Roseanne Malka Werb Zwanziger

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem… But, I did… Did you?

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I remember thee not;
If I set not Jerusalem
Above my chiefest joy”

This was the motto of Young Judaea. At the commencement of every formal meeting in our white shirts, navy blue scout ties, navy blue pants or skirts, right hands over the heart, we proudly proclaimed those powerful statements. The memory of this ritual was ingrained in my nascent eight-year-old “Judeanic” psyche. Yet, I never knew that those declarations were culled from the bitterly sad dirge of Psalm 137 written at the time of the Babylonian exile, or, perhaps upon the return to the desecrated Land of Israel. It begins:

“By the rivers of Babylon
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion”.

Nor was I aware that it was this Psalm which was to be recited upon the completion of every meal where bread was consumed, except on Sabbath and holidays. Neither did I make the connection between this Psalm and the breaking of the glass at Jewish wedding ceremonies.

But then does anybody truly absorb the enormity of the statements in this Psalm? Does the breaking of a glass at a wedding and reciting “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the Passover seder provide a satisfactory response to the promise never to forget?

These thoughts came rushing back to me as I returned to Israel after a trip to America. Initially, I had been reluctant to leave. One might have thought I was the army Chief of Staff:
“How can I leave Israel at this time?”
“How can I abandon our beloved country at its time of need?”
“It is only here that I truly feel secure and safe, despite the bombs!”
“I must remain, at least, until the hostages are freed… then I can think about leaving the country…” These were my sentiments and the sentiments of so many Israelis at this horrific time.

And yet there I found myself, back in an affluent, metropolitan American city with all its allure. The raison d’etre of America – shop until you drop! Everything at bargain prices, and,if purchased from Amazon, delivered within hours. Enormous cars, huge houses, and salaries that can be kept, spent, or invested rather than shared with a government that takes its 50 percent. Everything in America is so big, so effortless, so convenient. In this oasis of material wealth ,with its illusion of quietude and peace, it is so easy to forget, disregard, but most likely, to compartmentalize the compelling words of this ancient Psalm.

Do we remember “Zion”? Sadly, we have a 2000-year history of asking this question. When Persian King Cyrus granted Jews the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel after their exile to Babylon, only a miniscule five percent of the Jews in Persia, a mere 40,000, accompanied Ezra the Scribe back to the homeland. Even Ezra waited till the death of his teacher, Baruch Ben Neriah before returning to the Land of Israel. The clever and creative Nehemiah began to rebuild the Second Temple, a mere shadow of the magnificent edifice Solomon’s First Temple. Not enough money. I wonder about the extent of contributions they received from the Jews of Babylon and other parts of the Persian empire, although they made it difficult to send contributions! According to the Gemara, had we heeded the call and all of us returned with Ezra, we would have experienced great miracles. Instead, we remained there, luxuriating along the lush banks of the Euphrates and Tigris enjoying a rich economic and cultural life, until we were cast away, shunned, hanged and finally exiled after the establishment of the State of Israel.

To be sure, some took the words of this Psalm to heart, and made it happen for themselves… or, at least made the arduous journey. Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), the great poet, physician, and philosopher whose inspiring words, “Can we hope for any other refuge either in the East or in the West where we may dwell in safety?” His longing for the Land of Israel -“Libi baMizrach” – summed up the depth of his belief that true liberation, true Judaism, could only be achieved in the Land of Israel. And so, he made the journey, against much opposition from friends and relatives, to go to the Land of Israel. And there were others – Nachmanides, Maimonides, hopeful adherents of Shabtai Zvi, followers of the Vilna Gaon, followed by Rav Kook, and other esteemed personalities. But it was always a trickle that took this Psalm to their soul, and made the challenging journey to the Land of Israel..

For the most part, our history has been one of sitting in a place, in temporary comfort as in the Golden Age of Spain, or more often, in places where we faced blatant and cruel discrimination. When conditions became intolerable, we would move on. There were times when we had the good life, a free life, a life of affluence, the opportunity for education, advancement, success, and even political influence, though the price may have been conversion. There were some good times in post-Napoleonic France or Germany of the nineteenth century. When life became intolerable in the Pale of Settlement, off we went to the “Goldene Medina”- the United States, where by the sweat of our brow, and freeing ourselves from the bindings of Tefillin, we would ultimately “make it,” financially, academically, and politically. Jewish life flourished in “Amerike”. Life became even better than it was on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris.

But then a prophet arose – Theodore Herzl. Had he ever read Psalm 137? Doubtful. Yet its yearnings became entrenched in his soul. Assimilated, well educated, aristocratic, a successful journalist, who probably had sat comfortably in a Viennese cafe, enjoying creme schnitz as he wrote his articles, was brutally awakened by the Dreyfus Affair! And as he heard the chants of “Death to the Jews!” his soul was aroused by the spirit of this Psalm.

Of course, the majority of Jews were naysayers to Herzl’s dream. Those who sat comfortably in their chateaus and estates of Western Europe and England, and in the successfully emerging communities of the United States. We were either skeptics or vehement opposers. And, of course, there were those from the deeply religious communities of Eastern Europe who cried “Gevalt!” that ignorant, irreligious, and even blasphemous Jews should make the demand to return to the Land of Israel, to Zion. But slowly and steadily, the words of this Psalm began to seep into the psyche of some, and they came, in dribs and drabs. But, the majority either remained complacently in their homes in Berlin, Paris, London, Warsaw, New York, while others sought new horizons – South Africa or South America. Always, seeking a new and better life. The words of the Psalm accompanying them only at their weddings and Passover seders.

But, history has a way of repeating itself. Once more, in 1917, a non-Jew, Lord Balfour, issued a directive to world Jewry – you may come back to the land of your historical ancestry. Had he read Psalm 137? Probably. And there we were again – the Jewish people, openly welcomed to return to Zion, to Jerusalem, by the most powerful empire of its day. Legendary Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua asked the question: “Why didn’t we all come back in 1917 and the 1920s? What would have happened if we had? Would we have seen the miracles that the Gemara proclaimed would have occurred had we all returned with Ezra?

Well,, we finally did come back- more dead than alive, more shattered than whole, our families destroyed, our material inheritance confiscated, our old lives obliterated. But, in the end, we finally returned, now with our spirits hopeful, determined and fully committed.

Which brings me back to today, 2024, 75 years after the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Is the State of Israel the Zion we dreamt of? Is this the Jerusalem our prophets praised, and which we have come to reclaim and rebuild? Maybe not yet. But at least we finally made it here, into the sands and onto the stones that were promised to us more than 4000 years ago.

But still the question lingers, do we truly “not forget” Jerusalem? Do we cry for Zion? Or, are the words of this Psalm merely ideas, hopes that we must keep in our minds as we await the age of the Messiah? Is it good enough to mumble this Psalm before we eat every meal? Is breaking the ceremonial glass enough to transport us back to thinking of the Temple? Is reciting “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the Passover Seder good enough to return us to Zion?

Are we free to sit and lounge in our beautiful homes of Los Angeles, Miami, New York, or London so long as we pay lip service to the memory of Jerusalem? And, are symbolic donations of money enough to bring us back to Zion?

For the most part, we Jews have decided to remain outside of the Land of Israel. Things have changed little since the times of the Babylonian exile. Even at the time of Exodus, after being granted our freedom from slavery, we bemoaned the loss of the “flesh pots” we had “enjoyed” in Egypt as slaves. The questions I ask are ones that we must each answer for ourselves.

For those of us who have the privilege to live in the Land of Israel, and witness the recent incidents of bravery, courage, and self-sacrifice of our soldiers and citizens, we have a visceral understanding of what it means to never forget Jerusalem, to remember Zion. It is something that can only be felt here, standing on the blessed and fertile ground of Eretz Yisrael. Only here, as we walk on those stones, and push through the sandy soils can we appreciate the yearnings, the hopes , and the fulfilled dreams of this Psalm, dreams that came at very dear costs. Perhaps the cruel and vicious taunts of our enemies “from the river to the sea” will bring back to every Jewish heart and soul the opening words “By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion” … and then, indeed “we will not forget thee, O Jerusalem.”

About the Author
I am a retired attorney, most recently from Chicago who worked as an Administrative law Judge in Illinois, New York, and Ontario Canada. Since my retirement I have been a participant in " Writing Circles" in Chicago, where writers get together and share their work, obtain ideas, and improve their craft. I initiated a Writers Circle in Netanya approximately six -seven years ago. Once again, this has been an opportunity for English language writers to get together on a bi-weekly basis to write on various topics, present their compositions, and get feedback. Our group consists of writers from England, South Africa, and the US. My personal work is the compliation of stories related to the lives of survivors, their stories, and the stories , as the child of survivor AFTER World War II. I am also working on a fantasy story for young girls.
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