October 16, 2003
A Cold Wind Blows
It is cold here this Sukkot in Jerusalem. The fan in the corner of this brightly lit sukkah lies still. The makeshift green plastic window flaps, cut last year to alleviate the heat, this year shudder in the heavy winds. Instead of the fan, the space heater is on, giving off that faint burning smell, the way Israeli heaters always do. Although it is bigger than the adjacent apartment, this porch sukkah structure certainly feels temporary -- and tropical, with wild palm tree fronds covering the top just enough to see the stars, although in this case only the moon peeks through the clouds.
It is colder this Sukkot, certainly colder than last year, but not much is different this year in Jerusalem. And still the festival is celebrated around the city.
During the intermediary days, thousands gather at the Western Wall to make the priestly blessing. The crowd of black in the white morning sun is peppered by the green lulav stalks in front of the Kotel.
Many people who leave the Western Wall plaza are American students heading to their yeshivas nearby. Here for the year, or maybe for two, they come to the Wall at Sukkot for one of the must-sees of the Israel experience. Others are religious tourists who come most years for the holidays. Perhaps they haven't been in the last two years -- but now they're back, mostly. They trek back to their hotels, all pretty full.
At the King David Hotel, a group of 100 neoconservatives gather for the Jerusalem Summit, a conference aimed at organizing and galvanizing right-wing thinkers, media and activists. Conferees draft an agenda to halt the peace process and provide alternate solutions ranging from enforcing President Bush's June 24 speech, to calling for Jordan to be the Palestinian state. The summit aims to be for Israeli politics what Fox is to news.
As the wind blows the temperate day into night, I find myself on a bus. Although I'd promised countless people that I'd be careful here in Israel, and that of course I wouldn't take a bus, here I am, waiting to head toward the bus station. The bus is empty for the most part, except for a soldier in civvies. He shows the driver his ID card, and he gets on for free.
The Israel Defense Forces has forbidden hitchhiking, so all soldiers now ride free. Not many people are on the bus. Me, the soldier, two Russian ladies, an Ethiopian and an old Moroccan man talking loudly on his cell phone. I head to the entrance of Jerusalem, at the international Conference Center, where some 5,000 Christians gather at to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This annual International nondenominational gathering takes place every Sukkot, when believers from some 80 countries meet in Israel for a week to celebrate the holiday, show support for Israel and learn about the land where their Lord was born, the land to which he will return in the End of Days.
Standing onstage under bright lights before this massive two-tiered theater, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has probably never received such an enthusiastic reception, as people crammed the aisles craning for a view like he was a rock star. And they are stomping feet, clapping wildly, waving flags and giving a good old Midwestern welcome.
"Dear Friends," the prime minister began, his speech punctuated by a roar, "you are here because your hearts and souls brought you here to the land of the Bible. Thank you so much for coming here to show solidarity. Your friendship is very important to us."
Sharon squinted as he looked into the audience and told them how much he enjoyed their support. "I'm sorry but I cannot see you, but I can hear you."
Is it important to see who is supporting you? Does it matter?
The only visitors I have seen this Sukkot week in Jerusalem are Christians, yeshiva students and neoconservatives. It seems that the only people to come are those with convictions strong enough to disregard the changing weather of politics and world affairs. Will they be the only foreigners to shore up the country? Will they be the only ones to influence the final say?
We'll just have to see how the wind blows.