Thursday, September 23, 2010

Jerusalem: The Other D.C.

Hoping to experience holidays in Israel, I definitely arrived at the right time. Since it is the beginning of the Jewish New Year, there are several holidays all in a row, one per week. Some holidays that are coming up I have heard of, but never celebrated; however, being in Israel, I suppose I’ll deal with the surprise time off.

This past weekend was Yom Kippur, The Day of Repentance, the holiest day of the year for Jews. Once again, everything was closed for the holiday, which just so happened to fall on Shabbat anyway, so not that big of a difference. Well, actually, my Yom Kippur was very unique this year. Not only because I was in Israel, but also thanks to a very special trip to a place I like to call the best city in the country: Jerusalem.

Two summers ago I fell in love with the city of Jerusalem and literally cried my eyes out when it came time to leave—Mom, you can back me up on this one. Although I ultimately chose to come back to Israel and spend my year in Tel Aviv (mostly because the majority of refugees live in TLV and also because it’s a secular city), Jerusalem is truly a place unlike any other. I had noticed a couple of weeks ago that a trip to the capital was scheduled for the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, or I guess just 2 days before the holiday; a little less confusing that way. As usual, the leaders of the program didn’t inform us participants of any of the details and so when it came time to get on the bus in the Central Bus Station in TLV, we still had no idea where the heck we were headed. Nevertheless, we literally elbowed people out of the way to keep our spots on the line and even then, some of us had to stand on the 45-minute bus ride cross-country. Here’s a funny thing about Israeli culture: LINES DO NOT EXIST. And even if they do, no one stands in them. I had a pretty annoying experience with the tor, line, back in 2008 when a few friends and I had planned a day trip to the Dead Sea from Jeru (Jerusalem—we have lots of nicknames; you’ll get used to it). I didn’t know that people simply disregarded the proper way to wait for entry into a store, for his/her turn at the doctor’s office (the “But, I just have one question!” bit doesn’t always work to cut your way to the front, lady!), or in this case, for boarding a bus. Since I was so naïve to think that people actually wait their turn, I ended up being one of the last people on the bus and therefore had to stand the entire way from the city to the lowest, saltiest place on earth. Why would there even be a possibility to stand, you may ask? Well, turns out ticket salespeople seem to care less how many tickets are sold in relation to how many available seats there are on the bus. In other words, if customers want to buy tickets, they’re going to sell them.

But, this time I knew better! As I sat comfortably in my bus seat, we exited the busy streets of TLV, drove due-west towards Jeru, and arrived in under an hour. Once we got to the bus station, we filed into cabs and ended up getting out at Moshe Montefiore’s little city-thing right outside the walls of the Old City (if you’ve ever been to Jerusalem you know what I’m talking about. It’s the place with the big windmill). We met a tour guide there and we wound our way through the cobblestone streets of the ancient neighborhood. The tour guide—whose name is slipping my mind now—told us really old stories from people who lived in Jeru including the famous King David, whose life actually seemed like a ridiculous soap opera. No offense. However, David is where Jerusalem gets its nickname—at least according to our tour guide—The Other D.C.: David’s Capital.

After explaining to us that the only brave people to venture outside the walls of the Old City and resettle in Montefiore’s small town were the sole survivors during a horrible plague, we found ourselves entering through one of the gates. As we passed under one of the six open gates, we stopped in awe of the many bullet holes all around the entrance, engraved into the wall forever during Israel’s War for Independence in 1948.
One of the gates into the Old City
Bullet holes around the entrance

Our tour guide had told us that the Western Wall, inside of the Old City, would be extra crowded on this night before Yom Kippur because it was tradition for Jews to gather and pray together. I have been to HaKotel, the Western Wall, maybe 4 times already and never in my life would I have expected to see that many people on that special night. We approached the wall form above, admiring the awesome view of the gold roof of The Dome of the Rock, and my jaw literally dropped from the amount of people in front of the destroyed temple wall. I have never seen anything like it before (as I’m sure you can tell, this trip has already been a lot of firsts for me). Massive amounts of Jewish people were praying, crying, swaying, singing, and enjoying being in front of the holiest place for them. I somehow managed to squeeze my way to the front of the crowd overlooking the wall—we couldn’t get anywhere near it because not only the line for security to get in would have taken forever, but there was almost no room to move down there—and snap some of these pictures.
The Crowd

At the stroke of midnight, we all sang Yom Huledet Sameach, Happy Birthday, to one of the girls on the trip, Lisa, who got to celebrate her birthday in Jerusalem! Then our tour guide bid us farewell and we were free to exit the Old City and cross over into the New. Speaking of “new,” I had no idea an outdoor mall was constructed since the last time I was here 2 years and literally attached to the walls of the Old City. I walked through the new shopping center shocked to see the Gap on my right and sale signs in the window of Quiksilver to my right. Really Israel? Really? The Australian guy in my group said it had to have been an American’s idea. He’s probably right.

Some of my friends and I decided to stay in Jeru for the rest of the night and party with the locals for Lisa’s birthday. It was really a great time and although so many people were praying at the wall, there were still plenty of people celebrating the eve of the holiday in a different way. Only in Jerusalem can you visit the Wall and then party in a floor-length skirt. Here’s a picture of Julie and me excited to be on the streets of Jerusalem!
So happy to be there

The following day back in TLV, everything literally shut down for the 24 hours of Yom Kippur. Literally everything. Not even cars drove on the roads, highways, sidewalks—they park there sometimes. Everyone was walking or biking everywhere and since it is tradition to wear white on Yom Kippur, there wasn’t a person on the street who wasn’t in the crisp color. It was so cool. I kept looking around and thinking, “Wow, everyone is Jewish.” It’s still such a weird feeling for me. Some of the other participants and me followed my Israeli roommate, Oren, and his friends to the roof of a building to sing songs with other Israelis. We participated in a reformed service, but it was kindof secular too, which probably seems strange because we were celebrating a religious holiday, but there wasn’t even much mention of god. It was definitely an interesting experience not hearing any cars below us, only the sound of Hebrew songs, but it was quite difficult to follow along. Not only was everything in Hebrew, but by the time I was able to figure out what the next word was, they would already be on the next paragraph singing in a tune I had never heard before. Oh well, I’m glad I went. Afterwards, we walked through the streets of the city and made our way to the beach passing through circles of people seated in intersections singing together and taking advantage of the empty roads. There were so many kids out on bikes, rollerblades, and scooters, too. We ultimately made our way to the beach and hung out there for a while.

The next day was the fast. Pretty easy considering I woke up at 12:30 and thanks to Day Light Savings only had to fast until the sunset at 6:30. The other participants who had decided to stay in the apartments for the holiday instead of joining family or friends elsewhere all cooked a nice meal to break the fast together. Unfortunately it wasn’t the traditional American bagels and lox, but French toast and fruit salad did the trick. We all gathered on the roof terrace of the other TLV apartment and ate really quickly.

Back to reality, AKA volunteer visits and Hebrew class, this week was very emotionally difficult for me. I had opted to look at several sites this week and finally coming face-to-face with actual locations of the tough situations of the refugees and asylum seekers, I ended up crying in more than one place. Not only are living conditions horrible, their personal stories leave you heartbroken and furious with authorities abroad and domestic. My volunteering coordinator did help the situation reminding me that although not so great right now, all of the different sites are working to help these people a part of a very new phenomenon. But when you find out that a young Eritrean boy was denied the right to leave the detention center because the judge declared him to be 13 when he had promised to be aged 19, how can you not feel sorry that he has to wait another 5 years to get a job and send money home to his family in Africa?

Not to leave on a sour note, back in Israeli life, today is the holiday of Sukkot. Which pretty much means to me another day off to go to the beach. We did build a sukkah, kindof like a hut, the other night with our ulpan, Hebrew classes, which is tradition for those celebrating the holiday. Last night as I walked to meet up with my friends to go downtown, I heard extra chatter coming from the sukkahs at almost every house in my neighborhood. Since I live in a rather religious neighborhood the small structures were everywhere. I had never celebrated the holiday before so it was pretty cool to see everyone having dinner inside of the sukkah in celebration of the new harvest (I think that’s the purpose, I’m not sure).

Although I’m starting to miss Fall, I’ll be thinking of you all at the Med Sea today in the 90-degree weather! J


  1. Marissa, those photos of the Wall are amazing.

  2. Hi Marissa:

    I realized from your last blog that you probably didn't know what I was talking about when I suggested that you return to the Kotel during Succoth. Succoth is one of the holidays that has preserved the visible appearance of the ancient cermonies best. The Hoshanot (and Hakkafoth during Simchat Torah) are processions with Talith, Lulav and Etrog around the Kotel courtyard that have much the same appearance as they did in the times of the Temple. Duchanen is the service during which the Kohanim, with the Leviim performing attendant roles, bless the congregation of Israel. Again, the spectacle is something to see and I suspect that you never have seen either before. It makes a fascinating anthropological study. If you have time and are able to get there, try to go to the Kotel during the morning services of Succoth and you can see them.

    Aunt Ellie and I have been following your blog excitedly. We are glad you are having such a good time and performing such wonderful work.

    Enjoy the holidays and your stay.

    Uncle Mark