We arrived at the Capitol Hotel in East Jerusalem about three in the afternoon Oct. 4, 2015, a few hours before the evening of Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah translates literally as ‘rejoicing with the Torah,’ the Torah referring to the first five books of the Bible along with the oral traditions.
Simchat Torah is a Jewish holiday that celebrates and marks the conclusion of the yearly cycle of public Torah readings and the beginning of a new cycle.
The first night of our stay, Sunday, was at the Capitol Hotel, in East Jerusalem. The room in our eventual home for two weeks, on Yafo Street in West Jerusalem, would not be ready until Monday afternoon, when holiday goers headed back home.
Even though we just came off a grueling 24 hours in the air transportation system, the thrill and excitement of being in a new county was enough motivation to hit the streets.
We headed out, about an hour after sundown, for a short five-minute walk to the Damascus Gate of the Old City. There were police and border security at the gate and we had to show our passports.
The streets on the other side of the Damascus Gate were almost empty. We were walking through the Muslim Quarter, headed for the Western Wall.
As we travelled down Hagai Street, we only saw a few shops open. The day before, Oct. 3, Rabbi Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Benita were killed in a knife attack on this street. Benita’s wife, Adele and their two-year-old son were injured.
I didn’t know if the empty streets and shuttered shops were due to the incident the day before or because it was a holiday for Israel. Maybe it was a combination of both.
The empty streets gave an other-worldliness to this part of the Old City. It felt later in the evening then it really was. Groups of police hovered at the intersections of the narrow streets.
At one shop that was open, I heard the familiar squawk of parrots. There was an African Grey sitting on a hand rail on the street and inside the shop was a caged blue and gold macaw.
I asked the Arab shopkeeper if I could perch the grey on my hand. After assuring him I owned a parrot and I knew how to handle them, he let me perch the bird. Then we perched the macaw on my girlfriend’s arm.
Further down the street we heard singing, in Hebrew, coming from the second story of a building we were passing. Later I learned that it was Israeli men carrying out part of the rituals of Simchat Torah.
This particular night is the only night of the year that the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and read at night. Passages are read from the book and the men dance around the synagogue seven times with the scrolls. This can go on for hours.
Our designation was the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel. This was my first time in the Old City and I found the signage confusing and sometimes nonexistent. We probably took more twists and turns then necessary. The Old City streets can become a living M.C. Escher painting.
We heard more singing off in the distance, which I suspected was coming from the Western Wall area. But the sounds echoed off the narrow streets and ancient buildings, which only made it more difficult to locate its source.
As we crossed over into the Jewish Quarter, the streets suddenly became more congested and most of the crowd were headed in the same direction, toward the Western Wall. We merged into the crowd and let them guide us to our designation.
The wall itself is magnificent to behold at any time of day, but at nighttime, lit up, it takes on a character of its own. It’s like a silent sentinel, overseeing centuries of history, conflicts and dreams.
For the Jews it is the last physical vestige of the complex that housed their holy Temple. For the Muslims, the wall is part of the structure that now supports the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. For Christians, it’s a place where their savior walked, prayed and taught.
Jews were at the wall, singing, praying, dancing and socializing. Simchat Torah is a reverent but happy holiday. They celebrate the greatness of the Torah and their relationship to the holy words of the text. It’s an outward response to their internal esteem for the word of God.
But between that wall and the Dome of the Rock, sitting on top of the Temple Mount, there is a chasm as wide as the universe, a never-ending political and religious war that has fostered a mutual distrust between Israel and the rest of the Muslim world.
As I walked back through the city to my hotel, it occurred to me that the shopkeeper with the parrot took the time and effort to share his pet with me. There was a momentary connection between him and myself, in the mist of all the tensions that were swirling around the city.
I know, it’s trite, but I will say it anyway. Maybe the Jews and Arabs all need to get pets. Then they can work on the big stuff.
]This blue and gold macaw belonged to an Arab shopkeeper in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. His shop was one of the few open the evening of Simchat Torah. (Photo by Walter L. Newton)
The Western Wall plaza was filled with tourist and Jews celebrating Simchat Torah Oct. 4, 2015. At the top right of the picture you can see a shadow of the Al-Aqsa mosque, which is situated on the Temple Mount (Photo by Walter L. Newton)