I couldn’t stay another day home, so I told my husband, “Let’s go to the Old City.”
First Shabbat in a long time we didn’t invite anyone to our table for lunch, so no need to rush making fancy dessert platters – I wanted to stay on the safe side before getting my second vaccine shot.
The presence of guests at our table on Shabbat has been changing like my mood. When I felt safe and in an “it’s almost over” corona mood, I dared to invite some friends with whom we weekly interact because of work, kids, neighbors, or because we vaccinated already or are simply corona recovered. When I wanted to play safe, I closed my house to all.
Shabbat by us is normally a production; kids get excited, dressed up, along with food, colors, flowers, desserts, cooking and baking. When there are no guests – no fun, no party.
Lately, we felt that every weekend we were taking a chance, not clear in our minds on what to do, just as the directives from the government were confusing. What to do and what not to do – no one really knows. We are left in a limbo where everyone is basically either taking chances or acting according to what they think is right, according to their common sense.
Common sense as a generally held judgment has been lost. We each decide for ourselves; and what I might judge right, you might think is crazy.
WE WALKED toward the Old City.
The synagogue in the Jewish Quarter has been my husband’s place where he prays since before we met. My kids were named there, from my oldest to my baby. All played hide-and-seek between the old stones of the area and the little holes carved in the walls of this holy place. They know every corner, every angle, and every hiding place.
The roads in Jerusalem were empty, the air was fresh and cold; for a split second I felt like I was in Switzerland. We walked along the deserted Mamilla shopping arcade. Stores have been closed for too long. Normally, even on Shabbat, there is movement, tourists, Chinese taking pictures. Now there was nada!
The echo of our voices chatting hit us like a wake-up call of the city’s emptiness.
King David Street was just sad; every second store is closing, empty and ready to be rented out. Once the glory of Jerusalem, this famous street brings you to tears now. The King David Hotel sits empty like a tired giant, with all the shutters closed and the famous revolving front door blocked by a suitcase trolley.
I wanted to cry.
We reached Jaffa Gate, and it was blocked by policemen and some soldiers – no entry to the Old City.
I needed it for my soul to walk through there; I needed to breathe some holy air.
“Talk to me and don’t look at the police,” said my man as we approached them.
The person right before us got stopped and questioned, but we just walked right through. I was so happy, I made it, I was free.
The Arab shuk was empty; we walked right into it. Normally, it is so packed it’s hard to make your way in. A few stores were open. The storekeepers looked at us; we look European – they hoped we’d come in and buy something, as we suddenly felt like tourists in our own town.
I smelled scents and saw colors I had never noticed before.
We reached the synagogue. The door that normally is open to welcome people was tightly closed. The prayers were conducted outside. Only 10 men were allowed to participate.
Yossi walked toward the men, and I made my way to the small courtyard and sat in the sun. I took a deep breath inward. It was a luxury to be able to leave the kids and make it all the way here.
I had time to pray alone. I listened to the reading of the parasha and the account of the Splitting of the Red Sea. I closed my eyes, trying to imagine the grandness of that moment.
I was lost in another world, of poets and Moses, of miracles and wonders.
I looked through the sunrays and saw my husband and friends masked and covered with tallitot (prayer shawls) on their heads, praying in the fresh air against the backdrop of the Old City. It looked like a painting. There was something magical in the air.
BACK TO reality, as we made our way home, we passed by the now-famous Balfour Street, where the never-ending, never-leaving protesters against the prime minister have made their homes, or what seem like homes. There are proper tents, chairs, beds, heaters, coffee makers, water machines.
What pained me the most was the look of disgust that came our way from them as we hurried past them and said “Bibi, we are with you,” looking toward our prime minister’s official residence. They called out to us, “You religious Jews...”
I grew up in Italy, where for 28 years I never felt such a dirty look on my skin just for expressing my opinion and being a religious Jew, as they called me.
From whom did I get this treatment? Not from Mussolini’s grandchildren in Italy but, rather, from my own people, Jews in the center of Jerusalem.
What have we become? I shivered as I watched the sunset. If only it was just the splitting of the sea; this is the splitting of a nation down to its core. It’s happening right before our own eyes and we cannot stop it.
CORONA IS a crazy virus that spreads when we are physically too close, but if we catch it and (as most of us do) survive it, our antibodies can actually save another patient. We have to love one another enough to keep our distance; through distancing ourselves, we actually prove how much we actually care for each other. And once we are considered safe or recovered, our own blood can then heal a fellow human and eventually save him.
There is a subtle message here. Corona is about us, human relations, and the conduct of the future of humanity.
As I watch today those crazy images of a huge sea of men walking to what looks like a funeral procession behind a car that is hardly noticeable, in a religious area of Jerusalem, I feel my heart beating faster.
How can they?
Children are not going to school, suffering at home; men are being turned away from synagogues and left to pray at home or on their balcony or street; people have lost their business, their money, their savings, their dreams – in order to respect the corona laws, and here we see an insane number of bodies piled on one another to pay “respect” at a funeral of a rabbi who died from corona! This will only generate more dead.
And what about our friends piled up on Balfour every Saturday night, screaming for justice and an end to Bibi? They are also way too close to each other and way too angry to understand.
Our nation, as of now, is split; there is no communication, no common language.
All this brings me to think of the haftarah heard on Shabbat in the cold air of the Old City. It was about Deborah, the prophetess who ruled over the Jewish people for over 40 years. She ruled with wisdom, charm, clarity and was respected by all.
Maybe it’s time for a woman to rule this nation. Maybe just then we will all listen and show respect in the same way. You don’t mess with a woman when she’s in power. Ask my husband.
The writer is from Italy, lives in Jerusalem and heads HadassahChen Productions. A director and performer, she also heads the Keren Navah Ruth Foundation, in memory of her daughter, to assist families with sick children. [email protected]