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Remembering our National Tragedies
Setting out on the march around the walls of the Old City
by Judy Lash Balint
July 24, 2007

A brisk breeze blows through the concrete canyon created by the buildings that make up Jerusalem's municipal complex, Safra Square. The wind ruffles the sackcloth garment worn by a youngish woman sitting alone on the hard ground in the middle of the square as Tisha B'Av descends on Jerusalem.

Along with hundreds of others, she's there to mourn the long litany of national tragedies that has befallen the Jewish people around this date all through Jewish history. While Yom Kippur is the day for personal reckoning, Tisha B'Av is the occasion for some national soul-searching over what led to our various ancient and recent disasters.

As we sit waiting for the start of the recitation of Eichah, the mournful lament for his people penned by the prophet Jeremiah, a friend reminds me that we spent last Tisha B'Av together at Mt. Herzl attending the heartrending funeral of IDF soldier Michael Levin z"tl, a young American immigrant killed in the Hizbollah war.

There were civilian casualties too last Tisha B'Av. Five people were killed by rockets fired into Israeli towns that day. Shimon Zribi, his 15-year-old daughter Mazal, Albert Ben-Abu, and Aryeh and Tiran Tamam all perished in Akko last Tisha B'av.

At this year's march around the Old City walls, Knesset member Aryeh Eldad and Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, the former Soviet Prisoner of Zion, both drive home the message that last year's war as well as the previous summer's tragic expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif, both resulted from weakness. MK Eldad told marchers that the people are stronger than the leaders and expressed confidence that we could "turn the wheel back."

Mendelevich, one of Israel's most unsung heroes, explained that he felt compelled to say Kaddish at this spot just outside the Temple Mount "for the heroes who fell here." He turned to face the site of the Temple and the thousands of marchers who had listened quietly to his stirring talk rose behind him to gaze up at Lions Gate and join in the response to his passionate rendition of the ancient words of praise and hope.

Last night, more than ten thousand took part in the revival of the tradition of walking around the walls of the Old City on Tisha B'Av that has captured the attention of growing numbers of Jerusalemites in recent years. It's difficult to estimate the crowds, but it took the better part of half an hour for the masses to move out of Safra Square at the beginning of Jaffa Road and set off on their way after the public reading of Eichah.

This year marked the 13th anniversary of the revival of the custom, initiated by the Women In Green organization headed by Nadia and Ruth Matar.

Tisha B'Av is the one day of the year when Jewish prayers are broadcast over a public address system, in contrast to the daily call to prayer blasted out five times a day over amplification systems from mosques in eastern Jerusalem. It's actually a little disorienting to hear the Hebrew of Eichah amplified over the main city square.

As the marchers move off following a huge banner proclaiming a slogan of allegiance to Jerusalem, 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 a significant number of non-observant Israelis. Women wearing pants walk side by side with others whose hair is carefully covered with a scarf or hat.

There are wheelchair "marchers" and a number of octagenarian walkers, some supported by younger relatives, who manage to reach the end of the hour-long route.

As we pass New Gate, the main entry to the Christian Quarter, we see that all traffic on Route #1 (the main north/south gateway through the city) has been redirected as we take over the streets and pour down the road toward Damascus Gate. Spotlights and snipers are dotted on the rooftops and although most of the Arab stores are shuttered tight, soldiers keep a tight watch over several dozen Arabs who watch us march by as we pass Saleh el Din Street, the main commercial avenue of eastern Jerusalem. Border police hold back a few dozen Arabs coming out of Herod's Gate as we stream past.

Walking down the hill toward Damascus Gate we turn to look back at those behind us. People as far back as we can see.

The march is a hands-on outdoor classroom for many parents. All along the way, fathers are explaining the significant sites to sons and daughters. "Saba (grandpa) fought here," one tall, bearded man tells his 10 year old son as we round the corner towards Lions Gate, where Israeli paratroopers entered to liberate the Temple Mount in the 1967 Six Day War.

"Look over there," says a young mother to her wide-eyed daughter. "You can see the stairs where the Jews used to go up to the Temple," she says as we walk up the hill in front of the southern wall.

In front of us we see the Mount of Olives crowned with its Arab and Christian institutions. There's a refreshing feeling of freedom as thousands walk freely down the road that overlooks the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world.

Many marchers wander over to the wall to gaze at the Kidron Valley below with Absalom's Tomb and the monument to the prophet Zechariah. Across the valley we can see the Maale Hazeitim development 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 crowds of people still behind us is awesome. Quiet and dignified, the march has gone off without incident.

Getting out of the area proves challenging, as the Egged bus company lays on dozens of buses to get people in and out of the Old City, causing their own traffic jams.

Close to midnight the road leading to Zion and Dung gates is still blocked by a line of the green Egged buses packed to overflowing with the faithful who will spend the night sitting or lying on the ground at the site of the catastrophe that gave us Tisha B'Av.

At 1 a.m. I see the young woman in sackcloth stretching out on a concrete ledge inside the tunnel that links the Kotel plaza to the Moslem Quarter. She's no longer alone.
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Pictures of last night's Tisha B'Av march are at http://flickr.com/photos/jerusalemdiaries/

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