03 July 2011

The Customs of Israel

Our Iraqi Jewish cab driver picked us up outside Zion Gate at around 9.30 pm tonight to take us back to the other side of town.  We had spent the afternoon and evening in the Old City, starting outside it at Yemin Moshe and then moving up into Jaffa Gate, the Southern Wall excavations, the Kotel, and then an evening with Rabbi Dr Daniel Sperber, a brilliant theorist and Israel Prize winner for his seminal work, "The Customs of Israel."

His home  in the Old City stands at the nexus of Jewish, Christian and Armenian Jerusalem; his library is built from an old 19th century synagogue attached to his house, and all over his home are artifacts from the period of the Mishnah that he's found over the years in the Arab shuk.  Keys, locks, idols, amulets, mirrors, utensils from the ancient period, and then scrolls, charms, spinning wheels, eternal lights, wood-carvings from Torah arks left on the refuse heap after the Jordanians retreated in 1967 from the ruins of destroyed synagogues left over from the War of Independence.  Oh, and books.  Thousands and thousands of books.  An other-worldly amount.

Up on the rooftop, outside the library, the sun set a pink and lavender hue across the western sky as the new moon hung lower over Mount Zion.  Rabbi Sperber explained his views on the ordination of women as orthodox rabbis (in favor.)  Fireworks crackled in the northern quadrant; the muezzins called from the east; Al Aqsa and the Dome of Rock glowed.  If holiness had a fighting chance, this was it.

In the cab riding back, I fed directions to the driver who volunteered his story and then, once on stage, seized the opportunity to wax philosophic about Jerusalem's inherently exceptional nature.  I was hardly in the mood to disagree.  I rolled my window down, gulped the air, bantered with driver.  "In Jerusalem, even the secular have a level of holiness," he said, handing me my receipt, adjusting his kippah, wishing me a good night.

"Be healthy," I wished him in Hebrew.

"Amen, Amen," he said.

Walking back toward my apartment, passing through San Simon Park, I had a strange thought about the triumph of love.  I thought of the dreaded years of the Second Intifada, when every day it seemed a bus blew up, a terrorist killed, when bodies and despair reached unimaginable and intolerable levels for so many Israelis.  And I thought of the newspaper articles I agree with--despair over a dysfunctional government; an inability to negotiate and get to peace; an equal intransigence and dysfunction on the Palestinian side as well.

And the strange thought on the triumph of love was this:  During the worst waves of terror, the collective Israeli consciousness (if one could dare speak of such an outlandishly unprovable mystical claim) decided to triumph, not only to survive but to thrive, to stake a claim, to insist with every fiber of its national being that Jerusalem was home to the Jewish people.  The immoveable object.  The eternal truth.  And there in the park, young men playing basketball under lights on a July night; a man walking his dog; two women talking, sharing a bottle of wine.  A cat, those crafty characters, scurrying beneath a rosemary bush.  And on the other side of the park:  customers linger in Shosh Cafe; men wander out of the Shteiblach Shul; two Haredi guys lean back on chairs against the fence of their school, trading stories, while a young man wearing headphones and an iPod dances ahead of me in the street without inhibition, conducting his arms into the rich black ink of night the greatest hip-hop symphony the world has ever known.

"The Customs of Israel."

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