We walked in small groups, some twenty-five women. Each woman in a different size shoe, a different style; some in sandals, some in flats some in laced oxfords, others in platforms, heels, Nikes and boots, and one woman in battered slippers. She couldn’t walk, she shuffled, stooped over, moving slowly from Beit Hadassah in the ancient city of Hebron to the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Where Jews walk, the countries where they settle, the cities they depart from is the story of their lives.
My friend Esther had organized our group of Jerusalem women who visited the settlers in Hebron every few weeks. We were nearing the end of the last century, having folded our banners after standing vigil every afternoon protesting the Oslo Accords at the busy intersection in the Rechavia Valley opposite the Knesset. We were never more than five women at the traffic lights, careful never to clash with police directives.
The Oslo Accords were followed by the Palestinian Arab uprising, the intifada that took the lives of over a thousand innocent civilians and Israel combatants. And then we walked behind their coffins, at their funerals, even on Tisha B’Av, fasting, in sneakers, listening to eulogies about martyrs. Prime Minister Rabin had labeled those innocent victims, “korbanot hashalom” - peace offerings.
Oslo and intifada years in Israel are a memory that seem like a bad dream. Yet it really happened. We spent a number of years traveling from Jerusalem to Hebron, travelling in bullet proof buses, or guarded minivans.
After the 1997 Hebron redeployment, whereby over 80% of Hebron was handed to the Palestinian Authority, and Jews remained isolated, living in constant danger in small enclaves near the Cave of the Patriarchs, Esther encouraged our group to help our Jewish brothers and sisters feel connected, filling their empty streets with visitors.
We were dropped off on shabby street corners of the ancient city, and then we walked. We walked past overflowing smelly garbage bins, and slimy alley cats, and rubble from crumbling old stone buildings. We bought ice cream and candy at a local Jewish grocer, we drank coffee and ate bourekas in the only Jewish eatery, and we bought art directly from local artists in poorly maintained studios. We listened to inspiring lectures in private homes, were given tours of ancient ruins, and we walked along the Shuhadah, its shops shuttered by the Israeli military for security reasons, often with bullets flying over our heads. Arab men and boys stared irately at matronly Jewish guests walking leisurely along the main street that was once the market center of the city.
Praying at the Machpela, the shrines above the tombs of our matriarchs, was the high point of those visits. I felt connected. My maternal great grandmother was named Chaya Sarah. My paternal great grandmother was Rivka. I do not bear either of their names, still, I sensed connection.
Perhaps my connection is through my father-in-law z”l, who left his town in Lithuania, and fled from the Russian army draft to Palestine in 1924. He was among the first small group of students to join their esteemed Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, at the start of Yeshivat Chevron Knesset Yisrael in the city of the patriarchs.
My father-in-law did not live in a dormitory, he boarded in the home of his Rosh Yeshiva until June 1929 when he married an American, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who arrived in Palestine in 1928 with her mother, who facilitated seeking a suitable shidduch for her daughter. The newlyweds lived on Rechov Hebron was a fully paid for legal acquisition that became a memorial in the heart of the city, as in the famous slogan we had carried on our protest banners, “Hebron, then and forever.”
Lilienblum, in one of the first buildings to line the street in little Tel Aviv. Six weeks after their marriage, the couple planned to spend Shabbat in Hebron, but were forced to remain in Jerusalem. The British had closed the road to Hebron in anticipation of the Arab uprising. Saved from the horrendous tragic Shabbat massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron, Rabbi Epstein requested that my father-in-law sail to America to help raise funds to build a new Yeshiva in Jerusalem. An American wife provided a much sought after visa entry to the United States.
Where Jews walk, the countries where they settle, the cities they depart from is the story of their lives. The Almighty pointed the way for Avraham and Sarah in Parshat Lech Lecha, and thousands of years later, in 1960, my husband and I followed. We honeymooned in Switzerland, Parshat Vayera, and arrived in Israel, Parshat Chayei Sarah. Our connection to patriarchs was the warm welcome we received, and the friendship extended by the Roshei Yeshivat Chevron and their wives in Jerusalem, survivors of the 1929 Hebron massacre. Neither my husband, z”l, nor I ever imagined we would walk the streets of Hebron, a city that in 1960 was part of the 'West Bank', under Jordanian rule.
On June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six Day War, Rabbi Goren, then army Chief Chaplain, returned from Hebron to the newly liberated Western Wall with the unconditional surrender in his hand from Sheikh Jaabri, then Mayor of Hebron. Rabbi Goren, was the first Jew in 700 years to enter the Machpela Cave.
Following the victorious Six Day War, we joined hundreds of euphoric Jews climbing the tall wide stairwell of the main entrance to the Machpelah, a set of mosques above the burial caves. Jews with shofarot in hand blew shofar at each of the graves below. Candles were lit, and men and women, their eyes brimming with tears, experienced monumental joy at our return to the burial site of our patriarchs and matriarchs. The short row of steps at the side of the building where Jews had once been allowed to stand and pray, was no longer there. The myth, and fear that anyone who dared to step below the seventh step of this holy site automatically died, was dispelled. Jews who dared to move up or down any steps to enter the Machpelah Cave were no longer murdered.
Photo: The Cave of the Patriarchs, Hevron pr
Hebron, a mystical, biblical city, the site where Avraham Avinu purchased a cave and the surrounding fields to bury his wife Sarah. It was a fully paid for legal acquisition that became a memorial in the heart of the city, as in the famous slogan we had carried on our protest banners, “Hebron, then and forever.”
I continue to walk, not in heels, I walk in laced Reeboks. I continue to walk, not with a group of women, yet I never walk alone. A mask covers my face. I walk around my neighborhood park in Jerusalem, a feeling of connection to patriarchs and matriarchs that are part of our family narrative. I wonder about the future. What kind of shoes will my descendants wear? Where will they walk? Will they also wear masks? Will they need masks or will masks become part of antiquity? Early morning Jerusalem air is essential balm for my soul.
Arriving home, I unlace my shoes, remove my mask, and listen to the news. Strange to listen to news anchors commending demonstrative anarchy, behavior that is like idol worship in the age of the patriarchs. I switch stations and listen to news of the Abrahamic Accords, peace with Arab princedoms, considered historic diplomatic success. Yet for me it seems to hold biblical, end-of-days, prophetic proportions. Lambs and wolves walk side by side.
I think about parting from one's country of birth, about Aliya to Israel. Not a simple decision, for most it is a difficult act to follow, yet a blessing, and reason for celebration. The weekly Torah readings depict our courageous patriarchs and matriarchs who recognized one G-d and followed His instructions.
This year, the Torah readings are particularly meaningful. Parshat Lech Lecha, Vayera, and Chayei Sarah are the Torah portions of personal departure from America, and our arrival in Eretz Yisrael. These portions are links in a long chain of eternal connection. Then, as now, they tell of the blessings of a people in its land; my blessing of three generations of progeny in the land; and the blessing of my own sixty years in Jerusalem. This season, this year, is a time for gratitude and praise; the closure of one sixty year cycle that opens the road leading to the next blessed sixty.