Shabbat Bliss in Jerusalem
by Judy Lash Balint
In Jerusalem, it was another incredibly gorgeous, sunny, cool day so I figured I'd head to the Kotel. There are a number of ways to get there from my place, all scenic in some way, some less hilly than others, so today I took the least hilly one, that takes me through the green space that's a short cut into the Talbieh neighborhood.
Since we've had a fair bit of rain, and a ton of sunny days, the little purple/pink cyclamen are already peeking out of the bright green grass. It's around 9 a.m and there's barely any traffic, so I cut across the streets against the lights and I'm singing to myself the Yaakov Shweky version of "Vehi sheamda."
As I turn onto King David Street in front of the King David Hotel, a youngish guy holding a tallit bag passes me from behind and picks up the tune! After a few steps, he turns, still singing, and gives me the thumbs up sign as he runs up the steps to the Hebrew Union College building, heading to his Reform minyan.
So now I have an even bigger smile on my face as I head down the street toward Mamilla. When I walked into the mall I couldn't believe my eyes--not a single soul anywhere along the whole length of the thing. Really incredible feeling, to have the whole mall to myself, looking at the sculptures, checking out the storefronts, and singing the whole way! Only when I'd walked about half the way to Jaffa Gate did I see a few guys wearing tallit coming the other direction, from the Kotel. Just after I passed them, I began to hear strains of a trumpet with keyboard backup--pretty unusual for a shabbat morning near Jaffa Gate. As I got closer, I abandoned my "Vehi sheamda" and joined in with him--it was some non-Jewish, older guy blasting out Sinatra's "My Way!"
It felt great to get inside Jaffa Gate and be in the Old City again. I was there a few weeks ago, but the Shabbat atmosphere is so very different. Two haredi guys completely dressed in white, including their beards, passed me by, chattering away in Yiddish. Tons of border patrol guys and women everywhere, and a goodly number of tourists too. I stopped in at the Christ Church compound to get some water and check out the missionary activity. Their courtyard is serene and beautiful, so I sat for a while absorbing the peace and quiet. From there, on through the beginning of the Armenian Quarter to the St James cut through to the Jewish Quarter. By now it's around 9:30 a.m, so the sounds of tefilla are wafting through the windows of some of the small shuls along the way.
Every time I go to the Old City I try to discover something new; some new alleyway, or route somewhere, so today instead of just walking through the main square and down the steps to the kotel, I cut off to the north into the more residential part of the quarter. Wonderful to see all the kids and young families in the little playgrounds that dot the quarter. I end up at the Israelite Tower and then take Shonei Halachot Street, which leads straight down to the observation point way above the kotel. It's a steep street with beautiful Crusader arches and lots of homes of wealthy Jewish families. Most of the houses have rooftops with a view of Har Habayit. It's one of the loveliest streets in the Old City.
The observation point overlooking the kotel and beyond that's usually filled with tourists, is empty, so I just stand there mesmerized by it all. It's the best place to see the relatively recent excavations directly below at the back of the kotel plaza.
The Mt of Olives is in the background; the hills of Moab just visible behind Silwan to the south, and, of course, the people...
From there I take the short way down via Chain Street into the kotel plaza. Around 5 competing minyanim are going on in the men's side, but on the women's side it's relatively empty, with room to slide into a spot at the kotel itself.
It takes a few minutes to pull myself together and just reflect on how incredibly fortunate I am to be here. I always think of my grandparents, whom I never knew, when I'm there. My parents came many times to Israel, but all my grandparents, who perished in the camps and never stepped foot outside Europe, they too had Jerusalem in their hearts: I know it. Yet I'm the one who's here...
It's not difficult to have real kavana here. Sitting outside in the sunshine; feeling the protectiveness of the shechinah that's always hovering here; davening at whatever pace I feel goes with what's going on inside my neshama. Taking breaks to close my eyes and breathe it all in. Truly an awesome Shabbat experience.
Before I leave, I walk down to the egalitarian section, near Robinson's Arch--I realize I should have gone there in the first place: as usual, there isn't a single person there.
Walking back through the main plaza to the exit stairs, I catch a rare sight! Two fully armed border police with no head covering at all chatting amicably with three hasidim, decked out in full regalia: with their Shabbat finest shtreimels, kapotes, white stockings...would have loved to get a photo of that!
On the stairs I run into Avi Bell, a brilliant young law professor I know. He's in the forefront of attempts to combat the EU trade sanctions against Israel and he fills me in on his latest strategy.
I walk out via Zion Gate and sit outside for a moment staring at the pockmarks of 1948 and 1967 splattered across the ancient masonry. Walking down the alleyway, I notice that the huge blue iron gate of the Armenian cathedral and cemetery is unlocked. I push it open and get about 100 yards down the pathway before the guard yells at me to get out of the private space--nice try, Judy!
At the top of the snake path outside the walls of the Old City, there's a fabulous view over the red roofs of Yemin Moshe and to the south, the Gehenom Valley. I can see the people at the kiddush on the balcony of the Ashkenazi shul in Yemin Moshe. The rest of the way home is beautiful, warm, quiet--apart from the birds, and uneventful, apart from passing a notable number of French speakers who, like me, are enjoying the peace of a Jerusalem Shabbat.
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.