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.