There’s that famous joke / story about the family in Monsey / Teaneck / Borough Park on Pesach, making a seder that’s as glitzy as it is glatt-kosher. As the seder draws to a close and everyone sings “L’Shana HaBa B’Yerushalayim” (Next year in Jerusalem), the mother lets out a blood-curdling scream. “No,” she cries as she hugs her fanciest silver close to her heart. “I don’t want to leave. I can’t give up what we have here.”
Her husband, alarmed, calms her. “Don’t worry,” he says, stroking the fancy new sheitel she bought for the holiday. “It’s only a song.”
It’s only a song, he says.
But I’m not interested in going off and ripping on American Jews. It’s only a song for me, too, and it often makes me cry. But for a very different reason.
Because “Next Year in Jerusalem” is a silly thing to be singing when you are sitting in the heart of Jerusalem. Praying for Jerusalem to be one day be rebuilt is too complicated when the Holy City is lined with construction projects on every block (and the neighbors complain.) And if you want to say that, no, the song is talking about building the Beit HaMikdash, not about Ramot and Mamilla, I ask, has anyone correctly predicted a single thing in this whole crazy story of the Jews’ return to their homeland?
So no, “Next year in Jerusalem” isn’t a prayer for me. It’s a song.
It’s the song that connects me to the prayers of my ancestors through the most bitter parts of the 2000-year exile. It’s the yearning that gave hope to generations of refuseniks, refugees, martyrs, Marranos, and other survivors who had been stripped of every shred of existence except for “next year in Jerusalem.”
“Next year in Jerusalem” connects me to my Zaide, who watched his parents and sisters killed before he was saved to live in a tiny hole underground for nearly three years with his two brothers. And to my grandfather, who I never met, and my grandmother, who met each other and married in a DP camp after the war with no possessions other than the future.
“Next year in Jerusalem” was probably the last words my other grandmother said when her family was forced to flee Jerusalem after the riots in 1929. The daughter of a pillar of the old Yishuv in Shaarei Chessed and founder of the Kehal Chassidim shul there, she died when I was a baby, and I have no memories of her, but I often sense that her prayers are what allow me to live here today. “Next year in Jerusalem” rarely actually happens next year.
“Next year in Jerusalem” was Israel’s plea on June 4, 1967, the eve of the miracle, when it looked like the people of Israel and our small divided city were about to be driven into the sea. And look at our amazing city today.
“Next year in Jerusalem” is what Jews sing at the climax of Yom Kippur and the Pesach Seder, some of the holiest moments of the year. For most of history, it was the most impossible thing a Jew could pray for, so audacious and unthinkable that it could only be sung from deep inside a spiritual experience.
For me, it’s a song. I sing it while I shop for food, and pick up the kids from Gan. Because otherwise, I might forget what it means that I live in Jerusalem. It connects me to the whole timeline of Jewish history, and reminds me how lucky I am to be living in the best place in the world during the greatest time in history.
For me, “Next Year in Jerusalem”, “L’Shana HaBa B’Yerushalayim” isn’t a prayer for the future. It’s the greatest affirmation the Jewish people have for today.
Happy Jubilee, Jerusalem.