Yom Yerushalayim: Let’s Remember and Rejoice

When I ask about Jerusalem from people returning from Israel, I often hear expressions of profound joy:

“At the KOTEL – Suddenly I was home. And I had never been here before. And I cried.”

“Jerusalem  –  No adjectives. No pictures. No need for these. The City we dream of. The City we flock to. The City that is.”

“In Jerusalem, I laughed, I cried, shared, cared, prayed, and celebrated together. TIME was frozen but the hearts were never warmer.”

“Touching the mezuzah at the gate of the Old City connected me to all Jews who have and do touch it.”

“The glow of the sunset reflected in the walls of all the buildings was unforgettable.”

“I was in our home … a direct line to heaven.”

“I never felt so Jewish.”

Why?

Jerusalem embodies millennia of Jewish memories, hopes, and dreams.

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel arrived at the Kotel for the first time, he observed that: “I did not enter on my own the city of Jerusalem. Streams of endless craving, clinging, dreaming, flowing night and day, midnights, years, decades, centuries, millennia, streams of tears, pledging, waiting – from all over the world, from all corners of the Earth – carried us of this generation to the Wall … I can touch your stones! Am I worthy? How shall I ever repay for these moments?”

Exhilarating experiences were made possible due to the Reunification of Jerusalem on June 5, 1967. In celebration and gratitude, we mark the 52nd Yom Yerushalayim.

NOTE: Jews did not suddenly appear in Jerusalem a half-century ago for the first time in 2,000 years. Quite the contrary – Jews have been present in the Holy City throughout the millennia.

The Jewish presence in Jerusalem is mentioned more than 650 times in the Hebrew Bible. It was the capital of the ancient Jewish state. It was the site of the First and Second Temples. In exile, Jerusalem remained the direction toward which we pray. It stayed evident in our holiday liturgies. It became part and parcel of our lifecycle customs.

Powerful Rabbinic statements surfaced throughout the centuries:

“The world is like a human eye. The white is like the ocean, which surrounds the Earth. The pupil is like the Earth. The opening of the pupil is like Jerusalem. The reflection in the opening is like the Temple …” (Derech Eretz Zuta 9)

“The Land of Israel is the center of the world. Jerusalem is the center of the Land of Israel. The Temple is the center of Jerusalem. The heichal (Temple Hall) is the center of the Temple. The Ark is the center of the Heichal. The rock of the foundation is in front of the Ark, and upon it the entire world is founded.” (Tanhuma Kedoshim 10)

“There is no beauty like the beauty of Jerusalem.” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 28)

“All good things and blessings, which the Holy One will bestow upon Israel in the future, will come exclusively from Zion:

Deliverance is from Zion …

Might is from Zion …

Blessing is from Zion …

The shofar is from Zion …; Kee MiZion Taytzay Torah, Udevar Adonai Mee-Yerushalayim”

(Leviticus Rabba 24:4)

Therefore, even when life in Jerusalem was fragile and even dangerous, some pious Jews refused to leave. Prior to 1840, barely a few thousand souls braved Jerusalem’s unstable living conditions. During the next 20 years, the Ottoman overlords improved security. Jews quickly became Jerusalem’s largest element within the population. By 1896, more than 60% of Jerusalemites were Jewish: 28,112 Jews compared to 8,560 Muslims and 8,748 Christians. In 1925, out of 65,578 Jerusalem residents, 33,971 were Jews, 14,699 were Muslim and 13,413 were Christian. On the eve of Israel’s War of Independence in May 1948, the City of David’s combined population in its eastern and western sections had increased to 165,000: 100,000 Jews, 40,000 Muslims and 25,000 Christians.

To repeat, prior to the 1948 Jordanian conquest of the Old City and of eastern portions outside the city walls, there were two and one half times as many Jews as Muslims!

Only the Hashemite military invasion changed these demographic facts. Jordan artificially created “traditional Arab East Jerusalem.” The Jordanians destroyed or ruined all 58 synagogues inside Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. The few structural remnants were turned into chicken coops or stables. Slum dwellings were built adjacent to the Kotel. The Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery was desecrated. Tombstones became pavement on roads or floors of latrines. Jordanian Jerusalem expelled every Jewish man, woman and child.

The Jewish World remembers the brokenness of 1948 when Jerusalem was conquered by the Jordanians and every last Jew was evicted or killed.

“It felt like 586 BCE, when the first temple was destroyed”; News flashes read: “The Old City is in flames! Smoke is rising from the burning synagogues within its walls!” The human tragedy was mind-numbing. As recorded by a contemporary, Pauline Rose, “Driven out of their burning homes, after months of attack, hunger and thirst, those brave Jewish people –men, women and children – … have been forced to surrender. For many months, they had defended their homes, their synagogues, their lives. With little ammunition, cut off from all supplies of arms and food, from all communication with their brethren outside the walls, their power to hold out so long cannot be explained in terms of this world.”

Yet the Jewish People refused to forget Jerusalem.

“At the first Yom HaAtzmaut, in 1949, a memorial was inscribed to those who fell in defense of Jerusalem. This stone served as a witness that Jerusalem has not been and will not be separated from the body of the State of Israel and from the heart of the people of Israel…” (Reuven Hammer, The Jerusalem Anthology)

From 1948 to 1967, Jordanians impeded the worship of Judaism inside their sector of Jerusalem.

The world remained silent as all Jews were expelled and no new Jewish residents were permitted. Jews from around the world were denied religious pilgrimage. Christians fared very poorly as well. Only a limited number were permitted to visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and at Easter. Strict controls were placed upon Christian schools’ curriculum and appointment of teachers. Christians were forbidden to open new schools. Christian religious and charitable institutions were barred from purchasing real estate. Many Jerusalem Christians fled to Beirut or Western Europe. What had been 25,000 Christians in 1949 was reduced to 12,000 religious pietists 19 years later.

It was with deep affection that Jews experienced the Liberation of Jerusalem (June 1967). Testimonies of joy abounded. They merit being shared on Yom Yerushalayim.

Army spokesman Moshe Amirav recollected:

“I began to approach the Wall in fear and trembling like a pious cantor going to the lectern to lead the prayers. I approached it as the messenger of my father and my grandfather, of my great-grandfather and of all generations in all the exiles who had never merited seeing it, and so they sent me to represent them… Somebody recited the shechecheyanu blessing … I put my hand on the stone and the tears that started to flow were not my tears – they were the tears of all Israel, tears of hope and prayer, tears of hasidic tunes, tears of Jewish dances, tears which scorched and burned the heavy gray stone.”

Similarly, Elie Wiesel reflected that:

“I shall never forget my arrival in Jerusalem (at the point of reunification)… This is the first time that I am here, yet I feel that I was at this very spot before. I have already seen these Jews, heard their prayers. Every shape seems familiar, every sound as though it has arisen from the depths of my own past …” (Elie Wiesel, Beggar in Jerusalem) …

“The fate of Jerusalem caught the imagination of the Jewish people. The Arabs were still shooting from the rooftops, but Jews, in the thousands, ran to the Old City, and no one could stop them…. Each wanted to be at the Kotel, to kiss the stones, to cry out prayers or memories.

“I had the privilege to run with them. I have never said ‘AMEN’ with such devotion as when the paratroopers, in their exaltation, prayed Minchah (the afternoon prayers). I have never understood the profound meaning of Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel, as I did on that day… and thought with pride of Jewish existence.”

In like fashion, journalist Rinna Samuel recorded that:

“The news about Jerusalem dominated the whole remarkable week; its implications were available instantly to all of us … Within a day, without official notice, without anyone having to start it, all Israel began to travel to Jerusalem … Israel’s total population was some two-and-a-half million Jews; it is a breath-taking statistic that by mid-July, almost the entire population of the Jewish State had already been inside the Old City.”

Former Prime Minister Golda Meir remembered with affirmation:

“I wasn’t at all pious … (yet) all of a sudden, at the end of those narrow, winding alleys in the Old City, I saw it … For the first time, I saw the Jews – men and women, praying and weeping before it and putting kvitlech – the scribbled petitions to the Almighty – into its crannies … And in those orthodox Jews with their kvitlech, I saw a nation’s refusal to accept that only these stones were left to it and an expression of confidence in what was to come in the future. I left the Wall changed in feeling – uplifted is perhaps the word.”

Let us honor Yom Yerushalayim #52 in many ways, including reflecting upon a classic Biblical pledge:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;

Let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.

Yom Yerushalayim Sameach!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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