Old City and Rachel’s Tomb

After davening at the kotel, I went to the Old City in Jerusalem because I was anxious to see the newly rebuilt Churva Synagogue.  The Churva was destroyed by Jordanian forces during the War of Independence in 1948.  When the City was reclaimed in 1967, rather than rebuilding it, the Israeli government constructed a symbolic and impressive arc in place of the roof, and it became a monument memorializing its destruction.

A few years ago, however, the Churva synagogue was completely rebuilt, and I was anxious to see what it looked like inside.  Unfortunately, the last tour ended 5 minutes before I got there, and the guard at its entrance refused me admission.  I assured him I didn’t want a tour, I just wanted a quick peek inside and a chance for a snapshot, but he was unmoved.  Since this was my last visit to this section of Jerusalem before my return, I was especially disappointed.  Dejected,  I sat on a low stone wall as the sky grew dark, figuring out what I should do next.

I called my friend, a well-known author who lives in the Old City.  She was nice enough to drop everything and invited me to her home.

First, she showed me an etching by a British artist by the name of Roberts, who had drawn a picture of her house in 1850.  The original windows and basic shape of the house was unchanged.  However, where (in the etching) there had been an arched passageway to another courtyard, was now walled in.

After my friend moved into this house, she decided to scrape away at the wall to see if the arched passageway was really there as it had been portrayed in the etching.  Much to her delight, she found the lines of the original passageway.  She kept scraping.  Deeply carved into the doorpost was a rectangular cavity – for a mezuzah.  Clearly this home had been owned by Jews in antiquity, not Arabs!

After a few years of living there, they decided to remove an interior wall to open up the living room space a bit.  Inside this wall they found some shards, such as a cup handle and other miscellany.  Some of the relics were identified by archeologists as being from the  time of the Second Temple — but even more amazingly, one shard was from the First Temple period.  They also found the ornately carved top of a Roman column stuck and buried inside a plastered wall – someone had simply built a wall around it.  It now serves as a plant stand in their little garden.

Rachel’s Tomb now resembles a fortress

it no longer resembles the iconic domed building so familiar throughout the ages

The next day I took a bus to Rachel’s Tomb.  The bus leaves hourly for the ride into Bethlehem.  Because there had been several incidents of Arab attacks on Jewish worshippers on their way to the tomb, Israel enclosed the tomb and immediate area with high, thick, cement walls – – it now looks like a forbidding fortress.  Alas, the original domed stone structure housing the tomb, so well-known from artistic depiction, is no longer even visible.  But it does feel safe.

these elderly Yerushalmi ladies board the bus six days a week to pray at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem

On my bus there were two native Jerusalemite women in their nineties who were barely able to walk, yet they come to Rachel’s tomb on the bus on a daily basis.  They carry booklets of verses of Psalms, and hand them out to other women on the bus.  By the time the bus reaches Bethlehem, the entire book of Psalms has been read by nearly everyone riding the bus.

she hands out tehillim booklets, so that everyone can finish the entire Book of Psalms before arriving at Rachel’s Tomb

Besides the merit of praying at Rachel’s tomb, I was anxious to see the parochet (ark cover) that was placed there nearly ten years ago.   The parochet is made from the wedding dress of a young bride named Naava Appelbaum.

Naava and her father, the beloved Dr. David Appelbaum, were having coffee and an intimate father-daughter chat at a local cafe on the eve of Naava’s wedding day. Dr. Appelbaum, the emergency room director of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital and founder of Terem emergency clinic, had just returned from a lecture he had delivered in the U.S.  the previous day, and wanted to spend some quality time with his daughter before the wedding.

On the eve of what should have been the happiest day of her life, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the cafe, taking the lives of the bride and her father.

Her wedding dress hung at the doorway of her room, never to be worn.  A parochet was made from Naava’s wedding dress, and donated to the ark at Rachel’s tomb.

Can one imagine the intense feelings one must have when gazing upon that parochet in Rachel’s Tomb?

And so I made a pilgrimage to Rachel’s Tomb, not only to daven and beseech “Mama Rochel” on behalf of the Jewish people, but to intensely share in the devastation, inspiration, sorrow, and awe  for a young bride whose life was so cruelly cut short.

One of my granddaughters is named after her.

Alas, the parochet was not there!  No one seemed to know what happened to it.  I finally met with a caretaker, who told me it’s being held by the rabbi stationed at the Tomb, “who guards it.”  Apparently the fragile fabric of the wedding dress could not withstand the tens of thousands of women visitors who drowned it with their kisses and tears.  The parochet is in the possession and care of the rabbi in charge of Rachel’s tomb.  Unfortunately the rabbi was not there when I was at the Tomb, so I was unable to request a chance to see it.

On the way back on the bus, I spoke at length with my seatmate, a religious Sephardi woman.  She was davening at Rachel’s Tomb in spiritual preparation for her daughter’s wedding day, which will take place tomorrow.  I wished her a hearty mazel tov and we talked about all the joys and stresses of marrying off our children.  Then she told me that she had recently been beset by misfortune:  her apartment had been burglarized and completely ransacked.  Since I had experienced a burglary a couple of months ago, I could certainly sympathize.  But her experience was a million times worse than mine:  not only was her house left a mess, the thief took every gift that had been given to her daughter, the bride.  Everything that was to be used to set up the young couple’s home was stolen:  pots and pans, linens, a camera, cash, new clothes, jewelry that the groom’s family had bestowed – – they even took cosmetics!  They were not people of means and she had no idea how they would repurchase everything. Ironically, the policeman who took the crime  report was an Arab, and he told her only, “You have to pray.”

The bride’s family asked their rabbi what they should tell the groom’s family.  “Nothing,” he said, “at least not until after the wedding.”  He suggested that the bride’s parents attempt to at least buy new jewelry that looked identical to the original jewelry that had been bought for the bride by the groom’s side, and so the bride’s parents took out loans so they could replace it and restore happiness to their daughter, while sparing the groom’s side unhappiness and embarrassment from the desire but not the means to replace their original gifts  This poor mother was crying out to “Mama Rochel” not in complaint of this extra unexpected financial burden, nor was she bitter or saying “why us?  It isn’t fair!”  She prayed only for her shopping expedition to be successful, and prayed that her daughter should have a happy marriage and a good life.

I was so touched by her situation, I reached into my purse and put some money into her hand.

“Oh no, thank you so much, but I cannot accept this.”  I insisted, but she would not take the money.

“Please,” I said, “it is not tzedaka.  It is simply a present from me to the bride, for her to use in any which way she pleases.”

Flustered, she took the money and showered me with tens of blessings.  If only a few of them come true, then I will be healthy, wealthy, live unto a ripe old age, have nachas from my children and have grandchildren that are leaders for future generations of the Jewish people!  (I only wish I could have  given more!)


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Tiger Mike on February 16, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    The first time I was at Rachel’s Tomb, more than 20 years ago, I recall that it was just a building in a gravel parkinglot. There wasn’t much around it. No problem getting there.

    I went there on my way to Hebron this past January (2010). it was like entering a maximum security prison. I felt like I was about to recieve a full body cavity search.

    All I could think was “What the hell has happened to this Land?”


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