Jerusalem, the city of magnets

The electrifying reports of the return to Yerushalayim reinvigorated Jewish identity across the boulevards of Moscow and tundras of Siberia.

A PARATROOPER who took part in the battle for Jerusalem’s Old City celebrates his wedding in front of the Western Wall on June 9, 1967. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A PARATROOPER who took part in the battle for Jerusalem’s Old City celebrates his wedding in front of the Western Wall on June 9, 1967.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Book of Beresheet portrays three vastly different visits to Yerushalayim.
Abraham first encounters this city after intervening in a raging world war. Years later, an acquiescent Abraham and his son Isaac voyage to the mountain to execute the Divine command and perform the akeda (binding). Finally, Jacob flees his murderous brother and experiences his famed nighttime vision upon this mountain. Though these three visits are dramatically different and undertaken by different personalities at different historical stages, they share one common denominator: Yerushalayim had never been a predestined or prearranged destination; each guest is drawn to this mountain by some powerful and unexpected force.
Upon returning from war, Abraham is suddenly embraced and hosted by the city’s reigning king – a mysterious figure who appears from nowhere. Subsequently, for his akeda mission, he travels to an “undetermined mountain” whose identity will only be divinely revealed at some later stage. According to the Midrash, Jacob actually bypasses the mountain, only to be ineluctably drawn back. There is something deeply “magnetizing” about this city and this mountain. It exerts a subliminal and primal lure upon the Jewish soul, drawing would-be travelers into its precincts. Jerusalem – our City of Gold – is also a city of magnets!
We returned to the heart of our ancient city 53 years ago amidst the euphoria of the Six Day War and its astounding miracles. The kinetic force of Jerusalem was, once again, unmistakable and palpable. The Six Day War and the return to all parts of Jerusalem instantly generated a rich cultural iconography – images, sounds, and personalities forever etched upon our collective imagination. Who can forget the iconic image of the “three soldiers,” eyes uplifted at the re-enfranchised Kotel, a wall that had occupied the Jewish imagination for two millennia? Naomi Shemer’s soulful song Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) became an instant symbol of the centuries-old wistfulness for this city. Bold proclamations such as Har Habayit b’yadeinu (The Temple Mount is in our hands [once again under Jewish rule]) or the radio broadcast of Psalms Chapter 122 advertising, “Our feet are positioned in the gates of Yerushalayim” – each reverberate in our national memory. The war’s legendary generals – Ariel Sharon, Motta Gur and Moshe Dayan – became instant national heroes.
Interestingly, though the reunification of Jerusalem generated instant “icons,” the Independence War did not. There aren’t specific pictures, phrases or songs surrounding the 1948 war. This is due, in part, to technological advancement, as by 1967 cameras and radio were more fully developed and better capable of popularizing these icons. Additionally, the war of 1967 actually climaxed with the return to Jerusalem, whereas the war of 1948, which lasted a year and a half into 1949, felt anti-climactic after the celebrated Declaration of Independence. However, beyond these practical reasons, it seems as if, once again, the perennial magnetism of Jerusalem mesmerized our people, and through these icons deeply lodged itself within collective Jewish consciousness.
INDEED, THIS magnetizing force of Jerusalem wasn’t sensed only in the country of Israel. For close to 50 years, the Soviet regime had denuded millions of Jews of their heritage, their religion and even of their Jewish identity. Suddenly, the electrifying reports of the Jewish return to Jerusalem reinvigorated Jewish identity across the boulevards of Moscow and tundras of Siberia. The eventual emigration of multitudes of Russian Jews to Israel helped radically transform Israel from a fledgling economy, constantly vulnerable to destabilizing hyperinflation, into an economic superpower and technological epicenter.
As a student during the late 1980s, I recall joining my entire yeshiva in Israel for a daylong “fast” to demonstrate support for an unnamed Jewish Soviet dissident languishing in a jail cell. After the conclusion of the fast, we spoke with him in his Russian jail and assured him both of our support and of our expectation to one day welcome him to Israel. A few weeks later, Yuli Edelstein, the current speaker of the Knesset, walked into the Gush yeshiva to learn alongside me. The magnetism of Jerusalem, unleashed in 1967, had drawn him home 20 years later. Ultimately, two years afterward, the Berlin wall fell, thus terminating the 69-year Soviet regime. Who would have wagered that our fledgling state of Israel would outlast this empire built to last centuries?
However, the magnetism of Jerusalem wasn’t sensed only in Israel or in Russia. Prior to 1967, Jews had firmly established themselves in Western societies, but lived on the social margins of society, wielding relatively little influence in governance and generally suppressing any outward signs of Jewish identity or religion. The return to Jerusalem provided a burst of national pride and a surge in Jewish confidence as Jewish enclaves across the Western world transformed into robust and vibrant Jewish communities – actively involved in all aspects of society, culture and politics. This “era of Jerusalem” sparked unprecedented religious and Torah growth as well as renewed interest in aliya and tourism. The mysterious spell of this city continues to drive Jewish history.
In Psalm 122, King David referred to Jerusalem as chubrah lah yachad (an integrator city). Though there is healthy disagreement across the Jewish world about a range of issues, including important questions surrounding the State of Israel, a deep consensus surrounding Jerusalem unifies vastly different communities and ideologies. The instinctive draw to our common “city of magnets” is inalienable and eternal.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.