Tuesday, June 26, 2018

How can I explain the inner workings of my Jewish soul?

There is something different about the Jewish experience that deeply impacts who we are as individuals and as a Nation but it is very hard to explain to people who do not share the same feeling. Some things need to be felt to be truly understood. This is my attempt to explain…

The day after Shavuot I found myself on the way to Jerusalem with a nice Swedish woman about my age. A guest of my mother and a tourist in Israel, she had very little knowledge about our country but had a friendly attitude, open mind and was interested in learning more.

As we drove up the hills towards Jerusalem I found myself at a loss for words. I can talk about Jerusalem but how can anyone really understand her significance if they don’t know what Jerusalem throbbing in your bones means?

Does it make any sense to explain that time isn’t linear, that in this land, the experiences of thousands of years coexist in the same space?

Every time I drive to Jerusalem I see flashes of my ancestors making pilgrimage to the holy city. While I am comfortable in the car, simultaneously they are there too - trudging up the hills, men, women and children, with their sheep and their cattle, tents, merchandise to sell and sacrifices to present at the Temple. I know the phantom ache in my legs is theirs, not mine and I am grateful to have the luxury of travelling to Jerusalem by car instead of walking, as they did.

Our first stop was Yad Vashem.

Our guest knew about the Holocaust but this was the first time she was faced with the enormity of the horror. There is something about listening to witness testimonies inside the museum and then stepping outside, with the hills of Jerusalem spread out below and seeing Jews walking free in a land they built with their hands and determination, that inspires awe in a way nothing else can…

Maybe the only way to explain a miracle is to actually see it.

Inside the museum I explained to our guest about the Jews of Europe, their lifestyle, the shock and disbelief at their own neighbors who could turn them into non-humans and steal everything they had, including their lives.

Then I found myself utterly robbed of speech. Standing in front of a case of Nazi defiled Torah scrolls, ripped and burnt, I felt a rage welling up inside that can only be expressed with tears.

I am not a religious Jew. It is not religion that evokes this overwhelming reaction, it is identity.
It is not a reaction evoked by seeing an affront to my faith, it is a reaction evoked by seeing an affront to my soul.

Jewish tradition says that God created the universe with words, thus the words have a certain power to them. Each individual letter has its own power and must be formed correctly. Every Torah scroll is lovingly written out by a specially trained scribe. Each letter must be written by hand, perfectly with absolutely no mistakes. Torah scrolls that are in use are dressed in their own special coverings with silver breastplates and crowns on the top of their handles. Scrolls that are damaged cannot be thrown away, they are buried with reverence, like a person, with their own special funeral.  

Who preserved these relics of Jewish life in Nazi Europe, so wantonly destroyed? Who took the effort to keep and preserve them while so much else was being lost?

The collective memory of my Jewish soul cries out in indignation at the cruel glee of enemies deliberately destroying what is sacred as a precursor to their attempt to destroy entirely our existence.

Before attacking our bodies, they attacked our souls. It is not Jewish bodies that clung to Zion, it was, it is Jewish souls. Pogroms, concentration camps, wars and terror attacks can kill the body but the soul does not forget.

The Jewish soul is the place where religion, heritage and nationhood collide. It is difficult to comprehend. In Israel and particularly in Jerusalem, layers of the past blend with the present and even the future.

There I was, walking to the Kotel with a tourist and explaining about the Temple Mount, the Kotel and Al Aqsa. We watched men praying in the men’s section. The holiday had brought many people to Jerusalem and as time went by, more and more people came flowing in to the holy site.

Did she feel the reverence in the air? I don’t know.

I took her to see “Ezrat Yisrael”, the egalitarian section that is open for men and women to pray together however they choose. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone praying there (I’m pretty sure the group I saw singing together was a group of Christians, not Jews). By that time, it was already dark.

Standing in the golden glow of the Wall, I was looking up towards where we should have been, on top of the Temple Mount. Suddenly a sound I had never before heard in that place cut through the air.

A shofar was blowing and it sounded like it was coming from atop the Temple Mount.

My heart leapt with joy before my brain managed to explain to my heart that what I had heard was an illusion of sound. The shofar was blown from the roof of Aish Hatorah building on the other side of the Kotel plaza, where a wedding was taking place (a special enough event in itself!). The sound did not come from the Temple Mount.

I didn’t even try to explain.

After the Six Day war and the reunification of Jerusalem Naomi Shemer added to her song “Jerusalem of Gold” words that describe the city returning to Jewish life:

“We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and to the market-place
A shofar [ram's horn] calls out on the Temple Mount
In the Old City.”

A shofar calling out on the Temple Mount is the ultimate sign of Jewish sovereignty.

A shofar on the Temple Mount is a sound I have never heard. That sound will be the sign that our journey from slavery in Egypt to being a free nation in Zion and Jerusalem, will finally be complete.
Will I ever hear that sound? Was it a sound from the future, one that as yet only exists in a dream?
What I know for sure is that it had nothing to do with current reality. That truth hit me hard when we were preparing to go towards the hotel.

My mother (bless her heart) had booked a place in the Old City. When we heard that, we were concerned. Where exactly in the Old City?

Looking on the map, we saw that it was in the Muslim Quarter. Not a place I would choose to stay in good times and one week after the American Embassy was relocated to Jerusalem was not what anyone would call a “good time.” Of course, the people who run a hotel want our money but the people who live in that area and own businesses there are the same ones who laughed at Adel Bennet when she begged them to help her after she and her husband were stabbed. Critically injured, bleeding she fell at their feet and pleaded for assistance. They looked down at her, laughed and told her to die. That happened less than a year ago and now, they had an “excuse” to let out their hatred.  

It was too late to cancel and rebook so Lenny and I figured we could go take a look at the place, get a feel for the atmosphere and then decide. Lenny consulted with the policemen, guarding at the Kotel. That night there were more policemen than usual, more with higher ranks and one step away from full riot gear (they were sans shields and helmets). 

The officer Lenny spoke with displayed extreme concern when he heard where we were supposed to go. At first he gave the answer that the system demands: “We are in the streets to protect everyone. You can walk the streets.” His eyes told a different story. That led Lenny to press him: “Would you let your sister go there?”

Something burst in the officer and he blurted out: “I wouldn’t let my sister come to Jerusalem at all now. Try to find a different hotel.”

His eyes were full of deep concern. That, even more than his words, frightened me. 

I made a few phone calls but to no avail. Not knowing what else to do, we went in the direction of the hotel but at the exist from the Kotel, leading to that direction, came across a police blockade. The police there took one look at us and said: “You can’t go through this way.” Shocked, we stood frozen for a moment. Two teenage boys ran up, the police moved the blockade and let them by. Lenny asked, how come they could go by saying our hotel is that way. The policeman said: “They are Arabs. You are not. You can’t go there. There are violent riots there now.”


This is our current reality. Chilled to the bone, we turned away and eventually ended up leaving Jerusalem altogether rather than staying the night as originally planned.

In our national anthem we sing about the yearning of the Jewish soul, the 2000-year-old hope to be free in the land of Zion and Jerusalem. We are not yet there.    

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