The morning started out with a buffet at the hotel from their restaurant, which immediately overlooks the Old City. There is certainly something to be said for enjoying a cup of coffee while overlooking those walls containing the hopes of two thousand years worth of prayers.
Shabbat in Jerusalem embodies both what is right and what is challenging about life in Israel. On the one hand, the streets are almost completely devoid of cars. And when wandering, one can hear the melodies of Shabbat emanating from buildings several stories up. And yet, the majority observing all are of the increasingly Orthodox variety.
However there are pockets of Reform and Conservative Jews to be bound davening and cherishing our holy day. With this in mind, I led a small group by a very circuitous route to Har El synagogue. It was circuitous because I am still somewhat turned around. However when we got there, we encountered a very Reform Israeli worship experience. Not only was the service in Hebrew, but it was being led by an Israeli born Reform rabbi, and by my former roommate and now Cantor Evan Cohen. We also witnessed a bat mitzvah. The bat mitzvah did a marvelous job. However I do wonder if it is a bit easier to teach b’nai mitzvah in Israel given that they already know Hebrew. Her drash was also all in Hebrew, and like all b’nai mitzvah students, too fast. But all in all, it was a wonderful morning.
Sadly we couldn’t stay as we had a walking tour of Jerusalem to get ready for. So following a quick outfit change, we met Mike, and we were on our way. After an explanation into the history of the Old City, we headed down through Jaffa gate . We visited the Cardo, billed as the world’s oldest shopping arcade.
We made our way through the Jewish quarter, where many of the buildings only date back to the 1970s (due to the destruction of many of the buildings during the Jordanian occupation).
We visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, and dropped off notes from friends, family, and members of Har Sinai Congregation. I did and I still do struggle with the Western Wall. First off, it is only a retaining wall built up by Herod the Great to create a platform for his improved version of the Temple. Secondly the wall represents a Judaism whose time has come and gone with the end of the sacrificial cult. It is also a site strongly controlled by the ultra-Orthodox. On this day, because it was Shabbat, there were no pictures that were supposed to be taken near the wall. There were even several gorgeous young haredi ladies politely but sternly asking tourists to put their cameras away. On the plus side, there is no schnorring on Shabbat, which is otherwise a constant ‘tradition’ to do at the wall.
Yet at the same time, the sight is, as Mike says, “historically significant and meaningful,” and for many, religiously significant. Yet for me, I struggle, because when it comes down to it, I still find it to be like talking to a wall. However, everyone in our group took the opportunity to spend some time at the kotel, and I genuinely hope and pray they each had a meaningful experience.
We then left the Kotel and headed over to the Christian Quarter. We had every intention of going to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, yet there was a mass of people all attempting to enter it that would have put Machaneh Yehuda to shame. Most of us did not try, but I think a few brave few may have made it in. Following this, we navigated our way through the Arab Shuk and enjoyed all the sights of a multitude of chotchkees ready for purchase at just the right price. Or a good bagel...
The day was hot, and the sun was strong, but it felt good to be navigating the winding streets of Jerusalem. Having lots of water also helped. But there was plenty available for purchase if you had the right number of shekels.
I admit I have been in the Old City on many occasions. Sometimes I went to take in the sights, and sometimes I went to shop for something in particular. Yet each time I visit the Old City, I am impressed by how most of the inhabitants: Arab, Christian, Jew, and Armenian seem to get along. There are times where one can feel the tension, but it does give one at least a modicum of hope that if we can peacefully coexist in such a confined space, that maybe … just maybe … we can peacefully co-exist in a larger space. However there was a t-shirt with people all over it laughing hysterically with the tag line being “peace process.” So … maybe not.
As I write this, I am enjoying the cool air and dimming light while sitting next to the infinity pool of the hotel overlooking David’s citadel near the entrance of Jaffa Gate. And in this calm, I do feel that anything is possible. Well except maybe the likelihood of me ever learning how to do the breaststroke. But thankfully the summer Olympics are a long way off … wait they’re when? Never mind.