Yom Yerushalayim

Forgetting Jerusalem

May 21, 2009
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Photo Credits: Shlomit Wolf, Jerusalem, Israel.

At many Jewish weddings, the custom of breaking a glass is often accompanied by the recitation or singing of ‘Im Eshkachech’:

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.”

But let’s be honest for a moment. Even as we say (or sing) this poignant reminder, we are already busy forgetting Jerusalem… and bracing to yell ‘Mazal Tov!’ to the bride and groom.

The problem here seems to be one of context. We’re at a party and yet we’re being asked to set aside our anticipation and happiness for an inconvenient moment of introspection. Yes, we dutifully recite the words, but they are about as heartfelt as the ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a parent might coax from a child whose eyes are fixed on a treat.

The same contextual conundrum exists for the modern Jewish condition. Yes, technically we are still exiles. But few Jews today can conjure an authentic mental image of being dragged from Jerusalem in chains, much less a genuine, soul-wrenching longing for return.

The two lines of ‘Im Eshkachech’ are taken from the middle of Psalm 137, Jeremiah’s lament for Jerusalem’s loss, which begins, “Beside the rivers of Babylon…”. But even the vague custom of reciting this Psalm before the weekday ‘Birkat HaMazon’ has fallen out of fashion. I suppose we’re far too busy during the week to be bothered remembering Jerusalem.

During my first year as a student at the Hebrew University, I used to explore every twist and turn of Jerusalem’s old city, reveling in my incredible good fortune at being able to pray at the Western Wall at any hour of the day or night, and steeping myself in the history of the Eternal City.

But by my second year I began to forget Jerusalem; visiting the Old City less and less, and assuming a familiarity with the holy places that could best be described, if not as contempt… then at least a jaded ennui. I came to think of the Western Wall, the‘Kotel’, much the same way I imagine life-long New Yorkers must view the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Been there. Done that.

Now that I’m back in Israel and living less than a 30 minute drive from Jerusalem, I admit that it has been a challenge to maintain Jerusalem among my chiefest joys. I’m ashamed to confess that in the six years since we made aliyah, I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve prayed at the ‘kotel’.

But I’m not alone in forgetting Jerusalem.

In my lifetime Jews around the world danced in the street and cried tears of joy at hearing the triumphant words ‘Har Habyit b’Yadeinu’ (the famous radio announcement during the Six Day War that ‘The Temple Mount is in our hands’). But today, even many of the soldiers who fought and bled to re-unite David’s city have forgotten why it was so important at the time. For too many, Jerusalem has become a bargaining chip or a liability.

I suppose part of the problem lies in getting what we ask for.

We sing L’Cha Dodi as we run to greet the Sabbath bride. But by halfway through the day, many of us would be just as happy if the bride would hurry and take her leave so we could check the ballgame scores or watch a movie.

For the first time in 2000 years, our ancestral land is ruled by Jews. But rather than ponder our incredible good fortune or consider how Moses must have felt looking longingly at this land he would never be allowed to enter, we squabble amongst ourselves and casually consider tossing away our birthright like so many trading cards.

Each year while the rest of the country celebrates ‘Yom Yerushalayim’ with festive hikes around the Old City walls, I close and lock the door to my office and sit in the dark listening to the static-filled recording of Motta Gur’s paratroopers converging on Jerusalem. I listen to Rabbi Shlomo Goren blowing the shofar and reciting the ‘Shehechianu’ prayer at the kotel… and to the sounds of soldiers weeping as Rav Goren recites Kaddish for their fallen comrades.

When the recording is finished, I dry my eyes and promise myself that this year I will rediscover the sense of wonder and awe that I first experienced as a young university student standing before Jerusalem’s ancient stones. I make a pact with myself that this year I won’t forget Jerusalem; that I will spend more time visiting the holy sites and praying in the places where my ancestors could only dream of standing.

I make these promises to myself because I know the importance of this place. I know in my soul… and I remember.

But that’s the strangest part of all. I have no trouble remembering. I can remember every step I’ve ever taken in this special city. Yet inexplicably, as the months turn to years my feet lead me less and less down her ancient streets.

I suppose this just demonstrates that the challenge has never been in remembering Jerusalem. The real challenge for every Jew is in not forgetting her.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeper.