From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Jerusalem Encounter

Jerusalem: the city which miraculously transforms man into pilgrim; no one can enter it and go away unchanged.

Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem

As a member of a kibbutz bent upon building a Jewish homeland, I left my entire family in Poland and arrived in Palestine in the spring of 1936. Before settling in, I wanted to see the country. My first destination was Jerusalem, city of my dreams. For days, I walked the narrow streets of the Old City, fascinated by the pageantry of its people, the cacophony of languages, the fragrant, spiced air.

On one of my journeys I ventured out of the city and into the nearby Judean hills, where I stumbled upon an Arab café in an unlikely setting—the rooftop of a Russian convent. The tiny café was hemmed in by a sun-baked clay balustrade with garlands of grapevines running along its edge. Customers sat at low, brass tables, sipping coffee and talking in subdued tones.

The sun was glinting on the sparkling brass of the table where I sat down. When I lifted my eyes to look beyond the balustrade, Jerusalem lay stretched out beneath me, from the rectangular buildings, broad boulevards and blooming gardens of Rehavia, the modern section, to the Old City with its shadowed streets winding in and out of ancient gates.

I could hardly believe my eyes. There in the distance rose the stone walls of the Tower of David. Down to the left stood the Wailing Wall, its stones polished by tears. The Wailing Wall, whose fissures hid a people’s heart wrapped in a prayer, held a two-thousand-year history of longing for self-determination. Out of the ruins of the last Temple, out of that Wailing Wall, grew the Mosque of Omar, its graceful splendor consecrated to the worship of Allah. The golden dome shimmered in the sun as my eyes wandered from its mosaic gateway to fall on the Via Dolorosa.

I closed my eyes and let my thoughts sink into the past. The memory of thousands of years of suffering swelled into a sea, engulfing me. When I turned to the present, Nazism and Communism were competing with each other for the degradation of humanity. The world was far from being at peace on that beautiful spring afternoon.

The sun was beginning to set behind the stark hills, and a golden haze embraced Jerusalem. A bell chimed, another answered in a deeper tone and a third rang out on a higher pitch. The bells intertwined, their silvery tones brushing against the hills and returning in muted echoes. I had the sensation of being suspended between the ages.

Twilight is short in Palestine, and the scenery was changing rapidly. Lights began to glow on the horizon. Up on a minaret balcony, a white figure appeared, turning slowly in all directions. The muezzin was calling his people to worship. Wherever they stood, Moslems rolled out their prayer rugs and knelt, joining the caller in the evening prayer.

The lights went on in a nearby synagogue. The rabbi and a group of students were walking up the steps into the house of prayer.

The Franciscan Brothers turned on the lights in their house of worship, preparing for vespers.

A sweet voice emerged from the Yemenite synagogue. It was the song of the hakam, chanting a prayer.

A lilting soprano floated out of the English church, not far in the distance, and was soon joined by others.

Prayers rang out in Hebrew, Latin, Russian, English, Arabic. The earth stood still in deep meditation. Then, like a whisper, I felt my heart stir. Adding my voice to the chorus, I began to chant my prayer.

“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they shall not learn war any more.”

A great calm began to envelop me, and all my bitterness melted away. A new love was being born in me. I could see the oneness of all people and all religions. I was at peace.

That encounter with Jerusalem sustains my hope for universal peace to this day. Whenever the world is in turmoil, whenever I am about to lose my faith in humanity, I summon the memory of Jerusalem’s evening prayer.

Bronia Galmitz Gallon

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