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In the Heart of Jerusalem

May 9, 2009 | by

During a month in the Old City of Jerusalem, a Seattle native learns a lot about the security situation -- yet discovers even more about his heritage and himself.

In October, when I told several friends of my somewhat impulsive decision to go learn at Aish HaTorah in Israel for a month, I was greeted by a variety of incredulous remarks.

Sure, I was told, it would be a nice expression of solidarity for our Jewish counterparts in Israel and a great opportunity learn Torah in Jerusalem. But now? Hadn't I been reading the papers? Didn't I know about the shootings, bombings and life-threatening attacks lurking on every corner?

One friend warned that if the violence escalated, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (where I would be staying) could be overrun by Arab mobs. In such a scenario, another of my protectors asked, could Syrian and Iraqi tanks be far behind?

Being basically "macho" at heart (some would say foolish and irrational), I casually cast aside such warnings until I turned on CNN a day or so later. There, accompanied by violent, blasting noises, I stared wide-eyed at machine gun tracer bullets ripping through the darkness toward Beit Jalla, a Christian-Arab neighborhood from which Palestinian terrorists had been firing across a valley at the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

Second thoughts about my well-meaning visit sprang immediately to life. But, alas, it was too late. I had already bought airplane tickets, sent a deposit on an Old City apartment situated right next to the Moslem Quarter, and even talked my Torah learning partner into going with me! Our learning schedule at Aish HaTorah in the Old City was already written and set to occupy us almost full time, six days a week, on subjects ranging from Talmud to Jewish philosophy, history and ethics.

And so, armed only with the generous encouragement and support of my wife, Nancy, I arrived in Jerusalem just before sunrise on a Friday morning. I gravitated to the Western Wall, dropped my bags and immediately fell into a typical Kotel minyan -- comprised of yeshiva students, Chassidim, informal Israelis in knitted kippahs, and an assortment of kids and soldiers.


I found myself nervously glancing up toward the top of the Wall, half expecting to see angry Arabs perched above, ready to rain heavy rocks on our heads. No one was there. There was only the overlapping, out-of-sync sounds of prayers scattered along the length of the Wall. And then, as all managed to merge their prayers together into the silent "Amidah" precisely at sunrise, silence settled over the Wall -- broken only by the occasional chattering of birds as they darted in and out of nests hidden in cracks of the massive stone wall above.

Nothing dangerous or frightening happened at the Wall that morning, or on any other morning. Nor did "danger" occur at any time during my frequent wanderings around the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the German Colony in southwest Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda Street in the heart of downtown Jerusalem or in Mea Shearim near the Old City.

For that matter, nothing dangerous or frightening happened when I walked through the Moslem Quarter, when I took a tour of east Jerusalem, or when I visited the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo -- where I gazed down upon the Israeli Army gun emplacement I had seen on CNN each night returning fire toward Palestinian attackers in Beit Jala.


None of this, of course, is intended to minimize the serious nature of the Arab uprising. Many Jews have died since Rosh Hashana, and many more Arabs. During my stay in Jerusalem, Arabs on the Temple Mount emerged from Ramadan services at the Al Aqsa Mosque, staged a riot and burned down a police station before being brought under control. Travel on foot and by vehicle in many areas remains dangerous.

Nor do I suggest that Jewish-Arab relations are serene. I encountered numerous Arabs walking through the Jewish Quarter to the Moslem Quarter, almost all of whom conspicuously avoided eye contact with Jews as they passed. One middle-aged Arab wearing a kefiyah, after having had an exchange of less-than-friendly words with some Israeli soldiers about 50 yards away, theatrically spit toward them. He then gave off a broad, defiant smile and continued on his way.

Despite all this, life for the most part in Jerusalem continues as if nothing at all unusual is going on. I had the distinct feeling, after being here for a few days, that I felt vastly more nervous and concerned about Arab violence while reading the news in Seattle than while wandering the streets of Jerusalem.

Nowhere did I feel as secure as I did within the walls of Aish HaTorah's study hall. There I found Jewish learning to be vastly more intense and inspirational than anything I had ever experienced in America. I cannot even begin to adequately describe the feelings of Jewish connection I experienced when, in the midst of learning a Mishna with Aish's Rabbi Marc Friedman about praying for rain in Israel, I looked out the study hall window and saw much-needed heavy rain cascading out of the sky onto the Western Wall plaza.


Outside the study hall, I found myself continually struck by the unparalleled beauty of the city, especially the ancient walls and narrow Jerusalem stone streets of the Old City, the rooftop vistas toward Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, and especially the mystical, almost magnetic draw of the Western Wall.

Everywhere in Jerusalem, I found myself struck by scenes so unlike Seattle:

In the doorway of a local municipal building, a man is enshrouded in tallit and tefillin. Just down the street, about 20 Jewish soldiers are informally chatting in Hebrew, most only a year or two older than my 19-year-old son. One, a young girl, is wearing a backpack similar to one worn by one of my young daughters, complete with a little teddy bear attached to a zipper. Slung just as casually over her shoulder next to the backpack is a high-powered rifle.

Even the sounds are different. Each day begins well before sunrise with Arabic chants over loudspeakers calling Moslem worshippers to prayer. Following sunrise comes the clanging sound of scores of church bells, coupled with the crow of roosters from the adjacent Moslem Quarter.

I find myself wishing more Jews from America were here, that they would not cave into the fear generated by TV cameras in Gaza and other trouble spots. I am told the Jewish Quarter is typically jammed with tourists. Now most hotels are nearly empty and in some cases have closed altogether.

I am told that thousands of American college students were scheduled to visit Israel on an assortment of missions during the winter break. Nearly all of them canceled.

As my month in the Old City drew to a close, I said goodbye today to a kindly local man whom I had the pleasure of chatting and exchanging Torah thoughts with each morning at my favorite outdoor bagel cafe.

"It's time for me to go home," I said.

"You have it wrong," he said, handing me a small amount of tzedakah money to take on my trip.

"Give half of this when you get back to the States," he said. "Give the rest when you return here. Israel is your home."

Kent Swigard is a former newspaper reporter who now lives and sells real estate in Seattle.

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