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Shavuot, Jerusalem Style
by Judy Lash Balint
May 29, 2001

After one of the most devastating weeks in recent memory, the festival of Shavuot wafts over Israel as a balm to soothe our troubled souls.

The days leading up to the holiday which commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai saw a frightening escalation of terrorist activity as well as a series of domestic disasters. Building collapses; soccer riots; forest fires; a baby mistakenly left in a closed vehicle for five hours. Significantly, it was our own disasters that caused the greatest injuries and loss of life--the firebombs and mortar shells that struck the heart of Jerusalem miraculously resulted in little physical damage.

Still, there is no mistaking the atmosphere of tension and foreboding that lays over the country. As the siren sounds marking the start of the one-day holiday, the pall seems to lift. In my neighborhood, hundreds of people dressed in their yom tov best converge on synagogues for the brief evening prayers. The exceptionally hot day refuses to give way to the usual cool Jerusalem evening, and many families enjoy a festive dinner on the balcony of their apartments.

A heated discussion takes place around the table where I am a guest, about where to go for the best all-night study opportunities. The choices in Jerusalem are varied: Rabbanit Tzippora Heller in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City: Rabbi David Hartman speaking on 'Standing at Sinai in the 21st Century': Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau talking about 'The Written law and the Oral Law; Nat Lewin discussing 'From Ruth to Esther.'

In the end, I opt for the series of lectures offered by the Israel Center on nearby Keren Hayesod Street. By the time I walk in at around 11:30 p.m., pairs of students are dotted around the building arguing over texts. Around 100 people gather in the main hall to listen to an assortment of dynamic English-speaking rabbis. The star of the evening is the youthful Jeremy Lawrence, billed as "senior rabbi of New Zealand." As he gleefully points out, there are only two orthodox rabbis in New Zealand, and he's been there longer than his colleague, thus qualifying him for the title.

The British-born rabbi gives a rousing one hour shiur with accompanying text sheets, on the topic 'Beyond Sinai.' He manages to keep almost everyone awake, despite his 2 a.m. starting time.

A little after 4 a.m., fortified by coffee and cookies, some fifty of us set out into the still warm night for the 15 minute walk to the Kotel. As we round the corner onto King David Street we see hundreds of others streaming toward the Old City from every corner of Jerusalem. Deep down, I had wondered whether the car bombs of the previous day would deter people from coming out for this annual dawn pilgrimage.

Approaching the Hilton Hotel, I see that there was no cause for concern. Flooding down Agron Street and Helena HaMalka, Jews as far as the eye could see are purposefully striding toward their goal.

In through Jaffa Gate where an entire yeshiva of black-hatted boys and men dance in a huge circle, their voices raised in song. The crowd is thick as we cram into the alleys of the Old City past the shuttered stores of the Arab shouk. The yeshiva boys are behind us now and many of us pick up their melodies which echo like a wave toward the front of the crowd.

Border police and IDF soldiers are dotted throughout the area and we wish each other a "chag sameach" as we pass. French, Russian, Yiddish, Dutch and English mingle with Hebrew as we wait to go through the security gate at the top of the steps leading to the Kotel plaza. Kids ride on parent's shoulders, stooped-over grandmothers are gently pushed forward as we merge down the stairs into the sea of people who have already arrived.

It's around 4:45 a.m and there must be 10,000 people at the Kotel. It's my 4th Shavuot in Jerusalem, and it looks like this year's numbers are a little less than in past years--but still, the crowd is impressive, and I run into many people I know from all walks of life. There's an intrepid band of twenty 8th grade students and a few parents from the Seattle Hebrew Academy--one of the few school groups that decided not to cancel their trips this year.

I join a minyan at the rear of the plaza. The bright green lights adorning the two mosques still shine over the Temple Mount in the semi-darkness. As the sky begins to change color and turn slowly from dark grey to light blue, the garish lights vanish. Exactly at sunrise, chattering starlings swoop down, and the voices of the throngs rise in prayer. In quick succession the Priestly Blessing is recited, then Hallel and the rest of the morning service.

Heading home through the quiet streets with the same friend with whom I'd celebrated Jerusalem Day last week, we remark on the complete absence of media at both events. In Israel, good news is no news, so it seems.

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