Even before the day began, it was obvious that it was a day designated for tears. In fact, this year it was doubly so. And, all modesty aside, I have to admit that I was (embarrassingly) up to the task.
First I read a few excellent articles, and sobbed aloud. I watched several heart-rending videos, and likewise went through wads of tissues. And then, when the wail of the two-minute siren sounded at 11 a.m., I stood, choked out a number of pirkei Tehillim, and cried rivers of tears.
That, unfortunately, was merely the warm-up exercise.
Aside from being Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s annual Memorial Day commemorating the tragic loss of tens of thousands of soldiers, police, and victims of terror, this year it also marked 12 months since my beloved father left this world.
After countless phone calls back and forth, we had finally chosen the most convenient time of day for the children and grandchildren to meet in Yerushalayim, en route to Tatty’s kever on Har Hazeitim: 2:30 p.m. That would enable the men to leave during bein hasedarim in their respective yeshivas and kollelim, thereby missing the minimal possible actual learning time. It would also allow us to daven and say Tehillim with our minyan at Tatty’s gravesite and still make the return trip well before our none-too-friendly “cousins” returned from work, eager to begin their other activities of literally and figuratively terrorizing the Jews of the Old City.
Although Har Hazeitim is traditionally considered one of the holy sites in Judaism, it’s also undeniably a hotbed of violence and vandalism, and consequently one of the most dangerous venues in all of Israel. So much so that it is virtually unthinkable to venture there without an armed escort at any time, all the more so on a day like Yom Hazikaron, when the locals are especially trigger-happy and itching to make trouble.
So, aside from organizing a 15 passenger “tender” to transport our group, my brother had to coordinate a livui to accompany us to the kever and return us safely out of harm’s way. Sadly, that was easier said than done.
Multiple phone calls and entreaties later, our 2:30 p.m. chosen time slot was unceremoniously stricken from the proposed schedule, and the round of consultations resumed once more.
“We can reserve an armed escort for either 1:30 or 3:30,” my brother explained to each of us in turn. “There is nothing available at 2:30.”
Needless to say, we were all disappointed by the turn of events, but we unanimously opted for the earlier choice, preferring to be safely out of the area well before 4 p.m., when the local population of trouble makers was due to return home and commence their mischief-making once more.
The moked approved the 1:30 escort, but warned my brother that if our party was delayed for more than 15 minutes, they would not wait for us. Fair enough. We assured them that that would not present an issue.
Our own mini kibbutz galuyot therefore began at around noon, with over a dozen individuals resolutely departing their respective places of employment and institutions of learning, and heading to the designated rendezvous locations. Even my notoriously late immediate family members rose to the occasion, and defied their very natures in order to show our beloved patriarch the kavod he so richly deserved.
However, the reality of “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” resurfaced to haunt and taunt us yet again. Yom Hazikaron traffic was far heavier than on a normal day, and the tender practically crawled through the streets of Yerushalayim on its way to Har Hazeitim.
My husband, one of our sons and I drove in our own car from outside the city, but were eventually informed by our trusty Waze that we would be well-advised to walk the final 20 minutes or so to our destination, rather than navigate the clogged streets on wheels. So we parked in the municipal parking lot by Har Tzion, and hurried over the cobblestone sidewalks, me sliding precariously in my ubiquitous clogs, while they half-carried me to save precious time.
Our youngest son, whose yeshiva is situated in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, had already traversed this same route some 20 minutes earlier, and was now the first to arrive at the overlook of Yad Avshalom where we had instructed him to meet us.
Another son and his wife had made the long trek from their apartment in Elkana, and had met the tender at the designated first stop, along with a dozen other relatives. They continued to painstakingly make their way to the narrow street leading up to Har Hazeitim, while we, shockingly, preceded them by ten minutes or more. A quick glance up the steep street confirmed that, although there were quite a few of our Arab cousins in sight, there was no sign of our armed escort.
Unfortunately, when the rest of our contingent arrived nearly 15 minutes late, a frantic call to the moked informed us that our livui had already left. All our entreaties and heartfelt pleas fell on deaf ears, and we ultimately had no choice but to continue on our own.
As it turned out, that was the (relatively) good news. The tender that was taking us up that narrow, dangerous mountain road, arguably one of the most treacherous, in more ways than one, in all of the holy city, was a poor excuse for a van if ever there was one. No air conditioning, despite the high temperatures, ancient and decrepit looking both inside and out, it brought to mind vivid childhood memories of The Little Engine That Could. Except that, in this case, it seemingly could not!
Despite the driver’s repeated attempts to gun the engine, and make it up to the kever, the tired motor stalled time and time again. The cars and vans behind and alongside us honked loudly and often. It was hard enough to accommodate two-way traffic on a good day; this situation defied belief and tolerance.
Finally, the driver conceded defeat and found a place to turn his hapless vehicle around and descend the mountain to where we had begun. He pulled into a sorry-looking gas station, and opened the hood, as smoke poured forth into the hot Jerusalem sky. Then he began a series of frenzied phone calls to other van companies, in a desperate attempt to find us alternate means of transportation.
We passengers were hot, tired, and nervous. But we recognized that it could have conceivably been infinitely worse. If, G-d forbid, the engine trouble had begun when we were higher up the mountain, we could have chas veshalom been the proverbial “sitting ducks,” helpless in the face of rock-throwing attacks – or worse.
So although we were far from happy about the unfortunate situation, we made the best of the prolonged delay, davening Mincha with our family minyan, and individually learning Mishnayos and/or reciting Tehillim l’iluy nishmat our beloved Tatty.
Finally, after what seemed eons, our driver managed to locate a van in Ramot; the driver promised to come to our rescue as soon as he could. In the meantime, my brother had a light bulb moment, and decided to call the moked again, this time to request the 3:30 escort.
“You have to arrange for an escort at least 24 hours in advance, “ he was told, despite his impassioned protestations. So it looked like we were on our own once again.
The new van (in more ways than one) arrived at long last, and our weary band of travellers piled in to continue the journey begun hours earlier.
This time, the ascent was, b”H, relatively easy, and we made it to the kever without incident. We unhurriedly poured our hearts out in fervent prayer and shed a fair amount of tears, kissed the tombstone, placed our traditional small rock markers, and returned to the van for the trek down the mountain. A glance at my watch showed precisely 3:59 p.m.
My brother gave voice to what many of us had been thinking, “Baruch Hashem, Tatty was looking out for us. This could have chas veshalom ended quite differently.”
And as the driver dropped us off at our various stops along the way, we could not help but feel a sensation of warmth totally removed from the punishing outside temperatures. Every one of us, both individually and collectively, felt a double fatherly embrace on this day of double sorrow and introspection: the love of our recently departed earthly father, coupled with the protective hug of our Father in Heaven.
L’iluy nishmat avi mori, Harav Binyamin ben Yisrael Menachem. Yehi zichro baruch.