he announcements, pasted on public bulletin boards and published in the press, promised a large assembly of awakening in anticipation of Yom Kippur: "A gathering of slihot (prayers of forgiveness) in the Cave of the Patriarchs," in the presence of the Rishon Lezion, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and rabbis Druckman, Lior, Grossman, and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu's son, Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu. Isaac's Hall, the largest prayer hall on the site, most often used by Muslims according to the rough space-sharing agreement hewed out between Jews and Palestinians in Hebron, would be open for Jewish prayer throughout the night. By 10 p.m., thousands of people had gathered in the large courtyard in front of the Cave of the Patriarchs. Isaac's Hall had been divided into two sections, for men and women, separated by curtains and dividers. By 10:30 p.m., the women's section was almost completely full. Groups of young girls in the latest fashion, with pants peeking out from underneath their long skirts. Clusters of women, their heads covered in kerchiefs or hats, a few wearing wigs. A small group of "girls in orange," mingling among the more conservative women from Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Dozens of young people from the City of the Fathers greeted the crowd, all of them carrying charity boxes and encouraging the worshipers to contribute generously to the Jewish community. Although they were quite persistent, their enthusiasm was understandable - after all, when, if not on the night of slihot, could they possibly raise so much money for their cause? I understood the loud, blaring music that greeted us, right at the foot of the stairs that rise up into the Cave, less. Rhythmic hassidic music, at full volume, unpleasant to most of the worshipers, not to mention their Arab neighbors. Most of the worshipers were praying according to the Sephardi liturgies and didn't seem to be enjoying the music, either. Ashkenazi hassidic music, someone said, wasn't quite "their thing." I'll come back to the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim later. I had not been to Hebron for many years. For some reason, I didn't remember that there were so many stairs leading up to the opening to the cave. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I remembered to stop for a moment on the seventh step, in reverent memory of the times when Jews could only ascend to that seventh step and were forbidden from entering the cave itself. In a corner of the hall, by the graves attributed to Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah, a group of young girls stood, praying silently, fervently. By the grave identified as Leah's, two rather elderly women stood through the long night, crying bitterly, praying from small, tattered prayer books that had obviously been used often. I located a small bench. As I sat down, a woman dressed in white wearing a large white hat sat down next to me, smiled graciously and said, "I'm from Bnei Brak. And you?" She seemed pleased when I told her that I was from Jerusalem, and confided in me, "They told me that Muslims usually pray here. It breaks my heart. We must weep and pray to the Holy One Blessed Be He. How could this happen to the Children of Israel?" I nodded, without comment. All the while, the constant stream of men and women continued to pour into the Cave of the Patriarchs. Soon there weren't enough chairs in the women's section. Some women decided that it would be better to move over into the other prayer halls, where they would still be able to hear the sermons and the prayers, broadcast over the loudspeakers. Some of the women tried to move over to the nearby Abraham Hall, but a group of some 50 young men, most of them apparently from the Jewish community in Hebron and Kiryat Arba, had already taken up position there. Attentively, they listened to their rabbi as he taught and lectured. They weren't part of this special gathering but they did not move to make space for the women who had come especially for this event. Just after 11 p.m. the crowd was informed that Rabbi Eliyahu had arrived, surrounded by young men who were ecstatically singing and clapping rhythmically as he made his way towards the podium in Isaac's Hall. The sermon was broadcast over the loudspeaker into Abraham's Hall, but the other rabbi continued to lecture, raising his voice, seemingly oblivious to the esteemed Rabbi Eliyahu. Two women, sitting behind me, looked at each other. "When will they finish? The rabbi is speaking and they are just continuing their own lesson," one asked. "It's hard to hear," they agreed. As the rabbi in Abraham's Hall concluded his lesson, the young men burst into a loud recitation of the slihot prayers, in different accents and in various tunes. Within seconds, the sacred atmosphere had deteriorated into a noisy cacophony. The women looked at each other. Only one dared to softly whisper, "Shh, shh..." but her friends were quick to hush her. "The men were praying," the women reminded her. The noise grew louder and the confusion grew greater. Some of the women attempted to go back into Isaac's Hall, dragging their chairs with them, but by now, Isaac's Hall was so crowded that it was physically impossible. Dejected, they pressed against the walls, finding refuge in the hallways where they could still, vaguely, hear the rabbi's words, nearly drowned out by the sounds of the shofar blasts that the young men insisted on sounding at that particular moment. I, too, gave up and sat down on stone steps between the hallways, under the huge fan that allowed the thousands of people to breathe despite the heat. And from somewhere within my own depths, the slihot prayers that I remembered from my youngest years, from my father's home, came back to my mind. "Father of forgiveness, we have sinned before you..." Never before had I understood how it is that the Sephardi prayer which is supposed to express the remorse and shame felt by he or she who has sinned also sounds somewhat like a shofar blast of triumph. This time, I understood. Suddenly, even those worshipers who had begun to fall asleep woke up, and men and women began to sing with all their hearts. "Have... mercy... upon us." A group of haredi men, dressed in black, their eyes cast down so as not to see the women, walked by in single file, holding hands. But the Sephardim didn't care. As they finished their prayers for forgiveness, the rabbi blessed the congregation and wished them all a good year, inscribed in the Book of Life.

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