People praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel.
People praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel.

It’s 5:15 am, dark and quiet. I am walking alone through the Old City, heading to the Western Wall for a special ‘sunrise’ Kabbalah service. Cantor Smolash will be there. He told us about it last night and invited everyone to meet him in the lobby at 4:20 am, to which everyone naturally laughed. But this insomniac took him serious, and here I am.

The service is certainly mystical to me. There are hundreds of bearded, pious men, swaying and chanting, clad in large talit. Cantor Smolash spots me and kindly explains what the people are chanting about. I may look like the oddball in a sea of Hasidim, but for that moment I am immersed in and seemingly accepted in that world. When the Torah is opened the volume of the prayers heightens and just then, as if on cue, the birds start swirling as the morning Jerusalem sky shows its first hint of blue.

Another magical Israel moment – and it’s not even 6:00 am yet.

Today is a bit of a free day until 5:00 pm. So people break up into small groups and stroll around, while others (the smart ones) just hang at the pool. ‘Some people’ (no names, but guess the gender) have the shopping urge, but few places are open because it’s Shabbat. Linda is on the lookout for a new menorah. Actually – believe it or not – we saw some decent ones in the Arab quarter the other day (but I just can’t bring myself to buy a menorah from a guy named Ahmed!)

A few of us drop in on the Shabbat service at Hebrew Union College, the rabbinical school where Rabbi’s Loss and Yedwab attended. It’s a beautiful progressive type of service, led by one of the student rabbi’s. During the ‘mi sheberach’ – the prayer for healing – the rabbi asked us to pray for the people of Syria.

The service ends with the congregation singing Hatikva. I tear up instantly (can’t help it – it’s a reflex) and I think how amazing it is that the national anthem is recited during a prayer service. Imagine Americans breaking into the Star Spangled Banner during their worship services. It’s unthinkable. But here national pride and attachment to this land (ESPECIALLY to Jerusalem) runs deep in the people’s blood. It’s part of their DNA, and it starts the moment they are born. Foreigners – even American Jews – don’t fully grasp that. Maybe they should start.

We’ve been so busy that we barely hear about the news of the U.S. strike on Syria. It seems weirdly detached from us, as if it doesn’t remotely affect us here, which of course is ridiculous. But we really don’t feel the slightest bit threatened, which is bizarre since the distance from here to Syria is like from Detroit to Cleveland.

We’re just grabbing life here – just like real Israeli’s, I guess.

After dinner there‘s a havdalah ceremony, marking the end of Shabbat. We are in a charming courtyard of an Armenian restaurant in the Old City. The rabbi’s and the cantor capture the perfect words and songs. We all know we’re experiencing something truly special.

The married couples in the group who have been married for at least 25 years then have the opportunity to renew their marital vows under a chuppah, one couple at a time. The ‘ceremonies’ are each sweet and touching. Afterwards, a full celebration breaks out. We all swing around and line dance as if we we’re at a joyous Jewish wedding.

At that point, most of us thought the night was over, but it turns out there was a surprise for us. We walk over to the ‘Tower of David’. It’s a ancient enclave of ruins and we descent down the steps to rows of seating so that we’re looking up at a vast expanse. The width is probably the size of about 5 football fields. There are multi-layered walls, tiers and archways. Atop it all is an Israel flag, lit up and gently waving.

The show we see is called the ‘Night Spectacular at the Tower of David’. According to a pamphlet we’re given, it’s a “celebration of sound, music and breathtaking images that envelope the viewer in a multi-sensory experience.”

The show is a series of images tracing the history of Jerusalem RIGHT ON THE GIGANTIC WIDTH OF THE ACTUAL RUINS. The music – symphonies and choir – is loud, crisp and stirring. Throughout the show people are turning to one another and saying the only word that could come to mind: WOW! It is, to me, simply the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

We end the night with a short stroll down Ben Yehuda street, a pedestrian mall of shops, restaurants, bars and street musicians that is teeming with activity now that Shabbat has ended.

As we were walking there, we got slightly lost. A young Arab couple walks by and I asked them for directions. Admittedly, I hesitated for a moment, for no good reason. But the couple couldn’t have been sweeter, stopping long enough to look up directions on their phones and trying their best to be helpful. We thanked them, we all smiled and walked away.

Just a quick, kind moment between Arab and Jew. Just what this troubled land needs.

Mark Jacobs

Read yesterday’s blog from Israel, Blogs From Israel – Mark Jacobs’ Day 8.

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