AT 3AM MIRIAM AND I AWAKE, go outside, and watch Jerusalem become Jerusalem. It is the night of Shavuoth, the holiday that marks the episode in the desert, when the Jews — who had screwed up so many times that God himself lost count — received the Torah from God. Jewish tradition says that even Jews yet unborn were present at Sinai on that night.
As we begin to start down the wadi at Yemin Moshe in Jewish West Jerusalem on our way to the Zion Gate in Arab East Jerusalem, we encounter large crowds of people, as if it were the middle of the day. They are going where we are going, to the plaza in front of the Wailing Wall, where the devout sit all night studying the Torah, and the rest show up and dive in for as long as their spirits hold firm.
A young couple hurries past us going the other way. The man says to the woman, “I think I am easy to understand.” But mostly there is silence. Silence because, at this hour, meaning presses in on you even if you are not sure what it means. Passing through the Zion Gate with Miriam, hearing voices rising up from the plaza, I feel a stirring inside me I cannot easily place. We will not be meeting up with people to learn with. I will be curiously, if clumsily, joining a phenomenon I have only heard about. Miriam will immerse herself with a spirit waiting to catch fire.
The plaza is packed with words, with holy books, with bodies attached to the books. Young bodies mainly. It is exhilarating to see young people in the pre-dawn chill in pursuit of transcendence. The men, a lot of them, in the knitted skullcaps of the modern religious in Israel. Many of the women in their dowdy, ankle-length dresses. What Miriam calls “the Jerusalem look.”
She herself is wearing a long skirt. A kind of dowdy starter outfit. Maybe one day, if she is diligent, she will inhabit “the Jerusalem look” more fully. But she is already 75. And she seems to be taking her time about it.
Usually, I try to avoid settings like this. Over in their own part of the plaza, Hasidim carry God around with them like loaves of bread. They rock back and forth in black and white like passengers in unstable boats on the high seas. But for once they do not depress me. Soon it will be light. Voices are belting out the sounds of the Torah. And I am alive.
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Robert Hirschfield is a freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in Ode Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, Outlook (the Indian newsweekly), and the London Jewish Chronicle, among other publications. He has travelled most recently to north and South India, and to Israel and the West Bank.
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