translated from the Yiddish
I will probably never forget that image of Shavuos before daybreak when, for the first time, we made our way to the Kosel. This was without a doubt the greatest experience of my life: touching the Kosel with my body, with my closeness. If moments exist in a person’s life when he connects himself to the generations that came before him, for me that was one of those great moments. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that at that point I carried within me the souls of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers, going back for all generations. Here, I brought them back to the point of their origin. Through me, their grandson, the circle was made complete. It was linked together.
A few days had passed since the Old City of Jerusalem had been taken. It was in our hands. Yet it still remained enclosed within its walls. We walked around it, again and again. From within it, we could feel its atmosphere. We hovered in our apartments and houses in the New City; then at night, it carried us from our beds.
Perhaps it was good that we still could not go there—suddenly. It was good that although everything was ready, we still remained distant.
We could not rest because of the border, now intangible, that divided us from the Kosel. During the day, we gazed out our windows, past the flat roofs of our capital city’s houses. All the surrounding roofs were filled with people. We looked silently down into the valley, and then higher. We were still. The Kosel is in our hands; it is already within us. We breathed together with it. We had never before known that our souls are of stone—and of such a soft, soaked-through stone. There, in that moisture, lay our tears.
The Kosel is within us. We feel it before us, so close, just beyond the horizon.
We realize that through all generations, our souls had been drawn magnetically, from no matter how far, to that site which is now open before us.
The stone draws our bodies.
What stops us from letting ourselves go?
But we patiently wait. This is a sweet-terrible waiting. Let us not rush. Let us prepare. Now, we wait of our own accord. I remind myself that in all my years in Jerusalem, when I would wander about the city wall from our side—over the hills, over the towers of the houses, looking over to the other side, so close, yet so unattainable—I would feel that it has to be this way, perhaps forever. The longing within us must never cease. Every Jew has within him something of Moses: “You shall see the land from afar—but you shall not enter.” We received that eternal longing and decree with love. We left the arrival for future generations, or for the days of the Messiah, when we will be stripped of physicality.
It is good that something always remain “from afar,” something that we cannot attain.
But now, everything is open. Over the walls of the city wander its guardians. We put them there. They stand above it the entire day and night. We feel that the dream is in our hands. If we want, we can open our eyes—and everything is real. But we squeeze them shut even more strongly. We want the dream of all generations to continue within ourselves.
We wander through these days, which keep us from the near-by city, as though closed within ourselves. We are tied to our own bodies, and cannot get out. And not only we—the city itself is held, restrained within its last strength. We are aware of Jews streaming from all directions to reach the Temple Mount—but they still cannot arrive.
It is the week before Shavuos, the holiday of receiving the Torah. We ourselves have entered that archetypal epoch. At that time too, Jews waited three days, purifying themselves. We clearly feel that all of our souls were there, at the foot of the mountain. The eras lock themselves about us; we stand in their midst.
That week of waiting, we encircled and surrounded the Old City. We embraced it. I was among those who had that merit. My feet skipped over the valleys, clattered over the mountains. I climbed up, and back down.
An extraordinary thing happened to us: together with our sense of wonder, our Bible-language returned to its original freshness. All of our other words, our daily language of the entire year, lost its meaning. It was merely rhetoric. Suddenly, we could no longer use it. We became mute. A miracle: the Bible exists. It has become young, and helps us speak. Without it, we stammer. Its freshness, we know, was always kept for us for these very days.
We circle the hills of Jerusalem, and within us sounds the verse, “Surround Zion and encircle it.” We leap over the valleys and hear within us “the voice of my beloved, behold he comes, leaping upon the mountains, leaping over the hills.” Even this morning, when awaking in bed from sleep, there suddenly stood before our eyes the verse: “On that day, the L-rd saved Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the shore.” We suddenly discovered the meaning of the words. Now, these verses flow within us with every step. They help us not only to express ourselves, but also to understand, to comprehend what is happening—with us and around us. Without these verses, we would certainly not be able to take one step. We would be blinded by the primal light that surrounds us. These verses hold us. They take us by the hand and lead us. At every turn, a verse is near. It helps us go forward.
In this way, I walk upon the surrounding mountains. I climb down to the Kidron Creek in Jehoshafat Valley. I stand there by the first Jewish monument, Yad Avshalom, with its velbungen (6). I stand at the grave of the prophet Zechariah and at the mausoleum of the priestly dynasty, Benei Chazir.
Then I go higher and stand upon the Mount of Olives. My face turns to Jerusalem. This time, I gaze from east to west, to the city with its silver and gold domes, to the foreign, magnificent monuments upon the Temple Mount. Between where I stand and the Temple Mount lies the valley. I gaze at the site of the Temple, and my legs shake. I want to kneel, to fall and prostate myself before the Mount of our G-d, before our great history of thousands of years, upon which I had suddenly clambered.
I am uplifted. Amidst the mountains and valleys around me, I see before me the old and new Jerusalem united, “like a city joined together.” From this point, our elders would see the Temple when they would come up for the holidays. From here, one can feel the eternity of the place. Suddenly, I comprehend with all my limbs and sinews why this place was chosen. Even after the destruction of the Temple, Jews would come to the Mount of Olives for generations, to gaze toward the Temple Mount.
All around me is the primal silence of the mountains of Judah, brown at their peaks, beneath streaming sunlight, as though it is a holiday—white, light-spattered, illumination reaching to the heights. One cannot gaze at their beauty.
Farther below are the sand and boulders that had once torn at the feet of the prophets. In their sorrow, they had become one with the calm, eternal mountains. Even then, they had suffered from the pain of the destruction to come, a pain that burned in their veins and bones. They left for us here the fiery imprints of their steps. We carry them within ourselves until this day. All this time, we have held them within ourselves.
We felt their bare feet within us when we no longer saw this landscape before our eyes. Their feet walked within us, pressing upon our hearts.
Their prophecies about our redemption, made in that long-ago time, are coming true before our eyes. We are living in that far-off “it will be in that day”—that day which is neither day nor night.
I stand on the Mount of Olives and look down its incline. For all generations, Jews came from everywhere to Jerusalem to be undisturbed; so that their bones would be buried in this earth, so that they would not have to roll through the underground passages. Here, on the Mount of Olives, the bearer of good tidings will first come; here, his steps will sound for the first time.
I look across the breadth of the mountain and I see the destruction before me: almost all the graves have been destroyed. Tombstones are shattered, smashed into pieces. Perhaps the bones of a grandfather of mine, or a great-grandfather, rest here. I want to fall upon the graves, to tear my clothing in grief and cry into them the weeping of generations, which has gathered within me. My feet are now standing upon the Mount of Olives. Suddenly, I recall the verse: “his feet will stand on that day on the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem from the east.” Here will the nations come, to be judged in the Valley of Jehoshaphat.
Again, we encircle the city. We spring across the mountains and valleys. We are to the north of the Mount of Olives, above Mt. Scopus, with its modern buildings of Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University. We descend to the cave of Shimon Hatzaddik, to the burial niches of the Sanhedrin. We come closer to the wall surrounding the Old City to the north. We circle it. “Our feet stood within your gates, Jerusalem.” We stand before the gates of the wall.
The city has eight open gates. We come close to the most beautiful, the Gate of Shechem in the north, with its handsome small balconies and turrets. We go to the Gate of Flowers, also known as the Gate of Hordos. From there, we go to the east, to the Gate of Lions, with its lion reliefs, which was once called the Gate of Jehoshaphat. The Arabs called it the Gate of the Tribes, because the tribes of Israel—the tribes of G-d—would enter through it from the east, when they would go up to the Temple in Jerusalem on the holidays. This gate also leads out to Jericho.
I hurry further, to the Gate of Mercy, which is sealed with heavy stones. This gate also faces east. According to legend, gentiles once wanted to open this gate and take away the stones. But the pillars of the earth of the entire land began to shake and a storm blew up.
Tradition tells that through the Gate of Mercy, G-d’s Presence went into exile, and through it, His Presence will one day return. This gate is also known as the Gate of Gold, the Eternal Gate and the Gate of the Messiah. The two adjacent gates have been given the names the Gate of Repentance and the Gate of Mercy.
Tradition tells that the redemption will take place through that gate. Elijah the prophet will come there from the Valley of Jehoshaphat. He will blow a shofar, and the stones will fall away. The gate will open, and the Messiah will enter. For long generations, Jews prayed at that gate, as they did at the Western Wall. They cried over the destruction and pleaded for the redemption. To this day, that gate has remained locked to us. Now my fingers continuously touch the wall. My hand wipes the old stones, and I put my face to the Gate of Mercy.
Then I stand at the Gate of Lions. Through this gate, a few days ago, our parachutists broke into the Old City. I stand, and I know that through here I may not go to the Kosel. They had permission. They could. But I may not. Perhaps, it occurs to me, it is because of them, our young lions, that this gate is called the Gate of Lions.
Once inside, one can begin immediately to approach the Temple Mount. There lies the Foundation Stone from which the world began, the Holy of Holies, that spot on the earth that opens to the heights. Generations of Jews did not step on that site. Yet now one can set one’s feet upon that holy soil.()
But I withdraw. I again stand on a hill facing the city. I see the golden and silver domes of Amarmetshet and Al Aqsa upon the Temple Mount. It seems to me that this is why we cannot enter: our feet dare not step upon the mountain in its disgrace.
I remember that the Temple Mount is also Mt. Moriah, where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed. Here stood the crib of our history in the dawn of our becoming a nation.
Now our children came here to their sacrifice, so that we might become a renewed nation. It is in their merit that we now stand here again.
I have decided not to make use of my rights, not to enter the Old City—but to wait, to prepare myself, to purify myself for three days, and to enter its gates together with everyone else, with the entire nation. The holiday of Shavuos is coming. Then we will go up to Jerusalem.
The entire night of Shavuos, Jerusalem was tense. We felt that the holiday of spring, of plants, is connected with our own fields, which are the fields of the Bible. Shavuos is the holiday of first-fruits, of “Come, let us go up the mountain of our G-d.” On Shavuos, we became a nation; on Sinai, we were given the Torah. With it, we shall go forever amidst the nations.
It was hard to sleep. In all the houses, lights burned the entire night. It was not dark anywhere. Even children in their cribs and the elders in their beds could not fall asleep. Mothers remained clothed in their dresses and slippers. Girls didn’t undo their hair. The dozing children dreamed that it was the Seder night, that all holidays had become one holiday. This time, we forgot that on Shavuos night, the heavens split (16a). The synagogues and schools were overflowing. People vigorously recited the Tikkun Leil Shavuos, quickly learned Talmud and Rambam. People felt that this is a night of guarding and waiting. The night will quickly become day. Before the doors of the synagogues, young people and children constantly ran out, looking.
In my house also, we did not rest. Before night, we had set the alarm clock for four in the morning, to be among the first to set out for the Western Wall. The children kept constantly waking up and, in the light of the lamp, looking at the clock face hanging on the wall. We heard our neighbors in the adjoining apartment and upstairs stirring uneasily. Windows were constantly opened and closed. Doors scraped. On the street, old Jews wandered about with their grandchildren, murmuring prayers—verses from Psalms—which sounded as though a poet had created them for the first time this evening, in honor of this hour.
At half past three, we could no longer stay home. Outside, the sky was growing blue. We washed our faces and eyes with fresh water, and we all went out. We began to walk. We knew that the Jews of the Bible had always been hidden within us; but they had not shown themselves. We had thought that we are we ourselves. But now they had come back to life. They emerged from within us. We are their heads, their bodies. We are they.
Outside, it suddenly became bright. A fresh light embraced the city, high and broad; it simply enveloped it. Everything was clear and transparent. It appeared that the heavens today were not coming down, there beyond the horizon. We would rise up [to them]. Momentarily, we would be able to see to all extremities. We would be the Nephilim, striving to rise back up.
Our children put their hands in our dlanyes (19).
In the pre-day light, we walked. From all the courts and side streets, people came forth, entire families. It seemed that if we hurried, we would be among the first. Our children pulled us by the hand. We left the main street. Far ahead of us, we saw a mass of people walking, spread across the entire panorama. They were streaming forward. We gazed down. As far as the eye could see, people were pouring forth. The crowd became denser and denser. No one cared any more about being first. In the sharp silence, there only echoed footsteps—sedate, measured, with the rhythm of generations walking to morning prayers.
Suddenly, it happened: we found ourselves at the road that dips toward the east, toward Mt. Zion. To this point, multitudes of Jews were streaming from all directions. Jerusalem police, upon whose faces the dawn had imprinted a thread of kindness, stopped us by a blocked gate. We stood there, with our wives and children.
It became clear that we were not the first by far. Great masses had already preceded us. We still had to cover several kilometers to the Kosel. The road didn’t lead straight up Mt. Zion and from it to the Old City, but circled around and around the mountain, on the new-paved roads. During the few days of our waiting, the Israeli army had blocked off the new road. Now, groups of several hundred people were being let through, one group after the other.
The gate opened before us, and we went up onto the main road. We constantly rose up and dipped down. Constantly, we were stopped at a new gate and not allowed further until the group before us had passed through its gate. Then the groups after us were let through the gates behind us.
The roads wound in circles, one over the other, like broad stripes upon the mountain. Before us opened a broad panorama across the entire horizon. Wherever the eye could see, there were multitudes of Jews climbing the roads, before us and after us.
They stopped together with us, and continued when we continued. No one hurried—old and young, women and men, children and elders, young men and young women, Israeli residents and Jews of other countries. It was a sea of colorful clothing, stopping and continuing; continuing and then stopping. Our hearts were filled with a great joy. We knew that with every step, we were coming closer.
All around were the songs of the pilgrims. The young men and young women sang, the youth from abroad: “Bring us to Zion, Your city, with song, and to Jerusalem, the site of Your Temple, with eternal joy.” Religious Jews with shtreimls on their heads and talleisim on their shoulders danced as they went, and sang, “May the Temple be rebuilt quickly, in our days.” And my heart quietly sang along. My lips muttered broken-off scraps of prayers from my forefathers, prayers of my foremothers’ prayerbook, Korbon Minchah. A soldier clapped his hands and danced, “Renew our days as of old.”
We wanted the road to continue and continue. The Jerusalem dawn shone on us mildly from all the mountains. It grew lighter. In the expanded light from the east, we saw the mountains of Moab shimmering in their gray silver fog, beneath the mountains of Judah. In the valley spread the Gichon River, the Kidron. Below us was Kefar Hashiloach. From here, water had once been drawn for the Temple.
No one spoke. The children asked no questions. We walked with drunken feet and drunken bodies—drunk from purity. We looked up at the walls of the Old City. Our soldiers, with helmets on their heads, stood there, and in the dawn breeze, the blue-white flags fluttered. We saw a few soldiers with prayer shawls on their shoulders, and from over their shoulders their rifle barrels. It seemed that these were no longer soldiers on the walls of Jerusalem, but the Levites on their watch, carrying the keys, and that at any moment, they would burst into the Song of the Day: “the L-rd is a G-d of vengeance; G-d of vengeance, appear.” And all of us, no matter how far, would sing along.
The highway before us dipped down and we saw the Mount of Olives and, at its foot, the Valley of Jehoshaphat, with the graves from the times of the Second Temple, and perhaps even the graves of David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and the kings of Israel and Judah; the graves of King Jehoshaphat and from King Uziahu at the Kidron Creek; the graves of the prophetess Huldah and of the prophets Haggai and Malachi.
We looked, and we were no longer amazed. We would not even wonder if we now saw with our own eyes the dead rise from the graves, all going to the Temple. We glanced at their sheer transparency.
The sound of our feet was a wave of song bursting forth. We now saw—full and without number—new groups, before and after us—thousands upon thousands. Everyone walked calmly, not hurrying; Jews from all Jerusalem synagogues and schools carrying Torah scrolls. The roads were open. The new road led to the Dung Gate, south of the Old City, the gate which is mentioned in Nehemiah, “with its locks and bolts.” Before us danced a group of young men and women from a kibbutz: “Jerusalem, mountains surround it.” Below us, we heard children sing: “Who shall go up the mountain of the L-rd?”
I saw that my children next to me were also murmuring prayers. My little daughter whispered to me, “A pity on all of us who have not died. We will not be able to stand at the resurrection of the dead.” She couldn’t stop looking at the desecrated Mount of Olives. “Perhaps the Arabs overturned the tombstones so that the dead will be able to rise.”
She said, “Their bodies will no longer be of flesh and blood, but of earth. And so they will no longer yearn to return to the earth, and they will no longer die. Only the body of flesh and blood must die, because it is a stranger to us. We are taken from that very earth, and in the days to come, we will live with the earth-bodies of our land. The flesh of Jews everywhere is taken from the earth of the land of Israel. That is why they long so strongly to be here their entire lives, to return to their source.”
She points out to me—I must look—Jewish children from the entire world dancing here and singing around us, with an eternal joy streaming from their eyes. I am afraid to hear more. At the time of the Exodus, children, nursing children, also spoke prophecy. They saw G-d. In their mothers’ arms, they pointed with their fingers: “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.”
At that moment, I feel a great joy of reward spread within me. I, the Jewish child of the Holocaust, merited to be here at the renewal. Now perhaps I need nothing else. I would like to run to the mass-graves of those who were close to me, to tear at them, wake them, and shout out the good news: I myself have seen all this; I am a witness! I am carried between the two: the Jewish Holocaust and the renewal, here and now. Someone again sings out: “Happy are we that we have merited this!” I am filled with feeling, I shut my eyes.
At that moment, we pass through the Dung Gate. We are on the other side of the wall—inside the Old City. We all begin walking reverently. Stillness prevails. The walls and houses rise high above us. We are low between them. Nearby, over the roofs, hover the foreign domes. We already feel the atmosphere of the Western Wall. Our speech is taken from us. We do not yet see it, but we know that it is here. We go further, then further, and then—we stand still! We ask nothing. We know that it rises high, high above us. We are below, in its shadow—a sea of heads with eyes cast upwards. It rises above us. We lower our heads, and our hands cover our eyes. We take in ourselves the roar of our heart, the heart of everyman, which rises, rises, and, for the first time, breaks forth.
Yaacov David Shulman