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Jerusalemites crowd the Old City for Shavuot

May 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Scene at Birkat Cohanim on another holiday, Sukkot

By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM–It’s 5:00 a.m on Shavuot morning and I’m having trouble finding an empty seat at any shul in Jerusalem’s Old City. Every synagogue is already packed as I make the mistake of lingering a few minutes too long at the Kotel amongst the tens of thousands who have made their way there after a night of learning.

The atmosphere is light, almost light-headed you could say from lack of sleep, as young and old congratulate each other for making it through the night. Only the young yeshiva boys puffing away on cigarettes spoil the atmosphere. Small groups of secular Israelis wander through the crowd. “This is amazing,” mutters one woman.

After dropping in at three shuls, I finally find a spot in the hallway of the Ramban synagogue near the Cardo.

After Hallel and the reading of the Ten Commandments, a swift Haftarah reading brings us to the Yizkor memorial prayer. Only a few women are left inside as the young girls who filled the place and have not yet lost parents file out. It’s about the same proportion down at the Kotel—it seems that at least two thirds of the masses thronging the Kotel plaza are under 30.

Coming barely a week after Jerusalem Day, when similar numbers of mostly young people fill the area to celebrate the reunification of the city, the Shavuot early morning spectacle   is another affirmation of the strength of the connection of the people to its roots.

In the blessedly cool air of the pre-dawn, it’s as if the Kotel is a giant magnet pulling in the multitudes from every direction. Flooding down Agron Street in front of the U.S Consulate building and its sleepy guards, the crowd gathers force and takes over the Mamilla area. The Tower of David and Jaffa Gate rise in front of us, outlined by spotlights.

It’s 4:40 a.m as we surge forward and down the steps of the David Street shuk only to encounter a human traffic jam as we make the turn from the Street of the Chain into the approach to the Kotel. A few groups of Arabs heading to work are walking up in the opposite direction. No one bothers them as they make their way out of the Old City through Jaffa Gate.  On the way down, I follow Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger who is surrounded by a 4-person security entourage as he walks along holding hands with his grandson.

There are only four entryways into the Kotel plaza and they’re all completely overwhelmed by the numbers of people pressing to get in.   There’s barely room to move as more and more people surge in from each of the four entry points. I head up to the stairway in front of the Aish building and take up a position at the railing just in front of the gold menorah overlooking the Kotel plaza adjacent to the last flight of steps leading down to the plaza. It’s the best place to take in the majestic transformation from night to dawn over the Temple Mount.

Within a few minutes, a thirty-something bearded man draped in a tallit approaches and asks me to move because he and his minyan are about to start davening. A young boy brings over their sefer Torah and unceremoniously places it next to me on the metal shelf that’s a diagram of the view in front of us.  Since when is this a designated davening spot? There are other women coming and going, and the men have obviously seen that I was there before they decided to set up. I tell them that they didn’t disturb me and I wouldn’t disturb them, and I left in my own good time.  Their insistence that the rest of us have to move just so they can daven wherever they want is another small example of the creeping takeover of so many of our national holy sites.

Unlike other years, when the bright sun peeks over the Mt of Olives, this morning’s sunrise is masked by clouds. The bright green lights adorning the two mosques behind the Temple Mount shine in the semi-darkness. As the sky begins to change color and turn slowly from a midnight blue to a steely grey, the garish lights vanish. Exactly at sunrise, chattering starlings swoop down, and the voices of the throng rise in prayer.

On this holiday of Shavuot that commemorates the giving of the Torah, the symbolic wedding between God and the Jewish people, most of the women are wearing white and the centuries-old Kabbalistic custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night dedicated to Torah study is observed by hundreds of thousands of Israelis. On the eve of the holiday, commentators on Israel Radio remark on the phenomenon of secular Jews eager to take part in some kind of Torah learning on Shavuot. Daily papers feature tightly packed full pages of venues where learning of all kinds is taking place all over the city. Many places are forced to turn people away for lack of space at their study sessions.

A few years ago, a May 18 2007 editorial in the American Jewish weekly newspaper, The Forward, noted, “…the proportion of Jews that turns out for the festival (Shavuot) will not be great…Shavuot simply hasn’t caught on with recent generations of Jews.” Perhaps things have changed this year, otherwise Shavuot could be another sign of the widening gap between Israel and the Diaspora.

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Judy Lash Balint is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.  Her stories appear on her website,  Jerusalem Diaries:In Tense Times

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Jerusalem Day, the 28th of Iyar

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

 
By Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen

WASHINGTON, D.C–The Jewish and Christian holy days of Passover and Easter have passed; Shavuot and Pentecost are coming. In between, the 28th of Iyar-corresponding to 7 June 1967 and 12 May 2010-marks the unification of Jerusalem in the hands of the State of Israel. The city has been occupied over time by the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman and British Empires; occupied occasionally by Egyptians, Crusaders, Mamluks and Jordanians. But the holidays remind us that Jerusalem has, from the time of the Bible, been the capital of the Jewish people and of no other people. 
 
In 1947, the UN General Assembly partitioned the 23 percent of the British Mandate for Palestine that remained after the creation of the Kingdom of Transjordan into separate Palestinian Arab and Palestinian Jewish sectors, planning to create two new states. They took a pass on Jerusalem-voting to make it and Bethlehem corpus separatum, an area legally separate from its environs. “In view of its association with three world religions” it would be “accorded special and separate treatment from the rest of Palestine and should be placed under effective United Nations control.”
 
We will never know what “effective UN control” would have looked like.
 
In May 1948, the Jordanian Legion entered the UN zone, besieged the Jewish residents and annexed the eastern side of the city. Did you ever wonder why it is called “Arab East Jerusalem”? It is because they expelled the Jews and worked hard to erase the historic Jewish connection from the city. In the Ceasefire Agreement of 1949, Jordan promised to appoint a committee to discuss free access of Jews to the holy sites including (but not limited to) the Western Wall and the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. It never happened. Instead, Jordan cut roads through the cemetery and used the tombstones for paving and latrines in Jordanian army camps. More than 50 synagogues, libraries and Jewish schools were deliberately destroyed or defaced. The Cave of Shimon the Just was used as a horse stable.
 
Appeals to the UN for “effective control” were not effective. 
 
The wall that split Jerusalem, cutting Jews-not only Israelis-off from their heritage, was as effective as the Berlin Wall. In 1967, the King of Jordan miscalculated, shelling the west side of the city from behind the UN barrier. In response, Israel made it whole again.
 
It is right and crucial that unified Jerusalem be the capital of the modern State of Israel, precisely because the city holds sites holy to people of the Jewish, Christian and, much later, the Muslim faiths. 
 
Only when the State of Israel has been the guardian of the unified city has it been-as the UN said it intended-a city open to all faiths. Today, the mosques are controlled by the Waqf, the Islamic religious society. Churches are maintained by various Christian denominations. The Western Wall, the Mount of Olives cemetery and the restored Hurva Synagogue are in Jewish hands. The Government of Israel ensures open access-and only the Government of Israel can be relied on to ensure open access to the Jewish people. 
 
Why, we ask, does the Obama Administration insist that Israel find a way for Jerusalem to serve as the capital of the Palestinians when it has never been an Arab political or religious seat? Religious Muslims should be glad the Jewish people regard the Muslim right to reach Muslim holy places as an obligation of the State of Israel-when no similar right accrued to the Jews. And the United States should regard the reunification of Jerusalem under a tolerant and democratic government to be praiseworthy.

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Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.  Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member.