I was born in Chicago but raised in Jerusalem. Not exactly; my parents brought me up in the resurgent modern Orthodox enclave in the South Side, where the best of Judaism and of general culture attempted a synthesis.
But my true home was on the old West Side in the home of my grandparents, who belonged to illustrious Jerusalem families. Despite their remarkable achievements - my zaida built the Torah educational system out of nothing but opposition and was known as a major league scholar, teacher, orator and bridge to all Jews, and my bubba was by his side the entire way - they never left Jerusalem. Their Yiddish and Hebrew was that of Jerusalem; my grandfather quoted only Jerusalem sages. My grandmother offered up the wisdom of her father, Rabbi Zvi Pessah Frank, the rabbi of Jerusalem for more than 40 years, and her mother, Gitta Malka, renowned for her own "court," held impromptu when litigants wanting fast action at the house of the rabbi turned to her to settle the issues. They worked hard for Chicago's Jews, but they continued to live and act as if they were still in the Old City.
I yearned for a Jerusalem not of the Wall as developed by the New Yishuv - Zionists even of the religious persuasion. I wanted the Jerusalem of the Old Yishuv. The Old Yishuv of tzaddikim and colorful characters, full of fortitude and bravery - of gentility and of steely resolve. I knew the Old Yishuv had a bad reputation - obscurantists who threw stones and epithets.
Did my grandparents' Old Yishuv still exist? When I sat to learn with my grandfather, I was back at the Etz Haim Yeshiva table. There his father sat opposite; grandfather on his right and great-grandfather on the left. When we learned, I squeezed into that table. When I confronted my grandfather with some current crisis, he would listen carefully, refer to his ancestors at the table and come to an often surprising response. He would lift his arm in a swooping fashion and say, "Nonetheless, we should consider this daf [page of Talmud]."
Was this authentic rootedness and breadth of spirit still available there in contemporary Israel? I often looked at my grandmother, deeply aristocratic, but who davened a weekday Minha with tears that I failed to evoke at Yom Kippur's Ne'ila - who as a young teenager banged on the table on Shabbat morning in the great Hurva Synagogue, calling Jews out to protest the German plan to move prisoners to the dreaded Damascus prison camp. During the ensuing bedlam she helped her mother - Gitta Malka - organize a daring escape of Jewish and gentile women prisoners from the Turkish cells and hid them before the arrival of General Allenby and his troops. Were there still brave yet humble personalities in the Old Yishuv that remained?
AFTER THE Six Day War and after my high-school graduation, I made it to Jerusalem. I didn't find the Old Yishuv; it found me. I received a postcard from Rabbi Aryeh Levin, my maternal great-uncle (his wife was the sister of Gitta Malka, who made the match). The tzaddik of Jerusalem invited me to visit him. I came as he was already making his "rounds," visiting those in distress. He had a long list. We went to homes of every socio-economic group and observance.
Reb Aryeh sat with those overwhelmed by illness, by worry and by troubles. He became a presence, listening, offering strengthening and advice, a tear or a smile. When we finished the first visits, I thought my watch must have stopped. We had only spent a few minutes. It was then I learned the power of one who truly listens. Later that year, at Reb Aryeh's funeral, I bumped into two of those he had visited. They each needed to tell me, "Do you recall how much time the tzaddik spent with me?" Each was convinced that he had spent hours with them.
I was impressed with Reb Aryeh's gentle, yet speedy kindness. That night everything changed. Walking through narrow streets, Reb Aryeh suddenly stopped, listening to some distant sound. Then I heard the muffled sobbing. Looking upward, we saw the silhouette of a young woman, hunched over crying. Reb Aryeh bounded up the steps like a young boy, knocked at the door, waited a moment, and entered. Screwing up my courage, so did I. She was at her wits' end. She was in a compromised situation, and she had not told her destitute yet proud parents. She had nowhere to turn, and considered the worst.
Rav Aryeh spoke soothingly about life's value, trust and the need to act. We waited for the parents, who were stunned to see the rabbi waiting for them. He sat them down, and with her told them everything. He stood between parents and daughter to prevent violence. Here was the resolute character of the Old Yishuv - an answer needed to be found, and anger was not the key.
Years later, by sheer accident I had the opportunity to discover that Reb Aryeh's efforts were not in vain - a wonderful, loving family had been created.
Forty years of a reunited Jerusalem allows us to dream how it will continue to be rebuilt. It demands concrete, gold and brass, as well as courage and stamina, from many epochs. But I know that the thin yet strong thread of lovingkindness which was a special possession of the Old Yishuv, will need to bind it and us all together.
The writer is yeshiva head and director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.