Private thoughts on a public place

What child in the Quarter didn’t try to climb the symbolic arch of the Hurva before someone’s mother would chase him down?

Hurva synagogue (photo credit: AP)
Hurva synagogue
(photo credit: AP)
Sitting in the small women’s gallery beneath the vaulted dome of the newly rebuilt Hurva Synagogue, I find my mind wandering easily. It is not just because of the terrible acoustics bouncing off the new wooden pews, the stone-faced walls, the freshly plastered and painted three-story ceiling, all of which contribute to my inability to concentrate on the D’var Torah emanating from the sound system in the men’s section below me, it is also because the rush of emotions overcomes.
As a resident of the Jewish Quarter for 30 years, it is not unusual to be in the front row of historical events, whether they are the visits of dignitaries to the Western Wall who range from the pope to Madonna, Bob Dylan to Richard Gere, or the more disconcerting events, such as the outbreak of stone-throwing from the Temple Mount on Jews praying in the Western Wall Plaza below, announcing the arrival of a new wave of violence.
Whatever would be on the front page of the national papers often directly affected our daily lives. “Bush is in town? Where’s he staying and what time can we take the car out?” or, protest marches, mass national prayers, swearing-in ceremonies for soldiers, all kinds of events that conspired to rule our little lives among the Jewish Quarter alleys.
Our children grew up with their neighborhood strangely connected to world events, their personal comings and goings intertwined with the events of the day. Grade school children, they walked themselves to and from school from the youngest of ages. Glancing at the clock at their expected arrival time and not hearing the bustle of bags thrown in the front hall would have me grow anxious, only to be told later, “But mom, they wouldn’t let us come home because the president of Spain is here” (proffering an impromptu geography lesson, taking out the globe to find Spain – “Mom, it’s so big”). As they grew older, our children would sometimes inveigle the uniqueness of their neighborhood to their advantage. Having observed the special arrangements the public religious elementary school of the Jewish Quarter took each year to avoid traffic problems for commuting pupils, one child later parlayed this into self-declared Friday vacations for the duration of the month of Ramadan prayers throughout high school. Insha’Allah.
Besides the long list of inconveniences came those special times that only the residents of the Jewish Quarter could own. Dodging the donkey piles (the chosen method of transporting building materials to the inaccessible sites) while our homes and streets were being built, we were there for the early archeological discoveries. We were there for the residents-only openings of the findings to the general public (all amateur archeologists are we). We were there to greet Anatoly Sharansky (thereafter to be known as Natan) the night he arrived in Israel. Nowhere else does a community reading of Lamentations in the ruins of a destroyed synagogue bring one so easily into the mood of Tisha Be’av.
We watched as the Jaffa Gate, our pedestrian and vehicular “expressway” for commuting to school and work, became another annoying extension of the chaos of city improvements, but quietly thrilled as we walked by newly revealed ancient walls and water systems.
Sitting in the women’s pews, memories rush into the present. This place was our children’s “backyard.” Play space was always at a premium in the narrow confines of the Jewish Quarter, and our children took full advantage of every centimeter of open area. The schools and nurseries, lacking proper playgrounds and multipurpose rooms in the conventional sense, became very creative in using the rare open spaces.
It was here that my children had their Jerusalem Day observances and,dressed in blue and white, would enact skits and sing songs for theoccasion with countless flags waving. It was here that my soncelebrated his fifth birthday with his kindergarten, when we hidgold-covered coins for a treasure hunt. What child in the Quarterdidn’t try to climb the symbolic arch of the Hurva before someone’smother would chase him down? Here they played hide-and-seek; here theyplayed slik (hidden arms cache) – played with small slips of paper.Little did they know that only recently, when the foundation of theHurva was excavated, would a real slik, circa 1948, be uncovered thateven the old-time residents didn’t recall from the battle for theJewish Quarter.
The rebuilding of a synagogue is a good thing – anywhere, anytime. Likea river diverted unnaturally from its banks, the Hurva has now revertedto its intended purpose, again puncturing the skyline of the Old City.Our “backyard” has been restored to its public function due to theefforts of the great and the good. The sounds that flow from theceremonies include beautiful cantorial renditions of our ancientprayers. We look forward to the Hurva’s return to the tidal-likepredictability of weekly Torah readings and the steady rhythm oflife-cycle celebrations, as it should be. But, for me, I will alwayshear the slap, slap, slap of small “biblical” sandals faintly in thebackground.