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Reviving a Tradition
by Judy Lash Balint
July 26, 2004

Jerusalem is a city of walkers. Walking is generally the most efficient way of getting around in a city with limited parking and narrow streets that seem to breed traffic jams.

Jerusalemites walk from neighborhood to neighborhood on Shabbat, and think nothing of trekking for an hour to get to the Kotel on holidays.

But it's the revival of an ancient 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.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the revival of the custom, initiated by the Women In Green organization headed by Nadia and Ruth Matar. 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 and set off on their way after a public reading of the Eicha dirge, penned by the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the First Temple.

An easy 10,000 people took part in the march--just one day after most of these same folks stood for two hours as part of the human chain protesting the planned destruction of Jewish communities in Gush Katif.

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

A group of 45 young Austrian members of the International Christian Embassy stand out with their distinctly non-Semitic features and black T-shirts. This year, Nadia translated her remarks into French as well as English to accomodate the large number of French olim among the marchers.

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 near the Christian Quarter, it's clear 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 helicopters hover about to monitor the event.

Most of the Arab stores are shuttered tight, but one or two Arab women are looking out of the second storey windows of the Golden Walls Hotel on Saleh el Din Street. A few shebab (Arab youth) are loitering around as we stream by Herod's Gate watched over by the ubiquitous Israeli police burdened on this warm night by their bulletproof vests. This small Gate into the Moslem Quarter is shuttered tight with it's centuries-old wooden covering guarded by a lone policeman.

Walking down the hill toward Damascus Gate we turn to look back at those behind us. People as far back as we can see´┐Żaccompanied by huge Israeli flags, reviving an ancient Jerusalem tradition of encircling the walls on Tisha B'Av.

It's a hands-on outdoor classroom for many parents. All along the way, fathers are explaining the significant sites to sons and daughters. "Saba fought here," one tall, bearded man tells his 10 year old son as we round the corner towards Lion's 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 ancient Jewish cemetery.

Many marchers wander over to the wall to gaze at the Kidron Valley below with Absalom's Tomb and the monument to the prophet Zecharia. Across the valley we can see the new Maale Hazeitim development that acts as a buffer between Abu Dis and the Temple Mount.

Here at Lion's Gate, two members of Knesset address the masses who find resting places on the hard stone. The voice of MK Benny Elon echoes off the city walls and the ancient headstones as he begins his remarks by calling those seated around him, "This holy assembly..."

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 masses 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. At midnight, there's a line of the green vehicles 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.

It's just another sign that the people of Israel aren't about to give up....