Recently my wife and I spent Shabbat in Jerusalem with some friends. They made aliyah a year and a half ago and invited us to spend the day with them in the Holy City.
On Shabbat morning Ken and I, with two of his children, made our way to the Old City, to the Muslim Quarter, about a 35-minute walk. The Jerusalem winter air was crisp, cold and clear. Just as I remember it from when I first lived in Israel, in Jerusalem, some 37 years ago.
As the sun rose, lighting up the sky with a seeming sanctity that might only be sensed in the holiest city in the world, we walked briskly down the street, onto Aza Road, and then down Agron. Crossing the main street we entered an area I’d never visited, the Mamilla promenade. It is really a combination of the old and the new. Externally it has a kind of quaint atmosphere, but the storefronts are far from old-fashioned, selling anything and everything you can imagine, at prices I’m sure aren’t from the Middle Ages.
The walkway led to narrow stone stairs, directly in front of Jaffa Gate, leading into the Old City. As we crossed from the twenty-first century into a time warp going back about 2,000 years, I recalled the first time I’d crossed that threshold, back then. The day after we arrived – it was probably late Friday morning – I stood outside that huge stone wall, waiting for all the group to arrive so that we could all go in together. I remembered the excitement, the anticipation, knowing that in a few moments we’d be marching to the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem.
It’s a little different today. The “gate” is no longer there, just a big opening, like a hole in the wall. But walking through an almost empty Arab market, down the smooth stone stairs, under arches people are used to seeing only in pictures, it was quite a feeling.
We didn’t make a right turn toward the Kotel, to pray at the Wall. Rather we turned left, into the Muslim Quarter. We walked past a memorial to Elchanan Atali, a young yeshiva student murdered there some 21 years ago. And then, on the left side of the road, we came to a door with a sign hanging on the wall: “Chazon Yechezkel Synagogue – Young Israel of the Old City of Jerusalem.”
Young Israel, of course, is an association of Orthodox synagogues, located primarily in the United States. There are some here in Israel as well. This particular Young Israel is located about 5 minutes from the Kotel, in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Walking up the stairs in what must be a fairly old building, I came to the sanctuary, a small haimish room, with a few people already in attendance. It was then about 7:10.
Standing in the middle of the room, by the pulpit, was an older, scholarly, kindly looking man studying the weekly Torah portion. I introduced myself, telling him we have a mutual friend living in Chicago. He asked if I was from there too; I told him I’m from Hebron. He told me he has a son there. I responded that his son was my youngest son’s teacher in the yeshiva high school in Kiryat Arba.
Then I sat down and listened to his Torah shiur.
Rabbi Nachman Kahana really is a great Torah sage. He has authored well-known books, is an accomplished speaker and a leader of the Jewish presence in the Old City, and here, in the Muslim Quarter, where the Jewish presence has grown by leaps and bounds over the past years, thanks to people like Rabbi Kahana.
And if the name rings a bell, yes, he is the brother of the murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane.
One theme repeated itself in Rabbi Kahana’s talks on Shabbat – the need for Jews to live in Israel. Most of the people attending the rabbi’s synagogue are former Americans who came to live in Israel, some many years ago, others more recently.
There were some young men also in attendance who perhaps hadn’t yet made that fateful decision to stay in Israel rather than return to the U.S. I’m sure his words, which he spoke in both English and Hebrew, didn’t fall on deaf ears.
Whenever he’s in Israel, my friend Jack from Chicago usually turns down my invitations for Shabbat, saying he prefers to be with Rabbi Nachman Kahana in the Old City. Now I know why. It’s an unbelievable experience.
Actually, the Young Israel of the Old City isn’t really so young; it’s a segment of the chain of Jewish history, culture and Torah, adjacent to the holiest place in the world, the Temple Mount.
Rabbi Kahana and his congregation are helping to ensure that this site will remain Jewish forever.
David Wilder is a longtime activist, writer, spokesman and lecturer on behalf of Hebron’s Jewish community, where he resides.