Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Walls Fall - May 1967 Jerusalem

When I first took the bus that climbed the hills from Tel Aviv to the then divided city of Jerusalem I was nineteen. My first glimpse from afar of the legendary city that my people had dreamed of for two thousand years was breathtaking. I was enchanted and I knew it would be my home.

My parents married in pre-State Israel, then called Palestine.
They emigrated to the United States during the Great Depression and my brother and I were born in New York City. I was raised with an eternal dream posed like a flame before me - a beloved land of eternal blue skies that awaited.

The Roman conquerers renamed the ancient Land of Israel "Palestine" [for the Philistine tribes who had occupied the land before the Jewish Kingdom] in order to de-Judaize it. Following their destruction of the Second Temple and exile of the Judeans who survived the violent massacres, they wished to erace the nation's identity. This was common Roman practice following conquest.
But the Hebrews were different, they went into exile with the eternal Bible wrapped in their ragged baggage and in their hearts. During the long exile, their identity underwent many changes but endured.

During my first years in Jerusalem - the early 1960's - the city was divided. In 1948, the United Nations had voted Israel a member State including the Old City of Jerusalem. But the Arab countries surrounding the tiny enclave instantly declared war on the fledgeling state. When finally the cease-fire was declared after many bloody battles, Jordan held on to the Old City of Jerusalem. And so it was for 19 years. During that interval, Jews were denied access to all Holy Places. -- first and foremost the Wailing Wall where we had come to weep for thousands of years and above the Wall, the Temple Mount, the site of the destroyed Temple, usurped and covered by a mosque with a golden dome during the rise of Islam.

Between 1948 and 1967 the city was divided by a barren no man's land, cement blocs set up in the center of neighborhoods particularly vulnerable to Jordanian Legion gunfire. I took a job at the Israel Radio newsroom, there I heard many stories of the Old City where Jews and Arabs once shared lives. I wrote poems about living in this haunted city and imagined what lay hidden under the arch-covered streets and alleyways on the other side of the walls.

Next week we celebrate the unification of the city of Jerusalem recaptured in the 1967 war forced on Israel by the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The joy of return on that day was evidenced by the throngs from all over the country streaming to the Wailing Wall to weep and pray and blow the ram's horn. Many removed their shoes and approached the remaining wall of the ancient Second Temple in their bare feet.

Again, as in 1948, Israel was not destroyed by the invading Arab armies but emerged victorious. Today Jerusalem is a vibrant bustling city, ever- growing and changing and welcoming all who wish to visit or settle here.
But the sacred soul of "Ariel" one of the many names of this city found in the Bible, remains constant and faithful to its people.

Here are some lines from one poem written during "the silent years of separation" which I translated into Hebrew for the journal "Jerusalem" published by the Hebrew Writers' Guild:


Rounded blue hours sift down

into dusk from a pale sky

dusk is as dawn

veined marble trees

transparent twilight stone.

At night the hills are lit with other lives,

from another court

bells peal pear shaped sound

through narrow latticed leaves

tattered in moonflame

thorned walls creep overgrown

with barbed weeds and wire.

Luminous city spires and ancient towers

gleam and play ivory chess games

on the purple hours.

In the last watch

bittersweet reeds

pierce high.

(C) Shira Twersky Cassel

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Mystery of Senseless Hatred

In April Israel is caught between two memorials, Holocaust Day and Memorial Day for those fallen in Israel's wars of defence and the victims of terrorism.

This week Israel commemorated the memory of six million Jewish men, women and children who were lost to us, slaughtered by the Nazis in Europe during the Second World War. The war ended before the Nazis were able to make inroads on the populations of Jews who had settled in Greece and the Sephardi [Arab] lands but that was certainly their plan.

As a child I suffered recurrent dreams. Nazi boots stomped up the stairs to our apartment in the Bronx, broke down our door and dragged us out of our beds. I had been exposed to the outspoken memories of survivors from our family and of childhood friends from my mother's home town in Poland. I have Sephardic friends who had similar fears. That "other planet", the Holocaust experience is inscribed on Jewish DNA.

On Holocaust Memorial day, a two minute siren sounded
at 10:00 a.m. All over the country we stood silent, traffic stopped and people emerged from cars and buses and stood in the road. At home, I went up to my roof to connect with my fellow countrymen and with them said a quiet prayer. We united in memory and love, wept and returned to our daily routine.That night we tucked our children into their beds behind secure Israeli doors that we will never again allow to be violated by the brutality of miserable wretches who are filled with hate.

The mystery of senseless hatred and of evil continues to threaten us today.

Below is a translated excerpt of a Hebrew poem which appears in my book, "The Secret Life of the Birds", published by Sifriyat HaPoalim, Tel Aviv. The subject is the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land. If at that time - during the 1930's and 1940's - we had a home, i.e. the State of Israel - the Holocaust would not have taken place.

Palm Memories

When first she strode the sunlit land
- awaiting her return like a faithful lover -
a wail of sirens summoned the lost generations,

her tears rose like rain to fill the hollowed imprint
of her bare feet in the good earth.

When first she spoke the ancient living letters,
an articulation of rams horns renewed the festivals of life,

clicking palm trees bent to whisper wind legends
of what had been and the light of days to come.

Shira Twersky-Cassel (C)