Before there was a Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalyim), there was the day before.
Yehuda Avner, then an aide to Israel’s prime minister, Levi Eshkol, has said, “An Arab sword of Damocles hung over Israel’s neck in June 1967, and so perilous was its blade that foreign capitals spoke chillingly of the country’s imminent slaughter.”
Just 23 years after European Jews dug their own mass graves, Israeli officials plotted out their own mass graves in expectation of the dead. Children filled sandbags. Glaziers at the Hadassah complex prepared for the removal of Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows, in advance of the bombs. With young men at the front, young women prepared shelters in the basements of Jerusalem. Bathtubs were filled with water, shops emptied of food and kerosene, with memories fresh of the devastating 1948 siege of Jerusalem that lasted for months.
On the West Bank, then part of Jordan, The New York Times reported young Arabs riding in trucks, “singing and waving flags as they are driven through Samaria and Judea [sic], through a countryside strewn with poppies and still lush from the spring rain. For them, the prospect of war seems glorious.” (Interestingly, the Times used “Samaria and Judea” on the eve of the Six-Day War, before the term describing the region became associated with Jewish settlers.)
In 1948, the war ended with Israel independent but incomplete. One Jordanian official declared, “for the first time in 1,000 years, not a single Jew remains in the Jewish quarter … and as not a single building remains intact, this makes the return of the Jews here impossible.”
The 1967 war ended with the return to the Jewish Quarter, to the Kotel (the Western Wall), and the Temple Mount, the holiest site of all. “We are entering the messianic era!” cried Israel Defense Forces Rabbi Shlomo Goren. “We shall never leave this place.” He blew a shofar on the Temple Mount, controlled by Jews for the first time in 1,897 years.
In Jerusalem, Jews, emerging from their near-death experience, felt buoyant, weightless, as if in Chagall’s stained glass. Wire services reported that Israelis “hugged and kissed each other,” how they “laughed, shouted and danced in the streets.” Jerusalem seemed sprinkled with a magical dust, a love potion. In Meah Shearim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, who before the war threw rocks at non-observant Jews, now threw flowers at the feet of Israeli soldiers. Secular soldiers at the Wall, wept and sang Hallel, Psalms of praise and thanksgiving, usually recited on holy days.
At the Wall, the Times reported, “never in the long history of the ancient shrine, have so many unbelievers responded with such gratitude and fervor.”
Rabbi Hertz Frankel, who worked for the Satmar rebbe, was in Jerusalem right after the war. He wouldn’t go to the Wall out of respect for the rebbe’s anti-Zionist stance against celebrating the triumph of a government they scorned. After all, says the rabbi today, “We were anti-Zionist before anti-Zionism was cool.”
“But let’s get this straight,” he quickly adds. “Emotionally, everyone was happy. We were anti the government, never anti the Jews.”
From Satmar to secular, Jews were happy. The Times noted, “The military victory, startling in its speed and efficiency, is not as impressive as the spirit … With the Old City of Jerusalem back in their control, the Israelis are not only a nation but a family.” Even more than Jerusalem was united, the Jews were united, “as if the life of the nation was everything and their personal lives were incidental.” That was the miracle of Jerusalem.
After the war, Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, then director of the Hillel Foundation, said “Jewish theology” will now have to be “drastically rewritten,” in light of the victory and return to Jerusalem’s Old City.
The day of unification (Iyar 28) was declared a national holiday but today, nothing is being rewritten except the idea that any of this is worth celebrating. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in 2012 does not even list Yom Yerushalayim on its calendar (May 20, this year), and many other organizations and synagogues don’t either. The Modern Orthodox, with exceptions, remain more on board than most.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein e-mailed his Modern Orthodox congregation, Kehilath Jeshurun, “I want to remind the community that here at KJ we take Yom Yerushalayim very seriously,” with special services “including Hallel recited with a bracha” (blessing), the highest level of Hallel, “followed by a festive breakfast, with a rooftop barbecue songfest in the evening.
He also reminded congregants that “Zamir Chorale, the premiere Hebrew singing choir in North America, is presenting an important cultural event at 4:00 p.m. in honor of Jerusalem.” The concert, at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, “will showcase a repertoire entirely about… Jewish yearning for the city… and the centrality of Jerusalem in our consciousness as a nation and a people.”
But Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and a vice president of the Zamir Choral Foundation, says his shul, Forest Hills Jewish Center, will not be doing anything special. “It’s never been a huge thing in my shul. I don’t think I’m unique in that regard.”
Should shuls be doing something? “Let’s put it this way,” said Rabbi Skolnik, “they should certainly be noticing it. I think, though, that the status of Jerusalem has become so much more of a political topic” than in 1967 “when it was an unbridled yontif (holy day). There was once more of an opportunity to celebrate without ambivalence.” With opinions on Jerusalem’s future so heated, “it starts getting too complicated for some people to celebrate the holiday.”
Ruth Schnall, 90 years old, worked for Zionist causes pre-state, and later was national vice president of Emunah, an Orthodox women’s organization. She says, “not to celebrate the ’67 miracle because you don’t like the Israeli government 45 years later makes no sense to me. For 2,000 years, every year, every seder, Jews prayed, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’ So we get Jerusalem, and now we can’t celebrate because of politics? Explain that to me.”
After all, as she understood it, every miracle and holy day commemorates a fleeting moment, by definition. The Red Sea doesn’t stay split. The miracle of Chanukah, on the same Temple Mount as in 1967, was followed by the politically disastrous Hasmonean dynasty. We celebrate Passover even though Moses faced more revolts than Prime Minister Netanyahu does now.
Rabbi Skolnik says the problem is not just amnesia about the war but the loss of the spirit that bracketed the war. He sees music as a “meta-political” antidote, particularly music from an earlier era. “I am totally committed to teaching the classic Israeli songbook to my shul, songs with a very powerful patriotic, Zionist, unambivalent love of Israel.”
He’s also urging people to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim with Zamir. In fact, he’ll be singing in the chorale backing up Yehoram Gaon.
Zamir’s director, Matthew Lazar, remembers the chorus performing in Israel in that magical summer of ’67. This year, “I’m doing this concert because no one seems to want to do anything. We’re the big tent because we’re transdenominational, transgenerational, transpolitical and unapologetically Zionist.”
Can politics kill Yom Yerushalayim? Singing can overcome politics, says Lazar. He quoted Psalm 137, “How can we sing the songs … in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem… May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth … if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”
Adds Lazar, “What’s the greatest joy for Jews? Talking politics. So Jerusalem should be higher than that.”
It used to be, says Lazar, “that people disagreed about the interpretation of facts. Nowadays, we’re hard-pressed to even agree about the facts themselves. But the fact of our historic connection to Jerusalem can be found in the texts — our sacred and secular texts, liturgical, popular and folk repertoire. The last word of Hatikvah is Yerushalayim.
“Hundreds of years before the modern era, in the texts of Isaiah, he was saying that God will comfort the Jewish people — by redeeming Jerusalem. The Psalmist says, ‘for the sake of Jerusalem we should not be silent. So we’ll be singing. You can argue politics but it’s hard to make a Jewish argument against these core texts.
“If someone wants to give away Jerusalem,” says Lazar, “we can argue about that tomorrow. But on Yom Yerushalayim, let’s remember what Jerusalem meant, and still means.”