Left to right: Devorah Abramson, Yehudit Dribben and Sheva Chaya blow the shofar at Miriam’s Well on Lake Kinneret. (photo by Aviva Spiegel)
In the annals of the current COVID-19 pandemic, artist Maureen Kushner has a rare happy story – and likely the only one dating back some 3,500 years.
For the last 12 years on the anniversary of the death of Miriam the Prophetess on Nissan 10 in the Hebrew calendar, New York-born Kushner has been chartering a vessel from Tiberias-based Holyland Sailing Ltd. to bring a boat full of women to the spot on Lake Kinneret where, according to Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:1), the mystical spring known as Miriam’s Well now rests.
Typically, 126 women and children (corresponding to Miriam’s age when she died) equipped with rams horns, violins, harps, drums, flutes, guitars and tambourines have made the maritime pilgrimage. They sail on the Sea of Galilee, also called Lake of Gennesaret, to what Jewish tradition considers the exact spot where the miraculous spring that supplied the Children of Israel with drinking water during their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert ended its own journey.
This year, the yahrzeit (death anniversary) of Miriam fell on Friday, April 3, immediately before Passover. Kushner – who is named in Hebrew after the miracle-working older sister of Moses and Aaron – booked the sailing for Thursday, April 2, in order to allow Sabbath-observant women from Jerusalem and other distant cities to join in the fête. All was set for this year’s celebration when Israel’s Health Ministry locked the country down in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Thanks to those regulations, which at their most severe restricted Israelis to remaining within 100 metres of their home and still prevent almost all non-citizens from landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, the pandemic has somewhat abated. Recently, the Health Ministry began lifting its pandemic regulations.
Without any tourists arriving, the pilgrim boats remained moored in Tiberias and at Kibbutz Ginosar for three months. But, on Wednesday, June 3, the ministry allowed Kushner and her social distancing-reduced group of 40 women and children – each bringing facemasks, water, hats, sunscreen and kosher snacks – to make their 135-minute voyage on the lyre-shaped lake. When the vessel King David raised its anchor, it was Holyland Sailing’s first boat trip since quarantine regulations went into effect.
“What a hallelujah for our beloved Kinneret!” said Kushner, who was the artist-in-residence at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver in 2005. “What a hallelujah in honour of our great, great, great Hakodesh Baruch Hu [the Holy One Blessed Be He], who is filled with goodness and compassion and love and blesses Am Yisrael [the Jewish people] with rain and dew and sustenance and a good life here in Eretz Israel, the good land.”
Kushner was especially excited that this past winter has seen heavy rains that filled Israel’s main freshwater reservoir to the brim, at 209 metres below sea level after five years of drought.
“The Kinneret is full! In great and abundant thanks to Hashem [God] in the zechut [merit] of Miriam Hanivia [Miriam the Prophetess], we celebrated with shofarim, drums, flutes and the harp,” she said.
Miriam the Prophetess today has become a popular figure for many Jewish women.
The Torah relates she was married to Caleb ben Yefunah. Though she died in the wilderness of Zin, her widower miraculously carried the spring named in his wife’s honour across the Jordan River on Nissan 10, the anniversary of her death, explained Kushner.
Miriam’s death is described in Numbers 20:1 and, in the next verse, the Israelites are described as complaining of the lack of water at Kadesh. The text reads, “Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation.”
In Jewish texts, this abrupt transition between her death and the lack of water was explained by postulating that a “Well of Miriam” appeared after she died. Further elaboration identified the rock that Moses struck to bring forth water in Exodus 17:5-6 with this well.
So powerful was the tradition of Miriam’s Well in Judaism that, even after the spring disappeared into Lake Kinneret some three-and-a-half millennia ago, it has occasionally miraculously appeared in the Diaspora.
According to Chassidic lore, once, just before Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre prayer began, Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1751-1821), who was the sage of Nagykálló (Kalov in Yiddish) in eastern Hungary, called on his assistant Rabbi Yaacov Fish to harness his horse and wagon. The two set out to Fish’s fields, where they found a small pool. Immediately, the holy man disrobed and immersed himself, while Fish stood by transfixed. After the Day of Atonement, Fish returned to his fields, but the pond had disappeared. Fish asked his master, “Rabbi, as you know, despite our long friendship, I never mix into your affairs. But I beg you to enlighten me about the pool of water that appeared and disappeared so mysteriously in my fields.”
The holy man, who founded the Kaliver Chassidic dynasty, smiled: “If Rabbi Yaacov had had the sense, he would have dipped himself the same as I did, for, at that moment, Miriam’s Well passed by.”
Gil Zoharis a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.
(Note: This article has been updated from the print version to note that Maureen Kushner was the artist-in-residence at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver in 2005.)
Israeli artists Yair Levi and Shai Sol sing Moses’s prayer to heal his sister Miriam of leprosy. The song, “Refa Na,” has resonated with people during the pandemic.
The song “Refa Na” (“Heal Her Now’”) by Israeli composer Yair Levi, together with vocalist Shai Sol, has become a global hit during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Based on Moses’s prayer to heal his sister Miriam after she contracted leprosy, the song was released on Levi’s Facebook page April 6. The lyrics include the words, “O Lord, heal her now. O Lord, I beseech thee. Then we will be strengthened and healed” (Numbers 12:13) and Levi’s original is in multiple languages: Hebrew, as well as English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Swahili. The song has been picked up in dozens of covers, from Lebanon to Argentina.
When Levi’s grandmother fell ill, he composed a tune incorporating Moses’s prayer for his sister’s wellbeing. The song has resonated throughout the world during the current pandemic, garnering hundreds of thousands of views and shares.
“My grandmother had an illness unrelated to coronavirus, but the pandemic obviously affected everyone, myself included,” Levi, 31, told Ynet news portal. “Due to the epidemic, I received the names of people in need of prayer and a list of about 20 names accumulated on my fridge. Every day, I would say a prayer for the sick, and I searched for words and a tune related to medicine.”
Then Levi remembered the “Al na refa la” prayer in Numbers.
“I took my guitar and composed the music for it on the spot and, since I have a recording studio in my home, I recorded the song within a week.”
Levi then approached Sol, a vocalist with Miqedem, a band that composes and sings Psalms all around the world.
“In quarantine and with no way to actually meet, she recorded herself,” Levi said.
After posting the song on social media, he said, “It was amazing. We received many responses and translations. Immediately after we released the song, it was shared online by evangelist Christians, Jewish communities, and even the Friends of the IDF organization.”
But not only the obvious audiences were enthusiastic.
“We have received cover versions from all over the world, including from a Lebanese singer, and, on Saturday evening, I received three new covers from Namibia … India and a Brazilian singer, Fortunee Joyce Safdie, who performed the song live on her Instagram page,” he said.
“Getting so many messages from people all around the world is incredible,” he added. “If I have the privilege to spread prayer around the world, to me, it’s just crazy. When people from all over the world translate and sing a prayer for health, it feels like it is literally the End of Times.”
During his three-year service in the Israel Defence Forces, Levi – who grew up in Israel’s secular mainstream – became intrigued by traditional Judaism. A turning point in his life came on May 31, 2010. Serving as a naval commando, his elite unit stormed the MV Mavi Marmara, one of six ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla attempting to breach Israel’s blockade of the coastal enclave. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the incident, while 10 IDF soldiers from Levi’s unit were wounded. After the sea battle, Levi was determined to join an IDF officer course. But, at the age of 26, he decided to pursue a musical rather than military career.
“I spoke with my commander, who told me people often regret what they had not done,” Levi said. “It opened my eyes and I realized that the flotilla incident pushed me in the direction of the course, but my real dream was to make music and become a singer.”
Levi has released two albums, Breathing Again (2016) and Let Go (2017).
“People see me as a religious person but I don’t like labels,” he said of his oeuvre.
Standing on the Haas Promenade in southern Jerusalem overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, the Ethiopian priests wore traditional clothing and carried parasols. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Approximately one-third of Israel’s 125,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community came from across the country on Nov. 27, the 29th of Cheshvan in Judaism’s lunar calendar, for the festival Sigd. The mass clan gathering takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur, just as the holiday of Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after Passover.
Sigd, derived from the Hebrew word for prostration sgida, celebrates the renewal of the covenant between God and the Jewish people that followed the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile 2,600 years ago, as described in the biblical book Nehemiah.
Symbolizing the Ethiopians’ rapid acculturation from rural Ethiopia to Israel’s high-tech start-up nation, many elders wore traditional clothing while teenagers preferred skin-tight jeans and Israel Defence Forces (IDF) khaki. Many celebrants were chatting on their cellphones.
The central event of the Sigd celebration was the priestly blessing by the kessim (spiritual leaders) in Geez, the sacred language used by Ethiopian Jews in their liturgy. Amharic, their traditional language today, has been widely displaced by Hebrew. Standing on the Haas Promenade in southern Jerusalem overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, the priests wore traditional clothing and carried parasols.
Prior to being rescued from persecution and poverty in Africa in a series of military and espionage operations, including Operation Solomon in 1991 and continuing until today, Ethiopian Jews would ascend mountain tops above their villages in Gondar province for a mass Sigd prayer expressing their yearning for Zion. In Israel, the holiday has morphed into a day of thanksgiving for their rescue, as well their gratitude for the Torah and their cultural heritage, and most Ethiopian Jews under the age of 40 living in Israel only know those stories from their parents’ recounting. Children were not included in the Sigd observances in Ethiopia, both because of the difficulties of making a three-day trek up a mountain and to preserve the solemnity of the day.
Mingling with the colourful costumes and umbrellas of the older generation are the uniforms of the hundreds of Ethiopian men and women serving in the IDF. With the autumn temperature still summer-like, many youth are wearing skin-tight clothing that would have scandalized their elders in Ethiopia.
Among the elders is Rabbi David Yosef, a silver-bearded kes wearing a crocheted kippah, who explained how Sigd fits into the life of Ethiopian Jews.
The ancient community, which may date back to King Solomon and his dalliance with the Queen of Sheba 3,000 years ago, became cut off from mainstream Jewry, he says. More historically, Jews lived in Ethiopia from before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE when the Babylonian conquerors of the Holy Land arrived. Driven into exile, these Jews considered themselves to stem from the tribe of Dan, one of the 10 lost tribes. Many were compelled to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries but the community continued to dream and pray for a return to Jerusalem.
Starting in 1973, Ethiopian Jews suffered terribly under the dictator Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. When Israel became aware of their plight, significant investigation and research was done, leading to a rabbinic ruling that accepts the Ethiopian Jews as part of the Jewish nation, entitling them to immigrate to Israel under the Jewish state’s Law of Return. That paved the way for 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to move to Israel. But then Mengistu forbade Jews to leave the country, and that led to the decision to covertly bring them to Israel. The 2019 Netflix movie The Red Sea Diving Resort recounts one of the Mossad’s rescue operations.
Nevertheless, some Israelis disputed the Ethiopians’ status as Jews. Rav Yosef carefully explained the Ethiopian Jewish engagement and wedding ceremonies and asserts that their practice conforms to the mishnaic description in Tractate Kiddushin (part of the Oral Law) of what constitutes proper Jewish betrothal. The community has always preserved its ritual status as Jews, he insisted.
“We missed Jerusalem for thousands of years,” he said. “Today, in Jerusalem, we celebrate … but, just as we say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the Passover seder, so, too, at Sigd, we pray for a rebuilt Jerusalem.”
For Ziva, a 20-year-old from Ashkelon with braided hair, the Sigd celebration is a significant milestone. “I feel like it’s a day of unity for us,” she said.
For the young woman, who arrived in Israel with her parents 12 years ago, the observance of the ancient holiday reminds her that “there’s so much to remember.”
Giving the celebration the government’s seal of approval, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev both spoke, while President Reuven Rivlin delivered a video message.
The Ethiopian chief rabbi in Israel, Reuven Wabshat, said that, after the mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the decision had been taken by the community to continue celebrating the holiday, even though its essence is about the yearning to return to Jerusalem. He said the decision was made so that the community would not forget the “powerful heritage of Ethiopian Jewry,” and to help Israeli society understand the travails experienced by the Ethiopian Jewish community throughout their history.
The rabbi asserted that it was crucial for broader Israeli society to understand the Ethiopian Jewish community’s heritage and that it is an integral part of the Jewish people because of the “difficulties” the community has experienced in Israel.
The Ethiopian community has frequently complained of discrimination and racism against it and, in particular, has suffered from over-policing and a disproportionate number of arrests and indictments relative to its size. The recent death of Solomon Tekah, killed by a ricochet following an altercation between a group of youths and a police officer, led to renewed claims of police brutality, as well as protests and riots by members of the Ethiopian community. A previous bout of protests was sparked when video footage emerged of police officers beating an IDF soldier from the Ethiopian Jewish community.
“As you know, in recent years, the Ethiopian Jewish community has had difficult experiences, because people do not know and do not appreciate what Ethiopian Jews went through, and looked at things which are not relevant, such as differences in place of origin, but not the internal aspects of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Wabshat. “The Sigd holiday can bring people to the understanding and recognition that Ethiopian Jews are of the same flesh as all Jews around the world and, when the state recognizes Sigd, as it has, it means that we can all be one people.”
Among the kessim who participated in the prayers was Kes Mentasnut Govze from Beersheba. He explained how, in Ethiopia on Sigd, the Jewish community would travel to and ascend a mountain to “pray to God as one people with one heart that we would reach Jerusalem the next year and that the Temple would be rebuilt.”
Govze noted that, although the community has now reached Israel and Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s mission is not yet finished. “We still have not built the Temple and we must be clean,” he said. “If we go on the correct path, the path of the Torah, God will help us, we will build the Temple and bring the sacrifices.”
Member of Knesset Pnina Tamano-Shata described the holiday as “a big gift for Israeli society” since, she said, it could help unite the Jewish people. “It is so wonderful to see so many people here who are not from the Ethiopian community, and this holiday has become a holiday for all the Jewish people,” she said. “It is celebrated in kindergartens, schools, in the army, in local authorities, and the message is that this story is your story, it’s my story, and the story of all Jews, whether from Europe or from Arab countries.”
The MK said the identity of the Ethiopian Jewish community was strong, but noted the problems it has faced, including “difficulties which are connected to Israeli society, such as police violence, discrimination and racism,” but said the community has remained positive.
“We are positive and fully open to Israeli society, we are not in a place of antagonism, even though we have had a very hard, challenging and intensive year, and we are far from getting justice; nevertheless, everything has its time and period,” she said.
Michal Avera Samuel, director of the nongovernmental organization Fidel (Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel), said the thousands of people who came to the celebrations in Jerusalem came “to learn and understand the heritage of Ethiopian Jews, which is an ancient heritage, which every child should be proud of and pass on to the next generation.”
She added, “The goal is that, through studying in school and youth groups, we can teach the heritage of Ethiopian Jews, and build a courageous identity together with a sense of belonging within Israeli society.”
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem, Israel.
Laureen and Stephen Harper, centre left, and Daniel Atar, KKL-JNF world chair, centre, were among those who cut the ribbon at the Nov. 6 official opening of the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre. (photo by Michael Huri)
Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was in Israel earlier this month for a four-day visit with a delegation from the Jewish National Fund of Canada, where he took part in the dedication of the new visitors centre at JNF Lake Hula Park in northern Israel, which is named in his honour.
Budgeted at $25 million Cdn, one-fifth of which was raised by the JNF of Canada, the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre south of Qiryat Shmona is seen as “the flagship project of Keren-Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL),” the JNF’s Israel-based sister organization. Harper contributed to the cost of the project, and the auditorium is named for his wife, Laureen, in recognition of her service to Canada, friendship to Israel and dedication to the preservation of nature and wildlife.
Stephen Harper was honoured at the JNF of Canada’s 2013 Negev Dinner in Toronto. At the time, then-JNF chief executive officer Josh Cooper said: “Given his well-documented love of animals, we felt this would be an appropriate project to present to him.”
Now completed, six years after fundraising began, the facility promises to transform the experience of ornithologists and bird watchers who come to the Hula Valley. There, they can watch the twice-a-year seasonal migration of 500 million birds from more than 500 species, from Europe and Central Asia to Africa, and back.
The Hula Valley, located in the shadow of Mount Hermon, is considered the crown jewel of Israeli conservation efforts. Known in the Bible as Merom, up until the 1950s, it was full of swampland that was notorious for breeding malaria-carrying anopheles mosquitoes. In the 1950s, the wetlands were drained, with the hope that fertile farmland would result; instead, environmental devastation and the extinction of some indigenous species followed. Farming in the area was never successful and JNF ultimately decided to reflood part of the former lake.
Known in Hebrew as Agamon Hula (Little Lake Hula), the flat valley is filled with an array of birds, including cranes, pelicans and eagles. Visitors can observe the birds and also cycle around the site.
At the gala dinner Nov. 5 in honour of Harper, which took place at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke about the danger Iran’s nuclear ambitions poses for Israel, the Middle East and the West.
“Iran expands its aggression everywhere. It seeks to envelop Israel. It seeks to threaten Israel. It seeks to destroy Israel. We fight back,” Netanyahu said. “I also want to say, given Iran’s efforts to expand its nuclear weapons program, expand its enrichment of uranium for making atomic bombs, I repeat here once again – we will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons. This is not only for our security and our future; it’s for the future of the Middle East and the world.”
Netanyahu was particularly concerned about Tehran’s plans to start injecting UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) gas into the centrifuges to enrich uranium to five percent at the heavily fortified underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, located inside a mountain 32 kilometres northeast of the Shi’ite holy city of Qom.
Earlier in the day, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi promised that his country would violate the element of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Tehran had worked out with the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States). The United States left the deal last year and has imposed sanctions on Iran in an attempt to force it to renegotiate the document. Tehran, in turn, has begun violating the deal in an attempt to pressure the United States to recall the sanctions.
Under the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers, Iran agreed to turn Fordow into a “nuclear, physics and technology centre,” where 1,044 centrifuges would be used for purposes other than enrichment, such as producing stable isotopes, which have a variety of civil uses. The deal bans nuclear material from Fordow and, by injecting UF6 into centrifuges, the facility will become an active nuclear site rather than a research plant as permitted under the pact.
Since leaving Parliament after the Conservative party was defeated in the 2015 federal election by the Liberals, Harper has become president of the Awz venture capital fund advisory committee. The fund, founded by managing partner Yaron Ashkenazi, specializes in investments in Israeli security and intelligence startups, and manages $100 million in assets. The fund has invested in 12 companies to date, according to the Israeli financial website Globes.
Harper, an enthusiastic supporter of Israel, has visited many times. On Jan. 20, 2014, he addressed the Knesset plenum, saying: “It is, thus, a Canadian tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is convenient or popular. But, I would argue, support today for the Jewish state of Israel is more than a moral imperative, it is also of strategic importance, also a matter of our own, long-term interests…. For too many nations, it is still easier to scapegoat Israel than to emulate your success.”
About the education centre, he said in a statement, “This park is one of the greatest restoration stories, just like this country is to the Jewish people. It is a magnificent honour to have this centre named after my name, and I am grateful for this beautiful occasion.”
Gil Zoharis a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem, Israel.
Joseph’s Tomb, inside the gate. (photo by Gil Zohar)
“The bones of Joseph, which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt, were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob.” – Joshua 24:32
“‘And he bought the field where he pitched his tent.’ (Genesis 13:19) Said Rav Yudan bar Simon, ‘This is one of the three places regarding which the nations of the world cannot slander Israel and say, “You stole them!” The places are the Cave of Machpelah [in Hebron], the Temple [in Jerusalem] and the Tomb of Joseph [in Shechem/Nablus].” – Bereshit Rabba, 79:4
There’s little inspiration to be found in the unadorned tomb of Joseph, the favourite of Jacob’s 12 sons. The holy site, located in the gritty eastern outskirts of Nablus among parched olive groves and graveyards of wrecked cars, is today a flashpoint between those who revere the site – Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, Christians of all stripes, and the 600-member Samaritan community living on Mount Gerizim overlooking this West Bank city of 160,000. The traditional anniversary of Joseph’s death on Tammuz 27 (which fell on July 31 this year) is considered an especially auspicious pilgrimage time.
The group of 1,200 pious Jews, armed with permits and prayer books, arrived at the shrine in a convoy of bulletproof buses protected by the Israel Defence Forces. Most were Bratslaver Chassidim, who set great store in their practice of praying at the graves of tzadikim (righteous ones).
The IDF-escorted pilgrimage on the first Tuesday of every month often leads to riots. IDF sappers neutralized a pipe bomb hidden at Joseph’s Tomb prior to the visit of the 1,200 pilgrims and 12 Palestinians were injured during clashes with the IDF. The list of security incidents, arson and terrorism is long and bloody.
In the secular West, the story of Joseph – whose 11 jealous brothers sold their 17-year-old sibling into slavery in Egypt – has been popularized by the rock opera Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Librettist Tim Rice and fellow Academy Award-winning composer Andrew Lloyd Weber, along with actor Donny Osmond as Joseph, captivated audiences from Broadway to the West End with their account of Joseph’s rise to become the vizier, second only to Pharaoh in the Egyptian empire.
But Joseph, the hero of Bible and Quran stories, has hardly been given the royal treatment by Middle East politics. Dotan, where Joseph was thrown into a pit, called Jubb Yussef (Joseph’s Well) today is a ruined caravanserai that collapsed in an earthquake in 1837. Joseph’s tomb, enshrining the bones brought back from Egypt by the Children of Israel some 3,300 years ago together with the remains of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, has fared better.
The plain one-storey is called Qabr an-Nabi Yúsuf (Tomb of the Prophet Yúsuf) in Arabic and is revered by Jews as Kever Yosef ha-Tzadik (Tomb of Yosef the Righteous). The whitewashed limestone building is capped with a cupula and protected by a massive black gate. Barbed wire crowns the looming walls. Signposts in Arabic and English indicate the nearby sites of Tel Balata and Jacob’s Well. None directs visitors to Joseph’s Tomb.
Tel Balata is the nondescript Canaanite/Israelite Iron Age stratified archeological mound that few tourists bother to visit. Jacob’s Well is covered by a 20th-century Greek Orthodox basilica marking where the patriarch camped when returning to Shechem (ancient Nablus) from Paddan Aram in today’s Iraq. In one of the Torah’s three real estate deals – along with Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and David’s acquiring of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem – Jacob bought the plot of land from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. There, Jacob pitched his tent and erected an altar (Genesis 33:18-20).
Some 1,500 years later, Jesus “came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the field which Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s Well was there.” (John 4:5-10) Drinking water, he chatted up a Samaritan woman, known in Greek as Photine (the luminous one; hence, the church’s name, St. Photini). Christian pilgrims flock to the site to reverently drink drafts of cool water from the deep well in the church’s vault.
Across the street is Balata Refugee Camp, administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Today the largest camp in the West Bank, it houses 27,000 people in a quarter-square-kilometre site that was designated for 5,000 refugees when it was established in 1950.
Even for an intrepid, multilingual tour guide like this writer, it is daunting to find the unmarked way to the holy site. The drab building is located next to the Qadari Tuqan School, along a dusty unnamed road where only recently were sidewalks laid. The easiest way to find the landmark is to look for the Palestinian Authority police vehicle parked outside the locked gate. Then, one must locate the pair of PA police officers loitering in the shade nearby, smoking cigarettes and nervously fidgeting with their rifles. Ask politely in Arabic and they’ll let you in, no questions asked, no baksheesh (tip or bribe) required – just don’t mention that you’re Jewish.
Inside the locked gate, you’ll find a simple barrel tomb and the stump of a column of indeterminate age. There’s no evidence of the repeated vandalism that has punctuated the tragic history of Joseph’s Tomb since 1995, when Israel withdrew from the West Bank city, ending the occupation that began in 1967 with the Six Day War.
A photo from 1900 shows the well-maintained compound around Joseph’s Tomb. A carriage road facilitated the pilgrimage of pious Jews from the Old Yishuv who regularly came to pray there. The holy site stood in isolation. Nearby was the Arab hamlet of Balata, with eight houses.
The name Nablus is a corruption of the Latin Colonia Julia Neapolis, which was founded by the Roman emperor Vespasian in 72 CE. In the old city, in 1906, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II erected a clocktower to celebrate 30 years on the throne of the Sublime Porte.
In the Six Day War, Israel captured the territory, which had been occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since 1948. Once-somnolent Nablus experienced a burst of prosperity, though today, under PA self-rule, the Palestinian economy is floundering. Expanding from a population of 30,000, the city spread out to swallow the nearby villages, including Balata. Joseph’s Tomb became entangled in urban sprawl.
Jewish settlers began to frequent the mausoleum. By 1975, Muslims were prohibited from visiting the site, which some claimed was the tomb of Sheikh Yúsuf Dawiqat, an 18th-century Sufi saint. In 1982, St. Louis, Mo.-born kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh established the Od Yosef Chai (Joseph Still Lives) yeshivah at the site.
Conflict mounted following the Oslo Accords. Tensions boiled over in September 2000, in the wake of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. A full-scale battle broke out.
On Oct. 1, 2000, Border Police Cpl. Madhat Yusuf, 19, of Beit Jann in the Upper Galilee, was wounded in the neck in a clash with Palestinians at Joseph’s Tomb. Over the course of four hours, the Druze warrior bled to death because the IDF considered it too risky to evacuate him without a ceasefire.
A week later, on Oct. 7, 2000, the site was handed over to PA police. Within hours, Joseph’s Tomb was pillaged by Palestinian protesters. Using pickaxes, sledgehammers and their bare hands, they demolished the holy site. It was rebuilt by Italian stonemasons.
In the Bible, Joseph – the chaste and handsome prisoner – is wooed by an unnamed would-be lover only identified as Potiphar’s wife. Though many midrashim about Joseph are incorporated in the Quran’s 12th chapter, known as Surat Yusuf, the lady’s name is similarly omitted. However, within several centuries, various Islamic sources identified her as Zuleika. Among these medieval texts, the most popular was the epic Farsi poem “Yusuf and Zulaikha,” composed in 7,000 Persian couplets by 15th-century poet Jami.
The Sufi master regarded the story of Joseph’s temptations as an allegory for the mystical striving after divinity. In Nablus today, pilgrims continue to come to Joseph’s Tomb seeking that union. Alas, Israelis and Palestinians have not found a coat of many cultures to fit them both equally.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem, Israel.
An April 15 press tour took journalists to the Israeli side of the Jordan River. Joshua and the Israelites made their crossing here. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Seventeen bulletproof buses of pilgrims, plus one carrying journalists, spilled their contents April 15 at Qasr al-Yahud (Arabic for the Jews’ Castle) on the muddy banks of the not-so-mighty Jordan River, 10 kilometres east of Jericho. The buses were provided by the Government Press Office in Jerusalem.
The holy site is also called the Land of Monasteries because of the seven Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Ethiopian churches there. Until 2011, it was a fenced-off, closed military zone ringed by minefields. Qasr al-Yahud is revered by Christians as the place where John the Baptist immersed his second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth.
For Jews, the shrine marks where, on Nissan 10, circa 1290 BCE, Joshua bin Nun led the Children of Israel to ford the Jordan River and begin their conquest of the Promised Land. But, with the cold peace prevailing between Israel and Jordan, soldiers of the Hashemite Kingdom’s Arab Legion warily monitored the crowds, making sure that no brave souls crossed to the polluted stream’s east bank to reenact Joshua’s miraculous crossing on dry land.
As Joshua and the 12 tribes approached the river, they were met by the kohanim (priests) carrying the Ark of the Covenant. The Jordan then miraculously split for them – perhaps caused by a landslide in the earthquake-prone region that temporarily blocked the river’s flow – allowing them to cross. After fording the Jordan, Joshua erected 12 stones taken from the river at Gilgal, whose location today is disputed by historians and archeologists.
Symbolizing that the process of the Israelites conquering the Promised Land some 3,289 years ago is still underway, Palestinian teenagers in Jericho pelted the armoured bus in which the journalists were riding, smashing one of the shatterproof windows. No one was injured in the attack.
For this writer, the explosive sound of the thump of the rock on glass brought to mind Joshua’s advice when the Israelites marched on ancient Jericho to begin their conquest: “Be strong and of good courage.” (Joshua 1:9)
Qasr al-Yahud is a corruption of “the Jews’ break,” traditionally the place where the Israelites crossed over, that is, “broke” the Jordan River after their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert: “When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, even the waters that come down from above, and they shall stand in one heap.” (Joshua 3:13)
It was here, too, that Elijah the Prophet ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot after he and Elisha crossed the Jordan: “And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters; and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.” (2 Kings 2:8)
The strategic and diplomatic significance of the Jordan Valley were spoken about by retired Israel Defence Force (IDF) deputy chief-of-staff major general Uzi Dayan, who was elected to Israel’s Knesset (parliament) in the country’s April 9 general election.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and previously Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, spoke of the Land of Israel’s long centuries of foreign occupation, from the Romans to the British.
From 1948 until 1967, Qasr al-Yahud was under Jordanian control, and was a popular destination for tourists and pilgrims. In 1968, following the Six Day War, access to the site was prohibited by the IDF because of its location beyond the border fence in a closed military zone. In recent years, the Israeli Civil Administration – with the assistance of the tourism and regional development ministries – carried out infrastructure and development work at the site, including the clearing of mines. In 2011, the site was opened to visitors on a permanent basis without the need for prior security coordination.
Entering ancient Jericho, with its 8,000-year-old remains at Tel as-Sultan and two Byzantine-era synagogues, is another matter. Large signs at the entrance to the city proclaim in Hebrew and English that entry is prohibited to Israelis. In honour of the Nissan 10 celebration, however, Israelis were allowed to enter the city in Area A, the Palestinian self-rule section of the West Bank, which is off limits the rest of year.
And what of the minefields? One million square metres of land are currently being cleared of approximately 3,000 anti-personnel mines, antitank mines and other unexploded ordinance. The project is being carried out by Israel’s National Mine Action Authority under the direction of the Defence Ministry, together with HALO Trust, an international mine-clearance charity.
Crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall remove tens of thousands of written prayers from the Western Wall. (photo by Gil Zohar)
On April 10, equipped with long sticks, crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall removed tens of thousands of written prayers, which worshippers had wedged into crevices at the holy site over the previous half year. The painstaking work is done twice annually, in advance of Passover in April and Rosh Hashanah in September, to ensure space for new prayers. The notes that are removed are buried in Mount of Olives Cemetery.
The origin of the practice of placing small folded sheets of paper between the cracks of the 2,000-year-old ashlars is unclear. According to tradition, God’s female presence (Shechinah), has never left the holy site.
A retaining wall of the Temple Mount, built by King Solomon circa 960 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Kotel Maaravi (Western Wall) stands today beneath a religious plaza known in Arabic to Muslims as al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Jews believe the holy hill marks the navel of the world from where God began his creation 5779 years ago; the site also marks where Abraham brought his son Isaac to offer him up as a sacrifice. Muslims consider the Western Wall to be where Muhammad tethered his winged steed al-Burak when he ascended to the Seventh Heaven. And Christians believe Jesus was one of the millions of Jewish pilgrims in antiquity who came here during the festivals of Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost.
From 1948 until 1967, when East Jerusalem was under the control of Jordan, Israelis were prohibited from visiting the site.
The landmark synagogue before being
dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948. (photo from Wikipedia)
A cornerstone laying ceremony was held May 29,
2014, for the rebuilding of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Tiferet Yisrael
Synagogue, which was dedicated in 1872 and dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in
Speaking nearly five years ago, then-Jerusalem
mayor Nir Barkat declared, “Today we lay the cornerstone of one of the
important symbols of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The municipality
attaches great importance to the preservation and restoration of heritage sites
in Jerusalem, and we will continue to maintain the heritage of Israel in this
Citing Lamentations 5:21, Uri Ariel, housing
minister at the time, added, “We have triumphed in the laying of yet another
building block in the development of Jerusalem, a symbolic point in the vision
that continues to come true before our eyes: ‘Renew our days as of old.’”
The two politicians symbolically placed a stone
salvaged from the ruined building, and construction was supposed to take three
years, according to the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the
Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd. (JQDC), a public company under
the auspices of the Ministry of Construction and Housing.
Fast forward to Dec. 31, 2018, and the exercise
was repeated, this time with the participation of Jerusalem minister Zeev
Elkin, construction minister Yoav Galant, deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman
and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon. But, this time, according to the JQDC, much of
the project’s NIS 50 million (approximately $18 million Cdn) budget has been
secured, in part thanks to anonymous overseas donors. With the Israel
Antiquities Authority’s salvage dig of the Second Temple period site headed by
Oren Gutfeld completed, work can now begin in earnest.
Fundraising to purchase the land for the
Tiferet Yisrael, also known as the Nisan Bak shul, was initiated in 1839 by
Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn, Ukraine, (1797-1850) and his disciple Rabbi
Nisan Bak, also spelled Beck (1815-1889). While der Heiliger Ruzhiner
(Holy Ruzhyner), as his Chassidim called him, purchased the hilltop in 1843,
the mystic didn’t live to see construction begin.
His ambitious plans in Jerusalem reflected his
grandiose lifestyle in Sadhora, Bukovina, in Galicia’s Carpathian Mountains,
pronounced Sadagóra in Yiddish. There, he lived in a palace with splendid
furnishings, rode in a silver-handled carriage drawn by four white horses and,
with an entourage, dressed like a nobleman, wore a golden skullcap and clothing
with solid gold buttons, and was attended by servants in livery. This unusual
manner was accepted and even praised by many of his contemporaries, who
believed the Ruzhiner was elevating God’s glory through himself, the tzadik
(righteous one), and that the splendour was intended to express the derekh
hamalkhut (way of kingship) in the worship of God.
In one incident, described in David Assaf’s The
Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin (Stanford
University Press, 2002), the Ruzhiner’s Chassidim noticed that, notwithstanding
that their rebbe was wearing golden boots, he was leaving bloody footprints in
the snow. Only then did they realize that the gold was only a show and his
shoes had no soles. Indeed, he was walking barefoot in the snow.
Rabbis Friedman and Bak were motivated by a
desire to foil Czar Nicholas I’s ambitions to build a Russian Orthodox
monastery on the strategic site overlooking Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Bak
consulted with architect Martin Ivanovich Eppinger. (Eppinger also planned the
Russian Compound, the 68,000-square-metre fortress-like complex erected by the
Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society west of the Jaffa Gate and outside
the Old City, after the czar was outmanoeuvred by the Chassidim.)
Bak, who both designed the massive synagogue
and served as its contractor, spent more than a decade fundraising and six
years building it. Inaugurated on Aug. 19, 1872, he named the three-storey
landmark in honour of his deceased rebbe.
According to a perhaps apocryphal story, the
quick-witted Bak was able to complete the ornate synagogue thanks to a donation
from Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. In 1869, while visiting Jerusalem
en route to dedicate the Suez Canal, the emperor asked his subjects who came
from Sadhora in the remote Austrian province of Bukovina why their synagogue
had no roof. (In 1842, having spent two years in Russian prisons on charges of
complicity in the murder of two Jewish informers, Rabbi Friedman fled to
Sadhora and reestablished his resplendent court.)
Seizing the moment, Bak replied, “Your majesty,
the synagogue has doffed its hat in your honour.” The kaiser, understanding the
royal fundraising pitch, responded, “How much will it cost me to have the
synagogue replace its hat?” and donated 1,000 francs to complete Tiferet
Yisrael’s dome, which was thereafter referred to by locals as “Franz Joseph’s
Tamar Hayardeni, in “The Kaiser’s Cap”
(published in Segula magazine last year), wrote that, while the kaiser
made a donation, the dome was in fact completed with funds provided by Rabbi
Israel of Ruzhyn’s son, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov of Sadhora (1820-1883).
In the winter and spring of 1948, the dome
served as a key Haganah military position and lookout point for the Jewish
Quarter’s outgunned defenders.
Children were recruited for the battle for
Tiferet Yisrael. Some as young as 9 built defence positions. The “older” ones –
12 or so – carried messages, food, weapons and ammunition. Some were killed,
including Grazia (Yaffa) Haroush, 16, and Nissim Gini, 9, who was the youngest
fallen fighter in the War of Independence. Like the others who fell in the
defence of the Jewish Quarter and were buried there, his remains were exhumed
after 1967 and reinterred on the Mount of Olives.
Badly damaged by heavy shelling, the synagogue
was blown up by Jordanian sappers on May 21, 1948. A few days later, following
the neighbourhood’s surrender on May 25, the nearby Hurva Synagogue – the main
sanctuary of Jerusalem’s mitnagdim (anti-Chassidic Ashkenazi followers
of the Vilna Gaon) – met the same fate.
With the rebuilding of the Hurva completed by
the JQDC in 2010, Tiferet Yisrael became the last major Old City synagogue
destroyed in 1948 not rebuilt.
Hurva is a stone-clad, concrete and steel
facsimile of its original structure, updated to today’s building code and
equipped with an elevator. The same is planned for Tiferet Yisrael.
The reconstruction of faux historic synagogues
has not been without critics. Writing in the Forward in 2007 as the
Hurva was rising, historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, co-editor of Beyond Berlin:
Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past (University of Michigan Press,
2008), noted the manifold links between architecture, politics and memory.
“The reconstruction of the Hurva seems to
reflect an emotional longing to undo the past. It has long been recognized that
efforts to restore ruins reflect a desire to forget the painful memories that
they elicit. Calls to rebuild the World Trade Centre towers as they were before
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks represent a clear (if unrealized) instance of this
yearning. And the recently completed reconstruction of Dresden’s famous
Frauenkirche – long a heap of rubble after being flattened by Allied bombers in
February 1945 – represents a notable example of translating this impulse into reality.
“And yet, the reconstruction project is
problematic, for in seeking to undo the verdict of the past, the project will
end up denying it. Denial is inherent in the restoration of ruins, as is
frequently shown by the arguments used to justify such projects. In Dresden,
for example, many supporters of the Frauenkirche’s restoration portrayed
themselves as the innocent inhabitants of a city that was unjustly bombed in
1945, thereby obscuring the city’s longtime support for the Nazi regime and its
war of aggression during the years of the Third Reich. Similarly, the physical
appearance of the restored Frauenkirche – despite its incorporation of some of
the original church’s visibly scorched stones – has effectively eliminated the
signs of the war that its ruin once vividly evoked.
“In the case of the Hurva,” writes Rosenfeld,
“the situation is somewhat different. If many Germans in Dresden emphasized
their status as victims to justify rebuilding their ruined church, the Israeli
campaign to reconstruct the Hurva will do precisely the opposite – namely,
obscure traces of their victimization. As long as the Hurva stood as a hulking
ruin, after all, it served as a reminder of Israeli suffering at the hands of
the Jordanians. [Mayor Teddy] Kollek said as much in 1991, when he noted: ‘It
is difficult to impress upon the world the degree of destruction the Jordanian
authorities visited upon synagogues in the Old City…. The Hurva remnants are
the clearest evidence we have today of that.’ Indeed, as a ruin, the Hurva served
the same kind of function as sites such as Masada and Yad Vashem – which, by
highlighting the tragedies of the Jewish past, helped to confirm the Israeli
state as the chief guarantor of the Jewish people’s future.
“At the same time, however, it seems the
Hurva’s existence as a ruin conflicted with the state of Israel’s Zionist
master narrative: the idea that, ultimately, heroic achievement triumphs over
helplessness. In fact, in the end, it may be the project’s ability to confirm
the national desire to control its own destiny that best explains its appeal.
Israel faces many intractable problems that make present-day life uncertain.
But, in the realm of architecture, Israelis can indulge in the illusion that
they can at least control and manipulate the past. In this sense, the Hurva’s
reconstruction may express deeper escapist fantasies in an unpredictable
Rosenfeld’s theorizing about architectural
authenticity made little impression on the JQDC chair, Moti Rinkov. Indeed the
JQDC, together with the Ben-Zvi Institute, recently published High Upon High,
in which 12 historians trace Tiferet Yisrael’s history. Rinkov noted at the
second cornerstone ceremony: “The renovation and restoration of the Tiferet
Yisrael Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is one of the most important and
exciting projects I’ve taken part in. Rebuilding the synagogue is, in fact,
raising the Israeli flag in the Jewish Quarter. It’s truly a work where they’re
restoring the crown to its former glory and restoring glory to the Jewish
The rebuilt Tiferet Yisrael, together with the
Hurva, will engage Jerusalem’s skyline not as authentic landmarks but, as
Rosenfeld noted, “postmodern simulacrum.”
The other Tiferes Yisroel
In 1953, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, the
Boyaner Rebbe of New York, laid foundations for a new Ruzhiner Torah centre in
west Jerusalem to replace the destroyed Tiferet Yisrael. Located on the western
end of Malkhei Yisrael Street between the current Central Bus Station and
Geula, the downtown of the Charedi city, the Ruzhiner yeshivah, Mesivta Tiferes
Yisroel, was inaugurated in 1957 with the support of all of the Chassidic
rebbes descended from Friedman, who was the first and only Ruzhiner Rebbe.
However, his six sons and grandsons founded their own dynasties, collectively
known as the “House of Ruzhin.” These dynasties, which follow many of the
traditions of the Ruzhiner Rebbe, are Bohush, Boyan, Chortkov, Husiatyn,
Sadigura and Shtefanest. The founders of the Vizhnitz, Skver and Vasloi
Chassidic dynasties were related to the Ruzhiner Rebbe through his daughters.
A grand synagogue built adjacent to the new
Ruzhiner yeshivah also bears the name Tiferes Yisroel. The current Boyaner
Rebbe, Nachum Dov Brayer, leads his disciples from there. The design of the
synagogue includes a large white dome, reminiscent of the original Tiferet
Yisrael destroyed in 1948 and now being rebuilt.
Jerusalem sculptor Israel Hadany’s modern interpretation of the First Nations beacon. (photo from Jerusalem Foundation)
The Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit and Yupik peoples of the Arctic region of Canada, Greenland and Alaska built inukshuks with granite boulders to warn against danger, mark a hunting or fishing site, or stand as a direction marker. Like the traditional inuksuit erected in the treeless tundra, Jerusalem sculptor Israel Hadany’s modern interpretation of the First Nations beacon serves as a marker symbolizing friendship, family and hospitality, humankind’s responsibility toward one another.
On Oct. 17, Hadany’s four-metre-high limestone inukshuk sculpture was installed at the entrance to Canada House in downtown Jerusalem’s Musrara neighbourhood.
Hadany was the winner of a design competition celebrating 50 years of the reunification of Jerusalem, since the 1967 Six Day War. Toronto lawyer Lewis Mitz, president of the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada, initiated the challenge as part of a $4 million renovation of the Canada House community centre on Shivtei Yisrael Street, a location that is becoming increasingly popular with film and art students. Four other Israeli artists were invited to participate: David Gershoni, Ruslan Sergeev, Yisrael Rabinowitz and Ellia Shapiro. The competition jury that selected the winning design included representatives from the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Foundation and local residents.
“The inukshuk is a communication structure. Providing vital information for people to survive in the frozen Arctic; it isn’t merely a statue, rather an enchanted entity that guides man and seals his fate,” explained Hadany in a press release. “The sculpture tries to create a fascinating synthesis between the primordial and the innovative, between the formulated esthetics and magic.”
Inukshuk, he explained in his remarks at the unveiling of the sculpture, means “helper.”
The sculptor and environmental artist insisted his inukshuk be positioned alongside the street rather than in the courtyard of Beit Canada to increase its visibility. Initially reluctant to appropriate another culture’s symbol, Hadany came to understand that, rather than being decorative in the Western context of art, an inukshuk is “an information-giving object in the space. Emphasizing a religious space, directing people to where there is good fishing. It’s actually a language. It’s sculpture that creates a language in space.”
The judges wrote in their decision that Hadany’s proposal was a “classic sculpture that is suited to and connects with its environment. The artist presents an interpretation that respects the original without copying it. It is obvious that a great deal has been invested in planning and in the use of proportion, materials, light and shade.”
The sculpture was dedicated during the Jerusalem Foundation’s international conference in October in the Canada House garden. The playground around the inukshuk, which is still being landscaped, was a gift of the Joffe family of Calgary, Alta.
Inside the caterpillar shelter, an orange line indicates where one can safely stand beyond the range of flying shrapnel. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Miri Asulin personifies the contradictions of those who live in Israel’s cities and settlements bordering the Gaza Strip.
The 41-year-old mother of seven and principal of a brand-new elementary school in Ashkelon’s southern suburbs, 15 kilometres from the coastal enclave, commutes from her home in nearby Sderot, where she has been living for 26 years since she married. Until the barrage of 40 rockets fired from Gaza on the Sabbath of Oct. 26-27, she had dutifully and quietly followed Home Front Command orders. Though no one was killed in that bombardment, for Asulin it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Addressing a pool of journalists in an air-conditioned classroom in her fortified building – the week before this Monday’s attacks from Gaza, which included more than 300 rockets or mortar bombs that day alone – Asulin asked that we not mention the name of her school since she has not received permission from the Ministry of Education to host the media. But she is unwilling to risk holding the interview outside on a pleasant fall day, lest a Colour Red rocket alert siren begin wailing.
“After 17 years [of rocket fire], I decided not to be quiet any longer about what is happening to us in Sderot and the south,” she began. “An attack on any Jew is an attack on all the Jewish people.”
What was it like that Shabbat as the sirens went off?
“The children were screaming,” she recalled. The worst part, she said, was the feeling of helplessness in the face of a “merciless enemy. We worship life. They worship death. One side has to be defeated.”
She said, “I’m no longer willing to remain silent. I’m not a politician or a cabinet member. I’m a mother.”
Asulin has witnessed the creeping paralysis of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Children have reverted to [being] bed-wetters, afraid to go to the bathroom alone. We’re going to have a generation of IDF soldiers who are traumatized,” she warned.
Ninety-four percent of Sderot’s children have PTSD symptoms, she said.
Mental health professionals treating PTSD say the best strategy for coping with psychological warfare is to maintain one’s daily routine. But those professionals urging resilience are themselves vulnerable and suffering from chronic burnout.
Asulin couldn’t sleep all night following the rocket barrage. “My body is in trauma,” she said. “I’m in shock.”
“With a snake, you cut off its head,” she said. Calling for reprisal attacks, she urged the Israeli government to kill 10 Hamas terrorists for every rocket fired.
As visceral as Asulin’s trauma is, Sderot itself shows few signs of the 25,000 Qassam rockets and mortars that have targeted the city and nearby kibbutzim for 17 years, killing 56 people. The city of 26,000 has no shattered glass, no bomb craters and no burned-out buildings. Superficially, Sderot looks green and prosperous.
Alon Davidi was reelected mayor in the Oct. 30 municipal elections, reflecting the satisfaction – or the apathy – of Sderot’s populace.
“Sderot is one of the most bombarded cities [in the world] since World War II,” according to Noam Bedein, the founder of the Sderot Media Centre. To his abiding frustration, there is no military solution to the rockets fired intermittently from Gaza, he said.
Paradoxically, Sderot has been experiencing a construction boom in recent years, he explained. Founded in 1952 as a dumping ground for new immigrants from Morocco, the development town struggled in obscurity even as newcomers arrived from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and India. The turning point came in 2013, he said, when the rail line opened, linking Sderot and nearby Ofakim and Netivot with Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva. Attracted by low real estate prices and tax benefits, tens of thousands of people have relocated to the former development towns and nearby communities. Construction cranes, new shopping malls and a burgeoning skyline of high-rise apartment towers reflect the wave of commuters who flock to Sderot’s underground train station. Two thousand apartments have been purchased in Sderot since the 2014 war. The population is projected to double in the coming years, to 50,000 people. Relatively few families abandon Sderot, in part because the value of their homes won’t allow them to purchase equivalent housing in the more expensive centre of Israel.
Everywhere in the city, bomb shelters have sprouted like mushrooms after a rain, making Sderot the bomb shelter capital of the world. Hoping to lower the odds in the game of Russian roulette, the ubiquitous reinforced concrete structures have been strategically placed so that one can race to a shelter anywhere in the 15 seconds notice that the siren provides. Every bus stop has an adjoining shelter.
A colourful concrete caterpillar crawls through a playground. There are no steel doors. Bedein explained that the precious seconds it takes a child to pull open a heavy door could mean the difference between life and death. Inside the caterpillar shelter, an orange line indicates where one can safely stand beyond the range of flying shrapnel.
Rabbi Ari Katz, the director of public relations at Sderot’s Hesder Yeshiva – where soldiers combine religious studies with army service for five years – has broad perspective on the rockets targeting Sderot. Originally from Chicago, he lived in Gush Katif until 2005, when the Israeli government uprooted the 8,000 Jews living in the Gaza Strip. It was that unilateral disengagement, followed by the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, which created the conditions for the current rocket campaign, he said.
“We’re in a standing pattern, waiting to see what will be,” he said. Standing on the roof lookout point, which offers a panoramic view towards Gaza, one kilometre away, he proudly pointed to the new construction edging towards the frontier.
“They see the cranes,” he said, referring to the people of Gaza. “They think we’re crazy.”