The Shuk and the Kotel: A Gathering-In

by Moshe Dann (December 2012)

Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, the day seems different as people prepare for Shabbat. Public offices, banks and post offices in Israel are closed. Stores close early and traffic is sparse. The city slows down, gradually enveloped in a cloak of calm silence, a question waiting to be asked. That transformation is exemplified in Machane Yehuda, the shuk, Jerusalem's central marketplace, and the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

Filled with last minute shoppers and bargain hunters, the shuk is a pre-Shabbat stop for bus loads of tourists. Watching the clock, a delightful scramble of people from around the world descend on the shuk's stalls and stores shopping for last-minute needs, a bag of something to eat, or a place to meet-and-eat. As the sun begins to set, tour buses depart, stragglers and poor grab left-overs and a hasid, wearing a traditional Yerushalmi golden caftan walks through the thinning crowd blowing a silver horn. The streets empty and the shuk closes. Shabbat is coming!

The onset of Shabbat then shifts to the Kotel, where thousands gather near the 2,000 year-old massive stone walls to sing and dance as the last vestiges of sunlight disappear into darkness. Standing amidst traditional worshippers, some in black coats and hats, others dressed in white and others clothed in colorful outfits, locals and visitors become part of a vibrating mass of prayer and song, an encounter with history, tradition and a uniquely Jewish way of celebration.

There is no rush to go anywhere, or accomplish tasks. The world is refocused, suspended in time. Candles flicker from windows and sweet aromas tease the night air. This is what it means to join the prophetic vision of Ingathering, the return of the Jewish people to its historic homeland. 

Uniquely, Israel represents a potential that has reverberated throughout history, a dream that has inspired Jews through tragedy, suffering and despair. The shuk and the Kotel are symbols of this process of Ingathering. Secular and holy, these two meeting places symbolize what Israel is about.

Jewish achievements in science and technology, accomplishments in the physical world are not limited by geography; prayer, the expression of a spiritual dimension, is practiced throughout the world. But the process of Jewish Ingathering can and is happening only in Israel.

After 2,000 years of exile, the State of Israel has laid the foundations of Jewish sovereignty. Although at times conflicted and confused, this political expression of the Jewish people is the basis for building the Third Jewish Commonwealth.

The struggle in Israel between observant Jews and those who are not, between Right and Left, will continue, but, despite political and religious power struggles, Israel represents the necessity and nurturing of Jewish sovereignty.

Demographic scales are also tipping. Representing 2/3 of the Jewish birthrate in the world, Israeli Jews are increasingly becoming observant – reflected in every social index – which translates into political power as well.

Jews in Israel, therefore, stand at the edge of an historical revolution. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the threat of annihilation and abandonment, the tiny nation of Jews appears not only to have survived, but prevailed – at least for now.

Muslim-backed campaigns of jihad and delegitimzation, and genocidal threats from Iran and the Arab world render Israel's existence precarious. Abandoned by many in the international community, especially the UN and EU, Israel seems diplomatically isolated and alone. Although the wildfires of radical Islamism have scorched the Middle East and Africa, Israel flourishes. Miracles.      

Machne Yehuda and the Kotel are symbols of Jewish perseverance and presence, two prominant Jewish concerns – food and hope.

Those who witness this first hand, with baseball caps and streimels (fur hats), cameras and cell phones, speaking different languages, with different customs and traditions, those who taste and touch Israel's surprising wonderment, our spices and our stones, become part of that future. Eretz HaKodesh, the Holy Land, a land of blessings and sometimes difficulties. Welcome Home!

The author is a writer and journalist living in Israel.

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