I broke out of isolation in the early evening (almost 10 days after my arrival) to walk after a day of staying put. In Jerusalem, if you’re walking for the sake of exercise you don’t have to wear a mask, but I did anyway because I don’t walk that fast. My brother walked with me; these are the last days before his marriage and I treasure our intimacy. We walked all the way down to the edge of Rehavia, looked across the valley towards the Israel Museum, and then came back up. Walking towards Aza Street I saw a group of men looking in one direction
“What are they staring at?” I asked my brother.
“They’re praying,” he said.
The synagogues here are closed because of covid, so services take place primarily outdoors, on sidewalks and streets. Instead of crowding indoors, elbow to elbow, the men stand at a distance outdoors, masks on, following the chazan(chanter) up front.
An orthodox Jewish service calls for a quorum of 10 men, women don’t count, so it’s almost always men who stand outdoors praying, not women. That’s the reason I’m not usually taken up by images of Jewish men praying. But this time I was moved.
I remembered the energy of praying indoors, the men huddled around the Torah, the women at the perimeter of things, the male chanting and the mostly male replies. This was different. Standing apart from each other, the group energy did not take over; each individual seemed lost in his own prayer and reflections in the middle of a busy street. There was no loud chanting to sweep you out of yourself, it was just you in your chosen spot on the pavement, you in your chosen spot in the world.
One man actually stood right by a large recycling bin of bottles. This is Jerusalem, the holy city; every inch here is sacred.
Later at night we walked over to the protests. Thousands of Israelis have been protesting outside the Prime Minister’s house for weeks on end. Binyamin Netanyahu, often referred to as Bibi, is being tried in court on a variety of corruption charges and they want him to step down. Dressed mostly in black shirts or tops, they’re there every day, bringing sleeping bags with them to sleep on the streets.
It felt as if everyone held a sign: “RESIGN!” “MONEY’S KING!” “DEMOCRACY” “GREEDY PIGS!”
“RESIST” and over and over again, flashing against the buildings surrounding the thousands of people: “REVOLUTION!”
I felt right at home.
They sang and yelled, took photos like me. Hundreds upon hundreds of police closed up block after block, so that cars had to park kilometers away. The protesters yelled at them that by blocking off the corners they kept people in small crowds, raising the threat of covid. Almost everyone wore masks, but there was no way to keep distance.
It was after 10:00 at night and the next morning was a workday, but still they came, chanted, yelled, raised signs saying they’d had enough of stealing, embezzlement, bribery, and all-around fraud. They also hurled insults at how the government had failed miserably in controlling the coronavirus.
It was clear even to me that these weren’t the Peace Now protesters of former years, demonstrating against settlements or the occupation of Palestine. This was a whole new generation.
“What are they shouting at?” I asked.
“Bibi’s home,” my brother said. “It’s back there behind the trees. They say Sarah (Netanyahu’s wife, much disliked by many Israelis for her extravagance and tone deafness) goes crazy from the noise.”
For once, I could almost feel for Sarah.
“They’re probably in their home in Caesarea,” he added. “Don’t worry, there are protests there, too.”
And then I felt I came home. Smack in the middle of the yelling through megaphones and constant movement, sat people in meditation posture, in complete silence. There were some 15-20 of them, and I was moved at how the raucous, angry crowd walked carefully around them, not even treading on the corners of the large mat they had put on the pavement on which they sat. One woman sat silently behind a sign: We are in this together.
Yes, I thought, an American coming from New England, that’s it. We’re in this together, always always One Body without exclusion.
I was moved to see the meditators. I was also moved to see the men who prayed earlier. And finally, I was moved to see the protesters. Something is not right with the world, I know that very well.
The poet Adrienne Rich wrote: “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.”
The same goes for truth.