I started the morning with another trip to take some pictures in the Dormition Abbey, and a visit to King David’s Tomb. [Interesting, by the way: even though I said yesterday that Jews don’t have the same tradition of making pilgrimages to sacred places that Christians have, this clearly is a place where Jews have come/continue to come to pray. There is a women’s section and a men’s section, divided with a wooden partition that gives each side equal access to the tomb, from what I could tell. However, the site is not authentic–but since it has been honored for centuries in the tradition, it continues to be a holy shrine. My book notes that it became a pilgrimage site for Jews while they were not allowed to visit the Western Wall–that is, before 1967.] Then, I thought I would go down to the Western Wall again for more observation and contemplation. Well, I was totally unprepared for what I found: Bar Mitzvahs as far as the eye could see! Seriously, I tried to count them, and it was impossible–one just flowed into another, and as soon as one place was vacated, another group came and filled it. I just gave up and started snapping pictures like crazy, trying to take it all in! So, again, here are some observations. You might imagine that a Bar Mitzvah would take place right up next to the Wall itself, but that is not how it works: remember, only men can be on that side; so in order for wives/mothers/daughters/grandmothers, etc. to see and participate in the event, the Bar Mitzvahs line the partition wall between the men’s and the women’s section, and also the back wall, over which stands an observation wall, open to all. However, the partition wall [and even the back wall] is high, so it’s not like the women can just stand on the ground and look over. Oh sure, they can try and peek through the VERY small holes in the wall, but that doesn’t give you any kind of view. So what happens instead is that you have all these women dressed to the nines [more about that shortly], standing precariously on the white plastic chairs that are stacked around for seated prayer. You might image that somber decorum would be the order of the day, but you would be wrong! Instead, the women are quite busy snacking, taking pictures, talking, smoking [more about that later, too], walking around & chatting–in between taking pictures, and throwing candy at the Bar Mitzvah & singing at the right times. One of the women I saw was leaning over the wall watching with a coke and some chips in her hand! You can hardly blame them, of course–they are only tangentially included, which, if it were my son, I would find highly annoying! Another thing I noticed is that all of the families I saw were foreign: I heard LOTS of English–and if the accent is any indication, New York was well represented–as well as some Russian. I even saw one woman holding a certificate that confirmed the location of “so-and-so’s” Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall. I was thinking back to an enormous banner I saw at the King David Hotel [one of the nicest hotels in the city], welcoming the family of “so-and-so” for his Bar Mitzvah. Clearly, there is a whole travel industry built around Jews from other countries coming here just for a Bar Mitzvah. [Maybe we should think about flying Lutherans over to Wittenberg to get confirmed!] Next, I must note how fashionably so many of the women were dressed [again, the American Jewish women particularly stood out]–VERY high heels, short skirts, fur (!), hats–I mean, it was quite a display! Apparently the “modest dress code” goes somewhat out the window for Bar Mitzvahs! As does the cell phone prohibition–I saw several of the participating men [rabbis?] using cell phones, and one guy even smoking: somehow, that struck me as very incongruous! But it was such a mob scene, there was no way to keep any order. I even saw this one Korean guy right up close, taking pictures of one of the ceremonies, and he didn’t even have a head covering on–no one said anything to him, because I don’t think anyone even noticed! One of the other things I loved watching was the scrum of little boys who were running around scooping up the tossed candy–it was like a parade! I must say, the whole experience was really fun to watch–I loved seeing the Torah scrolls up close, and listening to the young, shaky voices [which were miked, for the most part], read, as they followed with the Yad [the pointer–you don’t touch the scroll with your bare hand] on the scroll itself; and I loved watching as the boys “got dressed,” having the tefillin strapped on for the first time [officially]–this is the first “mitzvah” of the ceremony. It was pretty cool, to be so close & to be able to see so well. [Incidentally, Mondays and Thursdays are the days the Torah is read in the synagogue–and on the sabbath, of course–these days are the most popular days for Bar Mitzvahs, at least here at the Wall. (You can’t do them on the Sabbath.) That’s what I was told.] This afternoon, I went for a walk around new Jerusalem, with Ophir as the guide, and it was really interesting to hear about the Jews who settled outside the walls of the Old City. It was in the 1860s that Jews first began to live outside the walls, but he talked mostly about the “Second Aliyah”–that is, the second wave of Jewish immigration, which began around 1904. It was very different from the first, which consisted mainly of older Jews who, with their last pennies and last breath, came to Jerusalem to die and be buried on the Mount of Olives [Jews have been buried there for over 3,000 years–it holds over 150,000 graves. There is a tradition that the resurrection will begin there; and I also read that there is a midrash that says that the branch carried back to Noah’s ark after the flood by the second dove was plucked from the slopes of the Mt. of Olives. Midrash makes for great reading!]. The second wave of Jewish immigration was dominated by “secular Jews”–Jews for whom the traditions were still important, but who were not religiously observant. And, they were young, and they wanted to work and build up the land–not just pray and dream and wait for the Messiah. Their slogan was, “We came to the land to rebuild it, and rebuild ourselves in the process.” I won’t recount all the interesting things I learned, but I did want to mention that in the course of our walk, we visited some ultra-orthodox neighborhoods–and, in this context, by “neighborhood,” I mean “building.” We stopped at one point, and he asked “How many neighborhoods do you see?” Of course, it was a trick question–as it turned out every long building we could see was a different “neighborhood”–when they were built [and for many, still today] each community has its own school, its own synagogue, its own communal oven [and you certainly wouldn’t share food with people who kept kosher differently from you], and even its own mikvah, in some cases. There were no external doors [this was the clearest sign that you were looking at a community focused inward, excluding the world], and instead, all the doors of the individual [SMALL] apartments opened into the shared courtyard. They were originally built by immigrants who all came from the same areas “back home” and replicated their closed communities here in Jerusalem. Today, some of them are more mixed, but many of them are still very closed and very homogeneous. Two other things I saw that I thought were so interesting: first, a “holy trash can.” This was a beautifully painted trash can that is used only for holy objects–prayer books, mezuzahs, prayer shawls, etc [but not Torah scrolls, of course]–that need to be disposed of according to specific guidelines. There were smaller openings in the front for donations, to help defray the cost. The second thing was what is called a eruv–this was fascinating! At one point, when we were stopped, we were told to look up: when we did, we saw random lines of string hanging from building to building–they were tacked or tied to posts that looked left over from some forgotten project. I wouldn’t even have noticed them, if they hadn’t been pointed out to me. So, here is the deal: on the Sabbath, the Torah prohibits carrying anything [or even pushing a baby carriage] from a private to a public space, or from one private space to another across a public space. So, the rabbis came up with a way to make public space private, basically; this enables people in one building [or neighborhood] to walk with a prayer book [for example] to another building without violating Sabbath rules. This eruv system, then [with string and pieces of wood/poles] creates artificial doorposts and lintels, in effect making a larger [somewhat abstract] “home/house” that then can be crossed without a problem. These two things together are clear signs of the ultra orthodox nature of the community, as well as the large sign [in Hebrew and in English] requesting and specifying modest dress!
Published by happylutheran
I teach theology at United Lutheran Seminary, and I am the Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life/College Chaplain at Gettysburg College. I am an inveterate optimist, runner, vegetarian, and harp player. I love Mary Oliver and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and like them, I'm continually delighted by all the surprising and wonderful ways God shows up in the world. View all posts by happylutheran