JERUSALEM — Since Jerusalem’s traffic was temporarily snarled by the city’s fourth annual marathon this morning, our professors opted against touring as a group–and the troops of The Land went our separate ways for reporting. Some of us explored the Old City, others attended an Armenian Orthodox mass, and a few ventured to the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim. I was on assignment covering the marathon. After getting hopelessly lost, I walked the final 5.2-kilometer leg of the marathon route looking for the finish line. I was perhaps partaking in the most strenuous physical activity since mistakenly enlisted to run the relay in my sleep-away camp’s color war.
According to city officials, the marathon attracted 25,000 runners. It was similar to most other marathons, but parts of it were distinctly “Jerusalem.” Many participants were identifiably religious, as some men ran with carefully secured yarmulkes, and other young women competed in long skirts and leggings. The mood throughout the route was encouraging and celebratory – children gathered at intersections and heartily shouted “KOL HAKAVOD!,” the Hebrew phrase for “good job,” to passing runners, applauding for an extended period of time as the straggling athletes made their way to the marathon’s terminus in Sachar Park. Young families appeared to benefit greatly from Jerusalem’s sweeping street closures – I spotted a few parents teaching their respective toddlers how to ride a bike, and dodged soccer balls as groups of boys played in the empty streets.
As I huffed my way down the main drag of the marathon, Derech Hevron, muttering encouragement to myself and praying the race’s end was imminent, other classmates were comfortably situated on sunny hotel rooftops.
Harry Stevens and Evan Simko-Bednarski spent the morning on the top floor of Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Hotel, interviewing the priest who is coordinating logistical aspects of the impending papal visit to the Holy Land. News of the visit has prompted confusion among Israelis, as contradictory articles report that the trip has been canceled, while other sources claim the trip is proceeding as scheduled. Evan mentioned to me his satisfaction with the priest’s candor, and marveled at the extent of the preparation that goes into even the briefest of official visits. Evan reported that all 140 rooms at the Notre Dame are reserved for members of Pope Francis’ entourage.
Meanwhile, my peers Lisa Malykhina and Poppie Mphuthing proved to be directionally challenged kindred spirits—lost in Jerusalem’s Old City. They wandered aimlessly through the Muslim and Christian quarters, Lisa said, dawdling at jewelry and trinket kiosks and making small talk with local vendors.
“We tried to find our way to the Jaffa Gate, and all of a sudden we hit a security checkpoint,” Lisa said. They had mistakenly arrived at the Western Wall, in the Jewish Quarter. They decided to venture in.
By early afternoon, I reached the marathon finish line, briefly observed the festivities at Sachar Park (including, but not limited to, a group of Israeli children bouncing on trampolines to Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love”) and quickly realized that I was a mere two blocks away from the Mahane Yehuda Market, the outdoor marketplace or “shuk,” a prime location in which one can participate in and witness Jerusalem’s weekly pre-Shabbat hysteria. By sundown Friday, Jerusalem had effectively shut down, leaving a window of a few precious hours for locals to purchase everything needed for Sabbath dinners. Shoppers wielded bags of freshly baked challah, produce, flowers and wine and shoved their way through a crush of passersby – Israeli soldiers returning home for the weekend, tour groups of American high schoolers and Chabad Lubavitchers enticing men to wrap tefillin, small black leather boxes with Torah verses enclosed. The market is, as Israelis would say, a “balagan” or chaos, but it perfectly encapsulates the significance of the weekly Sabbath in Jerusalem. I scurried back to the hotel to ready myself for our own Sabbath celebration.
The group convened in the hotel lobby at 5 p.m. and walked to the suburb of Baka for Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kehillat Yedidya, a modern orthodox synagogue and the house of worship for our very own Professor Gershom Gorenberg and Ophir Yarden, our local guide and educator. The congregation was founded by British and American ex-pats nearly 30 years ago. It incorporates modern elements into worship, specifically the paper-thin and opaque dividers that split the men and women’s sides of the sanctuary. The dividers are a quintessential element of Orthodox practice, yet the thinness, and thereby impermanence, demonstrates the synagogue’s efforts to incorporate women into worship and services. Ophir suggested that the dividers were perhaps more ceremonial than utilitarian. The Shabbat service was quick and festive – the centerpiece was undoubtedly the rousing rendition of “Lecha Dodi,” the prayer that welcomes the Sabbath. Men and women chanted melodically and passionately in Hebrew, eventually turning to the back of the room in order to bow and symbolically greet the Sabbath “bride.” It was especially stirring and powerful for this reporter, who ordinarily sings Lecha Dodi with groups of apathetic American Jews.
We dispersed, again, after the service to homes of Yedidya congregants, who hosted pairs of us for Shabbat dinner. My roommate Patricia Guerra and I were greeted at the synagogue by Ya’acov, the 21 year-old son of our Shabbat hosts. Beverly and David are Australian and British ex-pats. They peppered us with questions about our Covering Religion class and our journalism school experiences. Beverly’s Shabbat menu was exhaustive: an appetizer of hummus, babaganoush and roasted vegetables, bowls of vegetable soup, roasted chicken and cous cous, and a mixed fruit salad. The atmosphere around the dinner table was warm and jovial. We shared stories of our world travels, expressed our mutual love for California, and listened to anecdotes of how Beverly and David met (“over a photo copier – very romantic,” he said). Ya’acov volunteered to walk us home – a chaperone was much appreciated considering my struggles navigating Jerusalem alone – and the tree-lined streets of our Jerusalem suburb were silent and serene, if only for one day.
Lead Photo Credit: Market in the Old City, Jerusalem (The Land/Jihii Jolly)