Active Mourning in Jerusalem
By Judy Lash Balint
A silent, dignified erev Tisha B’Av march around the walls of the Old City by several thousand Jews was largely ignored by both Israeli and world media, but in the era of social media, plenty of people around the world heard about it, saw it anyway.
The traditional walk around the walls of the city attracts throngs of Israelis who gather across from the US Consulate on Agron Street half an hour after Shabbat. As the baal koreh starts to read the mournful Eicha (Lamentations) over the microphone, a few hundred cluster on the grass with flashlights, straining to hear every word.
Across the street, the US flag flutters atop the consulate building, as wary consular security officials keep watch on the crowd. Just a little way up the block, the gaudy blue neon cross atop the French Catholic church shines out into the night.
As the marchers move off following an organized group of stewards, organizer Nadia Matar reminds the crowd that this is not a demonstration or a rally, nor is it a social event. In fact, no reminder is necessary, as the restrained mass of Jews soberly sets out to encircle the gates of the Holy City.
Scattered amongst the marchers are quite a number of non-observant people. Women wearing pants and sleeveless tops walk side by side with others whose hair is carefully covered with scarf or hat. Many parents are there with small children and there are large numbers of older people too. Walking up the hill to Tzahal Square we turn to look back at those behind us. People as far back as we can see—accompanied by huge Israeli flags, quietly taking part in an ancient Jerusalem tradition.
On down past New Gate, traffic traveling in the opposite direction on Route #1 is held up as we take over the streets and pour down the road toward Damascus Gate. Most of the Arab stores are shuttered tight, but the neon of the AFC—Arab Fried Chicken, burns brightly from the shuttered storefront. Herod’s Gate is empty and guarded by the ubiquitous Israeli Border Patrol, burdened on this warm night with their bulletproof vests.
Turning the corner to walk along the eastern wall, we look out at the vast expanse of the Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery, the largest and oldest in the world. Sticking out like a sore thumb is the Ras el Amud mosque built on the southeastern corner of the cemetery. The green neon on the tower is extinguished as we come to a halt in front of Lions Gate—the gate used by the paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967.
The crowd stops to listen in silence to the words of a number of public figures including MK Yehuda Glick; Rabbi and former Prisoner of Zion, Yosef Mendelevich, Deputy Mayor Dov Kalmanovich and former MK Aryeh Eldad . Most impressive, however, are the direct words of the two indefatigable women responsible for organizing the annual walk—Nadia Matar and Yehudit Katsover.
A few of us wander over to the wall to gaze at the Kidron Valley below, with Absalom’s Tomb and the monument to the prophet Zechariah lit up. Across the valley we can see the Maale Hazeitim apartment complex that acts as a buffer between Abu Dis and the Temple Mount. Rounding the corner, we look up at the imposing Southern Wall of the Temple with the steps and Huldah’s Gate, before making the ascent towards Dung Gate and the entrance to the Western Wall. Glancing backwards again, the sight of the crowd still behind us is awesome. Quiet and dignified, the march has gone off without incident.
I wander down to the Robinsons Arch area of the Western Wall—the only place, to my knowledge, where the massive stones from the Roman sacking of the Temple are left in situ. Astonishingly, there are no more than 15 people there, while in the Western Wall Plaza, hundreds of the tired, hot and hungry are sprawled on the ground, ready to spend the night mourning the destruction.
At the back of the plaza, a thirty-something policewoman is downing a bottle of water. Apologetically, she announces to her friend that she’s fasting, and is only taking water to be able to work.
All over Jerusalem, various institutions host discussions, films and presentations on the theme of baseless hatred and closing the gap between the multiple factions that make up Israeli society—but at the end of the day, the overwhelming sense in this capital of the relatively new Jewish state, is that once again, the Jews have taken seriously the observance of a day marking events that happened centuries ago but continue to affect our existence here today.
Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem-based freelance writer. She is author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times and Jerusalem Diaries: What's Really Happening in Israel. Judy hosted the Jerusalem Diaries Show on VoiceofIsrael.com and is currently a staff member at a leading Jerusalem think tank. Her articles have appeared in publications worldwide.