Slihot on tour

Stories and music accompany visitors to Jerusalem's Old City during the pre-Rosh Hashana period.

Shlihot musicians drum, sax 521 (photo credit: EYA L MATAN)
Shlihot musicians drum, sax 521
(photo credit: EYA L MATAN)
There are few times in the year when Jerusalem’s Old City comes more alive that during the slihot period. For the past five years, in the run-up to the High Holy Days, the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd. has been offering Israelis from all over the country a chance to get a better handle on the history and current situation of the ancient walled area.
This year’s slihot-based program is spread over four separate dates, with the first slot taking placing on Thursday, followed by further runs on August 29 and September 11. The program is a post-sundown affair, including guided tours of the Jewish Quarter for individuals and small groups, setting off each time from Zion Gate at 9 p.m. The cost is NIS 59 a head and tours last around three and a half-hours.
In addition, the “Piyutim (Liturgical Songs) and Stories from Home” show will take place at the 400- seat Tekuma Park, adjacent to the city walls, at 10 p.m. on September 2.
“We are only charging NIS 40 for tickets for the show because we want to make it accessible and as affordable as possible for everyone,” explains Eyal Matan, Jewish Quarter tourism director. Matan adds that the show imbues the slihot proceedings with a more tangible element. “People will go to the show, hear stories and music that will draw them into the atmosphere of slihot, and then they will walk down to the Western Wall to attend slihot services. It will help to set the scene.”
For anyone who has yet to be around the Old City during the nocturnal slihot season, it is quite an experience. Thousands of people flood the place, thronging the alleyways and sites of historical and religious importance. “I have seen the Western Wall full of people around this time,” says Matan. “It is very impressive to see thousands of people all over the piazza and by the Wall.” It is indeed.
If you don’t like crowds, you can get away from the jam-packed thoroughfares and pick your way around the Old City across some of the rooftops.
You also get a great view, from all sorts of vantage points, and a panoramic sense of the hustle and bustle taking place down below.
The guided tours are designed to provide the visitors with as comprehensive a slihot-season Old City experience as possible. They take in archeological ruins – including the highly impressive remains of the Herodian Quarter, with its colorful mosaic floors and swanky priests’ district – and several synagogues. The latter include the Hurva Synagogue, which endured plenty of destruction and reconstruction over the centuries. The tour guides will enlighten the visitors about the Hurva’s checkered history, and will also take in a view of the aforesaid packed Western Wall crowd from a roomy eyrie.
Matan says the slihot tours have become increasingly popular over the years. “More and more people want to come to Jerusalem, from all over the country to see the authentic sites, to see the Western Wall and catch a view of the Temple Mount,” notes Matan. “I have photographs of the Old City, the area around the Western Wall and other places, which I took last year and the year before at the time of the slihot, and you can see that there is absolutely no room there.”
But it is not just the sheer numbers that have left their mark on Matan. “One of the most amazing things is that you can see that most of the kippot of the men at the Western Wall are kippot which people pick up and use there, the kippot that are left there for people who don’t normally wear them. So, you can see that the time of the slihot, and the events we lay on, don’t only attract religious people.”
Presumably, a large portion of the people that go to the September 2 pre-slihot services will be of a secular orientation. The close to 90-minute entertainment program has been created by cantor Liran Levi and will be based around liturgical material performed with contemporary arrangements, and with “authentic” instruments such as an oud, ney (Persian flute) and a qanun, as well as a double bass, violin and djembe drum, which hails from West Africa. The show will also feature a singalong of perennial favorites, with the lyrics projected onto large screens.
The archeological tour and the folklore elements are, says Matan, designed to imbue the proceedings with a historical and cultural connection, and not just religious content. “The mix of the liturgical music, and the religious elements with the stories, I think, is a winning combination,” suggests Matan. “The show is for all Jews, regardless of their religious stripe.”
One of the archeological gems of which Matan is particularly proud, and which will be unveiled in time for the slihot tours is the Byzantine arch.
“That’s located between the Cardo and the Hurva Synagogue, and it is quite an attraction,” says Matan, reiterating the emphasis on historical continuity, which is the intent of the slihot Old City program.
“Members of the public will get a close look at remains from 2,000 years ago, and we will take them through to the Hurva synagogue and right up to the synagogue gallery, where they will be able to see the whole of Jerusalem. I think that gives me a good, balanced perspective.”
Guided tour participants will also be able to get a generous eyeful of the goings-on at ground level from the roof of the Aish HaTorah Center, which overlooks the Western Wall.
Matan is happy with the program he and his colleagues have devised. “I think it is important to visit the Old City, particularly at this time of the year,” he declares. “I believe the tours we have organized, and the show, can help strengthen the public’s ties with the most important place in the world for all Jews. We already have around 8,000 reservations for tours, so the program clearly appeals to the public.”
For more information: (02) 626-5906 and