The essence of Shavuot in Jerusalem, 1964

Who knew if the Wall could ever be visited by Jewish people?

Rita Geffen sits on the steps leading up to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, located opposite the southern courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in 1971 (photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN)
Rita Geffen sits on the steps leading up to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, located opposite the southern courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in 1971
(photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN)
Tisha Be’av in the summer of 1963 in Jerusalem was so hot that every step you took you felt you were on fire. In spite of the weather, my wife, Rita, and I decided on the morning of the fast day to somehow make it to Mount Zion to mourn for the loss of two Temples and many other tragedies in Jewish history.
Rita wrote in her diary. “I have read about Mt. Zion and studied its history and today, in spite of the heat, will be a good day to pay this important locale, with a rich history, our first visit.”
With the sun beating down on us, we had to climb up to Mount Zion. The trek was difficult because the “Pope’s Road” built to reach that spot more easily was constructed only in January 1964, when the Pope made a visit to Israel. In 1964, neither he nor the Catholic Church recognized Israel as a state. To demonstrate his insistence on this position in the Catholic world, he entered Israel at Megiddo, where president Zalman Shazar welcomed him.
Demonstrating our “religious fervor” on that day of sadness, we hoped for an opportunity, sometime in the future, to see the Kotel itself, not just movies or pictures of it. Rita captured the moment.
“We stretched our bodies as much as we could over the large rocks and peered into the distance. The Intercontinental Hotel was visible, but that was on Har Hazeitim (The Mount of Olives). A passerby suggested another building in the distance where the Kotel might be located down below it. We looked in that direction, but still no Kotel.”
I do not recall whether this was a satisfying experience, but at least we made an attempt. When Yom Kippur came in the fall, we davened the Ne’ila closing prayer in the room where King David’s remains are supposed to be on Mount Zion.
The year passed quickly. We came to love the late Sara and David Herling, who ran the Jewish Theological Seminary of America dormitory where we lived with three other rabbinical couples.
The three pilgrimage festivals had their own flavor for us. On Succot we built the first succa at the dormitory.
For Passover, we had the Seder with relatives, Bilha and Professor Dov Levin z’l, in Jerusalem. As Shavuot approached, we sought a way to make it a memorable day.
Since I had been confirmed at my synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia, on Shavuot, I remembered part of the charge that the rabbi gave.
“I hope your confirmation will keep on having special meaning for you through all your life. Shavuot celebrates the springtime growth of flowers and fruits and vegetables and trees, but now it also celebrates you boys and girls who are growing up. And really many of us older ones understand Shavuot as an occasion for us all to look into ourselves towards our growing straighter and more honorable.”
In this speech back then, my classmates and I heard not a word about Israel, but here my wife and I were in Jerusalem for Shavuot. Not only had we grown “straighter and more honorable,” but in 1964 on the holiday we had a chance to celebrate “the springtime growth of flowers and fruits and vegetables and trees” right here in Israel where our faith was rooted.
Shavuot, 53 years ago, was quite a challenge. Our first initiative was to find a place to attend a tikkun (all-night study session). There were some synagogues that provided such an evening of study.
Moreover, some individuals conducted one in their homes. However, back then there was no Kotel to walk to and daven at daybreak.
Several friends in Jerusalem were consulted.
We actually attended a tikkun at the Yeshurun Synagogue, but all the men and women were separated, so the texts studied became a bit less meaningful than they might have been. Rita and I stuck it out for an hour or two. Then we walked over to Beit Hillel on Balfour Street, where Rabbi Jack Cohen z’l had prepared a tikkun with special emphasis on Israel and Jerusalem. Cohen was first involved educationally in Eretz Yisrael when in 1943 he brought a group of Young Judaeans to the country on a yearlong program. I do not know how many made aliya when they were older, but that year the rabbi provided both an excellent education in Hebrew and Judaica as well as a most wonderful Zionist experience for all those participating.
Monthly, he wrote a letter in the Young Judaean magazine about what was transpiring with the group. He focused on the elevating moments in Eretz Yisrael.
“We arrived in Haifa when it was raining. The drops fell swiftly and they caused us to absorb this land physically, mentally and naturally. When we reached the cave of Elijah, the rain had stopped. Together we looked out at the sea and we recalled Elijah’s victory over the priests of the Baal idol worshipers.
Then we sang “Eliyahu Hanavi” and we prayed that we and Eliyahu would come back to our land promised by God.”
The tikkun at Beit Hillel, where Cohen was the director, introduced us to many passages in the traditional texts about Eretz Yisrael. Also we read together Hebrew poetry and realized the inspiration it offered. Additional Hebrew literary passages selected for study were very meaningful. In Rita’s intensive Hebrew education, she had read some of these poems and essays written in our eternal tongue. For me it was a beginning.
Remaining there for the rest of the night, we were present when the Shaharit morning service began. Davening joyously at Beit Hillel, we chanted the Hallel prayer and we listened to the Book of Ruth being read, a first for us in Jerusalem. The sun had broken through the sky; the morning of Shavuot was upon us.
What did we do back in 1964? The King David Hotel was visible; somehow we found again the steps leading up to Mount Zion. Along with many others, who had come from all parts of Israel, we spiritually climbed up as pilgrims who wanted to reach a place where the Kotel could not be seen but was in the distance.
Each step we took carried us higher and higher in body, soul and spirit to a religious peak, in which, like our ancestors of old, we were receiving the Torah not on Mount Sinai, but in the holy city itself, Jerusalem. As we reached the area of Mount Zion, we sang in Hebrew “If we forget thee, O Jerusalem” loudly and with great fervor so that the Jordanian soldiers stationed nearby could hear us.
Our eyes filled up; our hearts beat faster; who knew if we would ever be here again? Who knew if the Wall could ever be visited by Jewish people? And then we sang “Hatikva,” carrying us into the present history of Israel, our homeland revived, and back to the wanderings of Am Yisrael through the centuries.
I looked at Rita and she at me – two American-born Jews receiving the Torah in our land. What a thrill!