Sights, sounds of Jerusalem are overwhelming


It is probably not an accident that five former St Louis rabbis chose to retire in Jerusalem. Rabbi Milton Polin from Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha, Rabbi Simcha Kraus from Young Israel, Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld from Young Israel, Rabbi Ephraim Zimand from Traditional Congregation and Rabbi Aaron Borow from Nusach Hari B’nai Zion and their wives chose Jerusalem as the place to spend their golden years.

They all were able to fulfill their life-long dreams and settle in the Holy City. Besides those rabbis, there are numerous ex-St. Louisans who have settled in Jerusalem or her vicinity. One of them, a good friend, and former St. Louis educator, Dr. Leah Hakimian, also lives there with her husband Yusef.

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An old map of Jerusalem dated from 1581 shows Jerusalem being located at the center of the world. Although today we know that geographically this is not the case, when you visit Jerusalem now, as my husband Rabbi Howard Graber and I did this past October/November, you feel that Jerusalem is the center of the spiritual world.

Jerusalem is a booming city, ancient and modern at the same time. It is a city where you find archeological digs dating thousands of years and a city where you see the most modern buildings and skyscrapers, the latest fashions in the stores, the most exquisite displays of modern silver art as well as art galleries galore. It is a city where people from all over the world converge to visit, to tour, to live, to work, to retire, and to pray. Walking on the streets of Jerusalem you can hear English, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and other languages we could not identify.

The focus of the Jewish Jerusalem is of course the Kotel, the Western Wall, the only remains from the Second Temple burned by the Romans in 70 CE. On a Friday noon on the Plaza in front of the Kotel, you can hear church bells ring, the Minaret of the Mosque calling worshipers for prayers and the blowing of the shofar — the ram’s horn — all at the same time. The plaza is always busy, groups of tourists from the U.S., England, Germany, France, China, Japan, the Philippines, and other parts of the world come to watch, to pray, and to insert petitions into the cracks of the ancient wall.

There is something magical, mesmerizing, and hypnotizing about that wall. As you approach it, you get the feeling that you are truly in the presence of a unique structure. When you touch the Wall — if you are lucky to be able to squeeze through the crowd to get close enough, you literally feel a current running through your body. I cannot explain what it is or how it happens but it is real. Your emotions overtake you and tears come to your eyes without reason.

Friday evening at the Wall is an even more special time and experience. As women and men pray separately, I could only get a glimpse of the men as they walked on the Plaza. There were Chassidim in their black long coats, knickers, black or white stockings and fur hats, their ear locks flying in the air as they were hurrying to get to the Wall. Many were accompanied by their sons; usually several of them, all attired in black pants, black blazers, or vests, black yarmulkes. Some arrived with their whole family; their wives dressed in their best Sabbath attire, their heads covered either with a traditional wig or by a turban.

As you approach the Wall, the sexes are separated, as is customary according to Orthodox tradition, where men and women have separate prayer areas. On the women’s side, you can see faces from around the world: Hindu, black, Caucasian, blondes, brunettes, redheads. Female members of the Israeli Defense Forces come with their rifles on one shoulder and their prayer books in the other hand. Mothers come with their infants, their toddlers, their daughters of all ages. You see ultra-Orthodox women in black dresses, black turbans, and black opaque hose and Chasidic women all in white: white dress, white turban, white opaque white stockings, and white shoes.

Groups, Jewish young teenage girls, in Israel for a few weeks of touring or a year of study form informal groups or circles holding each other around the shoulders. They sing, pray, and dance with gusto filled with the spirit of the Sabbath. Groups of young Israeli girl scouts come with their leaders, and old women come to pray for health of beloved ones. It is not unusual to see them cry and sob as they pour out their hearts to the Almighty.

Security is very tight, police and members of the Israeli Defense Forces are everywhere. Special security people, male and female also walk around to make sure everybody follows the religious precepts of not using cell phone, cameras on the Sabbath and that women are dressed appropriately — no sleeveless tops, shorts, miniskirts. Those who do not conform to that standard are politely given a large shawl from a pile, which is there just for that purpose. But not only Jews come to the Wall. Priests, monks, nuns and ministers, alone or with their flocks arrive. Some come out of curiosity, others with a genuine desire to learn and see for themselves the ancient shrine and observe the Jewish ways.

Fridays are a unique experience in the city of Jerusalem. Starting at around noon, people are rushing, getting ready for the Sabbath. People greet each other, not with the customary “Shalom” but now with “Shabbat Shalom” — peaceful Sabbath. Many are off from work — just as many people do not work on Saturday in the U.S. — and the cafes and restaurants are mobbed.

Sabbath itself is a very quiet day in the usually bustling city. Most restaurants are closed, traffic is very light, and men, couples, and families walk to various synagogues for services. Around 5:30 p.m., when Sabbath ends, the city comes to life again. Restaurants and cafes reopen, traffic picks up, the streets are crowded, people go out to enjoy a night on the town. Now, the common greeting is “Shavuah Tov” — good week.

Of course, Jerusalem especially is heaven for those who observe the laws of kashrut. Wherever you go, you can find a kosher restaurant, caf é, falafel or shwarma stand. Emek Rafaim Street, a popular evening gathering spot for young people in Jerusalem has one kosher restaurant after another, you can choose from the elegant and expensive to a fast food place. The new Jerusalem Mall, a super modern shopping mall, has a food court with a vast variety of eateries including: Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC — all kosher. Even when you travel throughout the country, you can stop at almost any public eatery, any hotel, even at the airport, and enjoy a kosher meal or snack. Being an observant Jew is an emotional and unique experience in Israel and especially in Jerusalem, to walk along the paths where our biblical ancestors walked, to see the ruins of the Holy Temple where Jews from far and near used to come for pilgrimages on the three Holy Days of Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot.

Everywhere there is the presence of members of the Israeli Defense Forces, on the streets, on busses, in shopping malls. They always have their rifle with them, it is mandatory, whether they are on duty or not. You feel a great sense of pride to see these young, soldiers, male and female, strong, tall, handsome who have the awesome responsibility to guard this beleaguered small country. They look like American college students whose main concern should be which party to attend on the weekend. Nevertheless, the people of Israel rely on them for their safety in their daily lives.

Being in Jerusalem and traveling throughout the country is a unique experience. Despite the precarious political situation, the people are optimistic, the economy seems to be booming, buildings are going up everywhere, towns are bursting at the seam. Let us hope that this wonderful country will soon be able to live at peace with her neighbors.

Felicia Graber is a member of St. Louis Descendants of the Holocaust.