April 20, 2024
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Jerusalem Tale: A Modern, Mystical Moment

I had landed in Tel Aviv or, more precisely, Ben-Gurion airport, early Friday morning. The late winter clouds only thickened as my driver drove me up Highway One, past Sha’ar Hagay and the mountainous approaches to Jerusalem. The road was familiar, yet it always seemed somehow fresh no matter the familiarity. I was in Israel to visit old friends and new clients, but mostly to make my annual pilgrimage to my father’s grave in Beit Shemesh. I had left my wife and kids back home. None of them could get away for even the week I had arranged: jobs and school proved too much of an obstacle. This year, 2001, the Second Intifada was raging, shrinking tourism as many in the States viewed even a short visit to Israel as too risky a proposition. Crossing a street where only the day before someone had blown himself up was too much for some to take. Bloodstains did not wash away very quickly; you only had to know where to look to make them out on the street crossing.

We entered the city at 9:00 a.m. Traffic was lighter than I expected. We drove to my hotel on Tchernichovsky Street; I checked in without a hitch. I was tired from my 10-hour flight and I headed to my room to take a short nap. I might have slept the entire day, but I was awakened about 1:30 in the afternoon by an alarm clock I hadn’t set. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I reached for my cell phone and called home to let them know I had arrived safely. I wasn’t in a mood to unpack (I never am), but I needed to shower and get ready for the Shabbat, which would begin at sundown, a mere three hours away. Jerusalem, centerpiece of the Jewish homeland, had a special connection with the Shabbat. The city, already a world spiritual center, only became more so on Friday evenings. A sense of peace and repose filled the streets and the population. The strife of the weekday routine, the conflicts, political and social, all took a deserved timeout. Too short though it was, the break was most welcome to resident and visitor alike…

The shower was hot and refreshing. As I was dressing, I remembered I had promised to call Bonnie, my trusted Israeli guide and dear friend, as soon as I arrived. I really didn’t have much time for touring on this six-day trip; also it was winter and it wasn’t all that warm in Jerusalem. I called Bonnie and after a short conversation agreed to travel with her on Sunday morning to the newly established IDF Museum of the Armored Division. Bonnie knew of my interest in military history. This new museum, in Latrun off Highway One on the way back down to Tel Aviv and the coast, seemed a perfect outing.

I soon took the elevator down to the lobby. The hotel seemed empty of other guests. The veteran staff, always attentive, was made up largely of Arab residents of Jerusalem. I recognized many of them from previous visits and they recognized me by name as well, always appreciated when you’re far from home. I would be dining at the hotel over Shabbat. But first, I had an important decision to make: where to attend Friday night services to usher in Shabbat.

Leaving the hotel, I walked north up Keren Hayesod Street, a three-block uphill climb to the intersection with King George Street. This was the heart of modern West Jerusalem, and the silence grew as the last rays of the sun bounced off the stone facades of the surrounding buildings. In my mind the choice of where to pray that evening had narrowed to the massive Great Synagogue of Jerusalem on King George Street itself or the small beit midrash adjacent to the Heichal Shlomo, the seat of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

The entrances to the two houses could not have been more dissimilar. The Great Synagogue was the product of the prodigious charitable efforts of American Jewry, its entrance-way doors tall, massive, and decorative, its interior breathtakingly large, ornate, and well-illuminated by countless chandeliers arrayed across the enormous sanctuary. The beit midrash seemed tiny by comparison, almost an afterthought by the builders. One could only reach its modest entrance through a back door off the main road. At the Great Synagogue a permanent chazzan, assisted by a choir, led the service; at the beit midrash a simple congregant would intone the prayers.

This particular evening I quietly entered the smaller house of worship. Inside several men were seated randomly, awaiting the start of the Mincha service. I reached for a siddur from the bookcase to my right, checking only to see if it was the appropriate nussach (version) to which I was accustomed. I sat down at an open bench, leaned back and waited. We needed two more men before we could start. I had a moment to survey my surroundings a little more closely, but my eyes quickly turned back to the siddur in my hands. Inside the dark blue front cover was an inscription, a tear-stained dedication by a family to a child they had lost in battle: “In loving memory of our son Gedalya who fell in battle to protect Israel. May his memory be a blessing to us al–5733 since creation (1973). The Rosenbaums.

The dedication was probably commonplace in this locale, I thought, but it made an impression on me. The everyday reality of conflict and loss in and around Jerusalem struck home profoundly at that moment. The chazzan suddenly began the service, jolting me from my private thoughts and, for the time, my contemplation of things memorable, but sad.

Dinner that night was followed by a lengthy Shabbat-morning service at the Great Synagogue. At lunch that afternoon at the hotel, I befriended a couple from South Africa, the Lerners, who were visiting their son Gadi, himself a student for a year at a Jerusalem seminary. They were hosting their son for lunch, no doubt fearing that he was tired of the institutional-type fare served monotonously at school. After the meal, we headed for the hotel lounge where we could spread out and relax. Steve Lerner looked to be in his mid-40s, lean and tall, his wife Chavi, a year or two younger, redheaded and friendly. Both were educated and educators. Our talk ranged from current events (a given in Jerusalem) to philosophy and garden care.

Steve: “It always amazes me to have the opportunity in Israel to walk in the footsteps, so to speak, of the characters in the Bible, to breathe the same air these historical figures breathed!”

Chavi: “I think it’s sad though to realize that the age of miracles is over, maybe never to return!”

Steve: “Who really knows how miraculous those days were? Maybe they seemed quite ordinary to the people of those times. And who knows what tomorrow might bring?”

I certainly couldn’t answer Steve’s question or add anything to the discussion, so after a while I left my new friends in the lobby and headed upstairs to my room and customary Shabbat-afternoon nap.

Sunday morning Bonnie came to pick me up at the hotel at 9:00 a.m. The air was cool for February, but the sun occasionally peeked out from the clouds above. We descended from Jerusalem on Highway One, reversing my trip from the airport on arrival. Within 20 minutes we reached Latrun, where a sign pointed to the IDF Armored Corps Museum. A short ride down a newly paved road brought us to the entrance gate. Bonnie parked her van in a shaded spot and we hopped out.

“You know, Joe, this is one of the most diverse tank museums in the world. They have collected vehicles from over 15 countries and dozens of actual models that you can examine up close if you want. But it’s more than that. It is Israel’s official memorial site for fallen soldiers from the armored corps of the IDF; right now they are completing a Wall of Remembrance to memorialize by name all those men and women who fell.”

I didn’t immediately respond to Bonnie’s remark; instead, we silently went about our business of viewing the displays laid out before us, rows and rows of tanks, too many to count and each one looking suspiciously like the other. We soon tired of the displays and ascended to the upper level of the site where the Wall of Remembrance was to be erected in the spring. We found a nondescript building on this level that we thought might give us shelter from the brisk, chilly winds blowing in the plaza. Entering the building, I needed a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the relative darkness. Soon I saw before me a sparsely furnished, low-ceilinged room in which stood three or four computer terminals. Some planks of lumber rested against the far wall; coils of wiring littered the floor. It looked for all like a project yet to be completed, but I randomly approached the terminal at the center of the room.

“This must be where they are constructing the planned museum archives. I don’t think it’s open to the public yet,” Bonnie cautioned.

Without hesitation I pressed the enter button on the keyboard in front of the computer, half expecting the blank monitor in front of me to remain so. After a moment’s pause the terminal shook slightly. Suddenly before me appeared a screen inscribed as follows:

“Below is the story of Sgt. Gedalya Rosenbaum who served with valor in the Armored Corps in the Golan and who fell in 1973 fighting to sanctify God’s name. During a fierce firefight against enemy forces, he dragged five of his comrades to safety at great peril to his life. He paid the ultimate price so that his comrades would live. May his memory be a blessing to us all. He was 22 years old.”

I stared at the screen rereading the message as the full impact of its contents seeped into my consciousness. I said nothing to Bonnie about the Friday-evening service at the beit midrash and the inscription in the front of my siddur. On the ride back to Jerusalem, Bonnie apologized for the cool weather and the unfinished nature of the memorial site. “You know, while you were visiting the museum shop, I asked the curator when she expects the memorial and archives to be up and running. She told me, ‘Not until the summer at best; we don’t even have reliable power to the terminals yet!’”

I sat in stunned silence at that remark and thought about Gedalya Rosenbaum and my two encounters with him: “Spirit world, the departed reaching out to the living–who really knows? The age of miracles may not quite have ended after all!”

Author’s note: Several months ago I asked a sofer I knew in Jerusalem to visit the beit midrash described in the story in an attempt to find the siddur that had contained the memorial declaration or hakdoshoh I had read those many years ago. He was successful in that search. Not to my complete surprise, he reported that the siddur I had randomly chosen to use that Friday night was the only siddur in the shul that contained a hakdoshoh for a fallen soldier!

By Joseph Rotenberg © 2014 Redmont Tales

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