Jewish Journal

Fires Burning: Weekend in Jerusalem

by David Suissa

July 10, 2009 | 2:25 pm

Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa is in Israel for 10 days, studying at the esteemed Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. While there, he’s blogging about his trip and what he’s learning.

Day Five: Praying, Singing and Fighting (with our mouths)

I started last Shabbat morning in a friendly, egalitarian, open Orthodox minyan called Kehillat Shira Hadasha, where men and women sing like sweet hummingbirds. At around midnight, I was trying to avoid flying garbage bags and burning roadblocks in Mea Shearim.

This is Jerusalem, the city of altered states.

Shira Hadasha is one of those grand experiments that tries to maintain the halakhic tradition while embracing full women participation. It was started by Rabbi David Hartman’s daughter, Tova, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Her father’s Shalom Hartman Institute is all about respecting the tradition while pushing the boundaries to reflect new realities and the dignity of pluralism.

The shul itself is rather plain looking, located on the second floor of a small building. I had heard about this shul for years from my liberal Orthodox and Conservative friends in LA. This is supposed to be a blueprint for the avant-garde Orthodoxy of the future.

The first thing that struck me when I entered was that the men’s section looked a little smaller than the women’s section. This notion distracted me—was it real or was it an illusion? Like an anal bureaucrat, for the first 15 minutes or so, I paced back and forth to try to eyeball the size of each section. I had this vision of the shul committee measuring each section down to the last millimeter. Awash in my trivial pursuit, I was then distracted by the fact that I couldn’t see the female cantor, or even the full bimah.

Because the mechitza was perfectly egalitarian, it ended right at the center of the bimah. The female cantor was to the left, so I couldn’t see her, but boy could I hear her. (I don’t know a nicer way to put this—her voice didn’t remind me of Barbra’s).

The mechitza itself was a high wooden frame holding a see-through veil. But because I could only see half of the bimah, I felt no connection to the heart and soul of the davening. Seeing half of the bimah might be even more annoying than not seeing it at all. This might be one of those times when compromise hurts both sides. (Maybe they ought to find an halakhic way of making the bimah visible to all.) 

A short time later, everything changed: a new chazzan took over, and the place started to rock.

When a synagogue rocks, nothing else matters. I stopped thinking about mechitzas and bimahs and gender equality and denominations and the size of the men and women sections.

I just enjoyed the ride.

The problem was that the great stuff didn’t last. Like in so many other shuls, the moments of soulful singing were few and far between. Too much mumbling-davening and not enough singing.

What a simple thought: the secret to a great shul experience is to just keep the hits coming— like good AM radio. As I strolled around Jerusalem after services, I promised myself that if I ever open a shul, I’ll have a non-stop string of soulful hits, and a five-minute time limit on mumbling-davening.

Great melodies were the last thing on my mind later that Saturday night in Mea Shearim. I wrote about my experience in the Jewish Journal this week (“War and Peace”), which covered the Charedi protests against the opening of a city parking lot adjacent to their neighborhood. What I didn’t write about was what happened after we left the Slonomer shul. By then, the demonstrations had become more erratic and threatening. Because it was after Shabbat, there were fires on the streets. A few garbage bags were thrown my way.

But it wasn’t all crazy and dangerous. A group of Charedim (some from the U.S.) who spoke excellent English engaged my friend (Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller) and I in conversation. I hated the idea that they were creating all this balagan in the name of God, but I liked the fact that they showed enough concern for how we felt that they tried to explain themselves. The ones I spoke with didn’t condone the violence, but they were extremely passionate about their right to protest the opening of the parking lot.

I told them that Jerusalem belongs to ALL Jews, not just Jews who put on tefillin and learn Talmud all day. The parking lot is an example of the city trying to reverse a downward slide in its fortunes—by being more inviting to more people. A more successful and vibrant Jerusalem is good for everybody, I told them.

And I added: It’s not as if a “secular police” is coming into your neighborhood and stopping you from practicing your Judaism. Why don’t you show more gratitude for all the protections and freedoms you get? It wasn’t always this easy for your ancestors to practice their Judaism in Eastern Europe, remember?

We went back and forth. They told me the city had acted in an underhanded way, that they felt cut out of the decision and that they’re afraid of the “slippery slope”—if they don’t protest now, what’s next? I saw real, genuine pain on their faces. The more dangerous argument, I thought, was that they were engaging in “tough love”—Jews who desecrated the Shabbat needed to be shown the errors of their ways.

Why can’t you leave these Jews alone? I replied. Let them do their thing and you do yours. And do you really think these demonstrations will encourage them to be more Shabbat observant?

I then shared my favorite argument for tolerance and pluralism: If you were raised like them, you’d be just like them.

The main guy who was arguing with me did a double take…I think it made an impact, maybe for a second… and then we quickly went back to speaking past each other.

A second scene also caught my eye. As we were leaving the neighborhood, with demonstrators and police cars and the stench of horse dung everywhere, I saw a group of about a dozen Charedim talking to a police officer. The Charedim, with their beards, payos and shtreimels, were a stark contrast to the tall and clean-cut officer. Still, despite the animosity and toxic emotions that had built up all day and night, they were actually having a normal (if heated) conversation.

It didn’t matter to me what they were saying. The point is, they weren’t fighting with their hands or garbage cans, they were fighting with their mouths. 

In the Holy Land, you got to take your progress where you can get it.

Day Six: “No Kissing and Embracing”

I never thought that I would one day visit the Temple Mount. For some reason, I assumed it was out of bounds to Jews. But on our excursion day, it was one of the options, so I picked it.

Before going up to the Mount, we toured Jaffa Road and the old city with Major General Miki Levy, the Israel Police Attache to the U.S. and former head of the Jerusalem police. (Someone asked Levy how the police should have handled the Charedi demonstrations from the previous night, and he gave a cryptic answer: “For the police, it’s important to be smart, not right.”)

The highlight of the tour was a visit to the underground “war room” where dozens of TV screens showed live surveillance of the hundreds of alleyways of the old city. Israeli police have installed about 300 hidden cameras throughout the old city to monitor any violent or terrorist behavior.

They showed us some of the violence they had caught on tape, and how it helped them catch the culprits. Some of the footage was repulsive (It seems that no matter how spiritual or intellectual things get in Jerusalem, reality is never too far away.)

We proceeded to the Temple Mount. A mini crisis occurred at the entrance—women could not enter if they were dressed immodestly. After some negotiations between our guide and the Muslim guards, the women who needed more covering bought shawls from a merchant who—how convenient!— was located only a few yards away.

While this was going on, I noticed a sign that listed the rules that everyone must follow when entering this Muslim holy site. This was one of them:

“Intimate behavior such as kissing and embracing are strictly forbidden.”

We continued on our way, towards the third holiest site in Islam, which was built over the holiest site in Judaism, the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 A.D. Nothing impressed me more about the visit than the size of the place.

It’s as big as a small town.

I’m not kidding—the space can easily fit all the 40 shuls of Pico-Robertson, including all the big ones, and I’m sure a few more. It goes on forever. I overheard a guide say that 250,000 Muslims have gathered here at one time. What’s crazy is that millions of Jews during Biblical times also gathered here for their own pilgrimage.

It was eery to stand so close to where the Holy of Holies once stood— it was like standing in the middle of the Parsha of the week. I couldn’t help thinking that right now in LA, I’d probably be at the Grove or the Beverly Center.

As we re-entered the Jewish quarter, I noticed another sign for rules and etiquette, just before we passed through the obligatory metal detector and security check. No rules here about kissing or embracing. Just this:

“For your own safety and that of the public, please cooperate and follow the direction given by the personnel at the site.”

Two people, two realities, one land.

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