Returning to Jerusalem and Hebron
Reflecting on ten days in Israel — all but one in Jerusalem and the other in Hebron — several experiences, shared with my son, will remain embedded in my memory. On the first day, following our tradition, Jeff and I went to the Kotel, the towering Western Wall that once enclosed the Temples on the mount above. The ancient Temples are long gone, replaced by the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque. But the sanctity of this place, and its enduring meaning through millennia of Jewish history, remains undiminished.
Worshipers (reciting morning prayers) and tourists (taking selfies with their backs to the Wall) came and went. As the sun — and heat — rose we went inside the corner arch that once provided a bridge to the Temple Mount. With its high ceiling and acoustic echoes, it has long been my place of refuge from heat, cold, or rain. There I have watched, listened, and reflected on the millennia of Jewish history that the Kotel has absorbed.
That morning the massive enclosure was unusually crowded. Jeff and I walked to the far end and sat behind a circle of two dozen young boys (perhaps seven years old), identically dressed in white shirts and dark pants, wearing black kippot, with their long pais dangling to their shoulders. Led by their bearded Hasidic rabbi — wearing the traditional black hat and long black coat — they davened enthusiastically and loudly, their voices piercing and echoing through the high-ceiling chamber. Once their prayers ended they stood up, their chairs were removed, and they danced in a circle — singing, holding hands, pais flying. It was exciting and wonderful to experience.
Several days later, joined by my grandson Cole who studies at the Gush Etzion yeshiva, our guide drove us to Hebron. Looming before us was the towering stone Machpelah built by King Herod, burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. I have been there before, and was inspired to write a history of the Jewish presence in Hebron, long before Moslems claimed Machpelah for Islam. Following the Baruch Goldstein massacre (1994), Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, yielding to Muslim demands, restricted the magnificent Isaac Hall to Jews except for Shabbat Chaye Sarah (when I was twice there, once with my son) and half a dozen other holy days.
Looking at Jacob’s tomb, behind steel bars, I was deeply moved. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my grandfather Jacob, who I never saw (and left behind only one photo). Born thirteen years after his death, I was named after him. The circle of time was closed.
Back in Jerusalem, on a very hot day, we took our farewell walk through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Jeff spotted a shop with a window display of beautiful mezuzahs and went inside to look. I waited outside, thirsty and without water in my bottle. Jeff asked the owner — a tall, husky bearded man wearing a kippa — if we could buy a bottle. He had no small bottles but took a large one from his refrigerator, came outside, opened it, and filled mine. After I expressed my gratitude he reminded us of the Biblical narrative of Abraham welcoming strangers into his tent. At that moment he became my Abraham.
On our last day in Jerusalem we returned to the Kotel for our farewell visit. Once again we were entranced by a group of young Haredi boys, enthusiastic in their prayers, their high voices echoing through the chamber. Watching and listening, I wondered if I might ever return. I noticed a Hasidic man across the cavern who had wedged himself as closely as possible to the Kotel while leaning against a beautifully ornate Aron. I wanted to take his place but he never moved during our half-hour stay — until, fortuitously, just before we were ready to leave. I quickly went to his vacated spot. There I felt enclosed by the Wall and the Aron as if I was part of them and they were part of me. I recited the Sh’ma and we departed.
I left Jerusalem with the joy of having once again shared it with my son — and the sorrowful realization that we might not return again together.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016.