June 2, 2012

Shabbat in Jerusalem is always my favorite day of any time in Israel. Whatever else is going on in your life, or in the national life of Israel, is set aside for 25 or so beautiful, quiet, joyous hours.

Without the noise of cars and buses and trucks, with a graceful, peaceful, walking pace to life the Sabbath breathes its restoring energy into you, creating something the doesn't really exist anywhere else in the world every single week. And in the month of June, when the morning air in Yerushalayim really is as Naomi Shemer wrote the avir harim tzalul kayayin, "the mountain air crisp as wine" while the rest of the day is warm but breezy and tremendously pleasant, the experience of living a Shabbat as God and human beings intend is sweet and lovely and perfect.

This morning we walked across western Jerusalem to three synagogues for our "shul-hopping tour" of very different, thoroughly unique and quite fine Shabbat experiences. The first stop was the Aleppo synagogue, called "Adis", a small, beautiful synagogue in the Nachla'aot section of Jerusalem that preserves the customs, melodies, and traditions of the Aleppo, Syria community that moved to Israel in the early 1900's. The Aleppo Jewish community that mostly managed to avoid the worst of attempted persecution throughout its long history and came to Israel intact, along with a magnificent carved wood wall that covers the side of the Temple that faces towards the Kotel, the Western Wall. Actually, I also heard a different story from my friend Rabbi David Wilfond, who says that he hears a story that they fantastically carved wall actually was commissioned after they came to Nachla'ot from a Damascus woodcarving artist, which would have been a kind of sacrifice for the Aleppo Jews, who don't think so highly of Jews from Damascus... sound familiar?

It is a lovely little synagogue, but more importantly a beautiful and very different service, with a special nusach, a musical basis, unique to the Aleppo congregation. There is a particular nobility to the service, and to the way different people take turns leading the prayers, all authentic in chant. On this particular Shabbat, for reasons I cannot discern, the first aliyah to the Torah was chanted far longer than is typical—it went on through about the first ¾ of the entire Torah reading, past the section that included the Priestly Benediction and into the description of the rites of the Nazirite, the longest public alilyah I have ever seen. I have no idea way, by the way, as otherwise the remainder of the aliyot were short divisions of the rest of the parshah. Watching the Torah reader turn the upright scroll, contained in an elaborately decorated wooden case, with a silk scarf covering his hand while reading was very cool. I was given an aliyah, but was not compelled to also chant the Torah, which was just fine. Naturally, I was then asked how much of a contribution I intended to make to the synagogue after Shabbat... They have begun restoring the fine murals at the top of the interior of the temple, which otherwise looks the same as on previous visits. A thoroughly enjoyable visit.

From the Aleppo we walked to the Italian synagogue, an ornate gem of a temple with beautiful carved and painted wood that has its own musical tradition, more major and western, as befits a community of 2000 years that began in Rome. Much of the interior was donated from the area of the Veneto, near Venice, however, and the language that you heard spoken was Italian, not Hebrew. This service, too, had an unusual element: the handsome young man with a fine voice who chanted the Haftarah—the story of Manoach and his wife and the visit of an angel that predicted the birth of Samson—followed the Haftarah by chanting a long and quite pretty pizmon, an additional poem in the Italianate tradition that seemed to have many references to marriage and joy. I asked the gabbai if this was because he was to be married soon, but he said no—it just was the pizmon added always for this particular Haftarah.

The feel in the Italian synagogue is very different from the Aleppo: more relaxed, more chatty, with little bambinos running up on the bimah, more smiling and humor, more looking up at the pretty women in the Women's gallery—visible behind an elaborately carved screen that hid very little—more, well, Italian. The elegance of the sanctuary, not more or less beautiful than the Aleppo synagogue although somewhat larger, is definitely of a different and more western culture. Both both preserve living traditions of great antiquity with substance and style.

A secular note: Café Aroma opposite the courtyard of the Italian Synagogue was actually open Saturday morning, and filled with chilonim, secular Israelis enjoying their morning coffee, newspapers, and friends. A different way to celebrate Shabbat, and in a city mostly full of closed stores an interesting contrast. It proved that the continuing turn of Jerusalem towards the religious is not, fortunately, so complete that it precludes enjoying Shabbat in your own way while preserving the quite and difference of the holy day.

Our third stop was the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, where an outstanding tenor cantor the Musaf Amidah magnificently with the full 36 voice male choir in the huge sanctuary. The music was suitable for an opera hall, and the huge sanctuary, with a women's gallery about halfway to heaven, way up high, never fails to impress. I am not sure it is really beautiful, but it certainly gets and holds your attention. The style of the service, that of a classic Eastern European choir synagogue, could not be more different from the other two services, which are also quite different from one another. The a capella (unaccompanied) beauty of complex western arrangements of great synagogue melodies are performed flawlessly, and in a very different way it is just as authentic a presentation as the other two synagogues, if much more elaborate and formal. Truly a great morning of Jewish experience that can only be had in Jerusalem.

From shul(s) Wendy and went to lunch with three friends of mine from rabbinical school days and their spouses and some of their kids. There is nothing like delicious food with friends to complete a Shabbat in Israel. Nearly 21 years ago the four of us sat together in a classroom at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, meeting for the first time. Three now live and work as Reform rabbis in Jerusalem, and the food and conversation were delightful and, as so often happens, extensive... Wendy and I walked back to the hotel, reminding ourselves how delightful it is to walk in a city dedicated to that form of transportation on a beautiful, flower-filled Shabbat in early June.

Our tour group divided over Shabbat, with John Kitagawa and Kathy leading the St. Philip's crew through the leading Christian sites, while we had our Shabbat journey. In the afternoon many enjoyed the same Ramparts Walk I wrote about two days ago, led by Muki, our outstanding guide.

After some much-needed Shabbat menucha, rest, we enjoyed a sweet Havdallah in the small ampitheater in Liberty Bell Park next to our hotel, and then headed into town for a little bit of post-Shabbat Israeli popular culture. On the bustling mid-Rechov, the large pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, we experienced for the first time a taste of the economic protests that roiled Israeli society last summer. We happened upon a pretty large—several hundred people, plus some police kind of passively watching them—group of mostly young people rallying for economic justice, carrying sings, playing drums and other musical instruments. It was a peaceful, musical, almost joyous young protest of economic inequity in Israel today, with signs like, "If the government opposes the people the people will oppose the government." There was certainly no violence, and lots of college-age, and post-army age young men and women marching, singing, and now and then shouting. A great spectacle to see, and not up to full summer strength yet, by all accounts, but an impressive display of very public, very free speech.

Sunday we visit Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and follow that with an archeological dig. It has been an outstanding trip already...

Shavua Tov!

L'Shalom v'rei'ut mei'Erets Yisrael, in peace and friendship from Israel,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon