Jerusalem Day

June 3, 2011

Yom Yerushalayim, which was observed this week, celebrates the reunification of the old city of Jerusalem under Jewish control in 1967, after 19 years in which the city was divided between Jewish and Arab control. Unsurprisingly, given the historical, political and moral complexity of the events it commemorates, Yom Yerushalayim is not a universally beloved holiday even among Jews in this country, and remains a holiday primarily of the Dati Le’umi (Religious Nationalist) community. Even among religious Jews there are questions about how it should be celebrated, whether it merits recitation of a full Hallel (collection of psalms recited on holidays and moments of national celebration), and if so, if the Hallel should be preceded by a blessing (implying that the recitation is statutory).

Left-winger that I am, when I prayed at home in the morning, I didn’t recite Hallel, and I made no plans to visit the Old City, a place where I often feel claustrophobic and alienated. But mid afternoon, after running into a friend on his way back from the Old City, I had second thoughts. After all, for all the politcal, historical and humanitarian consequences, the return of the Temple Mount to Jewish sovereignty after a 2,000 years of hiatus, is a moment worthy of commemoration. So I hopped on a bus headed downtown, and got off next to Yemin Moshe, one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City in the 19th century. I crossed the valley and climbed up to the old city, imagining what this place looked and felt like 44, 100, 2000 years ago.

I was suprised when I got to the kotel (the “wailing wall”), to find that it wasn’t actually that crowded. There, inconsistently, I grabbed a prayerbook and recited Hallel (with a blessing!) before joining a minyan for mincha (afternoon prayers). By that point, they had started blasting religious and Jerusalem-themed dance songs on the plaza, and it was almost impossible to hear the shaliach tzibbur (service leader) over the music. I made sure to include everyone who ever suffered and died on all sides of the struggle for this holy site in my prayers, but to be honest, it wasn’t a terribly powerful or intentional prayer experience.

***

In Israel, when crowds of religious, patriotic young men have an occasion to celebrate, they put their arms around each other and dance. If I try to imagine their American cultural analogs (flag waving, beer-drinking, church-going sports fans) doing the same, it’s laughable, but in Israel, it seems quite normal.

In America, I would never go anywhere near such a rowdy, flag-waving crowd, and to the extent that I feel like Israel is my country, I find such displays totally offensive and unappealing here as well, but to the extent that it is not my country, I feel like I can enjoy the experience as an outsider, part-observer, part-participant. And so, when I took leave of the kotel, I hestitated for a moment before joining one of the many rings of dancing men weaving in and out among the crowds of flag-bearers.

I selected the only circle where I wouldn’t have been the oldest person in the group, an incomplete circle of mostly senior citizens dancing slowly. Suddenly, a man looking to be in his 70s wearing a black suit and a black velvet kipah, stepped into the center of the circle, and began whirling about, waving his arms this way and that, his face radiating joy, every movement manifesting grace and dignity. He was so clearly being moved by a spirit and a moment greater than himself, everyone in the circle seemed aware that we were witnesses to a something special. Then the old man left the circle and was replaced in the center of our circle by an overexuberant, rhythmless young man who demonstrated some breakdancing moves with no real skill or grace before grabbing my arm and dragging me into the circle with him. We danced together very awkwardly for a moment, but I quickly ducked back out and follwed after the old dancer, who was strolling about, clapping, looking perfectly pleased with everything.

I joined a chaotic, spiraling conga line, my hands on the back of a very sweaty dwarf. Then I noticed that we were circling a giant blue and orange banner, whose slogan I didn’t understand, but which I suspected was something politically reprehensible. As I absented myself from the dancing, I ran into a friend who pointed out a few orange “Eretz Yisrael l’Am Yisrael” (roughly, “Israel for the Jews”) flags. The fact that I was surrounded by, even dancing with thousands of right-wing nationalists suddenly hit home, and I became ashamed of myself.

It was time to go. I was running late for dinner with liberal, Anglo friends in undisputed territory in South Jerusalem.

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