With the gray stool that I bought when my 25-year-old was one year old, I leave the house. Down, through the flower-filled courtyard and out to the street. I look up at the nine-night-old half-moon in the darkening sky. In six nights it will be full. I cross the Cardo, that renewed Roman thoroughfare, and stride down Rehov Hayehudim. I find myself walking behind two women, one in carpet slippers, one in rubber thongs, each with a black stool in her right hand. I turn left into the Hurva Square while the women walk ahead. I cross this main square of the Jewish Quarter and turn in to the remains of Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue, built in the second half of the nineteenth century as synagogue of the Old City’s Hassidic Jews. It was blown up by the Arab Legion after the fall of the Jewish Quarter in 1948.
According to legend, this synagogue owed its 22-feet-high dome to the quick wit of its founder, Nisan Bek, who took the visiting Austrian Kaiser, Franz Josef, on a tour of the Jewish Quarter. Completion of the construction of the synagogue was hindered for lack of funds (it was only completed in 1876) and it had no dome. When the Kaiser commented on the missing dome, Nissan Bek replied, “The synagogue has removed its cap in his Majesty’s honor!” Understanding the situation, and appreciating the wit of his host, the Kaiser responded, “And how much will it cost me to put the cap on?” And with this, the Kaiser donated a sizeable sum towards the completion of the building.
The Book of Lamentations will be read here tonight, Tish’a B’Av. Several other men and women hold similar stools. We all buy them for our toddlers, but on the night of the Ninth of Av, they are ours. We gather in the open courtyard that was the basement of the once-magnificent synagogue, and on the metal steps that lead to the pathway above the courtyard. This pathway is the level that the main prayer hall had been.
I pull out my flashlight and copy of the Book of Lamentations from my backpack. Others light candles. Some manage to sit under the halogen lamps. The sky has become a velvety black, the half-moon, a shining silver. Rabbi Pozen sits on the metal steps, his back to the eastern wall of the synagogue where the Holy Ark once stood. Nothing remains of the seven-sided stone bimah, surrounded by a wooden bench. He unrolls the parchment scroll. I sit on my gray stool, right above him; I see the Scroll of Lamentations with its unique layout for the first time, though I hear it read every year. He chants in his strong, deep, melodious voice, in a dirge. A security helicopter rumbles overhead. I raise my eyes a moment from my book and see its white headlight and red and blue tail-lights. This night, when thousands visit the Old City and converge at the Western Wall, security is tight.
In the dim light, we all silently follow Rabbi Pozen’s chant. I love the rhythm of the Prophet Jeremiah’s poetry, for poetry it is, his images vividly horrific.
After Rabbi Pozen rolls up the scroll, he continues with the chant of lamentations. At their close, I continue down to the Western Wall. Thousands are here: many of the men sit in circles on the ground or on low stools like my own, chanting lamentations, while many more stand behind the circles, as onlookers. Most communities are represented here tonight, but I don’t see any circles of Ethiopian men, only some Ethiopian women in the women’s section, and some teenage girls sitting on the low wall. Near the back wall, sit a large circle of Yemenites, chanting in unison. I recognize them by their unique pronunciation, which is hard for a non-Yemenite to understand. Some young men, from European, Hassidic backgrounds, stand staring at them. Is it possible that this is the first time they have come across Jews so unlike themselves? Can they imagine how much, as observant Jews, they have in common? Two lieutenants, their M16s at their side, sit on the ground in the circle and chant together with long-side-curled, black-suited Yemenites.
Two doves soar out from a crevice in the Wall, above our heads. The neon lights make their white wings shimmer in the black sky. If I still believed in the fairies of the tales I was brought up on as a child, I would believe that these were they. I try to catch them in my camera-frame, but they are far too fast for me. They perch on a ledge on the northern wall. By now, the moon is higher and brighter. The helicopter that I saw above Tiferet Yisrael circles above the worshippers at the Wall, from the women’s section to the men’s, and disappears behind the northern wall, only to reappear seconds later in another circuit, its bright front light like a twinkling star. The whirr of the helicopter, the chant of the Yemenites and the hum of the crowds create their own symphony.
A three-and-a-half-year-old boy with huge dark eyes and long black eyelashes comes and stands next to where I sit on my stool. His face is next to mine.
“La-la-la-la…” he sings, trying to join in the Yemenite chant.
“Sh-sh-sh,” his big sister tries to hush him. He turns to her for a second, and then turns back to face the Yemenites and the Western Wall.
I feel his childish song, in all its pure desire to join in the adult chant, only adds to the symphony of sound.
We all pray that next Tish’a B’Av should be transformed to a feast, as the Prophet Zachariah says it eventually will. But in the meantime, even the dirge of Lamentations and lamentations at the Western Wall, with the swarms of people, young and old alike, as on the festive night of Jerusalem Day, and sunrise of Shavuot and Hosha’ana Rabba, has a definite festive element.