Israel march 224.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
My family of five hiked yesterday with thousands of other Israeli families, organizations, work groups and individuals from the outskirts of Jerusalem past the Old City and on to Sacher Park, symbolically recreating the Succot pilgrimage to the capital during Temple times.
As we hiked, the overwhelmingly dominant language was Hebrew, the landscape was vintage Israeli and the singing was all about Jerusalem. We even passed a number of haredim standing along the route offering help to anyone who wanted to say the blessings over the lulav and etrog.
Having participated in the Jerusalem March nearly every year for the past two decades, I found the controversy over the Chief Rabbinate's encouragement of Jews to boycott it due to the danger of Christian proselytizing ironic indeed.
For I find this event to be one of the most Zionistic experiences on the calendar, giving full expression to Israeli Jewish pride and providing a way to celebrate Succot beyond the religious rituals while honoring our heritage.
This might come as a surprise to many, because I get the distinct impression that, in general, those who have never gone to the Jerusalem March get the mistaken idea that it is mainly a Christian event. Even before this year's statement by the Chief Rabbinate, the media would concentrate whatever attention it gave to the event on the delegations of visiting Christian friends of Israel.
But the visiting delegations only augmented the overwhelming local flavor that dominated the day's festivities, which started early in the morning with two separate hiking routes - a 10-kilometer one starting from Ammunition Hill, heading toward Mt. Scopus and then down the valley past the Old City, toward the President's Residence and on to Sacher Park and an eight-kilometer route starting at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, veering toward the Armon Hanatziv Promenade and then on to Abu Tor, continuing past the Old City and then joining up with the first route to hike past the President's Residence en route to Sacher Park.
Along the way, we saw many different groups of marchers. There were groups from large work places like Mekorot and Bank Leumi as well as smaller groups, including one with T-shirts that read "I am hiking with the eldest of the marchers" and another holding a makeshift sign which read (in Hebrew) "Mem. Mem. Mem. Aleph." (When asked about the sign they chuckled, saying it was an acronym of the names of the families in their group, who came together to march to Jerusalem).
The mass of people heading toward the Old City was impossible to categorize as a certain type, but the atmosphere and festive chattering made me think of what it must have been like in a bustling Jerusalem during the height of the Second Temple period, when the capital would teem with festive Jewish pilgrims heading toward the Temple.
The route was lined with official water stops, first aid teams, guides and signs explaining the history of Jerusalem. There were also security forces, including a helicopter overhead, as well as merchants along the way trying to hawk drinks and ice cream to weary walkers, who were literally continuing the Zionist ethos of "Get up and walk the Land of Israel."
Upon entering the park, a band played Land of Israel marching music accompanied by the rhythmic clapping of those who had made the trek. Organized groups gathered themselves to enter the area in style, brushing up their costumes, shaking their tambourines and singing Succot or Jerusalem-related tunes.
The park was the site of the second stage of the event, and it was only there that the visiting Christians, who were completely absent from the long morning hike from what I could see, joined the party. But they were still only a certain segment of a massive fair, complete with Israeli singing and dancing by amateur groups, all with a Succot theme, large inflatable playgrounds for children, and food and trinket stalls.
In the meantime, many of the organized Israeli groups rested from the morning hikes, eating under large pavilions or practicing the routines they would perform during the short march through the center of town, which would culminate the day's activities.
It is this march through downtown which inevitably gets the media attention, and that attention is almost always focused on the Christians. It is wonderful that our Christian friends come here, and they have proven their allegiance by arriving even in the worst of the terror years. They are also overwhelmingly friendly, appearing grateful at the chance to be in the Holy Land and lend their support to Jews in a genuine way.
But even with all that and their record reported numbers of 7,000 this year, they are still only a minority of the approximately 30,000 total participants.
And let us not forget that they come for our holiday, in the context of how we celebrate, usually even singing their songs in our language. Perhaps our many years in the Diaspora have made it hard for us to remember that, in situations like these, we are setting the tone and they are playing the role of friendly support.
If anyone has to worry about being influenced by the other, it is them and not us.