Forty years ago I was invited to participate in a journey to Israel that transformed my life. Ironically, it was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, which had once been resolute in its opposition to a Jewish state. But Yehuda Rosenman, a Polish refugee who became a Committee executive, believed that even disaffected American Jewish academics might discover something about themselves in Israel. It was birthright before Birthright.
Midway during the two-week trip, we were bussed to Hebron to meet with Mayor Ali Ja-abari. Driving through the city, I glimpsed a massive rectangular stone structure topped by twin turrets. What is it, I asked our guide Tuvia. Me’arat haMachpelah, he responded. I had never heard of it. After Mayor Ja-abari’s talk, Tuvia whispered to me: “Ask him what his family did in 1929.” I didn’t understand the significance of the date, but dutifully asked. The mayor gave me a sharp glance and turned away.
I left Hebron with unanswered questions, eager to return for answers. During my Fulbright professorship in Israel the following year I spent endless hours wandering through Jerusalem’s Old City, determined to overcome my ignorance of Jewish history. Along the way, a friendship of sorts, fueled by my burgeoning collection of ancient Israelite pottery, developed with an Arab antiquities dealer.
When Ibrahim sold me an ancient pot from Hebron, I casually suggested that I would love to visit the city. The following week he closed his tiny shop for the day and drove me there with my two young children. We walked through the crowded shuk near the abandoned Jewish Quarter and climbed the steps to Machpelah. By then I knew that Muslims, in an early example of Jewish identify theft for which Palestinians have become notorious in the modern era, had converted the revered burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs into a mosque that Jews were prohibited from entering for seven centuries before 1967.
I retained a lingering memory of the quizzical look (real or projected) from the Israeli soldier who checked our passports as we entered. Why, I imagined him wondering, would American Jews come to Machpelah with an Arab? After I recounted the thwarted visit to my university friend, he contacted a former colleague in the government who arranged for a private tour of Hebron with an IDF colonel as my guide.
On a bleak winter morning we arrived in Kiryat Arba, the burgeoning Jewish community up the hill from Hebron. A gracious young Israeli woman – originally from Louisville – welcomed us into her book-lined apartment. The colonel instantly recognized – as I did not – the portrait of Rabbi Avraham Kook, the spiritual father of the synthesis of Judaism and Zionism that had inspired the settlement movement under the leadership of his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda following the Six-Day War.
Ten minutes into our conversation, a burly bearded man burst into the apartment. Our lives, it turned out, had followed simultaneously divergent paths to, or away from, Judaism. Rabbi Eliezer Waldman grew up in Brooklyn when Queens was my boyhood home. He studied in yeshiva to become a rabbi; I attended a liberal arts college and became a history professor. He made aliya; I moved to Boston. When I asked an innocent question about Jewish settlements, he sharply responded: “The largest Jewish settlement in the Middle East is the State of Israel.”
But we got no further than Kiryat Arba that day. With information that a blizzard was approaching, we promptly departed. But I persisted. Over the years, I returned to Hebron to meet the intrepid religious Zionist leaders who restored Jewish life there fifty years after the slaughter of sixty-seven Jews in the 1929 massacre (known as Tarpat) had left Hebron Judenrein.
Among them were Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the unrelenting leader of the rebuilt community; Elyakim Hatezni, a cultured German immigrant, wounded in the Independence War, who became a skilled lawyer in Tel Aviv and experienced the Six-Day War as “a miraculous victory,” deciding “I must return to Hebron”; and Sarah Nachshon, who in 1979 led the middle-of-the-night return of women and children to Beit Hadassah, the old medical clinic in the destroyed Jewish Quarter.
Inside the long abandoned building, the children joyously sang v’shavu banim l’gvulam, God’s promise that the children of Israel would return to Zion. When a surprised Israeli soldier arrived to investigate, a four-year-old girl explained, “Jacob, our forefather, built us a ladder and we came in.” Jews have remained there ever since. And elsewhere in Hebron: defying government objections, Sarah Nachshon crossed a line of Israeli soldiers to bury her dead infant in the ancient Jewish cemetery among victims of the 1929 massacre.
Capping these experiences was my return to Hebron a decade ago (this time on an Americans for a Safe Israel trip) for Shabbat Chaye Sarah, recently recognized by Prime Minister Netanyahu as “Shabbat Hevron.” It is celebrated in Me’arat haMachpelah on one of ten days each year when Jews enjoy exclusive entry to their most ancient shrine. Thousands arrive from all over the world to participate.
The Torah reading recounts Abraham’s purchase of the Machpelah cave and land as a burial site for Sarah. A resident alien, his determination to pay Ephron the Hittite his full asking price of four hundred silver shekels would forever assure indisputable legal title. It was the first land owned by the Jewish people in their promised land. There, according to the biblical narrative, the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs (except Rachel) would also be buried.
The exuberant celebration of Shabbat Chaye Sarah in Machpelah is unique. In the packed presence of Jewish worshippers, prayers and Torah reading resonate through the massive hall where the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca are located. To stand amid Jewish celebrants above the very place that the biblical narrative meticulously describes, in the most ancient Jewish city in the world, is an extraordinary experience.
Sharing it ten years later with my son, we touched the Torah scroll with our tallit as it passed. It was a joyous moment. This coming Shabbat, as the text recounts when “Ephron’s land in Machpelah . . . passed to Abraham as his possession,” Jews everywhere can bear witness to the transaction in Hebron that forever sealed the Jewish future in the Land of Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (Roman & Littlefield, 2009).