Sleeping in unusual places

kever Rachel2One night in the fall of 1994, between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippor, my friend Chaya and I decided to visit Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb).

There was a 10 p.m. bus from Jerusalem that returned back to Jerusalem at midnight. Since there were no buses returning to Tel Aviv, we decided to sleep at Rachel’s Tomb.

When we got there it was late and I was tired. After saying a prayer and reading the framed placards from Jeremiah 31: 15-17.  I laid out my sleeping bag on a slab of stone that jutted out of the wall, guessing that this is what ancient beds must have been like, and went to sleep.

I awoke in the morning to hear the guard and Chaya arguing.

“It’s not done,” he said. ”People don’t sleep at Rachel’s Tomb.” But it had been done and we done it. I’d even gotten up in the night wanting to use a bathroom and walked up the hill to the Army base. He kept making his point and explaining and we defended our point: “There is no midnight bus to Tel Aviv.”

In the end he brought us coffee and when his shift ended, drove us to a bus stop in Jerusalem that took us to the Central Bus Station.

Rachel Immanu, our mother, is beloved by the Jewish people. Men and women pray at her  Tomb but she’s a particular comfort to women. She died in childbirth when she was young – 36. The sages say that the reason her husband Yakov (Jacob) buried her near Beit Lehem (Bethlehem) and not Macpelah in Hevron where the other Matriarchs are buried, is that he had seen that Israel would go into exile in the future and she would be there to comfort the people.

When I grew up in America, I knew nothing about Rachel. Pssshhh, When the teacher read tehillim (psalms) in Assembly, I didn’t know they were written by my ancestor, King David, a Jew. I had no idea.

Before we made aliya I used sit in a rocking chair in Vermont that Donna, our neighbor lent me, rocking back and forth, my baby in my arms pondering the big decision, to make aliya or not, whether to leave America and go to live in Israel or not. I would read Jeremiah 31:15-17 over and over.

Thus saith the L-rd:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children…
…Thus saith the L-rd:
Refrain thy voice from weeping,
And thine voice from tears;….
…And they shall come back from the
land of the enemy…..
…And thy children shall return to
their own border.

It was Tisha B’Av on a summer’s night. I left my sleeping bag in the agila (shopping wagon) next to the fence that divides the men’s and women’s sections. We walked around and met some of our friends. I was excited to be sleeping at the Western Wall and was impatient to get there. I remember being at a section of the wall that’s rarely open to the public deep in the Muslim Quarter, but was opened on this night. And then I was down at the Wall spreading my sleeping bag.

Old women came dragging mattresses, mothers with carriages. The women’s section was filled but there was room for everybody. Like at Kever Rachel, I fell into a deep sleep.

Tisha b’Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. We fast from sundown till the hour the next night when there are three stars in the sky. It was on Tisha b’Av that the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and in 70 A.D. the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Betar, the last stronghold of Bar Kochba, fell on that day. The expulsion from Spain is associated with Tisha b’Av and other tragedies.

Living in Israel has enabled me to reach back in time and touch the past. Years have passed since those sleep over adventures. Now I have six grandchildren and I don’t have that warm sleeping bag anymore BUT I slept at Rachel’s Tomb and the Western Wall.

About the Author
Born in the U.S., Lois Michal Unger made aliya in 1982. She is a well known poet in Israel and internationally. She is the author of 7 books including, White Rain in Jerusalem, The Glass Lies Shattered All Around and How Country Music Helped Me to Make Aliya, a novella. Her poems have been published in The Jerusalem Post as well as many literary magazines throughout the world. Her work and has been translated into Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Hungarian. Before making aliya she wrote a recipe column for the Chronicle newspaper in Vermont. Her latest book Back to Back: Two Poets Living Under One Roof is co-authored with her husband Elazar.