to cry. Of course, the effect was ruined when a moment later, the dead Akhmed jumped to her feet to run around bumping into her sisters in darkness and then crunch as a locust, scream and shield her head from the falling hail, and so on back to yelling “Qvak! Qvak!” as a frog and “Iksa! Iksa!” at water turning to blood.

We are supposed to spill a drop of wine from our cups at the mention of each plague. Despite the plagues leading to our freedom from slavery, we cannot celebrate other people’s suffering with a full cup of wine. But I was laughing so hard I lost count. So after “Akhmed” and his sisters returned to the table, I said the ten plagues in order and dipped out ten drops of wine.


After the first day of Passover, we return to ordinary life. Except, of course, the intermediate six days of Pesach are not completely ordinary. We must still observe the Pesach food restrictions and schools are not in session. With the children off, at least half the non school-age population takes off from work. Bank HaPoalim sponsors free admission to 40 popular sites all over the country. These sites include the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Umm al Fahm Museum, the Haifa Zoo, Jerusalem Botanical Garden, and the Israel Air Force Museum in Hatzerim.

National parks are crowded; it’s hard to find an empty picnic table when you want to sit down to eat. Walking on nature trails, the most nature you see is human. Many places have special activities for children. As we walked through the Tower of David Museum on Tuesday, we saw a Crusader sword fighting with some young children, an ancient Israelite explaining to others what he used the pottery for, and a 20th century doctor waiting for patients. The Old City of Jerusalem was so full of people, the Number 1 bus ran like a shuttle taking people home. As each crowded bus pulled away from the bus stop, another bus pulled up to take on its load. We managed to board the third bus that stopped while we were waiting.

Many public places, such as hospitals and some parks, are hametz-

Sign asking people not to bring chametz into Jewish Quarter during Pesach
Sign above street leading into Jewish Quarter of Old City

free zones for the duration of the holiday. This includes the whole Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. A sign above one of the arches leading from the Zion Gate parking lot into the residential area reminds people not to eat any hametz within its confines during the holiday. However, no one checked bags to make sure visitors weren’t smuggling in hametz.

In Afula, however, things were a little different. Potential visitors were turned away from a municipal park if they had food not Kosher for Pesach with them. And who was checking to protect the park from hametz? The people who are most experienced at rummaging through purses and backpacks of strangers–the security guards. I can imagine the encounter, walking up to the entrance, handing over my purse, and being asked by the armed guard at the gate, “Any weapons? Gun? Knife? Sandwiches?”

The need to check everyone for weapons is just a part of life in Israel, and we take it seriously. Lumping a sandwich together with weapons is absurd. But such is life in Israel–the serious and the absurd together.

Getting ready for Pesach (Passover)

When I was growing up, this was the time of year when we would

Pesach cleanup ad by city of Jerusalem
City of Jerusalem Pesach cleanup

eagerly anticipate signs of Spring. In Pennsylvania, the earliest sign was the bright yellow flowers of the forsythia, often in February. Soon the shadiest spot in our back yard would turn from ice to mud. The slender dark green crocus stems would poke through the ground, quickly followed by lavender, purple, and white flowers. Then the broader daffodil stems, followed by their yellow and white blooms. The pink and white dogwood trees framed the springtime blue sky.

In Israel, Spring is not so much associated with blooming flowers, as with blooming dumpsters. The Holiday of Spring is coming. The holiday is also called Passover (Pesach) and the Holiday of Matzot.Since it is a religious duty to rid the house of all chametzleavened food and food that could become leavened, everyone is busy cleaning. And when the whole country cleans up, the dumpsters overflow.

Last week, the municipality published its annual notice stating what it is doing to help us get ready for the holiday. As the notice states, trash pickups will be done more frequently for two weeks. All over the country, we take trash out to the big green dumpsters conveniently parked in the street every block or two. They occupy what could be two or three parking spaces, often in areas short on parking.

Dumpster at 8 AM a week and a half before Pesach
Dumpster at 8 AM

In Kiryat Moshe, the neighborhood where I live, the dumpsters this week were emptied every day around 8 AM. By 5 PM, they were overflowing again. The two recycling containers on the corner (one for plastic bottles and one for paper) have also been filling faster than usual.

Pre-Pesach dumpster overflows with trash
Same dumpster, 22 hours later

Furthermore, cleaning help is being advertised all over the place. It seems as if part of the Yeshiva education experience is hiring yourself out to clean someone’s house for Pesach. Several of our dinner guests recently mentioned cleaning disgusting ovens when they were students.

A post on  on the neighborhood women’s electronic bulletin board mentioned two boys were available to help clean. If interested, we should call the mother of one of them to make arrangements in English, or her son to do so in Hebrew. I called her, but she did not answer the phone. So I called her son. Although we made the arrangements speaking Hebrew, I suspect his English is probably as good as my Hebrew. His friend, of course, can’t understand English.

Ads for Pesach cleaning help on street light pole
Ads for cleaning help on street light pole

In ulpan, we never learned the vocabulary for cleaning materials or for all the different parts of a stove. I may have paid them more than I should have because discussing what needed to be done required much conversation, as well as pointing and gesturing on my part. The two young men spent several hours cleaning my stove and and some cabinets. But the kitchen is on its way to being ready for the holiday.

The grocery store has not changed its wares or displays very much. I discovered this week that canned tomatoes and tuna fish I usually buy are both kosher for Pesach. When I rearrange the kitchen and take out all the non-Pesach food, I’ll keep those items handy. But I do need to remember to take my magnifying glass with me this week. The “Kosher for Pesach” notation on food packages tends to be small. And the notice about the presence of kitniyot (foods that contain legumes, rice, or oil from certain classes of vegetables) is minute. Being Ashkenazim, of Eastern European descent, we do not eat kitniyot, so being able to read that label is important.

Coke Zero carrying greeting "Happy Holiday" for Passover
Coke Zero with greeting “Happy Holiday”

Nonetheless, I became confused while reading the labels at the soft drinks section, particularly in front of the Coca-Cola display. The Coke Zero bottles all have Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday) in large letters on their label. However, on the other side of the bottle it clearly states the product is kosher for use only during the rest of the year. Only regular Coca-Cola is kosher for Passover. 

Sign for Pesach jewelry sale
Take time from cleaning to buy yourself some jewelry!

In the middle of all the cleaning and preparing, we are also reminded to take care of ourselves. This is a special time of year, and we should enjoy it. That bright yellow signs were posted at neighborhood bus stops urging women to stop cleaning Sunday evening. Instead, we should come to a giant sale of cosmetics and gold-filled jewelry to be held at a local synagogue social hall.

There is the usual hurry and tension involved in getting everything super clean for Pesach before it starts this Friday evening. And despite needing to do all the required special shopping and cooking, things are somehow calmer than might be expected. The lines in the stores are longer than usual, but there is less impatience than usual. We look at each other in line, and shrug our shoulders, as if to say, “What else can you expect this close to the holiday?”

Somehow or other, with G-d’s help, everything does get done.

When we say the blessing thanking G-d for keeping us alive and enabling us to reach the holiday, we do so with full hearts, and a touch of relief. The work is done–now let’s enjoy the holiday!