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The Wall Redeemed

By: Faigie Heiman Jewish Press Wednesday, May 30, 2007

(Editor’s Note: This is the sequel to Ms. Heiman’s May 18 front-page essay “Guns of Jerusalem,” accessible at www.jewishpress.com/page.do/21555/Guns_of_Jerusalem.html

Covered with sand and dust, his face the color of chalk, my husband resembled a nomad, shirt ripped, clothes and shoes much the same as one who just crossed a desert. Choked with emotion, he could barely speak when he returned late Thursday afternoon, the fourth day of the Six-Day War, from his first experience at the newly liberated Western Wall.

“I was there,” Sholom mumbled.

“Where?” I asked, frightened by his demeanor.

“I still can’t believe it – I was really there.”

Between gulps of tap water, he detailed his unusual day. Almost on impulse, he had traveled to the Kotel together with three other staff members of Boys Town Jerusalem. They’d been offered a ride by a non-Jewish acquaintance who drove them to Ramat Rachel, past the Arab village Zur Bacher, onto a winding road overlooking a breathtaking view of the Judean desert that led into the old city through the Lions’ Gate.

Abandoning their vehicle, they crossed Har Habayit by foot. In matter of moments they were squeezed into the narrow street facing the Kotel, where Jews for centuries had dreamed of praying.

For nearly two decades of Jordanian rule, Jews had been forbidden to enter that narrow street. Nineteen years our capital city had remained divided, and now, in three days, all the walls and barbed wire fences had come down.

* * *

In those years, letters, not phone calls, were the main lines of communication with our relatives in America. That night, after lighting a few candles – electricity had yet to be restored – Sholom shared his emotional high in a letter to his father:

Zeh Hayom Asa Hashem, Nagilah V’nismecha Vo

Erev r”chodesh Sivan, 5727

I do not remember any time in my life that I’ve been so overwhelmed by events. Both Faigie and I cannot believe we witnessed an artillery war unfold beneath our balcony. The highlight, three days later, this afternoon when I found myself in front of the Kosel Maarovi – and I’m not even sure how I got there. It was a dream revealed – one I never imagined would happen in my lifetime. I’m still breathless, unable to properly express the tremendous sense of gratitude to Hashem felt so strongly when I dovened mincha in front of stones, remnants of the Beis Hamikdosh.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren was surrounded by soldiers, paratroopers, and he displayed the unconditional surrender he received from Sheikh Jaabri the Mayor of Chevron. Rabbi Goren had just returned from the Meoras Hamachpelah, where he unlocked the door, and was the first Jew to enter in 700 years.

Miraculous events transpired this week and we were among the worthy to be here in Yerushalaim to witnesses the greatness of Hashem, and glory restored to our city.

* * *

By Friday morning, electricity and phone service had been restored in most parts of the city. We were in touch with my parents and exchanged experiences with them. Poppa had recuperated from his frightful Monday morning walk home with Momma, under shellfire, from the kindergarten on Aza Street to Shaarei Chesed, where he had said Viduy and Shema on the curb of a Rechavia street, fully expecting his soul to depart this world at any moment.

“As soon as I replace that wheel on my car, I’m coming to pick you up,” Sholom said. He knew exactly where he wanted to take Poppa, and he knew how to get there.

I remained at home, returning our apartment to its pre-war condition and preparing for Shabbat, while Sholom was out with Poppa and the children, on their way to Kever Rachel.

As Sholom drove into Bethlehem, my father’s knees weakened. He could hardly step out of the car or stand up, shocked by the unfamiliar setting, especially once he realized they’d driven on a road that was mined on either side, with Arab corpses still strewn about in abundance.

The streets bustled with Israeli troops, jeeps, tanks, and artillery.

“What are we doing here, Shulem?” Poppa bellowed at his irresponsible son-in-law. Bist de meshigge – and nuch with the children? We’re still in the middle of a war! Look what’s going on here, this is a war zone!”

Sholom laughed, but Poppa was serious – and scared. Dizzy from the sound of rumbling tanks and halftracks, watching the military weave in and out of Kever Rachel, he held tightly onto his grandchildren. His heart pounded with newfound sympathy and admiration for the young, fatigued Jewish soldiers while they too waited their turn to enter the small, domed stone structure that had been under Jordanian lock and key for 19 years.

Bending low, through the arched, narrow entrance into the inner sanctum of Rachel’s tomb, Poppa trembled at the new reality. “I couldn’t believe I was standing in front of Momma Ruchel’s keiver, and all around shoifros sounded,” he told us later.

It was Rosh Chodesh Sivan, and the Jews at Kever Rachel poured out praise and thanksgiving to Hashem for the miracles in our day. Poppa’s heart was filled with gratitude and awe as he bore witness to the return of Rachel’s sons to the heart of Eretz Yisrael.

* * *

Many families waited anxiously for news of their loved ones. Not all families of wounded soldiers and those missing in action had been notified. The war continued, and for many the outcome was tragic.

On Motzai Shabbat, Kol Yisrael confirmed that Israeli troops were right outside Damascus. The Golan Heights had been captured from the Syrians and the United Nations finally found its collective voice, calling for an immediate cease-fire. David had smitten Goliath, and the world feared an Israeli takeover of the Middle East.

Euphoria reigned as we strolled down Jaffa Road the following Monday morning. East Jerusalem’s Arabs were all around us – some visiting neighbors they hadn’t seen for nineteen years, some checking on abandoned properties, and some coming as innocent spectators, gazing at the victorious Jewish warriors.

Just like that, Jerusalem’s face had been altered. The walls between East and West had collapsed; a new era was set in motion.

* * *

Intensely excited at the prospect of walking to the Kotel for the first time, we prepared for that special day, which happened to be Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah. Sinai was in our hands, the Golan Heights were our eyes, and Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron were our heartbeat. Israel’s stunning victory had provoked an exhilarating reaction throughout the land, and the Yom Tov atmosphere was even more charged than usual.

As we trudged up and around the long winding road leading from Gei Ben Hinnom to Har Zion, and through Zion gate, I looked back to see thousands upon thousands making their way along the narrow, pebble-strewn path. One Jew followed another, each of us spiritually charged, the words of the Prophet Isaiah resounding with each step –“Kol zofayich nasu kol, yachad yiranenu…”

We streamed toward the Kotel, “with our young and our old, with our sons and daughters…for today, our Holiday to Hashem.” It was Chag Habikurim, and we were on that first trek up, to deliver the first of our thanks to the Almighty not only for having saved us, but for having returned us, exultant, to the holiest of sites.

The way to the Wall was not familiar; we just followed those ahead until we reached an area full of rubble. Army bulldozers had destroyed the deteriorating Arab neighborhood bordering the Kotel and puffs of smoke, pushed up by thousands of sandaled feet, rose in a cloud.

When that cloud split, the Kotel came into view.

The sight was forbidding. The ancient stones, untouched by time, seemed disparagingly different from those pre-1948 photos we’d all seen of a few old Jews sitting or standing in front of the Wall.

It was a strange scene: change had come swiftly, without debate, and in the wake of victory the area would never look the same. “Why did they have to bulldoze the area?” was a question repeatedly asked in the days immediately following the war.

We inched our way slowly, a little push here, an elbow there, until the stones were seemingly on top of us. I was afraid – afraid to finger, to touch, to kiss the Wall. I stared in disbelief before finally pulling my machzor from a bag. As I davened, tears of joy and gratefulness stained the pages.

Praying next to those ancient stones, a feeling of deep connection to our history washed over me. I wondered if the Jews at Sinai declaring “naaseh v’nishma” had felt the same awesome connection to Hashem, the Torah, and to one another as we did that Shavuot at the Kotel.

In retrospect, bulldozing the neighborhood to prepare a plaza in front of the Kotel was a positive act, a first giant step that opened the area to large masses of worshippers. Hakodosh Baruch Hu had returned the other half of our divided city to us after years of barbed wire fences and gray concrete walls. Jerusalem was reunited under God, the indivisible capital of the sovereign State of Israel.

On the fortieth anniversary of that victory, we recognize tremendous achievements – the rebuilding and settling of a land divinely reinstated. At the same time, we are faced with the hate and anger of nations who wish and threaten Israel’s destruction, as well as the self-destructive actions of some of our own people.

The decades since the Miracle of ‘67 have been defined by countless new battles, wars, and terrorist attacks. Rockets are still hitting our hills, valleys, and cities. We long for quiet days – a future described at the conclusion of the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:31):
“So may all your enemies perish, O Lord. But may they who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength. Then the land had peace forty years.”

Faigie Heiman was born and raised in Brooklyn and made aliyah in 1960. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and family. An accomplished short-story and essay writer, she is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.

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