"Up there the Jordanians had their soldiers stationed�" "When mashiach will come, it will be through that gate over there�" ""Saba (grandpa) fought here in the Six Day War." Snippets of conversation overheard in a hands-on outdoor classroom as parents walk with their children around the outside of the walls of Jerusalem's Old City to mark the beginning of Tisha B'Av.
Last night, thousands took part in the revival of the tradition of walking around the walls that has captured the attention of growing numbers of Jerusalemites in recent years. This year marks the 14th anniversary of the revival of the Tisha B'Av custom, initiated by the Women In Green organization headed by Nadia and Ruth Matar.
A gentle 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 middle-aged man sitting alone on the hard ground in the square as Tisha B'Av descends on Jerusalem.
Along with hundreds of others, he'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, we remember Tisha B'Av 2006, when many of us here tonight spent part of that day at the heartrending funeral of IDF soldier Michael Levin z"tl, a young American immigrant killed in the Second Lebanon War.
There were civilian casualties too during that dreadful Tisha B'Av two short years ago. Five people were killed by rockets fired into Israeli towns on that day. Shimon Zribi, his 15-year-old daughter Mazal, Albert Ben-Abu, and Aryeh and Tiran Tamam all perished in Akko.
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 Moslem call to prayer blasted out five times a day over amplification systems from the 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. It's difficult to estimate the crowds, but it takes a while 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.
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 all 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 halted by a bus blocking the main road 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 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.
We stop in front of Lions Gate, where Israeli paratroopers entered to liberate the Temple Mount in the 1967 Six Day War. Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, head of the Temple Institute, tells us, "I'm full of shame." He recounts how he had approached the gate a few minutes earlier and was threatened by a couple of young Arabs. Rav Ariel sought help from the police standing around and was told, "What are you doing at Lions Gate?" "I was here with Motta Gur's paratroopers 41 years ago and no one asked us then what we were doing here!" Rav Ariel exclaims.
Knesset member Aryeh Eldad and former Knesset member Elyakim Haetzni both recall the Lebanon War as well as the previous summer's tragic expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif that occurred on the day after Tisha B'Av 2005. Both resulted from weakness. "We have a corrupt government that is a failure�now they're freeing more terrorists," Eldad continues. MK Eldad tells marchers that the people are stronger than the leaders and exhorts the people to "send a message from here. Gush Katif, Amona�we won't let it happen again."
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, former Prisoner of Zion and one of Israel's most unsung heroes, explains that he feels compelled to say Kaddish at this spot just outside the Temple Mount "for the heroes who fell here." He turns to face the site of the Temple and the thousands of marchers who had listened quietly to the speeches rise 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.
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.
"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.
Glancing backwards again, the sight of the crowds of people still behind us is awesome. Quiet and dignified, the march has once again gone off without incident.
Getting out of the area proves challenging, as, for some reason this year the Egged bus company decide not to lay on the constant line of buses that usually shuttle the throngs back and forth to Dung Gate, the closest exit to the Kotel. Well after midnight, hundreds of us are hiking up the road to Mt Zion and then down towards Sultan's Pool. Dozens of other pedestrians are making their way in the darkness down the snake path from the top of Mt Zion, and we all end up walking along Hebron Road, which is packed with traffic in both directions as if it were daytime rush hour.
Well after midnight I see the man in sackcloth reading Lamentations as he's stretched out on a concrete ledge inside the tunnel that links the Kotel plaza to the Moslem Quarter. He's no longer alone.