Jerusalem YMCA

This is Jerusalem’s festival season. I’m not talking about the hagim — the “fall maneuvers” as our friend Hyman calls them — which are indeed about to begin. But about the myriad cultural festivals that edge their way onto the city’s hectic calendar at this time of year.

There’s barely an hour of the day or night that you can be confident of not missing a string ensemble, a puppet show, a contemporary dance performance, an art installation, a piyut concert, an oud recital…

We’re approaching the end of a three-week-long festival called Mekudeshet — “sacred,” “consecrated,” “made holy.” Mekudeshet began four years ago as a boundary-crossing music festival and has evolved into something that defies description. I wish I could tell you to click here for a sense of what’s going on, but sadly the one Mekudeshet failure this year, as far as I can tell, is its website. I rose to the challenge only because I won’t let anything stand between me and my culture hero Rabbi David Menahem, on stage with the Turkish Sufi musician Kudsi Erguner in the YMCA’s oriental fantasy concert hall.

The meaning of ‘holy’ varies from one religious tradition to another. In Hebrew, the word kadosh incorporates an idea, not present in English, of separation. A holy entity is one that’s been separated out for a special purpose. Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, is holy because God distinguished it from the other six days by resting instead of working. Shabbat-observant Jews re-enact that distinction every week.

A great deal of Jewish energy is expended on avoiding the desecration, intended or unintended, of what’s holy. There are countless ways to desecrate Shabbat, and even more volumes on how not to. Less often discussed is what exactly happens when Shabbat is desecrated.  I don’t mean what happens to the person who desecrates it; we know the dreadful fate of the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32-36). I’m talking about what happens to Shabbat itself.

When it comes down to it, the answer is nothing. Nothing we can do impinges upon the holiness of Shabbat, or almost anything else that’s holy for that matter. If that sounds surprising, it may be because of an understandable confusion between two interrelated but distinct biblical systems of categorization: holy versus profane and pure versus impure.

While many impure entities — a pig, for instance — can never become pure, there’s a lot of movement between the categories of purity and impurity. What’s pure can become impure through contact with impure entities, and what’s impure can be purified by processes such as the passage of time and immersion.

When it comes to holy and profane, though, there’s almost no fluidity between the categories. The rule is that what’s holy cannot become profane. When Jews light candles and recite kiddush they aren’t making Shabbat holy, but merely acknowledging its holiness. By the same token, if Jews desecrate Shabbat, Shabbat remains as holy as it was before they turned on a light, boiled a kettle or whatever.

This reminds me of a story I heard about Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Rabbi Steinsaltz was being interviewed on Israeli TV, along with an aggressively secular Israeli Jew. Shabbat means absolutely nothing to me, insisted the secular Israeli. Every Shabbat, I buy a lobster and eat it for dinner. So you do keep Shabbat, replied Rabbi Steinsaltz quietly.

A couple of weeks ago on Shabbat morning, I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, about a 30-minute walk from where I live. The Old City was unusually quiet. Temperatures had been high that week, but the morning was cool and breezy and, for the first time in months, a few fluffy clouds heralded the approach of autumn. It was Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Even after five years in Israel, I’m blown away by the unmistakable signs of synchronicity between the seasons and the Jewish calendar. All in all, it was a perfect Jerusalem Shabbat.

As I walked past the car park that serves the Rova, the Jewish Quarter, I heard a car coming down the hill behind me. It was going very fast, for that tiny, winding road, and loud music Middle Eastern music blared from its open windows. At a certain volume, most songs are reduced to their beat, but as the car passed me, I heard a snatch of the words: Ki eshmera Shabbat, El yishmereni, If I keep Shabbat, God will keep me. Here it is, performed by the wonderful Persian-Israeli singer Maureen Nehedar.

For much of my life I celebrated Shabbat — ardently — without keeping its rules. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t disturbed by the irony of this situation. The words of the song blasting from the little black car celebrate precisely the sanctity of Shabbat that the driver was breaking by playing it on his music system. And all this was happening within a couple of hundred meters of the holiest Jewish place on earth, the Temple Mount. And yet it remained a perfect Jerusalem Shabbat.

The Kotel doesn’t speak to me much anymore, even when I speak to it. Or perhaps it does, but I don’t hear it. The exception is at 9 a.m. on Shabbat mornings, when I sit in the corner of the women’s section between the wall and the mezchitza, the screen that separates men and women, and follow the service known locally as Gabi’s minyan. Overseen by Gabi the gabbai, it’s been running continuously since Jews regained access to the Old City in 1967. I’ve loved Gabi’s minyan even more since I read the brilliant, complex book by Yossi Klein Halevy that takes as its starting point the iconic photograph that captured the Kotel’s recapture.

The men in Gabi’s minyan seem fairly homogenous, but the women are as diverse as could be: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, hareidim and national religious, Litvak and Hasidic, young and old, covered up and much less covered up, married and unmarried — representatives of many different countries of origin and levels of religious observance.

The first thing I noticed as I approached the Wall that morning was a beautiful, plump, clean, honey-colored cat, fast asleep on one of the white plastic chairs that are scattered around the women’s section. I wanted to cry; it looked so peaceful. But another woman following Gabi’s minyan wasn’t so happy. She kept looking at the cat and screwing up her nose in pantomimed disgust.

Had the cat been in a synagogue, someone would have put it outside. Cats and dogs belong to the category of unclean animals, unfit for Jews to eat, and for that and other reasons they aren’t popular in all sectors of the religious world. For a GREAT illustration, see series 2, episode 11 of the brilliant Israeli TV series Shtissel. The scene in question — Shulem Shtissel’s grandson finds an abandoned dog outside his yeshiva and brings it to live his grandfather’s apartment — starts at 24 minutes.

But, no matter what anyone says, the Kotel is not a synagogue, and as far as I could see, this woman alone was bothered by the cat. Nevertheless, next time I looked up, she’d picked up the plastic chair and its sleeping occupant and was carrying them theatrically at arm’s length to another part of the women’s section.

I felt a pang of loss. I realized that this woman saw herself as protecting the Kotel’s holiness. But as I experience holiness — something like a light that illuminates differences, but only to show how they fit (not blend!) together — the opposite had occurred.  It was still a perfect Jerusalem Shabbat, but the exile of the cat was an unhappy reminder of what goes on at the Kotel on weekdays: too many people letting other people know where they should and shouldn’t go, how they should and shouldn’t dress and so forth. If only they understood that the Kotel doesn’t need their help to be holy.

The organizers of the Mekudeshet festival understand perfectly, I think, that the holy city of Jerusalem doesn’t need their help to be holy. Rather, they’re giving Jerusalem’s residents and visitors a rare chance to experience its holiness in its most potent form: the magnificent, awe-inspiring diversity that, in spite of everything, miraculously co-exists within and across its borders.

On that note, if you happen to be near Baka or the German Colony this coming Shabbat afternoon (24 September), come and experience Jerusalem’s diversity through stories people tell.

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