Slichot and the city

David Gal-Or’s ‘slihot’ tours are geared toward secular Jews who want to get a glimpse of what goes on during the run-up period to Rosh Hashana.

Slihot at the Western Wall. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Slihot at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tradition, it appears, is not necessarily a thing of the past. Judging by the number of people who eagerly joined David Gal-Or’s slihot tour last week, Israelis of all levels of religious observance and from all over the country are looking to get a better handle on Jewish customs, and even some liturgical endeavor.
The walking tour kicked off at Hatulot Square, to the rear of Nahalat Shiva, and wended its way along Rivlin Street, past bars and restaurants teeming with boisterous youngsters, before turning into a narrow alleyway that led into a cozy backyard and the Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue. As we entered the hallowed interior of the late-19th-century edifice, the sounds of the urban backdrop receded, and the ambiance changed dramatically.
Several dozen men and women, mostly middle-aged, sat on the benches that ran along three walls of the synagogue and took in the aesthetics and atmosphere.
The decor was well illuminated by a surprisingly large number of light fixtures, including chandeliers, and Gal-Or gave us the lowdown on the history of Ohel Yitzhak, a Sephardi synagogue built in 1888. Nahalat Shiva was the third neighborhood to be established outside the Old City, following Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Mahaneh Yisrael.
While the basic premise for the slihot tours is to get better acquainted with the eponymous religious ritual and services, Gal-Or says he wants the public to enjoy the guided walk free of religious dictates.
“We enable people to take part in the tours without having to abide by various strictures,” he says. “Of course we respect all religious rules, but the visit to the synagogue is one of only two points along the way with a religious connection.”
The other is the Western Wall, right at the end of the four-hour-plus walk, and is a fitting climax to an activity suffused with the heady ambiance of religious fervor.
Gal-Or knows what he’s on about. He was born in Jerusalem and is a seasoned guide throughout the country. Together with his son, Eran, he published the “Maslulim” series of guide books, which covers hundreds of trails and locations from Metulla to Eilat.
While Gal-Or provided the participants with a taste of an authentic slihot synagogue experience, complete with a cantor who sang a selection of the prayers, he says the tours are designed for secular Jews who want to get a glimpse of what goes on during the slihot run-up period to Rosh Hashana.
“These are non-religious or traditional people who are looking for an experience they don’t usually have,” he explains. It is not unusual on such tours to find secular people who have some recollection of traditional rituals from their parents’ or grandparents’ homes. But Gal-Or says he gets all kinds of people on his tours, including those who have no religious observance in their genes at all.
“This is becoming something of a trend,” he observes. “I get people who have heard about the tours from friends or relatives, and others who may have read about this in the media. It has really taken off.”
His statistics are impressive: “I have 180 people on three tours this Thursday, and we want to give them the full, rich experience of Jerusalem at this time of the year.”
Most of the participants are, in fact, out-of-towners.
“It is something special for them to come to Jerusalem and get something of the slihot atmosphere, and of the city,” he says.
The first stretch of the tour, which led the group through the buzz of the Nahalat Shiva nightlife into the hushed, sumptuous synagogue aesthetics of Ohel Yitzhak, set an oxymoronic marker for the entire circuit.
“In the synagogue, I give the visitors an idea of the importance and history of the place, and some of the religious background, but then we go out and walk past all the pubs and restaurants, with all the energy of the city at night,” says Gal-Or. “It’s a real transition from the sacred to the secular.”
The tour leader says that has quite an effect on his patrons. “They are taken with the whole ambiance of Jerusalem, and all the different aspects of life here.
They see haredim in white shirts, and scantily dressed women, and all sorts. It’s not something they generally see in their own vicinity.”
There are plenty of other intriguing sights and historical tidbits before the tour participants eventually make it to the Old City.
“We go through Shimon Ben-Shetah Street, Shlomzion Hamalka, and then go down to the corner of King Solomon Street and King David Street [opposite Mamilla],” explains Gal-Or, adding that there are some familial links here. “Shimon Ben-Shetah was the head of the Sanhedrin [the ancient Jewish lawmaking body] and he was the brother of Queen Shlomzion [the last female ruler of the Kingdom of Judea]. That’s why the two streets join up.”
The tour also passes by a building that was home to Ze’ev Jabotinsky during the time of the British Mandate.
There is also a strong personal angle to Gal-Or’s tour.
“The lobby of the Mamilla Hotel was the site of my grandmother’s store,” he says. “I tell the story of my family, who survived the Holocaust in Italy, and came to Israel in 1949.” The family – his grandparents and uncles – hid away in caves and monasteries, and one of the uncles was born in a monastery. In 1970, that uncle was killed in Gaza while on IDF reserve duty.
After Mamilla, the tour participants cross into the Old City via the Jaffa Gate and traverse the Armenian Quarter and Jewish Quarter, arriving at the Western Wall piazza around 12:30 a.m. At that hour, the slihot services are in full swing, and the place is jam-packed with thousands of people of all religious and ethnic stripes.
“That is quite an experience,” notes the tour guide, “to see so many people there, and the sound of praying and the shofarot. You don’t get that anywhere else.” 
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