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Only here

As we heard our Jerusalem neighbors' Sabbath prayers, I thought: we are locked down in the one place Jews would want to be locked down
Illustrative: A Jewish man prays at his homes the city Safed, April 13, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Jewish man prays at his homes the city Safed, April 13, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

It sounded as if the voice was coming from the stones.

Every evening, as nightfall comes to Jerusalem, the buildings here, chameleon-like, change their colors. The streets in our neighborhood are quiet on Shabbat in any event, but lately, they’ve been almost ghostly, eerily silent. Nothing about the neighborhood has changed, but everything is different. So when Shabbat began the week before last, with that slightly golden tint coloring the buildings as the angle of the light shifted before the sun was gone, my wife and I stepped outside onto the terrace to breathe it all in.

We’d expected the usual quiet, the sound of little more than the birds and those proverbial Jerusalem cats. They were there, to be sure, but then, as we stared out over the railing towards the building next door and the street below, there was a voice. You could have mistaken it for the muezzin we often hear around here, bellowing from amplifiers and speakers in mosques closer to the Old City, but this was no muezzin. This was Hebrew.

We craned our necks, to no avail. We couldn’t see where it was coming from, but as the voice grew clearer, we quickly realized – it was Kabbalat Shabbat. From a porch somewhere, or from a window, maybe even a rooftop – who knows? – someone had taken it on himself, with all the synagogues shuttered, to gather together all the neighbors who couldn’t see (and maybe don’t even know) each other, to sing and to pray together. It was Shabbat in Jerusalem, after all. We were in isolation, whoever-he-was was saying, but we weren’t going to be isolated.

Within minutes, there were all sorts of voices, a chorus seemingly flowing from the stones. Men’s voices, women’s voices. Some children. A few people, secular by their looks, walked by on the street below, also looked for the source of the voice, and smiled. They might not have been participating, but they of course understood every word and were stirred by what they were witness to – this was theirs, too.

So instead of praying downstairs in my study, alone, as I’ve done for weeks now, we found ourselves together on the porch, singing with people whom we’ll never be able to identify, our collective voices rebounding off the buildings. As we were singing, mesmerized by the strangeness but also the wonder of the moment, it struck me: those very words – those exact same words – have been rebounding off of buildings around here for thousands of years. Many of the words we were singing were debated by the rabbis of old – the Talmudic Tractate Berakhot is a record of many of their conversations about what precisely the wording should be. And for millennia, now, we’ve been doing more or less what they prescribed. These neighborhoods, these hills, these stones, have been hearing those echoing words for thousands of years.

It was dark by now, and the voice had become part of the night. Whoever-he-was counted the Omer, and everyone responded, counting after him. But the Omer, it struck me out there in the dark, has a definite end – and we know what happens when it’s over. What had brought us all out to our porches, of course, has no definite end. We don’t know what will happen when it’s over; we don’t even know how we’ll know it’s over. That’s probably why the next thing we heard was people calling out, “be-eizah sha’ah machar ba-boker?” “What time tomorrow morning?” It was over for now, but the first thought on everyone’s mind was when would we get to sing together again?

We stood there for a few minutes, looking out over the quiet-once-again neighborhood, took it all in and started to make our way inside. Looking at each other, it was clear that we both were both deeply moved, literally beyond words. What could one possibly say? As is typical, Elisheva put it perfectly. Quietly, she looked at me, and barely above a whisper said, “Only here.”

“Only here” is the point of this week now dawning in Israel. What struck me out on that porch was that though we were locked down for who-knows-how-long, many of us here feel that we were locked down in the one place Jews would want to be locked down. For if only those stones could speak, they’d tell you: our roots are here like they are nowhere else – literally, nowhere else. To be here is to be part of a story; to be here is to play a tiny role in writing its next chapter.

I remembered that some years ago, when the world was very different, there was a rooftop minyan in our neighborhood. The apartment building was at the top of a hill, so on clear evenings we could see the entire city: Mt. Scopus and the Mt. of Olives to the north, and Gilo to the south. When my son came home from the army one Friday and stood at my side taking in the truly extraordinary view, I said to him, “a lot of history has unfolded out there over the centuries.” Without missing a beat, he turned to me, and said, “it still is.”

This is the week when we essentially remind ourselves that those of us who chose to be here chose to join that never-ending story. Had we been on that rooftop some 2500 years ago, we would likely have been able to see, just east of us, a long, devastated, humiliated and defeated line of Jews beginning their trek from Jerusalem to Babylonia, with a burning Jerusalem behind them. The route they likely took, points out Amotz Asa’el, was more or less the route of today’s Jerusalem light rail, passing by the Damascus gate, heading north, out towards what is now Hebrew University, and then far, far beyond into exile.

Never again since that day have the majority of the world’s Jews lived in the land of Israel. (That will apparently change very shortly.) But that long line of exiles-to-be never would never give up on the dream that they – or those who followed them – would come home. And sure enough, if we’d been on our own porch some 2400 years later, we would have seen, just a few hundred meters away, a rail line being constructed between Jaffa and Jerusalem in the 1890’s, when the Ottomans were still here, and then being rebuilt in 1920, when the British were here – train tracks that have always been to me a metaphor for that yearning to get back here. In 1948, from right where I’m sitting typing this, one could have heard through the window the six-month long battle (only partially successful) to end the siege on Jerusalem, and from that rooftop, in June 1967, one would have easily seen the lines of armored vehicles making their way eastward as Israel liberated the Old City and unified Jerusalem.

A few thousand years ago, as the sun set on Friday evening, if you listened carefully, you would have heard the shofar being blown from the apex of the south-western corner of the wall around the Temple, announcing the arrival of Shabbat. Those shofar blasts coordinated a sort of communal choreography, as the Talmud (Shabbat 35b; very loose translation) relates:

Our sages taught: They sound six blasts as Shabbat is nearing. The first blast instructs the people in the fields to stop working. The second blast is to stop those who are in the city from working, and to signal to the storeowners to shutter their shops. The third is to tell them to light the Shabbat candles. …  And he sounds a teki’ah, and sounds a teru’ah, and sounds a teki’ah, and he accepts Shabbat.

The Temple is gone, and so is that shofar, but the city’s choreography remains. Anyone who’s spent more than a few Fridays in Jerusalem knows the dance. The bustling shops and markets in the morning, their being shuttered in the early afternoon. The suddenly ubiquitous flower-sellers with their white buckets filled with flowers and the cars that drive by, pull over, buy a bunch or two and hurry home. And then, it’s quiet. (A friend who lives in the U.S. but spends a few months in Israel each year once told me that what he loves about Jerusalem is that on Friday afternoon, as you walk down the street, even without looking inside, you know what’s happening in every home.) And then, to announce that Shabbat is beginning, there’s no shofar, but instead, the mournful groan of the air raid siren, meant to evoke that past, and to bring it into the present. Only here does being alive mean to be part of a choreography these hills have seen for centuries.

Of course, to be here is to be witness to the misery that this region has long seen, too. Not far from here and not that long ago, Jerusalem was out of food. There were lines of desperate, starving people in the freezing winter of 1948; even years later, that was followed by food rationing that many Israelis still recall. Now, for far too many, that misery continues in this horrific economic meltdown. Two months ago, Israel had an unemployment rate of about 3%; now, it’s hovering at around 27%. One again, there is hunger, and misery, and heartbreak that has moved reporters to tears.

Even in better times, these are heart-wrenching weeks in this land of dreams. Every year, I make a point on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers) of being out in public for the siren. Being witness to the sudden stillness of cars and people is one of those “only in Israel” moments that most of us still find chilling. So last week, on Yom HaShoah, we went back to that terrace for the siren. But there was no one outside. No people, no moving cars. Elsewhere in the city, there were none of those now famous gatherings of survivors and their progeny to sing about life, about the future. The siren had changed nothing, and this time we came back inside depleted.

But then, during the day, we began to see those now much-discussed photographs of police officers and soldiers saluting survivors, reminding them that even if the stillness had preceded the siren, they were not forgotten. Numerous photos, and then videos – police officers and soldiers, saluting people for whom this pandemic is truly terrible – but also hardly the most horrible thing they’ve ever experienced. Security forces saluting the frail elderly? Only here.

This week, Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut will be similarly and troublingly different. It will feel empty, bereft for many of us, this ceremony-less season of ceremonies. But in a way, ironically, this horrific pandemic has already evoked much of the reflection that those ceremonies usually do. Like many people all across the world, we’ve had conversations with our friends that are different from those we used to have. Those of us who have lost parents have remarked to each other that, despite our missing them terribly, we’re grateful that they didn’t have to live through this. More than we used to, friends are telling each what they’ve always known but have rarely said – that they love them. That’s everywhere, I’m sure.

But here, there’s yet another layer. None of us wants this pandemic to mark the end of our lives, but the older we are, the more we know that it could. The likelihood may not be high, but it’s not statistically insignificant, either. So we find ourselves talking to each other, and to friends, about what really matters, and often, about the fact that we’re here. Here, and nowhere else. About the fact that if, heaven forbid, this pandemic was to exact the ultimate price, this is where we would want to be.

Despite all the changes and all the cancellations, this is still going to be a week of heartbreak – sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers lost far too young in a conflict no one here knows how to end – and with military cemeteries locked, even their graves will be beyond reach. But Yom Ha’Atzma’ut will follow, so it will also be a week of, if not untethered celebration, then at least profound gratitude. For the privilege of being part of this story. For the blessing of having raised our children in a society brimming with a sense of purpose. For the opportunity to be part of a society that is not merely a country, but a project.

Even in the face of the fear, the hunger, the anguish and the unknown, many people in these neighborhoods will spend this very strange week heartbroken, to be sure, but also grateful beyond words to be in it with people whose lives are statements about where they want to be, no matter what:

Only here.

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel," was published in September 2019.
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