The gold of Jerusalem doesn’t have to glitter
There are songs that transport us back to exactly where we were the first time we heard them. The words etched into our memories, the tunes into our souls and the feelings they evoked into our hearts.
And then there are songs that are the background music of our childhoods. They are part of the playlist that shaped us into the people we are today and framed the way we think about the world.
I don’t remember my earliest exposures to “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), Naomi Shemer’s stirring song about the Jewish longing to return to Jerusalem.
It could be I first heard it in my home in Great Neck, NY, with my mother describing the release of the song on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) in 1967, only three weeks before the outbreak of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli control.
Or it could be I first learned it in music class at North Shore Hebrew Academy, where we were introduced to Israeli songs on Cantor David Hiesiger’s keyboard, belting them out as we tried our hardest to imagine and connect to the Jewish state from 6,000 miles away.
Even as a young girl, I recall the emotion of the song coursing through my body. The mournful description of Jerusalem, drawn from Lamentations, as a city that sits in solitude with a wall cutting through its center. Its marketplace is empty, no one visits the Temple Mount and the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho is closed to people. And yet, the Jewish people, true to the words of Psalms 137, refuse to forget her, in the same way they remain attached to their right arm.
And then there is the intense joy, and even magic, of the final verses. Those hastily written by Naomi Shemer in the midst of the Six Day War. We have returned to the marketplace, a shofar sounds on the Temple Mount, a thousand suns shine, and, once again, the roads to the Dead Sea are open.
The Israel of my childhood was exactly that magical.
Before I ever traveled there, I already felt a visceral connection to Israel. On Yom Ha’atzmaut in 1988, when I was in third grade, my elementary school handed out pretend passports and we “flew” on a plane to Israel. We prayed at the Western Wall, “rode” on buses, were given blue and white cookies, drank freshly squeezed orange juice, bought falafel, danced to Israeli music, shopped at “shuk” Machane Yehuda, and played in sand brought in specially to simulate a Tel Aviv beach.
I couldn’t wait for my first real trip.
That same summer I boarded a plane and flew to Israel with my family for five weeks. We celebrated my cousin’s bar mitzvah, rented a home in the Ramot Bet neighborhood of Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall, rode buses, ate falafel, shopped at the shuk, bought t-shirts and souvenirs and began to get acquainted with Israel (though I didn’t find any blue-and-white cookies).
Those initial encounters with Israel still shine bright and viscerally inform my everyday experience. They were impactful. Golden. The stuff of miracles.
And the music of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav is melodiously woven into years of memories.
I sang it in America — at school events and in camp, with my arms around my friends as we swayed back and forth; and at my parents’ Shabbat table, together with my sisters, when we would bring out the Israeli song books and lose ourselves on a Friday evening, singing late into the night.
I sang it in Israel — on summer programs and during my year of post-high school study, as I walked the streets of Jerusalem. And while watching the sun set on Shabbat afternoons from rented homes and hotels, with my arms around my parents and sisters, tears rolling down our cheeks as we thought about leaving.
And now I live in Israel.
Real life in Israel is not always as shimmering. Not every day is as wondrous as a first trip to the Old City, a walk through the shuk, or a drive down to the Dead Sea.
Life for me mostly consists of preparing classes for teaching, socializing with friends and neighbors, phone calls with my sisters, conversations with my husband, learning, reading and praying, doing laundry, making dinner, packing lunches, catching up with former students, late night talks in a child’s room, and falling into bed after a long day.
All the mundane routines of going to work, maintaining valuable relationships, nurturing spirituality, keeping a house running, investing in a meaningful marriage, and raising children.
Miracles are experienced not only in their climactic moments, but maybe even more so in normal, regular, everyday living.
The powerful book, “Like Dreamers,” by Yossi Klein Halevi, follows the stories of seven members of the 55th paratroopers brigade who fought in the Six Day War and restored Jewish sovereignty to the Western Wall and the rest of Jerusalem’s Old City.
At the time that I read the book, one of those paratroopers, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, was my next-door neighbor. Every time I turned a page, I found myself wanting to knock on our shared wall and marvel over the grand events of Israel’s history that he had been witness to and had taken part in. He liberated the Western Wall. He helped found a yeshiva. He built his home on an empty mountaintop. Just incredible. So far from the givens of my life.
One day, while standing behind Rav Yoel on line in our local makolet (mini-market), I gathered the courage to express these sentiments. I shared with him my thoughts about the very different experiences and perspectives that two neighbors could have. I made aliyah in 2011; the Western Wall is a part of the Israel I have always known; and I moved into a home in the center of a beautiful, developed community. And here we are, both of us, waiting on line with our groceries, me overflowing with gratitude for all of his sacrifice, effort, and hard work.
Rav Yoel smiled and said, “You know something? I’m here because of my parents. You, olim, chose to come on your own with young families when you didn’t have to and when you weren’t running away from anything. To me, that is so much more amazing.”
Two neighbors, two very different histories, each one looking at the other with wonder, appreciation, and some measure of disbelief.
In Israel, sometimes you can feel that the miraculous is mundane and that the mundane is miraculous.
I’ve thought a lot about this over the last few weeks and months of turmoil in this country. Terror, rockets, politics, protests, infighting.
Sometimes it can be hard to see the gleam and the glitter in the midst of fear or frustration, and over piles of laundry.
But then I remember — Yerushalayim shel Zahav — that song, those words, that gold…
And that THAT Old City, THAT Temple Mount, THAT shuk are only a half-hour drive from my home (on good traffic days at least!), and that those golden longings of my childhood can be accessed with only a moment’s pause of reflection.
“Im eshkachech Yerushalayim
Asher kulah zahav”
“If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold”