This day came about as an amazing, last-minute, scheduling snafu and twist of fate. It’s a long blog entry of a long day, but there is a bit of a surprise ending. It was a night I will never forget. I hope I can take what happened to me, and put it into words that will let you share, or at least understand, the experience I had my first night in Jerusalem. But before I tell you about my night, I will start with the day leading up to it.
As the last days of my trip were approaching, I was thinking of what was left on my to-do list. I’ve seen Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Akko, Mispe Schelem, Masada, The Dead Sea, Ein Kerem, Yad Vashem, Mispe Ramon, and went camping in the Negev. What’s left you ask? How about the piece de la résistance…The holy city of Jerusalem.
Yesterday (Tuesday) I made my plan. I would do some shopping and site seeing on Wednesday, then go back on Thursday to tour the major sites. Finally on Friday (my last day) I would stay in Tel Aviv and go to the airport with Reut and Steve. It sounded like a good plan until…[enter the snafu stage left]…I didn’t realize Steve and Reut were leaving for a vacation on Thursday. Time to get a hotel and quick.
My first thought was to get a hotel for Thursday night when they would be gone, but…[enter snafu number two]… there were complications getting back to Steve’s place on Wednesday and also problems going to Jerusalem on Thursday. The problem was the holiday of Simchas Torah. All busses are scheduled to stop running at 5:00pm on Wednesday and resume at 8:00pm on Thursday.
OK, change of plan. I guess I need to leave Tel Aviv on Wednesday before 5:00 if I want to make it to Jerusalem. So that’s what I did. I booked a room at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel for both Wednesday and Thursday nights. Now I just need to figure out what to do once I get there.
So let’s rewind to Tel Aviv at 10:00am. The hotel room was reserved and all that was left was getting to the bus station before 4:00 to catch the last bus to Jerusalem. There wasn’t much to do with the time left, so we decided to get some food and pick up some last minute travel items.
For lunch I wanted to go back to the Brasserie. Both my Fodors guide and Steve say their lunch specials are top notch. Reut however was a wee bit hungover from a farewell party her work gave her. Being around all those smells and food was something she didn’t want. So we compromised. Steve and I said we would get a tiny “breakfast” with her and then go to Brasserie right after for lunch without her.
For our “breakfast” Steve and I shared a round bread/pastry treat I forgot the name of. Our lunch was a beautiful 220g burger. We ran some final errands and then went back so I could pack. After packing, Steve took me to the bus station and I was on my way to Jerusalem.
At 3:50 I catch a bus to Jerusalem. About half way there, we stop along side of the highway. But there wasn’t any problem, that’s just where the bus stop was. In Israel you will find bus stops on large roads and highways. I guess it’s better than having to take the exit ramps.
After a one hour ride, I arrive. The great thing about my hotel is the proximity to the station. My guess is 200m.
After checking in, I decide to be spontaneous and get a cab to the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. Jerusalem is pretty big, but on the east side is a walled area called the Old City. It ‘s a smaller, very historic area that has four very distinct quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially on a holiday. For all I knew, nothing would be open.
Here I am outside the walls of the old city.
As I walk closer...
...what a great decision! Simchas Torah was drawing quite a crowd. I wasn't sure what to do or where to go, so I just followed the masses of people. First I enter the souk.
It’s basically a mile-long alley of shops selling cheep trinkets I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting and lots of food. There are hundreds of shops all selling more or less the exact same things like cheesy wooden statues of Jesus, tin menorahs, silver-plated religious ornaments and clothing.
There were also several juice stands. Most sold a popular treat of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.
Don’t forget… at this point I have no idea where I‘m going or what is ahead. I’m just following the general path of other people. I did manage to find a restaurant that said they would be open until at least 10:00, so I knew I had a dinner option. At this point I almost stopped for a bite, but decided to keep going.
I see more and more Orthodox Jews starting to all move in the same direction. I was originally headed to the Christian Quarter since I assumed that was the best chance to find open shops and cafes during a Jewish holiday. However, the waves of black coats and large hats intrigued me. I decide to follow the flow of Orthodox men to see what was going on.
After a long stretch of narrow alleyways, I’m thinking I made a mistake. All the other tourists seemed to head in other directions. I almost decide to turn back, but I figure I must be close. The thin alleys open up and without a doubt in my mind I know where I am…
The Western Wall.
Chills come on quickly and I feel like I’m in a dream. I know the significance of this place and here I am experiencing it for the first time completely unexpected. If seeing the Wall weren’t enough, I am here during the joyous occasion of Simchas Torah. I slowly walk toward the wall which was about 1000 feet away. There are ramps to the left and right leading down to the wall and if I walk straight, there is an area that looks like an observation deck.
As I walk forward to the observation deck, I look over the rail and see hundreds of men (mostly Orthodox Jews) singing and dancing. What a wonderful sight. The air is vibrant. The scene is alive!
I take a couple of quick photos before my curiosity gets the best of me and I start walking down one of the ramps.
I’m waiting to get stopped at any minute because I am wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a “hey-look-at-the-tourist” backpack. I plunge forward. Getting wrapped up in the excitement, and about half way down the ramp, without thinking, I pull out my camera. I know that taking pictures at The Wall is not “kosher” on a holiday, but I’m so in awe of the scene my etiquette got distracted.
Before taking any snaps, a chabad rabbi walks up to me and says, with a big smile, “Hag semayach” Which I know means "happy holidays," but I interpreted it as please put away the camera. Chabad rabbis are always very nice to visitors and Rabbi Shmuli Weiss was no exception. We engaged in some pleasant conversation and I met his two children, who looked about 2 and 4. He even knows Rabbi Mendi Dubrowski in Tampa. A few minutes later he says “come” and leads me down the ramp into a sea of black coats and hats being worn by the orthodox men.
“There is much celebrating tonight, but before the fun, I recommend walking to The Wall. Say the Sh’ma and pray for your friends and family to have good health and a good holiday.” So, I wade through the festivities toward the infamous Western Wall. As I get closer, the background noise seems to fade even though the party behind me is only 20 feet away. There are many men praying, but I am able to find a spot on The Wall. I say a few things, absorb the moment and slowly turn back to the festivities.
Rabbi Shmuli finds me and quickly leads me through the masses to a group of 30 or so men dancing in a circle around three other men in the center. These three men are raising torahs up and into the air. There is loud singing and exuberant dancing. I’m instantly in the thick of it and it blew me away to be part of this special occasion.
Then without any warning Rabbi Shmuli urges me closer to the center and hands ME the biggest of the three torah!!! I’m so dumbfounded and elated all at once. There I am, dancing, while lifting a torah, in the holiest city in the world, in the holiest place within that city and being the center of attention to a group of rabbis and Orthodox Jews. In a lifetime you only get a few moments like this. This is one night I will never forget.
After some more dancing and singing, I thank Rabbi Weiss for his kindness and say goodbye. I grab a bite at one of the few restaurants open and head back to the hotel. So here I am, later the same night, in my hotel room, writing my blog. I need to get to bed early enough to be energized for my tour of Jerusalem tomorrow, but after a night like this it might be tough. The bus comes at 8:00; I better try to get some sleep.