By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
We recently celebrated Yom Yerushalayim (“Jerusalem Day”), a holiday little known outside of Israel. It honors the reunification of the city, which occurred in 1967 during the Six Days War. Due to the complicated nature of Arab-Israeli relations throughout Israel’s history, it is a day of mixed emotions. Many rejoice on this holiday, while others are more subdued.
As a young girl attending a Modern Orthodox Hebrew Day School, my education on Jerusalem (and Israel in general) was biblically-based. Jerusalem was the holiest city, and we were taught that someday we would all return there to live by some miraculous event involving the coming of the Messiah. Later, as a teenager who attended public high school and an after-school Judaic Studies program, I was fascinated by what I learned about the modern State of Israel: its people, history, and culture. It was difficult to reconcile my two disparate visions: the land of milk and honey from the Bible and the contemporary society that had been built on the sweat and ingenuity of its pioneers. It was only when I moved to Israel, first on a college program and then by making Aliyah, that I began to weave these threads together.
I lived in Jerusalem during my first year in Israel. A travel guidebook led me on self-guided walking tours of various hidden gems: old neighborhoods where washing hung on apartment balconies and kids played in the streets, pretty gardens tucked away in little-known locations. These contrasted with the hustle and bustle of modern life found downtown: busy shops and cafés on Ben Yehuda Street, the Israeli Knesset (“Parliament”), and the modern dorms I lived in as a student at the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus.
My favorite spot in all of Jerusalem is Ein Karem, a mountain village just minutes from downtown Jerusalem. Its tranquil setting belies a complicated history dating back to at least the Second Temple era, where, as the birthplace of John the Baptist, it became a holy place to Christians. I frequently descended from the crowded neighborhoods that overlooked the valley until I reached the bottom, meandering through the narrow, cobbled streets, and soaking in the quiet surrounding me.
Years later, well after my six years as a resident of Israel, I returned a few times to visit. In earlier years, with a toddler in tow, our agenda revolved mainly around visiting her Dad’s family. Later, however, in between watching my then-teen play water polo matches at the Maccabiah Games (winning the gold medal for the USA!), I again explored this holiest of cities. Sleek modern rail transit had replaced the older buses; and a vast, contemporary shopping mall was now within walking distance of the Old City walls.
The Kotel (Western Wall) was still an exhilarating sight. Now, however, as a cantorial student, I felt the weight of the religious significance of this holy site on my shoulders more deeply than I had previously. I edged closer and closer to the Wall and cautiously pulled out my tallit, wrapping it around my shoulders.
“She’s wearing a tallit!” someone exclaimed in English. To the Orthodox, this was the purview of men; and while I did not want to offend anyone, I pressed forward until my hand touched the Wall. Pulling out my small siddur, I began to pray, very much at peace. There was room for all of us here, I believed, regardless of our spiritual inclination.
On Yom Yerushalayim, I thought about my last visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. There the horrors of the genocide of our people are laid bare; and one cannot leave without feeling enormous gratitude that in our lifetime, a place exists for all Jews to call home should they so choose. For all the challenges faced by Israel throughout its relatively brief existence — in particular those who have lived through Jerusalem’s troubled history — I honor those who fought bravely to enable us to reach this special day.