Shavuot, the Jewish holiday when we celebrate the giving of the Torah, the 10 commandments et al, on Mount Sinai, has come and gone. I get to celebrate Shavuot in Jerusalem, arguably the best place in the world to be for this holiday. The tradition on Shavuot is to stay up all night. People learn all kinds of topics relating to Jewish tradition, law and philosophy and they eat lots of dairy foods (yeah, it’s a little weird).
The amounts and types of learning opportunities on Shavuot night in Jerusalem are inspiring. And now that I’m finally old and mature enough to realize that I get to make of this holiday whatever I please, heading out for my Tikun Leil Shavuot (the all night learning experience) was like heading out on my own personalized adventure.
My first stop was the Cinematheque, a very popular movie theatre that shows international and artsy films most days of the year, including Shabbat. I went for two reasons. First, I felt a desperate need for an injection of true secularism. Cinematheque on Shavuot night is the perfect place to get that fix.
The other reason I went was because the topic made me curious in a masochistic kind of way. They were having three hours of 15 minute lectures on the topic of tikun, fixing. It sounded as though they’d spend three hours bashing Israeli society and culture. How could I miss that?
I ended up making it to the last two lectures. They were actually not too self-hating and I enjoyed the intellectual nature of the setting.
Afterwards I walked around a bit, hitting up another couple of lectures and then came the highlight of the night. At 4:00 AM I joined a walking tour from the Begin Centre to the Western Wall in the Old City. (Offered by the Begin Centre.)
This is what Shavuot is all about, I thought. The guide zoomed us through the city, throwing information at us – one moment about the Bible (for example, King David), the next about modern history (David Ben Gurion, the ’48 war, the ’67 war and in between, the story behind the mezuza on Zion Gate) and also literature (Shai Agnon) and geography (Har HaTanach – nope, I didn’t know about this either).
His knowledge blew me away as did my attempt to keep up with his speed walking and speed talking. Yes, we speed walked up Mount Zion. Yes, the speed was amusing.
We ascended the hill on a path that was new to me. We went to the tomb that has been attributed to King David over the last 1,000 years, climbed more stairs to the rooftop of the building so the guide could show us that the building is also a mosque and a church and that the view from there is beautifully expansive.
The sky was becoming lighter shades of blue. The stars were disappearing without me even realizing.
More information and we continued on, entering the Old City and then walking on the Old City rooftops. At this point the sky was completely starless, only the moon left to shine. The sky was light, but not bright.
And then we walked down the stairs in the direction of the Western Wall. At 5:15 AM we arrived at a place overlooking the wall and its large square, packed with people. I chose to stay right there on the stairs instead of going down to join the hundreds or thousands near the wall.
What a view. To my left I could see the huge crowds of people – half black and white men, half randomly coloured women. And straight ahead, beyond the wall were the mountains of east Jerusalem with light gradually augmenting from behind.
The birds started flying around as they always do at sunrise and sunset. From below there were wafts of prayers but there was also a stopping of time, an expectation in the air. It seemed most of the crowd had gotten to Shma and were just waiting for the sun to peek above the mountains – the sign that it was the earliest moment in the day when one can say this prayer.
And then it showed. The first sliver of sun blinded all of us who were standing on the stairs to watch the spectacle as outsiders – the young secular Israeli guy next to me, the foreigners with their cameras, the punky teenagers. It cast our shadows perfectly on the wall behind us.
The morning had arrived. Once the whole sun was staring right back at us, the sound clearly hit us. Carried through the air, Shma Yisrael came at us in a firm and united roar.
I joined. I said the first sentence of Shma very quietly to myself, feeling awkward about it but thinking about how much this prayer connects Jews in all places in all times.
The sun blinded me, people all around walked and talked and prayed or just hung around, like me, taking in this soulful moment.
This is the beautiful Shavuot I crafted for myself. By the time I started heading home, I had a terrible stomach ache and all I could think was, it’s not supposed to be perfect but it can be amazing.