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Shavuot 2005
NOT taken on Shavuot, but this is what the Kotel looked like this morning
by Judy Lash Balint
June 13, 2005

At 4:30 a.m on this mid June morning, the streets of Jerusalem are flooded. Flooded with Jews of all ages, in all manner of dress, hurrying from all corners of the city in a river flowing towards the Kotel to make it in time to see the stars in the midnight blue sky fade and the sun rise at 5:05 a.m.over the Temple Mount marking the earliest time for the recitation of morning prayers.

On this holiday of Shavuot that commemorates the giving of the Torah, the symbolic wedding between God and the Jewish people, the centuries-old custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night dedicated to Torah study is observed by hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Study sessions of every kind of Jewish thought are held in synagogues, private homes and study halls.

In my Jerusalem neighborhood, classes are offered by Rabbi David Hartman, Aviva Zornberg and a host of other Torah teachers. The Hartman Institute study hall is packed--a number of non-observant people are there, including Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who lives around the corner. In Tel Aviv at the Conservative movement affiliated Iyun Academy, the topic is revelation and fanaticism, while the Poetry Festival in Metulla on the Lebanese border hosts a tikkun featuring Israeli poets like Benjamin Shvili.

Shiri Lev-Ari writing in Haaretz notes that : "The streets of Tel Aviv are full of life all night long, with wide-awake people circulating and exchanging tips that focus on the big question: Which lecture is worth going to now?" "People walk around with Bibles under their arms looking for interesting lectures, " says Iyun Academy Rabbi Roberto Arbiv.

On Palmach Street in Jerusalem, the center of the English-speaking community, the spacious open-plan apartment of Rabbi Ian and Rachel Pear is abuzz with people and discussion at 3 a.m. Out on the wide porch, the fresh night air keeps an assortment of people awake. There are members of all ages from the Pear's congregation Shir Hadash, as well as neighbors and visitors who drift through during the night to share coffee and pastries before joining the river flowing to the Kotel.

Just inside Jaffa Gate there's a backup of people as a group of black hatted young men blocks the top of the entrance to the shuk for some impromptu singing and dancing. We skirt around and head south to the St James passageway to make our way through the Jewish Quarter and on down the steps to the Kotel plaza. Despite the throngs, security is relatively light, and we pass quickly through the metal detectors to join the tens of thousands already gathered in the impending dawn.

The atmosphere is light, almost light-headed you could say from lack of sleep, as young and old congratulate each other for making it through the night. Only the young yeshiva boys puffing away on cigarettes spoil the atmosphere. Small groups of secular Israelis wander through the crowd. "This is amazing," mutters one woman.

As the minutes go by, the sky lightens to a pale blue and wisps of white cloud become infused with pink. The birdsong becomes more pronounced and flocks of starlings swoop about above the crowd.

The sounds of prayer begin to well up from the throng. It's difficult for women to hear what's going on, so I head up to the Istanbul Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. It's one of the four preserved and restored Sephardi synagogues in the Old City--a beautiful, spacious and cool building, graced with dramatic arches and a beautiful ark. Morning prayers are speedy but uplifting as the packed congregation rises to listen to the Torah reading of the Ten Commandments.

By 6:50 a.m, I'm already walking home, together with two Scandinavian journalist friends who I spot near Zion Gate. We enjoy the peaceful Jerusalem streets and the warmth of the sun on our backs as we head west

In the late afternoon, a group of women gather at Tal Torah, a women's Torah learning institute, for a reading of the book of Ruth. Four women chant the story with fluency and beauty, evidently the result of hours of practise.

It's all part of the river..