Saturday 13 March 2010

Yerushalyim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold)

Over the course of the nearly 12 years that I have been living in Israel, and before that during numerous visits to Israel, I have had the privilege of visiting the holy city of Jerusalem many times. I spent a number of years working in the city, and commuted each day to my office there. Although I long ago decided that I would not like to live in the city, it definitely holds a mysteriousness for me and has a unique atmosphere that I feel a strong connection with. Despite this fact, I have never taken the chance to be in Jerusalem over Shabbat. So, when I was recently invited to spend last Shabbat in Jerusalem, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I am so pleased that I did so.

One of the things that I love about living in Israel is the real and noticeable difference between Shabbat and other days of the week. It is not only the fact that most businesses and all schools are closed, it is the fact that the whole atmosphere is completely different. My most favourite time of the week is on Friday afternoon when the shops begin to close for Shabbat, and the air is filled with the delicious smells of chicken soup and cholent (a traditional Shabbat dish prepared and cooked before Shabbat, but eaten on Saturday for lunch). Daily life in Israel is so hectic and people are always rushing and scurrying about to try to pack as much as possible into the limited hours that the week offers. When things begin to relax on a Friday afternoon and everybody slows down a little, it really feels like a different world.

Last week, we decided to spend an hour or two in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim on Friday afternoon as people were running their last-minute errands before the shops finally took a welcome break. Here, it seems the weekday intensity is heightened quite substantially, especially on a Friday. It was tiring just to watch people as they rushed about their business trying to beat the weary shopkeepers who, themselves, were rushing to close their stores to finish their pre-Shabbat preparations. A walk through the new city of Jerusalem after this revealed that most people had already gone home, and the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall that forms the main focus for the new city's commercial area was practically deserted.

We decided to welcome Shabbat at the Western Wall. As the only remaining structure which formed part of the second Temple, there is no holier site in the Jewish world. We approached the Western Wall from the Jaffa gate and crossed through the Armenian Quarter and Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. We were accompanied by numerous others like ourselves who were wishing to celebrate the holiest day of the week at the holiest location. All were in their finest Shabbat clothes - the ultra-Orthodox had donned their traditional smart robes, streimels and hats in honour of this holy day. The air was electric, but this was nothing in comparison to what was happening at the Western Wall itself.

Thousands had gathered at the Kotel in groups and in singles to experience the magic of Shabbat. Some were gathered in their regular prayer groups as they are privileged to do each week. They were obvious by the fact that they had an established location at the wall that they occupied, and looked like a permanent structure. There were groups, Israelis and foreigners, who were obviously there on a one-time basis and who praying fervently, hardly able to believe the wonderful location to be celebrating their prayers. There was a group of IDF soldiers in a prayer group, and who broke out into a dance during the course of their prayers. Excited onlookers joined the dance and their prayers. There were others like myself who strolled around looking for a group to attach themselves to in order to pray. Because of the wide variety of styles of prayer, I tried a few groups before finding the one that suited my style best. At various times, singing could be heard from across the Kotel plaza of groups welcoming the Shabbat bride. Each group was singing a different tune, but each more fervently than the next.

After I completed my prayers, I wandered around amongst the groups praying there just to listen in to the style of prayer and tunes they were singing. It was difficult for me to tear myself away from this wonderful, happy, holy place. Everybody was so happy. There was so much dancing, singing and joy . I just wanted the scene to last forever.

Eventually, the hunger took over and I was forced to pull myself away to return for our Shabbat meal. As I walked away and back through the Old City, the fact that many Arab merchants still had their shops and stalls open did not detract from the wonderful atmosphere that prevailed.

Now, more than a week later, the effect of the scene at the Kotel on Friday night has still not worn off. In fact, it is a feeling that could live with me forever. Any visit to Jerusalem feels special for me. Going to the Kotel, in particular, always feels like an enormous privilege. This is especially true when considering the amount of history that has taken place at this holy site. The Friday night scene was, for me, one of the greatest highlights I have experienced.

Perhaps we make up a feeling of holiness when in Jerusalem because of our knowledge of the history attached to the city. I feel, however, that it has a holiness of its own. Something that cannot be made up, but has to be experienced in person to really be felt. The Jewish people have had a connection of holiness to this city and this location for over 2,000 years. During this time, many of my ancestors could only pray about the possibility of being there as part of a far-flung unrealistic dream. Living in Israel, I am truly privileged to live this out on behalf of those of my forefathers who were not able to do so. But mainly, I did it for the joy and honour that I felt for myself.

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither,
let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy."
(Psalms 137, 5-7)

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