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Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Getting to know Jerusalem

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It’s late May in Jerusalem. The weather is hot during the day and distinctly cooler in the evening. The sun warms and brightens. And the light at any moment during the sun’s pleasant shine from the sky is brighter, clearer and somehow more illuminating to a degree that we seldom see in Montreal or Toronto.

The quality of the light in Jerusalem is one of the first things that a visitor notices about this remarkable city. The diversity of the many people who walk its streets is another.

Israelis themselves are a vastly diverse people, the blended beauty over generations of men and women who arrived here long ago or recently from almost every land on Earth.

And then there are the tourists. Tourists throng through the streets in highly visible formations like a reverse flow of lava seeking the highest, holiest spots for their ardour to cool. 

They, too, come from all over the world, from every continent, speaking every language, seeking secrets, truths, fun, famous backdrops to lifelong souvenir photographs, or simply, the fulfilment of a curiosity.

Jerusalem is indeed one of the most widely imagined, obsessively sought, unique places and inspiring destinations in the world. 

Thus, it is important to know Jerusalem. It is both an idea and a place.

The western literary canon, which has helped form our moral sensibilities and cultural guideposts, is quite familiar with Jerusalem as an idea. 

Founded upon the Hebrew prophets’ vision of an ideal society, whose hallmarks are mutual caring, mutual respect and mutual aid, the word “Jerusalem” was always an ideal for human striving. Even the late Belgian singer and songwriter, Jacques Brel, affirmed this notion of the place as an ideal when he wrote, “If we only have love, then Jerusalem stands.”

But Jerusalem is also, we must remember, where some 750,000 people make their day-to-day lives in widely varying degrees of difficulty or ease, raise families, work, play and call home. It is thus in this sense, a city like every other city, where human beings reside, get along, clash, help one another, dine in, dine out, clean the streets, dirty them, collect the garbage, make more garbage, curse the traffic, curse the tax collector and curse the government. 

But even more so. 

For it is, after all, Jerusalem!

It is no exaggeration to write that Jerusalem is a highly kinetic place. One cannot avoid being caught up in movement in all paces, by large or small groups, by individuals silently steeped in private thought or loudly berating a friend or colleague who is not there.

The most kinetic place within this already highly kinetic city may be the Western Wall.

People visit the Wall at all hours of the day and night. Some come to the hoary, old stones out of religious need. Some come out of curiosity. Some come with expectations already formed. Some come as blank slates. Some come with a smile; others with a tear. But all who come do so with an abiding respect for the sanctity of the place  

Some come to pray at the Western Wall when the very first light of day appears in the eastern sky far beyond the high stones of the ancient Wall.

Apparently, the custom of praying at the first light of dawn is a very old one, even recorded long ago in the pages of the Gemara.

Ashkenazi Jews refer to the practice as vatikin. It most likely takes its name from the fact that it was probably the older men, the seniors in the community (the vatikim) who left their homes still in the dark of pre-dawn night to attend prayers with the first sparkle of light. 

In the Sephardi world, the practice of assembling to pray immediately before the sun rises is called praying with the netz, the shard-like sharp filament of first sunlight.

Sometimes so many people, mostly men, gather for the vatikin service at the Western Wall that more than one minyan is davening simultaneously. There is no discernible order to the arrangement of people praying or leading the various discrete services.

It soon becomes a cacophony of disparate voices, accents, styles of prayer and pronunciations. Yet somehow, miraculously, out of the clamour of sounds and tumult of emotions all the minyanim arrive at the central Amidah prayer at the same time, and a stark, deep, profound silence envelopes the entirety of the Western Wall plaza, lifting the individual worshipper through soft light and cool air into a hushed, noiseless space of “no one but self,” the Wall and perhaps, too, a sense of God.

*   *   *

The CJN was in Jerusalem last week to observe, take notes and report on life in the city and in particular on some of the countless individuals who, with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation, strive each day to make the city and the lives of its inhabitants better. Those reports will begin next week.

– MBD

(Written in Jerusalem)

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