Days of atonement

Under the auspices of The Zionist Council in Israel – Anglo Division, Michal and I and friends joined a group headed for Jerusalem for the Selichot prayers at the Kotel – the Western Wall. These are traditional penitential poems and prayers which are said in the period leading up to the High Holidays and on days of fasting.

Our bus left Ra’anana late in the afternoon, a week before Yom Kippur. We didn’t have an auspicious start to our outing. For the first time in the many bus trips we’ve had in our 24 years living in Israel, the bus broke down on the highway. Two hours later, another bus arrived to pick us up, only to stop again within a half hour. This time, it was simply to put us back on our original, repaired bus, allowing the borrowed one to return to its group.

We had missed the first part of our itinerary but we arrived in time to visit the Machane Yehuda market area. The market, arguably the premier shuk in Israel, has many great places to eat, inside the indoor/outdoor market, or in close proximity to it. Some of us ate at the Sima Restaurant, located right on Agrippas St, a main road which borders the shuk. Sima’s food tends towards Jewish-Iraqi tastes, is kosher (naturally), and was delicious. We had grilled chicken with vegetables, soup with stuffed kubbeh, and numerous mezze (appetizer) dishes, as much as we liked. Of course, the pita and hummus were fabulous. There was only one letdown – the Turkish coffee.

We then met our guide Yossi, who led us through some of the 32 small, separate neighborhoods of the fascinating area of Nachlaot, established in the 1870s. There we heard stories of the founders of the area, which was one of the first neighborhoods settled outside of the Old City walls in the late 19th century.

Financed by the much beloved philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, an English banker of Italian descent, Nachlaot was built as a series of residential compounds for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi religious communities of the Old City who were its first residents. They were later joined by immigrants from both Europe and Ottoman-controlled lands.

A number of the houses are adorned with plaques with pictures and histories of their one-time residents from the early days of Jerusalem. Later, Nachlaot acquired a reputation as a haven for artists, musicians and especially Torah-inspired young Americans, who remind us of hippies from a generation ago – but Orthodox. This cohort, combined with the native religious and ultra-Orthodox, blend together to create a unique neighborhood with many courtyards.

We soon left Nachlaot to travel across town via our bus to experience the midnight Selichot prayers at the Kotel, where we would join thousands of people praying for forgiveness in the runup to Yom Kippur.

According to former ambassador and diplomatic pundit Yoram Ettinger, “Yom Kippur constitutes a cement of the highly diversified Jewish people, inviting criminals and sinners to participate in Yom Kippur services. It emphasizes soul-searching and underscores humility and tolerance as the key features of one’s character. It commemorates God’s covenant with the Jewish people, and God’s forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf.”

We made our way by foot from the storied Jaffa Gate, which was built during Ottoman times. The gate was enlarged in 1898 to allow Kaiser Wilhelm II to proceed into the Old City on horseback with raised banners. We quickly passed the imposing Tower of David, a medieval fortress with architectural additions from later periods. We then took the shortcut through the Armenian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter, making our way through the crowds towards the wide stairways leading down to the Western Wall Plaza through a security entrance.

Once in the Plaza, we split up, since men and women pray in separate sections of the Western Wall. This segregation is not derived from Jewish law, but from custom. The management of the Plaza, and the Temple Mount above it, are maintained in accordance with the “status quo,” which roughly pertains to what has been customary in previous decades.

I made my way to the Wall, passing among Am Yisroel, the people of Israel. The men were ultra-Orthodox dressed in black with white shirts and black hats, modern Orthodox with knitted skullcaps, traditional Jews with knitted or black skullcaps, soldiers, secular Jews, and Jewish and non-Jewish tourists.

My strongest impression was of youth. Most of the thousands of visitors were not elderly, religious Jews, but Jews of all stripes, mostly below 30 years of age. The most striking example was a husky, young man with tattooed arms, fervently reading from his prayer book. The fact is that while too many Diaspora Jews are becoming less religious with many assimilating out of Judaism altogether, Israeli Jews are becoming more religious: more Israelis fast on Yom Kippur, more attend a Seder, more refrain from eating bread during Passover, and more are studying Torah. (There are even Torah classes for secular Jews!)

I read Psalms while standing behind several soldiers, awaiting my chance to get up close and personal with the ancient boulders of the Wall. When that time came, I was able to place my hands on what is the remnant of the retaining wall of the Holy Temple basin, dating back before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. While I have visited the Wall many times, this occasion, in such close proximity to Yom Kippur, was easily the most moving.

I joined the rest of the group as we made our way back up the staircase, through the teeming Jewish Quarter, to the Jaffa Gate and out to the streets. Although it took us a while to find our bus among the scores lining the roads, and although we didn’t arrive in Ra’anana until about 3 a.m., this was a moving experience that we will long remember.

I wish my Jewish readers a happy and healthy new year and a good listing in the Book of Life!

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.