Tag Archives: Western Wall

Touring Sha’are Hesed with the First Grade

Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha'are Hesed, Jerusalem.
Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha’are Hesed, Jerusalem. Marah Chanah is the one who isn’t eating a red popsicle.

This year is the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Reunification of Jerusalem. Every organization and institution in the country seems to be recognizing the event. Special tours, concerts, lectures, and conferences are being held. Those who don’t support the reunification have planned protests and threaten violence.

Last week the Etrog Public Religious Elementary School in Givat Ze’ev, attended by three of my granddaughters, held “Jerusalem Day.” The whole school came to Jerusalem. Since each child needed to have an accompanying adult, I was enlisted to be the adult for one granddaughter. The teacher gave me permission to join them at the Kotel, so I didn’t have to take a 6:30 AM bus from Jerusalem to Givat Ze’ev in order to join them for the bus trip to Jerusalem.

Taking a whole school for an outing requires excellent planning, superior organizational skills, and a large measure of good luck. Etrog was a little deficient in all three. The schedule was too tight. They were supposed  to leave the school at 7:30 “exactly.” Prayers at the Kotel would be at 8:00 “exactly.” This timing was unrealistic. Just unloading 17 buses at the Dung Gate and getting everyone through security would take half an hour. When I arrived at the Kotel Plaza, a little after 8, they had not yet arrived. I sat down and read some Psalms as I waited.

Over the next half hour clusters of children wearing bright blue Etrog School t-shirts with accompanying adults filtered through security into the plaza. Adina had claimed me as escort, so I just hugged her sisters and then followed Morah (Teacher) Chana and the rest of the first grade.

Our first stop, of course, was the bathroom. Like other public restrooms in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, it was spotlessly clean. I don’t know how the city does it, but no matter what time of day, the bathrooms are always clean and usually well stocked.

And then we went to the women’s section of the plaza.

The girls classes did not have an organized prayer service. Small clusters of girls sat together on the ground or pulled white plastic chairs into a circle to say the morning prayers. Other girls asked for paper on which to write a private message to God. They then inserted their plea into already-stuffed cracks between stones of the wall.

I intended to complete my prayers at the Kotel, but I was too distracted to give them the attention they require. I was busy keeping one eye on Adina, who is good at disappearing in a crowd, and one eye on her teacher. Morah Chana is short and thin, but I quickly learned to recognize her black vest and the comb holding her long brown hair.

After about a half hour at the Kotel, the teachers started gathering their classes to leave. Outside the Dung Gate, a long line of buses waited for us. Each class had its own bus to its assigned neighborhood, which the children had already learned about. The children would describe events that had occurred there. Yocheved and Sara went to Har Homa, the farthest southern part of the city. Yael and Danny went to Bayit veGan, just a little west of where we live. Adina and I headed for Sha’are Hesed, located between center city and the Mahane Yehuda shuk. During the bus ride, Adina took out her speech and read it twice. That was in addition to the three times she had read it before leaving home in the morning and the three times she had read it at the Kotel. Her part was three sentences long. She probably had it memorized by the time it was her turn to speak.

Our first stop, however, was the plaza in front of a theater/school complex. There  the girls ate their snacks and ran around. There were plenty of low walls and stairs—a perfect place for six-year-olds to expend some of their excessive energy.


The original 1909 gate to Sha'are Hesed.
The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed.

Sha’are Hesed (Gates of Loving Kindness) was one of the early neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Jerusalem, which was still dangerous and unsettled. At the time, new neighborhoods were built so the walls of the  houses formed a wall around them. A gate was closed and locked at night for security, to protect residents from bandits as well as from wild animals. The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed still stands, even though it is no longer closed at night.

After Morah Chanah said a few words, the first girl read her piece. I was only a few feet away but barely heard her. That didn’t matter. I wasn’t on this tour to learn about Jerusalem; I was there to spend time with my granddaughter.

Sha’are Hesed was built as a neighborhood for religious Jews, and remains so today. We passed many small synagogues and yeshivot as we walked, winding our way past as many significant sights as possible. The teacher pointed out the former home of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the great Rabbis of the last generation.

One of the girls read a famous story about Rabbi Auerbach. A student asked for permission to take a few days off to go to the Galil to pray at the graves of Tzaddikim, holy ones. Rabbi Auerbach replied that whenever he wanted to pray at the grave of a Tzaddik, he took the bus to the military cemetery at Har Herzl, about twenty minutes away. All the people buried there died fighting for our holy land—they are all Tzaddikim.

On the wall of one synagogue is a sundial, placed there so the men would know the correct time for prayers. It was made by Moshe Shapira, who also built other sundials in Jerusalem. This sundial, however, is only correct until around noon because of the angle of the wall.

Now it was Adina’s turn to speak. She must be shy in class, because her teacher asked if she really wanted to read. Adina hadn’t practiced her part all morning to be skipped over.

Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.
Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.

She nodded yes, and then, standing next to Morah Chana, and without looking up at the rest of us, she read about Moshe Shapira the clock maker, in a loud clear voice.

“Kol hakavod!” said the father standing next to me.

“You read that so beautifully!” I said to her. She smiled at us.

Two blocks later we stopped at a makollet and all the girls got popsicles. We then walked to the nearby Wolfson Towers, five buildings, 14 to 17 stories high. The buildings unfortunately block the view of the Knesset and the Valley of the Cross that residents of Sha’are Hesed had enjoyed before the towers were built.

Because of the steepness of the hill, the entrance to building at the end of KKL street is on its seventh story. The roof of the sixth floor meets the street in a large plaza which features a pool and Beating Heart, a sculpture by Yaacov Agam. The girls sat by the pool to finish their popsicles.

By now it was noon, the scheduled end of the trip to Jerusalem. At this point, Danny was still wandering around Bayit veGan with the third grade, and Sara was stuck in Har Homa with the fifth grade. Since a six year old could not be left at the school by herself, I told the teacher I would accompany her. Several parents objected. I had apparently already done more than a Savta’s duty by touring Jerusalem with them. One of the fathers insisted he could take Adina to his house to play with his daughter until Sara or Danny returned.

So I walked back up the hill to one of my regular bus stops. Later in the day Sara reported that Adina, normally a perpetual motion machine, was passed out on the couch.

While I learned about Sha’are Hesed with the first grade, I also know that I did not see or learn enough about the neighborhood. I plan to go back to see it all again.

Behind the Kotel Plaza

Children play on Jerusalem's Cardo. In background are original Roman/Byzantine wall and pavement. Photo: Yehudit Reishtein
Children play on Jerusalem’s Cardo. In background are original Roman/Byzantine wall and pavement. Photo: Yehudit Reishtein

For years the back of the Kotel Plaza at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was been blocked off with temporary eight foot high metal barriers. I assumed the barriers were to protect people on the plaza from construction on the cliff rising up to the Jewish Quarter. But when Aish HaTorah’s new building was completed, the barriers remained.

Recently, I found out why. They surrounded an active  archeological dig.

Roman cities were built with two main streets. They had an east-west street and a north-south street, called a Cardo. When the Romans came to Jerusalem, they built new streets through the city. Their east-west street ran from the Jaffa Gate to the Temple Mount. Today’s David Street in the Christian Quarter, which continues as the Street of the Chain through the Muslim (Arab) Quarter follows its route. The north-south street ran from the Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. This Cardo is one of the Jerusalem landmarks shown on the 5th century mosaic map of the Holy Land found on the wall of a church in Medaba, Jordan. 

During the reconstruction of the ruined Jewish Quarter after 1967, the original Roman-Byzantine Cardo was found. Part of it remains open to the air, and several reconstructed Roman columns stand in it. Part of it runs under more recent construction. The old roof was repaired, and new shops were opened within the stone framework of the ancient ones. Much of the pavement is modern. But near the entrance to the roofed Cardo is a wide area where you can see, and walk on, the ancient paving stones. One rainy day I was walking there and saw young children riding their tricycles and bimbas. Their mothers stood nearby, chatting with each other. No doubt they were glad to have  the dry place for their youngsters play outside. The Romans thought they had destroyed the Jewish people when they destroyed the Temple. I wondered, what they would have thought if they could see these Jewish children playing on their street, almost 2000 years later?

In Jerusalem, a secondary Cardo was built in the central valley that separated the Temple Mount from the western hill. The Medaba map clearly shows this street running along the side of Temple Mount. The Byzantines had not been able to rebuild the secondary Cardo. Too many huge boulders lay embedded in it from the earlier Roman destruction of the city.

This street was forgotten, hidden under centuries of other buildings and debris. During the reconstruction of the Jewish quarter after 1967, the archaeologist Roni Reich discovered this secondary Cardo while clearing the Kotel Plaza. But making the Jewish Quarter livable again and constructing homes were higher priority. Although no building was permitted in this area, it was not excavated either. It took 35 years before the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter was ready to allow archaeologists to explore the second Cardo.

Excavated secondary Cardo at back of Kotel Plaza. Photo: Yehudit Reishtein
Excavated secondary Cardo at back of Kotel Plaza. Arches are entrances to what were once small shops..
Photo: Yehudit Reishtein

When the archeologists did start work in the this part of the Kotel Plaza, they found remains and artifacts from the First Temple period through the 12th century. They determined that this part of Jerusalem had been an administrative and commercial center. Government functionaries and merchants worked here long before the Romans came to this side of the Mediterranean, and even before the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.

 Today, before you can build anything or open a business, you need official approvals at many steps along the way, in the form of stamps and signatures. So it was in ancient times. Their stamps were made of clay, which made an impression on soft wax seals to indicate official approval. These clay stamps are called bullae, and hundreds of them were found in this excavation, primarily in the remains of a four room house built in typical First Temple period style.

When the First Temple stood, Jewish names usually included G-d’s name. Often the name ended with “-el” or “-yahu,” (Hebrew words for G-d), and many of the bullae were inscribed with such names.

Among other artifacts, excavators found a signet ring bearing the name Netanyahu ben Yoash. All artifacts found in archaeological digs belong by law to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), but the authority has lent this ring to the current Prime Minister,   Benjamin

Clay seal from 8th century BCE with name "Netanyahu" in ancient Hebrew writing.  Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority
Clay seal from 8th century BCE with name “Netanyahu” in ancient Hebrew writing. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

Netanyahu. He is said to keep it with him at all times. When challenged about Jewish rights in Israel, he pulls this bulla from his pocket as proof that Jews lived and worked here in Jerusalem over 2500 years ago. In showing this ring, Netanyahu is not trying to prove that his personal lineage in the land of Israel has been continuous since First Temple times. I’m sure he is well aware that his father changed the family name to Netanyahu. Rather, he is saying that Jews, carrying names that are still used by today’s Israelis, have been present in the land, and particularly in Jerusalem, for all this time.

While walking around the excavated area in the Kotel Plaza, I noticed some round holes in the stone pavement. They were the size of a large mixing bowl or a wash basin. Because they were cut into the stone of the street, they could not have been used for cooking, and because they were open to the air they would not have been used for water storage. I wondered if they had been used for dying cloth, but then rejected the idea. I was about to ask when the guide preempted my question.

“Did you see those round holes full of water? What do you think they are?”

No one answered him.

“These holes are much later than the street itself. They were used for dye. Cloth dying was always a trade practiced by Jews in Jerusalem. When Moses Maimonides came to Jerusalem in the 12th century, the only Jews he found in the city were dyers.”

Despite the Crusaders having banned Jews from the city, two Jewish dyers lived in Jerusalem in the late 1100s. Even in times when the authorities tried to keep Jews away from their holy places, the economic needs of the inhabitants could override their edicts. For the sake of clothes in nice colors, Jewish dyers were allowed to lived and work in Jerusalem.

I have visited the Kotel Plaza at least a hundred times, but I never realized so many additional links to our history were found under and around it. Discovering such unexpected links in what I felt were familiar places is one of the many things I love about living in Jerusalem.


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