17. Modern Jewish Old City Jerusalems

 

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Jews of modern Jerusalem are varied.  These varied Jews have created a “sacred geography” of Jerusalem. As a traveler, I only see and understand a fraction of their life. Here are some of my impressions of this Jewish geography with its memories and hopes.

I have to begin with the Western Wall. One Israeli website estimated that 3.5 million visitors visited the Western Wall in 2018.

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Here is an iconic photo of a Jew praying at the Western Wall. My other photo is a more atypical photo of a young Jewish father introducing his infant son to the Western Wall. The Western Wall is the focus of young and old. It certainly becomes the main point of memory as it provides a physical connection with the First and Second Temples for religious Jews.

On Monday and Thursdays there are important events for both Jerusalem Jews and Jews in the global Jewish diaspora. Those are the days that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation helps organize Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs.

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I wonder how heavy the Torah Scrolls are! A proud family! It was no accident that I heard native English being spoken as much as Hebrew.

Established by Israel’s Ministry of Religion in 1988, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s website states: “The goal of the Foundation is to make the Western Wall – a remnant of our Holy Temple – a source of inspiration for multitudes of Jews, stemming from the desire to deepen and strengthen their connection to it, and to have it serve as a means of restoring past glory by consolidating the spiritual, moral, and national character of the Jewish people.” Certainly the Foundation seeks to help young Jews remember their own Jewish heritage through the Bar Mitzvahs; they seek to promote a future loyalty to current state of Israel.

Another part of the Old City’s “sacred geography” is the Jewish Quarter. After the 1948 war, the Jordanians took over the Old City. Although there had been a thriving Jewish Quarter, the Jewish Quarter was basically destroyed during the Jordanian occupation. Many of the approximately 30 synagogues destroyed were in the Old City. It is estimated that 2000 Jews fled the Jewish Quarter.

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While the photo shows the skill of a driver getting through a very narrow Zion Gate, the photo also shows the shell pocked wall. Fighting was extremely fierce in 1967. When the Israeli Defense Forces retook the quarter in 1967, homes, businesses, synagogues, and yeshivas (schools) were gone. Not only did the Israeli government in general, and Jewish community members in particular, rebuild those buildings, they also built museums and numerous historical memorials.

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This memorial is for the 48 Israeli soldiers and civilians killed in 1948.

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Hurva Synagogue and its square is the main center of the Jewish Quarter. Numerous ways in which I knew I was in the quarter.

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As with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Jewish Quarter in general shapes the memories and hopes of Jews. Jews visiting the Jewish Quarter have their memory more focused upon events during 1948-1967. Obviously, these memories highlight the necessary courage and sacrifice which contributed to the Israeli’s state retaking this section of the Old City. Jews visiting this Quarter are explicitly invited to hope for the continued existence of this Israeli state.

Within the Jewish Quarter, I found an even more controversial group of Jews. These are the Jews who formed and support the Temple Institute. This organization is making preparations for the building of the Third Temple. It has created ritual instruments for use in the Temple; it has recreated priestly garb; it has searched unsuccessfully for the necessary sacrificial “red heifer.”

 

 

Its website states: “The reality of the Jewish experience means that the Temple will be rebuilt. Many people who visit the Temple Institute are incredulous and cannot help but exclaim: “Do you really think that you will live to see the Holy Temple rebuilt?” The answer to that question is of little importance. Let us rather recall that Jewish history has a trajectory, which began when the patriarch Abraham smashed his father’s idols. That trajectory has spanned the millennia, and it is obvious that we are rapidly approaching climactic times, in which the Holy Temple will once again become the focal point for mankind’s spiritual focus. Whether this transpires in our generation or not, we can still choose to be active participants, and not simply spectators, in G-d’s bold plan for the Redemption of Israel and all humanity.”

Needless to say, their memories are focused upon an imagined set of Temple requirements which they hope to rebuild on the Temple Mount. Scary.

Finally, I had to walk outside the Old City to Mea’ Shearim.

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If you have watched Netflix’s Shitsel, then Mea’ Shearim resembles the show’s ultra-orthodox neighborhood. The signs let the visitor know their status! The residents are the quintessential ultra-orthodox Jews.

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Trying not to photograph its residence once I was inside Mea’ Shearim, I could not help but notice some features of its life.

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Passing one clothing store, I saw three racks of black dresses. Like Henry Ford and the Model-T. “You can have your car in any color as long as it is black,” the saying here would be “You can have your dress in any color as long as it is black.”

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I was also amazed at the number of single and double baby strollers.

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Finally, as I passed a bookstore, I noticed an unusual number of book titles in English, not Hebrew or Yiddish.

As part of the “sacred geography” of or near the Old City, Mea’ Shearim also shapes memories and hopes. The section is like visiting a Eastern European Jewish community of the 1800’s. It has maintained dress, manners, customs practiced by Jews of that period and time. As a result, it has created a way of life which has no hope for participating in “modern life.” Of course, it does seem as though some practices are allowed, cellphones and computers to name two!

The Jews in and around the Old City are part of Jerusalem’s “sacred geography.” While the Jewish geography contains more than these elements, that geography is incomplete if these Jewish individuals, organizations, and places are forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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