Monday, July 28, 2008

"Ambushed," or A Priestly Blessing on a Sunday Afternoon

“Anyone who lives in the Land of Israel should always be happy.” (Elazar Azkari, author of “Yedid Nefesh”)
I realized that it was time for mincha (the afternoon prayers) and I needed to get my rear end in gear and get to shul – something which I don’t always do. The occasion? It was Sunday, July 20, making it the 17th of Tamuz, commemorating the first breach of the walls of the second Beit Hamikdash and the first day of “the three weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av. It is a (half) fast day, and, therefore, I had roused my body out of bed at 3AM to have breakfast: orange juice with all my pills, softboiled eggs, zucchini bread, and tea; and then just as readily resumed my slumbers. I had spent the entire day indoors. It was much too hot here to frolic outside when you can’t have anything to drink. But now it was time to walk v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y up the hill, around the bend, up the path, up the ramp, and around the bend to Mussar Avicha. Once mincha started, we would be almost at the end of the (non-eating) day; one could even entertain thoughts of dinner: in my case, left-over chicken from Shabbat preceded by some of delicious, cold gazpacho.
I didn’t even consider changing my clothes; it was just too hot. So I went to shul wearing exactly what I had been wearing all day: my knee-length beige shorts, an official t-shirt from the Derivatives Russia Conference [March 27 and 28, 2008, Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, Moscow] (there was a time when my t-shirts would come from my kids’ schools; now they come from Tina’s job) and my new crocs (on sale in The Land for 180 shekels; available on the Crocs website for about forty bucks, including shipping – in the US, only). My timing was good; I arrived just as they were taking out the Torah scroll. (Unlike a typical weekday mincha, on a public fast day, there are additions to the prayers as well as a Torah reading and a haftorah.) Having done this many times in The States, I thought I knew what was flying. But, after we said the Amidah, when the shaliach tzibbur (the guy leading the davening) began the repetition and we recited the communal kedusha, it occurred to me that the other cohanim were leaving the room. Then it dawned on me: We have to duchen??!!!! At mincha??!!!!!
If I wanted to describe all the differences, subtle and not so subtle, about living in The Land, I could spend the rest of my life giving examples. Birkat Cohanim (The Cohanic blessing, sometimes called duchening, after the Yiddish word for platform) would be a biggie for me, because it puts me to work. Among the ashkenazim in the lands of the exile, this is performed about twenty times a year – not counting the informal blessing that fathers give their chidren Friday nights: at mussaf (the additional prayers during the morning) on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the festivals. Why only then? Because our Sages decided by that only at these special times would a galut community be in the properly festive frame of mind to receive G-d’s blessing as transmitted by the cohanim. Here in the Land (as many of you are probably tired of hearing) at most batei Knesset (there are some which only do it on Shabbat) the birkat cohanim is done every day at shacharit (morning prayers) and at shacharit and mussaf on Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, (the new moon) and The Holidays. The fact that we would also be doing it at mincha on this fast day somehow eluded me. Nothing else to be done: I ran after my cohanic brethren, washed my hands, and grabbed a tallit from the rack in the lobby, putting it on hurriedly so I would be ready. It happens that I have two talletot of my own – safe and sound at home: one old one of medium size and weight which I wear during the week, and a nice one, also medium sized but of light-weight “tropical” wool, which I wear on Shabbat. The off-the-rack model from the shul lobby was enormous on me. It was rather heavy – almost blanket weight – probably designed to keep one warm in an unheated shteibel in Vitebsk in the middle of January.

And so, along with a handful of “frat brothers,” I ascended the bima – in my shorts and t-shirt (at least it was white!) completely obscured under my borrowed prayer shawl, my bare feet sticking out from under. “YEVERECHECHA……” (May G-d bless you and keep you safe; may He make His presence seem bright and may He be gracious to you; may He turn his favor your way and create peace for you.) At some point, a thought crept into my head. It was very late in the afternoon on this brutally hot day; we were all very hungry and thirsty and perhaps somewhat fatigued – all because we are commemorating the beginning of the destruction of our Temple, which we have been waiting two thousand years to rebuild; and yet now there was – by definition – collectively more simcha here a little bit east of Yerushalayim than there would be on a Shabbat morning back in New Jersey – wearing our best clothes, anticipating our best food (and perhaps a wee dram of some single malt). How did I know that there was more simcha in this relatively modest beit knesset here in Maale Adumim? Because we were allowed to recite the cohanic blessing!
When the davening was over, Nachum (one of the shul leaders, a wonderful guy who gives wonderfully original and insightful shiurim in English) came over to me and said that he realized that he had not warned me about the duchening. “You looked ambushed,” he said. I admitted that, had I realized I would be “performing,” I would have at least changed my pants. I shared with him my thoughts about levels of simcha, here and elsewhere. His response was, “You don’t have to convince me!” We were waiting for the time to start maariv (evening prayers), after which we would be free, summoning our remaining energy, to race home and eat something. I went up to Baruch P., and repeated my thoughts about the relative levels of simcha here and in The Exile. He also was not taken aback by my idea. He added that there was more simcha in The Land on a typical Shabbat than there would be elsewhere during Neilah (the concluding prayers on Yom Kippur).
I thought about this concept as I walked back home, as I guzzled my gazpacho, and I am still thinking about it. The way I figure it, there are two possibilities: One. Talking about a higher, perpetual level of simcha in The Land is either a vague concept, or simply a vacuous, self-serving idea spread among “the faithful,” i.e.; those of us who have chosen to live here, a way of laying a guilt trip on friends and family who have decided differently where to live, something which the Exilic community needn’t act upon or take seriously. Two. Our Sages understood something of enormous profundity about the value – personal and collective – of living here, which The Galut is ignoring at its peril.
The more I thought about “simcha in The Land,” the more I realized that in discussing this level of abstraction I was out of my league. It’s been unusually difficult for me to explain what this is all about; but I could at least organize my thoughts. Question number one: what are we talking about when we use the word “simcha” in this context? We can’t be using the word as in “I’m going to a simcha tomorrow night, so I‘ll be home late.” We can’t be implying that a wedding or a bar/bat mitzvah in New Jersey is less joyful or meaningful to the participants than one in our neck of the woods (although an event here will be far less expensive and much less formal. There will be no “Black Tie” or “Black Tie Optional.” There will probably be “No Tie.” At one of the weddings we were invited to last fall, the officiating rabbi wore a sweater over his white shirt.) It can’t be that right now Jews in The Land are individually happier than Jews not-in-The Land. So I’m assuming that the simcha we’re after is something collective, affecting the entirety of The People Israel.
Perhaps the simcha we’re describing is related to the kedusha (holiness) that has always been present in The Land since G-d gave it to us, and perhaps it is related to our collective experience as a people. In this tiny corner of the world where we are always in need of more water, we have collectively experienced our greatest tragedies and our greatest times of joy. Now you could argue that the exilic agony of all the pogroms, the expulsions, the book-burnings, the forced conversions, and The Holocaust, is in total greater than the pain of the destruction of both Temples and our expulsion from our Home. And one could respond that without the expulsion of the Jewish people from The Land of Israel almost nineteen hundred years ago, none of the evils of the exile would have occurred.
But what about the simcha? There was also real joy here once upon a time. It would be almost impossible to imagine the mass enthusiasm when tens of thousands of people would arrive in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at The Beit Hamikdash on one of the pilgrimage festivals. But in The Exile? Can anyone point to one moment of true joy for the Jewish people anywhere else in the world? Any time in the last 2000 years? (Yeah, once. In 1948. But that proves my point.) Creativity, yes. Learning, yes. Clinging to G-d, yes. Satisfaction, pleasure, or even prosperity in those periods between the pogroms, expulsions, book-burnings, conversions, or the threat thereof, yes. But joy? Explain to me how it would be possible for a humiliated People, scattered and adrift for close to two millennia to experience joy?
It would be a gross overstatement to suggest that there is now unceasing Joy in The Land. But it is fair to say that as the Jewish people continue to return there is now the possibility, or even a remez,(a hint) of joy from time to time – even with everything that is going wrong here, which I needn’t catalogue. The best analogy I can think of is this: you’re trying to download or install a huge piece of very important software on a very slow computer. It seems to be taking forever, and you’re worried the program might crash. But you’re certain that sooner or later, perhaps with a little bit of help from a friend, the program will be successfully installed.
Something very important is being “installed” here, even though it taking much, much longer to “download” than we’d all like, we seem to be getting constant, annoying “error messages,” and there are times when we are having difficulty contacting “tech support” which is supposed to be available 24/7. What is amazing is that there were men of great foresight like the aforementioned Rabbi Azkari, (part of the circle of kabbalists who lived in Safed) who somehow understood that this process would be beginning – in the midst of almost total desolation, which is what our Homeland seemed to be 500 years ago, and when it would have seemed impossible for anybody to be happy here.
So let’s leave it at that: the simcha that propels a heavenly blessing on a Sunday afternoon is based on a pain created two thousand years before, which we as a People have never forgotten. And it has been nurtured assiduously by our remembrance of a promise made even further back to our very distant ancestors that one day all would be good, and then it would really be good. And now, we can begin to imagine that this promise of Redemption might be starting to come true before our own eyes. So I am transmitting a blessing with the full expectation that there will be a time when that blessing will be repeated on the 17th of Tammuz – on a full stomach.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Dustup in Pottsville

I hope that none of you are thinking that, with all the excitement of living here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, we are not mindful of what is occurring in the rest of the planet – affectionately known as chutz l’aretz. Six days a week, The New York Times, masquerading as the International Herald-Tribune, arrives at our door, and, because that newspaper undiluted would cause serious brain rot, we also get the European edition of the Wall Street Journal. My favorite newspaper, The New York Sun, is only an internet click away from my computer screen, as are any number of other sources of information. So, if something interesting is going on wherever you are, we’re on top of it, whether it’s political, topical, or gastronomical. Which reminds me: can anyone explain how tomatoes get salmonella? I think of this whenever I am standing at my favorite stand at Mahane Yehuda, picking out luscious, ripe, healthy agvaniot, which sell here, depending on the time of year, for as little as twenty five cents a pound. It makes up for the totally tasteless corn which is being peddled around. Speaking of the totally tasteless, the internecine struggles for the presidential nomination in America are, if nothing else, a lot more entertaining than anything the Kadima group and their Knesset allies could ever put together. I’ve been considering which American politician most closely resembles Ehud Olmert, Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. But both of these were semi-tragic figures, talented men brought down their own personal demons. A better comparison would be Spiro Agnew, a man who might have tried to sell you your own used car.
And from the totally tasteless, we can neatly segue into another zone of discomfort which we can entitle “Am I, or am I not in Chelm” (to paraphrase something in a letter which one of our friends had published in JPost). She was referring to a recent bizarre event here in The Land with a rather tragic ending. An East Jerusalem Arab was working at a construction site near the Central Bus Station, and for reasons not quite clear, drove his tractor onto Jaffa Road, going against traffic, smashing into cars and buses, resulting in the death of three Jews. This madman was finally stopped when a young soldier who had just finished his army basic training killed him with a borrowed revolver. A subsequent police investigation exonerated one of their officers who had failed to stop the terrorist. The report “explained” that when the policeman arrived on the scene, the construction vehicle had stopped, and the Arab was seemingly dead. However, shortly after that, a Hareidi man hurled a rock through the vehicle’s window; whereupon the Arab suddenly regained consciousness and then continued on his rampage, causing the death of the three innocent bystanders. The soldier was appropriately celebrated, but no one mentioned the identity of the Hareidi rock thrower. My personal feeling is that if this man can truly raise the dead, he may well be the Messiah we have been awaiting these thousands of years.
A situation back in The States which I have been following with similar not-to-be-believed features is the on-going desecration of G-d’s name by Agriprocessors, Inc., “the nation’s largest kosher meat producer,” the Rubashkin family which owns the company, as well as the company’s detractors and supporters. (And if you are patient and read until the end, you will figure out why I am taking up your precious time in discussing this particular train wreck.)
Several years ago, somebody employed by PETA managed to get into their main plant in Postville, Iowa and surreptitiously videoed scenes that seemed to document their allegations of animal abuse. Now my take on that is this: it takes a special bit of genius to make PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group on the extreme lunatic fringe of the “animal rights” movement) appear to be the “good guys” in a dispute. How the Rubashkins managed to do that, I’ll never understand, but they pulled it off.
When one was disposed to forget about all that, with assurances that the abuses had been corrected, in May of this year, Federal immigration officials raided ther Pottsville plant and arrested 390 employees who were “illegal aliens.” Not surprisingly, allegations followed of labor abuses, other mistreatment of these workers, sexual abuse, even that illegal drugs had been manufactured in situ. The Rubashkins and their supporters were “shocked, shocked” to find out that so many of their employees (ten percent of the population of Pottsville) were working illegally. They had simply not noticed that three quarters of the almost 1000 employees had suspicious social security numbers (according to an affidavit filed by federal agents).
As a consequence of these events, labor unions and organizations which focus on specialized “human rights” issues have joined the “animal rights” people in attacking AgriProcessors. The ranks of these critics also include Jews, including leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements. . One Conservative group has called for the creation of an “ethical standards-based certification of kosher food.” Here are religious leaders who normally would not be called upon to certify bottled water – and a majority of whose members are not concerned with issues of kashrut on a daily basis – suddenly injecting themselves into the discussion. The story just gets weirder and weirder.
To make matters even worse, several representatives from various Orthodox groups have chosen to write articles defending Agriprocessors. For example, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel (and someone who should know better) wrote an article which I saw in the JPost several weeks ago, in which he summarized the sordid recent events and then asked, “Where’s the presumption of innocence…?” He quotes from a statement from the Rabbinical Council of America (failing to mention that the RCA is the rabbinical arm of the Orthodox Union, which is responsible for providing the certification of kashrut to Agriprocessors) “in the absence of hard facts” one shouldn’t “rush to premature judgments… or impute guilt…” Rabbi Shafran does not understand “…why so many Jewish groups, clergy, papers and pundits are so energetically railing against Agriprocessors in the wake of the recent government raid. The righteous indignation has the smell of adolescent excitement at the discovery of a new ‘noble’ cause.” (In listing the “adolescents” involved in this crusade, he mentions “well-known ‘activists’ like Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Avi Weiss” as signators to a boycott petition.)
Rabbi Shafran forgot to mention that, among other things, the company paid a settlement of six hundred thousand dollars to the E.P.A. for wastewater pollution in 2006 and was assessed one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in fines this year by state officials for various health, safety, and labor violations. You can keep your family well supplied with rib steaks for a long time with that kind of money. He also did not mention that KAJ, an agency which also certifies kosher foods, withdrew its certification of Agriprocessors in April. So, if I am permitted a response to the good Rabbi Shafran, as well as the esteemed rabbis who comprise the RCA, it is simply: G.M.A.B., which stands for “give me a break.” (I do not know if Rabbi Shafran has any experience in the field of law; if he does, he might want to consider joining the legal team for Ehud Olmert, who will need all the help he can get for quite a while.)
One might think that this can’t get any sillier. One would be wrong. Last week, I read another column, also reprinted in JPost, by a rabbi from Orange County, NY, who basically repeated the same defense of Agriprocessors. However this rabbi pointed out that Rabbi Riskin had nothing to do with the campaign against the meat packer. This is simply too delicious. The director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America writes an article about the “presumption of innocence,” in which he inaccurately (until further notice, I am accepting the Orange county version) attacks another rabbi for violating “Jewish ethics.”
In regurgitating the same talking points about Agriprocessors, our second rabbi referred to Rabbi Riskin as “Steven,” even though Rabbi Riskin has called himself “Shlomo” for at least thirty years. I am reminded of a mental game Barbara and I have enjoyed playing, which we call “The name on the checkbook.” Many of the people we know in our Jewish world were given an “American” name on their birth certificate, but have chosen to use their “Jewish” name with family and friends – retaining their original legal name. So if you are trying to find “Dovid” in the phone book, remember to look for “Bernard.” And if you call “Eli” at work, remember to ask for “Elliot.” Surely, our second rabbi knows Rabbi Riskin’s name. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what this little dig is all about.
Believe it or not, all this examination of human folly was simply a prelude to my main point, which goes back to Rabbi Shafran’s attack in which he referred to Ruth Messinger and Rabbis Riskin and Weiss as “activists.” Now I have a lot of trouble with that terminology, going back to my days as a caseworker and supervisor in what was then called the NYC Department of Social Services. We had a union which had elected officers and paid staff. In addition, each work location elected shop stewards. Then there were “activists,” people who were somehow “involved” in the union, but were not authorized by anybody to do anything. To put it simply, if you were an “activist,” you were a nobody. You might think you “counted,” but you really didn’t. Don’t agree with my definition? How would you use the term, and to whom would it apply? Would anyone call the late Lubavitch rebbe a kiruv activist? Former Vice President Al Gore an anti-global warming activist? So why would you denigrate Ms. Messinger, a former Manhattan Borough President and current CEO of American Jewish World Service? And why would you insult Orthodox rabbis, even if you don’t agree with them?
Is it merely a coincidence that Rabbi Shafran and his colleague repeat the same lame arguments in defending a company as problematic as Agriprocessors, and, at the same time, find it necessary to belittle as prominent a person as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin? Many of us are aware of his work at Lincoln Square Synagogue which started the revival of Orthodox Jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Anyone who has stood on the hills of Efrat and looked out at the surrounding communities in the Gush Etzion bloc must be at least dimly aware of his role in its development. My hope is that some day, Rabbi Shafran will use his considerable gifts to defend Rabbi Riskin and the tens of thousands of Jews who live between Jerusalem and Hebron.
Yes, we have many things here in The Land as troublesome as the controversies surrounding Agriprocessors, and, unfortunately, we are in the front seat when it comes to corruption. But, ultimately, our struggle will of necessity revolve around our continued right to live in Efrat, Maale Adumim, and even Tel Aviv. There is a certain nobility, an honoring of G-d’s name to this cause. Most of us would rather in this Land engage in this battle, rather than in a dustup with no dignity in Pottsville, Iowa.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Man Who Might Not Have Been.....

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 [1939] 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.