For two thousand years – yes, two thousand years – my ancestors will have ended each year’s Passover dinner with the call “Next year in Jerusalem.” L’shanah habah b’Yerushalayim. None ever made it. The nearest they ever got was that little sack of the soil from the Holy Land that was put into their coffins when they died. And even that soil may have been a fake.
But here was I, the very first in two thousand years, almost within sight of the Holy City. The year was 1982 or 83.
I was interviewing recruits for the Russian Service of the BBC. We could not, in those days, recruit in the Soviet Union but among the trickle allowed to migrate to Israel were some well-educated Russian speakers who also spoke good English – perfect for our work.
I had been interviewing all week but now a weekend of inactivity loomed. This was my opportunity. “Next year – no! this weekend! – in Jerusalem.”
I hailed a taxi. The driver spoke English. “Take me to the terminus for the bus to Jerusalem.”
“What for do you want a bus?” he argued “I’ll driveyou to Jerusalem.”
We Jews are an argumentative people. Even the Bible calls us ‘stiff-necked’.
Now I argued “No. You’ll charge me a fortune.”
“A fortune? I’ll charge you …..” And he quoted a price in shekels. “Is that a fortune?”
It wasn’t. He was right.
Moreover, as he drove, he gave me a commentary on what we were passing: “A Jordanian tank – blown up in the battle for Jerusalem….This spot here … that’s as far as the Arab Legion advanced ….” and so on.
Then he pulled to the side of the road and stopped his engine: “There!” he said, pointing uphill “the Holy City”. I half realised what was expected of me.
I had considered doing it myself but felt uncertain, embarrassed. I was struggling to tear my lapel.
He knew. He handed me a razor blade. I was surprised. But perhaps I wasn’t. Not really. I cut my left lapel – the one nearest the heart – mourning the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians ever so many generations earlier. Solomon’s or was it Herod’s? I felt sheepish and embarrassed, even a fraud. But that, I thought, is what those generations of ancestors who never made it would have wanted me to do.
Orthodox Jews, when they first see Jerusalem, go into mourning for the temple, destroyed ever so many generations earlier. Sackcloth and ashes! They tear their clothes and put ash on their head.
I am a Jew, but not an orthodox one, not even an observant one. It is years since I last entered a synagogue. But I cut and tore that left lapel of mine.
He dropped me at a hotel in the Arab Quarter, as I had asked. “Todarabah” – I said in Hebrew –“Thank You” – one of the few words in the language of my ancestors that I remembered. I paid him – rather more than he had asked for.
After all, if you only come once in two thousand years …..