It's arrived--the return of the mundane, the day-to-day, the routine of work, school, family and bank balance woes. For the past three weeks, Israel has been on a high. The period of the high holidays followed by the weeklong Sukkot festival is the longest stretch of days away from reality in the calendar. Anything that can be put off is cast aside with the simple accompanying expression--"acharei ha-chagim." After the holidays.
Even the ubiquitous Histadrut strike whose tentacles had begun to strangle the country before Rosh Hashana, was put on hold during the festive period. But today, it's "after the holidays" and after a week's closure for Sukkot, government offices are again, officially "closed to the public."
A brief look back at the three-week hiatus reveals a country suffering from an apparent identity crisis. We are at once a terrorized population at war with our neighbors, and at the same time a resilient people capable of taking time out to enjoy a plethora of cultural opportunities as well as finding meaningful expression in the joyous celebration of our festivals and their rituals.
A Ma'ariv poll published during the past week found that 71 percent of Israelis fear that they or one of their family members will be harmed in a terrorist attack. As columnist Michael Freund notes: "Nearly three out of four Israelis are walking around fearful that they or someone they love might become a victim of terror." Still, that fearfulness seems to be carefully tucked away out of sight--at least during the holiday period.
This year, the unique atmosphere of Israel at holiday time draws thousands of tourists. Particularly evident during Sukkot, the overwhelmingly religious crowds who arrive from all over the globe fill the hotels and streets of Jerusalem. They flock en masse to the Kotel during the intermediate days of the festival and enthusiastically pack tour buses traveling to visit the Jews of Hebron, eastern Jerusalem and YESHA, stopping at Jewish holy sites like Rachel's Tomb on the way.
Fundraisers for every conceivable worthy Israeli cause swarm around the wealthy Diaspora Jews, bumping into each other as they pull "their" donors into meetings or to see projects.
The shadchanim (marriage brokers) work overtime to try to match up the scores of young observant singles who come to see and be seen.
Jewish organizational bigwigs from the US and UK arrive to take advantage of the great networking opportunity. Everyone they had difficulty reaching in New York, Washington or London may be found sitting in the lobby of one hotel or another. Several savvy New York Jewish politicians fly in to press the flesh.
The Jerusalem Summit, organized by Israel's Ministry of Tourism and the Michael Cherney Foundation, brought dozens of top-level Jewish and non-Jewish right-wing figures together for a three-day pow-wow at the King David Hotel.
It's an ironic twist of fate that for decades it was the Jews of the west who helped out their brethren in the former Soviet Union. Today, it's people like aluminum magnate Cherney, who emigrated to Israel from Russia in 1994, who have the resources to influence western political and social discourse.
Richard Perle, Cal Thomas, Alan Keyes, Daniel Pipes, Mort Klein and John Loftus were among the American Summit participants, matched by Bibi Netanyahu, Benny Elon, Uzi Landau, Ehud Olmert, Zalman Shoval and Yuri Shtern on the Israeli side. Professors and think-tankers from both countries debated the Elon Peace Plan and unanimously decried the defunct Road Map, and at the end of the day all signed their names to a brief four paragraph declaration centered around the concept that "Israel is, symbolically and operationally, on the front line of the battle to defend civilization."
On the second day of the Summit, more than three thousand Christians from all over the world join thousands of Israelis to march in their national costumes in the colorful annual Jerusalem Parade that closes downtown Jerusalem streets for several hours. This year, one of the largest contingents comes from Brazil.
Much of the activity during the Sukkot week centers around the Old City as the tradition of "going up to Jerusalem" is observed by an estimated 400,000 people who enter the walls of Jerusalem. The Kotel Plaza witnesses one of the largest gatherings in recent memory for the blessing of the Priests--some 40,000 people take part.
Just to the south of the Kotel, a Living Museum street theater re-enactment of the Sukkot pilgrimage unfolds in the Ophel Archaeological Gardens. In one corner it's Sukkot 164 BCE, when Judah the Maccabee and his brothers stride up the Ophel to rid the Temple of the pagan idols. In another spot, King Herod may be seen wandering around in 37 BCE.all accompanied by harpists, dancers and shofar blowers.
Back in today's Jewish Quarter, a full-blown Klezmer Fest is underway as Jews from all over the world stroll and mingle, filling the shops and cafes.
Downtown streets benefit from the festival too. On the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, a dozen sukkot dot the street. Fancy a kosher Burger King in a kosher sukka, or an espresso under the palm branches? You can get it all here...
Another sign of the season is the appearance of traditionally dressed Arab women with flat cardboard boxes balanced on their heads full of green onions or fresh figs. They roam the neighborhood calling out in Hebrew in shrill voices to attract customers: "Batzal Yarok" or "Te-enim." Eventually they'll end up squatting outside one of the supermarkets where customers have to step over their wares to get inside.
Sukkot IS the harvest festival—and even in the city there's a mini-harvest going on. The olive trees that grace almost all our parks and some city streets are picked over by passers-by—much like the roadside blackberry picking that takes place at the end of summer back in the Pacific NW.
Two sukkot in the city are particularly poignant. One is set up just across the street from the President's residence in the upscale Talbieh neighborhood. Moshe Keinan has marched to Jerusalem from his home in Shilo about 30 miles to the north. His son, Avihu, an IDF soldier was killed in Shechem last month while involved in an operation to root out terrorists embedded in a civilian area. Moshe asks: "Is protecting Ahmed more important than the life of my son?" On the walls of his simple sukka is posted the following answer: "Jewish Morality: When it's between the life of my son and the life of the son of my enemy, the life of my son takes precedence."
Not too far away, in the courtyard of the imposing Great Synagogue on King George Street, the Koby Mandell Foundation has erected a much larger sukka. Its walls are adorned by a series of large colorful panels bearing the names and faces of hundreds of victims of Arab terror. Each square was designed and made by a family member of the murdered Israeli. Some panels simply bear the name and date of death of the loved one. Others are elaborate photomontages of the person's life. Yet others are adorned with embroidery, poetry and flowers. In some cases three members of a family who were murdered are depicted and linked by a cotton thread.
An astonishing array of memorial books lay on a table in the sukka. Again, they vary in their execution. Some are professionally produced volumes full of photos, letters, remembrances and wishes. Others are simply folders with a black and white picture of the victim and a short bio. Together with the panels they depict the toll in human suffering that the Arab war has taken on Israeli families. Young and old, Sabras and immigrants, observant and secular--all are represented in the sukka of suffering. But the overall theme is resolve. Written on the entrance are the following lines: "Like the quilts in the sukkah, the Jewish people are one fabric. Though we may be ripped, we will never be torn apart. We will never be destroyed. We will dwell together, in the shelter of God, for eternity."
During Sukkot, my neighbor's 18 year-old son who was injured by flying shrapnel in the Ben Yehuda Mall attack of December 2001, goes back into the hospital for surgery. The doctors have decided to try to eliminate the pain in his leg that is making his army training torture. Almost two years after the terror attack, Natan is back to walking around with calipers to brace himself as he recuperates.
Meantime thousands of other young Israelis take advantage of the summer-like weather to enjoy a dazzling variety of festivals all over the country. At the Dead Sea there's the Tamar (Date) Festival of Israeli music and dance. Rishon Le Zion hosts the 16th Hilulim Wine Festival featuring a host of big-name popular music and comedy acts. Storytelling is on tap at the 10th Givatayim Storytelling Festival, while in Akko the Festival of Alternative Theater takes place in the Old City. As if that's all not enough, there's the hugely popular Segol Love and Meditation Festival on the beach at Club Ahziv. Organizers had to limit entry to 4,000 people…
As the week draws to a close it's time for the strange ceremony marking the last day of Sukkot known as Hoshana Rabba. All over town, stands piled with willow branches spring up on street corners and outside synagogues. According to tradition dating back to Temple times, Hoshana Rabba is marked by circling seven times with lulav and etrog, and beating the ground with the willow branches while reciting special prayers asking for heavenly salvation. Hoshana Rabba is the day when the verdict passed on Yom Kippur is sealed and since the 13th century many communities adopted the custom of staying up all night to recite a portion of every piece of the Torah.
On erev Hoshana Rabba three high school boys hitch a ride with me into Jerusalem from the Gush Junction. As we drive along the road past Arabs riding donkeys laden with branches, the casually dressed teens tell me they're off to an all-night learning session in Meah Shearim. The next morning as I head past the old Jerusalem train station to do my Shabbat shopping, I see the same three lads dozing at the bus stop on the way back home.
Friday night brings with it Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Here in Israel it's all rolled into one, and it's the culmination of the holiday period. Simchat Torah --the rejoicing of the Torah, marks the ending of the cycle of reading the Torah and the immediate beginning of the next cycle. The whole operation is marked in every congregation by taking out every Torah scroll, encircling the synagogue seven times and dancing with all of them.
Growing up, this was exclusively a male operation, but over the past fifteen years many modern orthodox rabbinic authorities have ruled that women may dance with the Torah too. When we push back the chairs in my Jerusalem shul to make space for the separate dancing, the women seem to outnumber the men. Our small space somehow seems to expand to accommodate the dozens of women of all ages who crush around the Torah, raising their voices in joyous celebration of the ancient yet enduring central focus of Jewish life.
At some point we all spill out into the street and a few dozen men take the initiative to dance one of our Torah scrolls a block up the street to Cafe Hillel. There in front of the darkened windows of the place where our friends and neighbors were killed, we sing and dance our hearts out affirming the eternity of the Jewish people as we try to sanctify that spot.
A second set of hakafot (circuits) takes place in the Liberty Bell Park after Shabbat. For the visitors from the Diaspora, it's just the beginning of their Simhat Torah. Every year the office of the Chief Rabbi sponsors the second night outdoor event. Bands and groups from all over the country come to play for the thousands who show up to keep the holiday spirit going. This year, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger announces that five of the Torah scrolls to be used for the hakafot had just been returned to Israel with the cooperation of the Lithuanian government. They were salvaged from Vilna (known as Jerusalem of Lithuania) after the Holocaust and would now be used in the real Jerusalem for the first time.
Leading the dancing down in the crowd is a group of dozens of IDF soldiers in uniform. Young men and women, their faces reflect the ethnic make-up of contemporary Israel. Many are blond with Slavic features but they all know the words to the songs taken from Psalms or Tanach. The boys throw the girls up into the air and some of the girls end up being carried around on the shoulders of a few soldiers. They seem to have no trouble dancing with their guns slung casually over their shoulders. As they swirl around singing with huge smiles on their faces I can't help remarking to a friend that this is the face of what our enemies call the "occupation army."
Tonight the tourists will head home and we'll be left to return, with our spirits strengthened, to the reality of "acharei ha-chagim."