The view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (note the walls of the Old City below and Al Aqsa mosque with the gold dome)
Chaim and his sister Leah praying at their father’s grave
I didn’t sleep last night for worry about meeting Chaim’s sister today. He hadn’t seen her in over 25 years and their phone conversations leading up to today’s visit didn’t bode well. She didn’t think it was a good idea for me to come on their pilgrimage to their parents’ graves because I am a Reform Jew, and it would dishonor them (the parents). She grilled him mercilessly about my religiosity and ultimately didn’t approve. This was ultra-Orthodoxy in action: my way or the highway. (His other sister, in Brooklyn, put it even more harshly when we married: “Our parents are turning in their graves,” she had said to him. Needless to say, she wasn’t invited to our wedding.)
This visit to Mount of Olives (where Chaim’s father and grandson are buried) and to B’nai Brak (where his mother is buried) has been the central piece of “business” of our visit to Israel. I wanted to go with Chaim and his sister today, but it would mean eating crow and dressing the part (long dress, though I drew the line at covering my hair as Orthodox women do). The choices were: (1) I go and we have a “no religion and no politics” rule for any conversation. (2) I don’t go, and let Chaim go alone with his sister. (3) He tells his sister that he won’t see her, and he and I do the trip alone. (4) We go, but have an understanding that if anything untoward happened, we would excuse ourselves and be on our separate, merry ways.
Choice #4 prevailed, I dressed the part, AND we had a “no religion, no politics” rule.
As it turns out, it was lovely meeting her, and she cried when we departed. She had no idea how reasonable my Hebrew is (she barely speaks English), so I got a lot of points for that. I got points for throwing in some verses from Psalms along the way (purposefully, to show her I was not a know-nothing Jew). In my sleeplessness last night, I wrote a lot of farewell speeches to her (in Hebrew!) in my head. The one that was least mean-spirited was to bless her on our departure that she should “have an open heart, an open mind, and eyes that see only the good.” I think/hope that that was accomplished without my actually having needed to make that blessing/admonishment.
B’nai Brak today is an ultra-Orthodox enclave, and Chaim and I had to sit towards the back of the bus on our return to Jerusalem if we wanted to sit together, since only men can sit up front! (This IS 2013, isn’t it?) Anyone who has ever celebrated Passover will remember B’nai Brak from the Haggadah: “Here is the story of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, who were sitting in Bnei Brak all throughout that night and were telling the stories of the exodus from Egypt…”
The Mount of Olives also offers a great view of the Old City of Jerusalem, and many tourists are brought there just for the view. According to Jewish tradition, the 3000-year old cemetery on the Mount of Olives is where the resurrection will begin when the Messiah comes. That’s why even Orthodox Jews living abroad are often buried there (Chaim’s father and grandson are cases in point). Since the cemetery holds approximately 150,000 graves, that also explains why we wandered for so long trying to find each of the graves! They are not well-marked, and every section looks like every other section. The Mount of Olives was apparently one of Jesus’s favorite places and is significant in Christian tradition, as well. According to the New Testament, the Mount of Olives will also be “ground zero” for Christ’s return. (If Chaim’s father wasn’t ready for me, I wonder if he is ready for that!) And I don’t mean to offend my Christian friends whom I know are reading this, but will this be the case of the dueling Messiahs — what if they both come to the Mount of Olives at the same time?
The Jerusalem Scrabble Club
The other gift of today, however, was returning to my beloved Jerusalem Scrabble Club (JSC), which I attended religiously most every Tuesday night during my time in rabbinical school (1988-9), and then again on visits in the mid-90’s, 2001 and 2006 (I also spent significant time in Israel in 1981 and 1985 but I didn’t yet know of the JSC then.) The JSC is reputed to be the largest Scrabble club in the world. It plays Scrabble in English (a much more competitive game than Hebrew Scrabble is), and it is mostly attended by English-speakers living in Israel, though there are some native Hebrew speakers, as well. The JSC was founded by my friend Sam Orbaum of blessed memory, a British-born, Canadian-bred journalist for The Jerusalem Post. When I last saw Sam in 2001, he had gone bald from chemotherapy for lymphoma, and he made his goodbyes by giving me a copy of his book Eskimos of Jerusalem and Other Extraordinary Israelis as a gift, a compilation from his newspaper column “Not Page One” (the title of which is emblematic of Sam’s wry sense of humor). Sam died in 2002 at age 46, leaving behind identical triplet daughters, now aged 22. (I was fortunate to run into Sam’s widow, Wendy, tonight and she filled me in.)
The club is now officially called the Sam Orbaum Jerusalem Scrabble Club. Each Tuesday night we play three one-hour timed games. We start at 7:30 and end at 10:45. About 40 or 50 people attend each week. Prizes used to be given out for high-scorers, highest losing score, highest team score, etc. One time I won a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for winning some category or other. I remember how thrilled I was and how thrilled Sam was for me.
Tonight I was delighted to find familiar faces of people who remembered me and to discover that I was still in their computer system (and am eternally member #568 out of the 1700-plus members and guests that have come through since its inception. I met one woman who lives up in the north of Israel who told me that she and her husband bought another place in Jerusalem JUST so she could be in Jerusalem on Tuesday nights to play Scrabble! They can’t even rent it, since they are there one night a week. That speaks of the kind of loyalty that people have to this club.
Tonight I played Taffy and won, Joel and lost, and then Miriam and won again. It was a great time! Unfortunately, the public building in which they meet is closed next week because of the election, so I will not get another opportunity to be with the JSC this trip.
Blessings to all, and happy birthday to my brother, Howard!
5 Shevat/January 15, 2013