Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away
(Attributed to many sources, but copyrighted  asTHE LITTLE MAN WHO WASN'T THEREBy Harold Adamson / Bernie Hanighen)
One of the difficulties of being a “newbie” in a new land is getting the “how, when, and where” straight. There were a lot of things that I had read or heard about before we made aliyah that I want to do; the challenge is getting the details straight so that we would be able to. For example, every Lag B’omer there is this HUGE festivity in Meron (a small town near Tzvat where the great kabbalist R’ Shimon Ben Yochai is buried), but I could not figure out how to get there. So we hung out in Maale Adumim and watched kids (and their wanna-be-kids dads) make bonfires so big it would have scared the pants off Smokey The Bear (Remember, Only you can prevent forest fires!).
I was determined to do better for Yom Yerushalayim, which occupies a strange and precarious place in the Israeli calendar. Unlike Yom Haatzmaut, which is celebrated throughout the land – except in Arab villages and Mea Shearim – Yom Yerushalayim is wildly celebrated in the city itself and in the areas liberated from Jordanian rule in 1967 and ignored in certain other places. This is to be expected: those people who want to give away our land are hardly likely to celebrate the day when we obtained it! Plus there is the theological element. If we consider the victory in 1948 to be a miracle, what are we to make of the events in 1967? All the Arab armies had to do was keep on marching and the Jewish state would have been history. Instead, we won an impossible victory AND gained control of the Temple Mount, Ir Atika (the Old City), and a few minor areas like the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the sites of the tombs of Rachel and Joseph. In addition, our country stopped being nine miles wide in its center, and we had defensible borders. So why would a current generation of politicians who act as if there is no G-d in history want to make a big deal of this day?
Nonetheless, while our secular leaders avoid the Kotel like the plague, thousands of Yeshiva students dance through the Old City to the Western Wall. At least that was what I had always been told. Now that we are here, I needed to find out when and where all of this was going to happen. According to R’ Mordechai Friedfertig’s schedule of events, the bochrim were supposed to start gathering at around 3:30PM at Kikar Tzion (where Ben Yehudah connects to Jaffa St.) and at some point thereafter head down to the Kotel. Now I’m not such a freier that I would show up at 3:30. I figured 4:30. But when I arrived at Rehov Yaffo at that time, I could see that the streets were blocked off, the sound stages were being set up, and there were a few hundred random students milling around. I walked around for about half an hour and took some photographs. Nothing much seemed to be happening, so I decided to walk down through the Old City to the Western Wall. I had no idea how much activity there would be there, but, if nothing else, I would at least be at the Kotel. I took my standard route: through the Jaffa gate, stay on the main road until you get to a small street which I believe is called St. Andrew’s, take a left there and proceed more or less on a straight path until the steps leading down to the Cardo, keep going straight until you get to the series of steps leading down to the Kotel plaza. Sure enough, there wasn’t much out of the ordinary happening there either, but it took me no more than eleven seconds to locate a minyan for mincha. A soundstage was being set up, but after listening to the interminable “ehad, shteim” into the microphone, I realized that nothing was going to happen here for quite a while, so I decided to head back to Jaffa, grab a quick bite, and somewhere catch a bus to the Nefesh B’Nefesh office, where I was supposed to meet Barbara for a seminar on budgeting your money in Israel. I retraced my steps: up the stairs, past the shops, past the reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue, past the Cardo, up the winding streets in the Jewish Quarter, and finally out onto the thoroughfare which leads to the Jaffa Gate. Along the way, I ran into a family I knew from Maale Adumim; the woman told me that the yeshiva kids had finally assembled at Kikar Tzion and were headed towards the Old City. OK: I’ll take that into consideration.
Needless to say, I was completely unprepared for what I saw as I came out of the Jaffa gate. Within no more than an hour after I had left a fairly empty Kikar Tzion, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people had assembled there and had begun heading towards the Old City. But for now, this huge throng of people had gathered around a soundstage set up in Kikar Tzahal (the renovated and renamed plaza where Bar-Lev and Rehov Yaffo come together) and were singing, waving flags, dancing with flags, dancing with each other.
People who know me long and well know that I am not a stranger to rallies, marches, demonstrations, and picket lines. The fact that a large number of people have gathered in one place does not automatically excite me. There is no automatic wisdom in numbers; the size of a gathering bears no relationship to its virtue or merit. Even a good cause does not guarantee a sense of urgency: many of the Soviet Jewry rallies held in New York in the seventies and eighties seemed like giant picnics (unlike the actual situation on the ground in Moscow or Leningrad).
But there was no question that I was now witnessing the real thing, a sense of joy and urgency coming together into a kind of ecstasy which is very hard to describe (and also next to impossible to photograph). No question: I had to stay a while to witness this.
Then the mass of people began moving, but weren’t they heading the wrong way? I had assumed that they would go more or less as I had done, the safe way through the Jaffa Gate. Instead, they were heading down Bar-Lev. Could it be? Yes! They were heading towards the Damascus Gate! I hadn’t been there since 1980!
Many of my audience will have no idea what this is all about; so let me digress and explain. The Damascus Gate is itself in a part of Jerusalem heavily populated by Muslim Arabs, and it leads into the so-called “Arab Quarter.” When I first visited Jerusalem in 1980, there was no problem walking anywhere in Jerusalem and the Old City. Unlike the “Jewish Quarter,” which had been more or less turned into rubble during the years when it was under Jordanian rule, and which is being lovingly restored and rebuilt, the rest of the Old City looks exactly the way it was for hundreds of years. In 1980, Barbara and I had spent many hours walking through the incredible alleyways, past the hundreds of stalls selling either foodstuffs or Arab versions of “tchochkeles,” savoring the ambience and taking photographs (the amazing contrast of light and dark in these narrow streets is unmistakable). The Arab areas are still filled with tourists, especially Christians looking for the Via Dolorosa – essentially a series of narrow streets like many others, but with a street sign saying “Via Dolorosa.” But by the time we returned to Jerusalem in 1988, things had changed markedly. Most of the Arab shopkeepers were “on strike,” and their stalls were shut tight. One felt less comfortable just strolling around these areas, and it seemed less important to do so. The fewer Jews walking around the Arab areas, the less safe it seems for other Jews – even though there are lots of people there and the area is guarded by police and soldiers. Until recently, my buddy, R’ Mordecai Friedfertig, used to walk through the Damascus Gate on his way to his job at Rav Aviner’s yeshiva, but one day, one of the teachers there was slightly wounded when an Arab attacked him with a knife. Now Mordy goes the longer and safer way to get to work.
But there is safety in numbers – especially really big numbers. Thousands and thousands of mostly young people – escorted by a full complement of trained army personnel – were going to “take back” our streets and go to the Kotel through the narrow streets where we almost never, ever go. As this enormous throng of people headed down Rehov Bar-Lev, all thoughts of my meeting up with Barbara vanished from my mind (there was so much noise that I couldn’t have called her on my cell phone). This was too good to pass up! I joined the line of marchers, of course taking pictures as I went.
Those of you who are familiar with the Damascus Gate realize that it’s much narrower than the entrances at the Jaffa Gate, and it certainly wasn’t designed to accommodate a huge throng (in fact, on the contrary, it was built to prevent an invading army from entering except in small, “defeatable” numbers). And you get to it by going down a series of steps which bring you to a large open area. So try to imagine the following scene: you’re standing at the top looking down. Behind you are thousands of people trying to get to where you are. Ahead of you, the steps are filled with people, the plaza is filled with more people, all waiting to get through this narrow entrance way. While they are waiting, these thousands in the plaza are singing, dancing, and waving their Israeli flags. You might describe it as a Shlomo Carlebach concert from 1975 morphed into an army of Jewish Crusaders.
Finally, it was my turn to enter the Old City. I had not remembered this, but, not only is the Gate itself narrow, but it opens into a dark, narrow alleyway (as opposed to the Jaffa Gate, which opens into a large, open area filled with stores of all kinds). As I entered the Gate, looking at the closed stalls of money changers and at dark, gloomy walls, hundreds of people around me were singing “YERUSHALAYIM” as loudly as they could, with an unmistakable certitude that, with G-d’s help, our eternal capital will remain undivided and that the light of true shalom will penetrate these forbidding alleys. Minutes later, the crowd began singing Hatikvah, but in a way I had never heard before. This was no longer the Hatikvah of the Exile, sung sweetly and piously in conjunction with The Star Spangled Banner at school dinners or the like. This Hatikvah was sung as a war cry: Lihiyot Am Chofshi b’ ARTZEINU (To be a free nation in OUR LAND, where “our” is possessive, not relational.)
And so, we began a slow walk down to the Kotel. All of the Arab shops were closed, their shutters locked tight. Dozens of elite troops trained for this kind of detail guarded the way, their eyes looking everywhere for the slightest sign of trouble. For here were an enormous number of Jewish youth caught in a bottle neck; anything thrown from a second or third floor window could have caused an indescribable panic. Further along, I would see more soldiers on the roofs of the several yeshivas in this area, in buildings which certain people had the foresight to re-purchase. There were barriers set up blocking the side streets, keeping small groups of Arab youth and some elders away from the marchers. Methinks they had a “mean and hungry look,” not that I blame them so much. Ultimately, it will either be Artzeinu, or it will be their land. There simply isn’t enough room in those narrow alleyways for them and us.
Now comes the interesting part: Somewhere along the way, I glanced to my right and noticed an older man with one of those small lapel pins with the Israeli and American flags. He looked at me and struck up a conversation in English. (I wonder how he knew I was an American. Maybe it was the NJ Blood Bank cap I was wearing.) He reached out and held onto my arm, and we walked together to the Kotel. If I was in the upper one percentile age-wise in this gathering of young people, he must have had a good fifteen years on me. He was wearing the mainstream religious outfit: a white shirt and a dark suit, neat and presentable, but one that had been several shades darker when it was new (perhaps at the first inauguration of Bush II, or perhaps at the first inauguration of Clinton,) Likewise his hat. (official digression: almost any type of hat ever worn by gentiles was given a name: the stovepipe hat worn by Lincoln, the top hat worn by Fred Astaire, the campaign hat worn by Smokey the Bear, the Stetson worn by any cowboy who ever rode the range, the bowler or derby worn by Churchill, the porkpie hat worn by Buster Keaton, the homburg worn by Edward VII, the trilby worn by Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther movies, the fedora worn by Indiana Jones and, for reasons I have never been able to fathom, by many Orthodox Jews today. There are other kinds of black hats besides the fedora, mostly with flatter tops. But try to find out what they are called! As far as I can tell, they are simply part of the uniform.)
My new acquaintance told me that he had been in Israel for many years and that his whole family lived in Jerusalem. He had been coming on these Yom Yerushalayim walks to the Kotel for many years. I never got his name. As we walked, he pointed out to me a number of things I might not have noticed, all of which pointed to a Jewish presence in what is now called “The Arab Quarter”: certain architectural details, magen davids on archways above the door, carved out places on doorposts where mezuzot had been placed, buildings which had been synagogues. You see, we lived here too! As we got nearer to the tunnel which would lead us out to the Kotel plaza, we began going slower and slower and it became hotter and hotter because of the press of bodies close together and the lack of ventilation. I looked at this old man, and I thought to myself, “He’s not going to make it.” I was certain that any moment he would pass out. Ma l’assot (what to do)? The answer was obvious: I had been in Israel for over nine months; time to act like an Israeli. And so, making certain that my charge was firmly attached to my arm, and with a giant SLICHA (excuse me), I began to propel us through the crowd, in the same way as someone who has just arrived at a bus stop will, without giving it a thought, enter the vehicle before fifteen people who have been standing there waiting patiently for twenty minutes. We made it through the last hundred yards in about five minutes, although it seemed like forever. Finally we had reached the plaza, now completely packed with people; I kept on going, pushing our way through until I located a vacant white plastic chair so that the man could sit down. When I was reasonably sure that he would be OK, I left him and surveyed the action. The sound stage which only hours before had been the scene of desultory “echad, steim”s was now center stage for the world’s greatest party: Yom Yerushalayim at the Kotel! It is unlikely that we will ever reach the level of simcha that occurred during the reign of David Hamelech or during the water gathering at Sukkot during the Beit Hamikdash. But in today’s world, this is probably as close as we will get. Thousands of men are their side, thousands of women on their side, dancing, dancing until……. By this time, I was too tired (and I hadn’t eaten) to partake more fully in the festivities. So I have no idea what time the party ended.
I began the ascent back, this time taking the familiar route to the Jaffa Gate, thinking about the elderly gentleman I escorted to the Kotel. What was he doing there? Why would a man well into his eighties, who needed help traversing the very slippery stone paths, subject himself to this ordeal? He didn’t say anything about meeting anyone there; and, frankly, his appearance made him stand out in this dati leumi (religious Zionist) crowd. There must have been a reason why he was there, and why he chose to participate every year. The answer was obvious, even if you refuse to believe or accept my explanation. For an hour or an hour and a half, I was walking to the Kotel with Eliyahu Hanavi.