The Jewish Community of Hebron
Well, I guess life is somewhat back to normal, whatever that is. The holidays concluded a week ago, and that’s given me time to take a deep breath and start to recover.
Maybe that’s not the correct phrase to use; recovery sounds like recuperating from something like surgery or other, not-so-positive events. In this case recuperation is not from anything negative. To the contrary: nothing could have been more positive. But still, recuperation was called for. That’s what happens after Hebron was privileged to host over 100,000 people during the week of Succot. That’s right: over one hundred thousand people. And somewhere between 50-60,000 plowed their way into the city on Monday of Chol HaMoed, the second intermediary day of the week-long festival. After a week like that, one must sit back, take a deep breath, and begin to figure out how to channel all the energy generated by such a week. I’m now starting to get back onto my feet.
Succot is always a happy holiday. Spending seven days in ‘booths’ – wood, or cloth-walled shacks, with many people eating all their meals and sleeping outside every night, is an invigorating experience. It is also humbling. One of the major concepts of Succot is pure faith. Strip a person of his security blanket, the protected rooms of his house or apartment, and the protection of a leak-proof roof over his head, and command him to reside for a week with palm-leaves or some other type of branch acting as a ceiling, and four flimsy walls around him, is a very good reminder of what we really are, And anyone who thinks otherwise can take a short journey in time back to the Tsunami, or 9/11. Our real protection clearly comes from above. The succot holiday is a good, annual reminder.
Actually throngs started flocking to Hebron not during Succot, but about a month and a half earlier, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, the last month on the Jewish calendar. According to reliable statistics, some 50,000 people arrived in Hebron from the beginning of Elul until Succot. So, altogether, in the space of just under two months, about 150,000 people visited Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and the Jewish community of Hebron. That’s a lot of people.
During the holiday week there were tours available in multiple languages. Walking down the street I bumped into groups speaking Russian, French, Spanish, Hebrew and English. Various vendors filled the park across from the Ma’ara, selling everything from wine to postcards. Hebron children lined the streets, offering food and cold drinks to the visitors. Other Hebron residents presented their wares, including art, jewelry and ceramics, all hand-made. It was a site to see.
The BIG day during the week was Monday. At nine in the morning a special “Carlebach” prayer service started in front of Ma’arat HaMachpela. Hundreds, men and women, squeezed into the central Succah just outside the Ma’ara. Accompanied by flutist Moshe Musa Berlin and his orchestra, Chizki Sofer playing the guitar and Hebron’s own Simcha Hochbaum, the service continued for three hours to the tunes of R’ Shlomo Carlebach zt”l, finishing just before twelve noon. The singing, dancing and worshiping were as uplifting as such a service can possibly be. But that was just the beginning.
By early afternoon there was a long line of people snaking their way into the Tomb of the Patriarchs. That line didn’t let up for hours. Inside, the building was packed. Just after one o’clock the famed Hebron music festival began, and the crowd started gathering. Very quickly the audience covered much of the courtyard and reached the street. Every half hour or so the performers changed, and as the afternoon progressed, the spirits continued to rise.
I was standing near the stage. At about four o’clock the word came in. MBD’s walking down the Erez path – will arrive in a minute.
For those of you who don’t know who MBD is…
Eleven years ago I wrote an article – on Oct. 15, 1995, called Mordechai the Tzaddik. It dealt with the world’s number one Hassidic singer, who had just visited Hebron: Mordechai ben David. I stick to my opinion of over a decade ago. He is still the best. And he is still a Tzaddik – a righteous person.
Not everyone is willing to come to Hebron. True, a hundred thousand in one week isn’t bad. But, that leaves at least a few million that didn’t make it. And unfortunately, too many of them have never been here. Yet there are those who can’t stay away. MBD is one of those.
The first time I remember MBD in Hebron was exactly 13 years ago. Hebron resident, Baruch ben Ya’akov was stabbed by an Arab terrorist on an October Friday morning (and not badly hurt, thank G-d.) The next night, after Shabbat was over, we heard rumors of a spontaneous concert to take place in Hebron outside Ma’arat HaMachpela. I came down from Kiryat Arba and found MBD, together with a few of his friends, such stars as Baruch Green and Avi Piamenta, (and others who I don’t remember) setting up a makeshift stage, with a very simple audio system. They came in to put on a show, as a result of the previous day’s attack on Baruch.
No headlines, nowhere near tens of thousands of people, no money. Just a group of the best of the best, performing for a small group of people who’d heard that the show was going to go on. Raising the spirits of Hebron’s Jewish community.
Over the years Mordechai ben David has continued to come into Hebron, usually for the Succot music festival, outside the Ma’ara. A few years ago, when our Arab neighbors were shooting at us from the hills, MBD would come in with a couple of buses of people and put on the same kind of makeshift show across from Beit Hadassah. With a local high school organist providing accompaniment, MBD sang his heart out for a couple of hours, with all Hebron participating, singing and dancing. When the shooting stopped and the festival moved back to Ma’arat HaMachpela, he continued his performances, not to a couple of hundred people, rather to tens of thousands.
A shtreimel (fur hat worn by religious Jews of certain Hassidic sects) perched on his head, his long ‘peot’ (side-locks) swinging with his walk, MBD’s most distinctive feature was the huge infectious smile glowing from his face. His whole charter gleamed with simcha – happiness.
A few of us hugged him and exchanged a few words of greeting. And then, in an operation characteristic of Israeli intelligence, we managed to get him and his accompanying guests into Ma’arat HaMachpela for afternoon prayers. That was not an easy task keeping in mind that about 50,000 people were waiting for him to appear. Had they known where he was, well, calling it a mob scene would be a severe understatement.
Upon conclusion of the prays in the packed Isaac Hall we again moved MBD out , this time using an entrance into Ma’arat HaMachpela that has been closed for the past 12 years or so.
Finally, at about 5:00 the show went on, and what a show it was. If earlier I used the word ‘generate’ to describe the energy of Succot in Hebron, here I would change that term to ‘radiate.’ The tremendous spiritual lift that MBD provided with almost an hour and a half of hassidic Jewish music was indescribable. The fact that tens of thousands were present, swaying and singing together with the him is proof enough. I later asked him if he felt Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’akov dancing next to him. He shrugged it off. I, on the other hand, have no doubt that they were there too. It would have been impossible to sleep through such show. I later wrote him that the energy radiated by his show will keep me going for a long time. And that’s the truth.
The show finally ended and Mordechai and his friends took a tour of Hebron with Noam Arnon before heading back to Jerusalem. I still stand by my thoughts of 11 years ago. MBD really is the best, and he really is a tzaddik.
The rest of Succot was full of people. Every day Ma’arat HaMachpela was full. It was probably the largest Succot holiday we have ever had in Hebron.
So, after it’s all over, what does it mean? It means that many many people, from all over, support Hebron’s Jewish community. And of course, not all our supporters were in Israel, or in Hebron at the time. The 100,000 that were here are just a fraction of the support Hebron has, in Israel and around the world.
And that support is not just for Hebron. All these people back Jewish settlement throughout Eretz Yisrael, be it here, or in Beit El or Shilo, and it goes without saying that they all oppose expulsion of Jews from their homes, as was done last summer, and as the present administration is planning on again trying to do in the near future.
However, their long-term goals will never be implemented. The setbacks we have faced are temporary. During Succot I was interviewed by a CNN crew who asked me about this subject and I told them, “G-d didn’t’ bring us back to Israel after a 2,000 year exile to throw us out again. This is our home. We are back, and we are going to stay.”
How? Quite simply, we have a secret weapon. Despite everything, it will never cease to exist. It is called simcha – happiness, true, unadulterated joy, such as we were privileged to witness here in Hebron during the Succot holiday. If you missed it this year, make sure to be here next year. It is an experience you will never forget.
With blessings from Hebron.
*************************Pictures and video on the Hebron web site