Sometimes, on a Thursday evening, after I’ve finished work and my weekly shop at the Shuk, I go to eat sushi at a little place not far from there, to celebrate the end of the week. It is one of the small ways that I spoil myself.
Tonight, as I leave the restaurant and cross Bezalel street, I see the blinking coloured lights and hear the blaring music of a hachnasat Sefer Torah. The ruckus and joy of a hachnasat Sefer Torah is one of the things that I love in this country. I walk down the street to join the procession. Traffic is stopped in both directions on one of the city’s main streets while amusement-park-like neon lights shine through the night, wedding-band music sings out loud from a speaker, and men dance with the Torah under a chuppah, a wedding canopy. The joy is like that of a wedding. The men dance, the women watch, ululating, reaching heir hands out as the Torah passes and kissing their fingers. People come from their houses, some holding a cup of tea. Little boys with side locks dance, babies in strollers are wheeled by. An older woman (yes, that could well describe me) wearing a green knitted hat comes to me and says, “You know that hachnasat Sefer Torah is like ma’amad Har Sinai, it’s the same status.” Young and old, religious and secular, men and women, all celebrate this joyful occasion. I have been in an emotional state of late, in which tears flow quickly and unexpectedly, and here, too, the joy is overwhelming and a few tears dampen my eye lids.
At times like this, I remember where I live and why I live here. Where else in the world could ten policemen be allocated to stop traffic on a main street for half an hour while hordes of people dance a Torah scroll into its new home? As the procession approaches the synagogue, the other Torah scrolls in their silver cases are brought out to welcome the new one, to dance with it. The Torah is a bride, and these Jews’ love for it is like the love of newlyweds. When the crowd finally enters the synagogue, traffic begins to flow, and I walk back through Nachlaot to my motorbike.
I lived in Nachlaot for 14 years. One of the reasons I stayed in Israel after arriving as a tourist nearly 30 years ago, was because that neighborhood enchanted me. As I walk back to my bike, I pass familiar landmarks — the second hand store operated by a friend out of her house; the synagogue where we’d go at midnight for selichot services, never particularly inspiring but it was the only Ashkenazi shul in a neighborhood chock full of small synagogues; the rickety apartment where a once-boyfriend used to live; the corner house crammed with potted plants and cats around its door… i know every alley, every hole in the wall of that enchanted maze of a neighborhood.
It is unseasonably warm and I don’t need to put on many extra layers to drive home, just a sweatshirt, jacket and scarf. As I drive down now-unjammed Bezalel street, and later, as I descend the hill into Ein Karem (another magical and blessed place to live), I see the crescent moon low in the night sky. Three nights ago was the new moon, and Pesach will be in a week and a half. It is a stressful time for religious women during the weeks before Pesach, rife with collective obsessive compulsive cleaning madness, and these little luxuries and moments of joy help to get through it, through the frenzied enslavement to which we sentence ourselves in order to celebrate the festival of freedom. I arrive home, the synagogue in my yard is being cleaned for Pesach. So many of us share this national neurosis and this national magic. I remember the first time I saw matzah pizza being sold here on Pesach, my immediate reaction was “it’s so great to have a Jewish state.” And yes, with all the difficulty, this is our place, the place where we can dance down the middle of the street with a new Sefer Torah, the place where all supermarkets prominently display cleaning supplies as soon as Purim is over, the place where an entire nation mourns a fallen soldier, the place where the siren rings out loud and clear to mark Shabbat candle lighting time, the land that is encoded deep in our DNA.