Rosh HaShana in Jerusalem’s Old City

About 60 Jewish families live in the heart of the Moslem Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.  Because most of their neighbors, by far, are Moslem,. they live in  protected enclaves, essentially  with all (but one) apartment inhabited by Jews. Inconspicuous street entrances are guarded by Israeli soldiers. 

A hundred years ago, Jews and Moslems lived freely, as neighbors,  here. To this day, some Jews hold deeds to property within the Moslem Quarter. Those who have come back have chosen a  life fraught with danger as well as idealism. 

To reach their homes in the Moslem Quarter, today’s Jews enter through  Damascus Gate in the Eastern, Arab part of Jerusalem. When political tensions flare or  when thousands of Arabs stream through the streets after traditional Friday prayers, local Jews can request escort by armed guards. 
 Wide, dusty steps descend into the gloom of the Market,   edged with refuse and rotting vegetables, small  souvenir  shops, and   elderly women sitting on the ground, hawking their wares–  piles of parsley, coriander, or grapes. Young boys navigate cumbersome, clattering  wooden handcarts filled with fruit.  Arab girls in  uniforms chatter as they return from school, tourists wander through looking for bargains.  Orthodox Russian clergy, stern in black  gowns with prominent crosses around their necks, pass through.   Huge crowds of Christian pilgrims, bearing heavy,wooden crosses, throng its stony pathways,  blind to all who bar their way. Young women with covered heads shop for honeyed  pastries and exotic spices. Their fathers and brothers  gather over cups of black, cardamon-scented  coffee.  

Without a key or identification, no one can enter the Jews’   buildings.  Their foyers are dark and, since most of their inhabitants are young couples blessed with many children, lined with well-used baby carriages.  A flight of steps–dirty, uneven,  and steep–lead to  to the apartments themselves. Each, over a hundred years old, is a  warren of vaulted  rooms, some cave-like.  Because their stone walls are so thick, few cries of vendors  in the market below can be heard.   Their  huge red and brown slabbed-stone floors  have  worn smooth and shiny  through the years.

 Our families were housed in  three apartments in two enclaves that, from to their entrances,  appear to be separate.  Their roofs, however, are  shared.  So by climbing up several flights of stairs , then descending just as many, one  reaches both enclaves safely–without descending to the street.   Since the children cannot go out to play, this rooftop also serves as their playground.  A private, armed  guard protects them– and all  those inside — 24 hours a day. 

 On Rosh HaShana, with no TV, no computer, no telephone, and no other diversion, the highlight of the holiday was visiting  the Western Wall.  The Wall is located on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, a fair  walk away from the Moslem area.  So, for security, we went in groups. We were not alone. Families of orthodox Jews, some in festive fur hats or wrapped in traditional prayer shawls accompanied us.  Once there, we separated into two groups, male and female. (Although the Wall belongs to all, it remains  under Israeli religious juristiction. Hence the separation.)  

Some of us  prayed  at  the  Wall itself,  alongside   young modestly-dressed women with flowing hair, older ones in wigs or wrapped  in colorful scarves, busloads of  tourists in bright oranges and turquoises, mothers with five or six or seven youngsters in tow,  elderly women in white…..Some  read Psalms.  Some wept.   All, on concluding their prayers, retreated from the Wall in reverse, walking backwards so as not to desecrate its holiness. 

We heard the  men, who were screened out of sight several feet away, erupt into joyous song.  Peeking through the cracks of the screen,  we saw tens of them bobbing up and down in prayerful  frenzy. By their white caps, we  realized that they were Breslov Hasidim, a sect familiar to any Jerusalemite who has seen and heard  their Breslov-vans, which they accompany  with the same bobbing prayers and song.  

Other minyans, quorums of at least ten men required for communal prayer, were doing their own thing, at their own pace, according to their own traditions. Many had formed circles  and were dancing shoulder-to-shoulder. Others trumpeted shofars,  nearly human cries  believed to pierce Man’s soul.  

Sublime confusion.