The Other Side of the Train Tracks

By: Tzvi Aryeh Benoff

4:30 a.m. A special time.

With a slight heave, I thrust open the thick doors of the Mir Yeshiva study hall, and step out into the serpentine streets of Beit Yisrael, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The Mir is the largest school in the world dedicated to Jewish scholarship. Every year, almost 7,000 students from around the world pack into its crowded halls. I had just spent the past hours studying in those halls with hundreds of others and was now on my way to the Kosel Hama’aravi, Western Wall, to daven Shacharis, pray morning services, at sunrise. Though I had already been studying in Israel for over a year and half before starting college, and had visited Jerusalem countless times, I had never walked its streets at this magical hour when night turns to day and all is silent. With the main thoroughfare completely deserted and only a few street-lamps washing the aged stone walls with a faint orange glow, I began to reflect upon the interview that had brought me from my yeshiva near the port city of Ashdod to Israel’s capital city.

Wanting to spend the summer in Israel, I had contacted the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) about internship opportunities and arranged to meet with a “Professor Goldstein*,” a man I knew nothing about save that he was a middle-aged, Russian physicist who immigrated to Israel thirty years ago. Anticipating a stereotypical middle age, modern Israeli sporting an open, colored shirt, knitted skullcap, and clean-shaven face, I was quite surprised to see him with a white shirt, a large, black skullcap and a white beard that was curled at the end so that it would not stick out.

I shook hands with the smiling professor and we spoke about physics and what I would do as an intern. He was developing a hypothesis that complemented Einstein’s law of maximum velocity by predicting a maximum acceleration that an object can achieve. If proven, the existence of maximum acceleration would necessitate reorganizing how different forces affect matter on both the micro and macro scale. During the summer I was going to assist the professor publishing articles about his experiments.

As we continued to speak, I glanced off to the corner and spied a familiar thick, yellow booklet with the words “D’var Malchus” printed on the cover. It was the weekly publication of the international Lubavitch Hassidic community. Instantly, the pieces fell into place. The professor was a Lubavitcher Hassid. That explained why he had a beard, wore a black skullcap, and taught physics; the Lubavitch community aided many Russian immigrants, and, in addition to educating them about religious observance such as keeping kosher, encouraged them to pursue their previous professional interests amidst their new religious lives.

After pointing to the pamphlet and saying that I was also a Lubavitcher Hassid, we spoke about connections between Hassidic philosophy and theoretical physics, a topic that has always interested me. Much like the current understanding of time as a dimension unto itself that serves as the temporal fabric for space, Hassidic philosophy asserts that the true unity of G-d is not expressed by His total control over the natural order, but by the fact that He transcends the strictures of space and time. Thus the very notion of time,and, by extension, the paradox of determinism and free will are hallmarks of the physical world.

With a parting handshake and a promise to keep in contact, I took a copy of one of the professor’s articles for further reading and stepped out into the Jerusalem afternoon. Although the interview was over, my day was far from done. As my yeshiva was conducting a tour of the city the following morning, I planned to spend the night learning in the Mir Yeshiva and pray at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem before meeting up with the tour.

Despite the two institutions being separated by less than four miles, the cultural divide between the two is quite vast. On the bus, I passed through no less than six neighborhoods, each with its own unique identity and culture. Looking out the window, I saw the modern town houses of Rechavia. This neighborhood was founded in the late 1800s by German Jews and is now home to a diverse population of old and young, religious and secular. When the bus stopped at the Merkaz Ha’ir, the city center, I saw bustling crowds milling around countless shops, each showcasing its supply of baked goods, clothing, or electronics. The smells of fresh bread and grilled meat wafted through windows from the nearby Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian mall. Soon, we reached the famous intersection of King George and Yaffo Streets. What had once been the location of the city’s only traffic light was now a major stop of the Jerusalem “Light Rail,” an above ground train that crossed the length of the city. With the traffic light now green, we crossed the proverbial train tracks and everything changed.

I had officially reached the northern half of Jerusalem.

Although there is no official demarcation, to me, the train tracks have always served as the border between two different worlds. To the south lay the modern, secular city filled with malls, tourists, and flashing lights. On the other side of the tracks were the more conservative, sometimes anti-Zionist, Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Stepping off the bus, I marveled at the study in contrasts. The loud, gaudy advertisements had been replaced by the trademark pashkivillen. These large black and white posters hanging from walls, windows, and bus stops, announced various funerals, communal gatherings, and large sales. Most of the tourists had vanished. In their stead walked hundreds of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The men were mostly wearing white shirts with suits and hats, while the women wore dark long robes. Strolling down the main commercial street, however, I began to notice the similarities between these two “cities.” There were still the same supermarkets, and pizza stores with swarms of travelers shouting at each other. Taxi cabs still raced through the narrow streets, honking at anyone daring to block the way. And the curt, guttural Hebrew never seemed to leave the air.

Ten minutes later I arrived at the Mir Yeshiva. Entering one of the main study halls, I gazed at the rows of wooden benches and shtenders, lecterns, occupying most of the space in the vast room. Hundreds of students were all engaged in intense debate. Some were sitting, others were standing, and a few paced to-and-fro. Finding an empty seat, I opened my backpack, placed my large tome on a shtender, and joined the ranks.

The studying process is a unique experience, one that consumes the body and soul. Though this may sound like sanctimonious hyperbole, I can attest to its truth. Drawing the shtender close to the bench, I placed my shoes on its cold metal legs. Bending over the book, I grasped the stand with one hand and pointed to the relevant text with the other. In a loud clear voice, I began to chant the words of the Gemara, the Oral Tradition passed down from generation to generation to elucidate the Bible. My words joined with the ringing sounds of others. Though we were all studying different subjects, our voices merged into a symphony that washed away the thoughts of all else. There was nothing in the world but me and this book.

I “sang” about the laws of a Sukkah, the huts that Jews must build and live in for seven days a year. My voice resurrected the thoughts of sages from thousands of years ago who debated how to construct walls for a Sukkah. What materials could be used? Why could there be gaps on the top parts of the wall and not on the bottom? Why can we imagine walls rising up from a platform but not from a roof? It was my job to unravel these mysteries, to discover their intricacies, and to extract principles.

Soon my chanting slowed as I encountered a problem I could not solve. I looked to the margin of the page where many questions and comments of the French medieval commentators were printed. No help there. Quickly, I ran to the bookcases that lined the walls to find an answer. I began to search book after book for a comment to guide me in the right direction. First I read the works of a 12th Century Spanish rabbi, then a book published by an unknown figure from 13th Century Provence, then a collection of novella from a 17th Century Polish scholar. After much time searching, I returned to my seat disappointed, my question still unanswered. With renewed vigor, I pulled the shtender close to my chest and poured over the text yet again. There was no singing this time. Only thunderous thoughts as I dissected the arguments and conceptual reasoning to find a solution. Staring intensely at the text before me, I finally uncovered the flaw in my reasoning that had been the source of my question. Overjoyed at my success, I began to chant aloud once more.

At about one in the morning, the study hall had emptied out, and the lights had been shut off by a timer. With a glance behind at the now silent, cavernous hall, I relocated to an anteroom to continue my studies. Placing a shtender on top of a bench so I could use it while standing up, I began to learn the portion of the Bible that we would be reading in synagogue the coming Shabbos. . After several hours of reading about how the Jewish nation must deserve its right to live in the land of Israel, I looked at the clock and realized that there was about an hour until sunrise. It was time for me to begin my journey to the Western Wall…

My thoughts snapped back to the present when I heard a noise behind me. Someone else was awake too. I turned around, somewhat afraid about whom I would find. Although it was a relatively safe neighborhood, the lateness of the hour was a cause for concern. To my pleasant surprise, I saw that it was another student from the Mir Yeshiva whom I had met several hours earlier. Presumably, he was also going to pray at the Western Wall. A few moments later, a car pulled over to the side and the driver rolled down a window. An elderly Jewish man leaned over to the window and asked me if I wanted a ride to the Western Wall. I politely declined; although I believed that he was a well-meaning individual, I never liked to accept rides from strangers. Besides, some roads are best walked alone.

Finally, I saw the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Crossing the train tracks yet again, I returned to the southern part of the city. Staring up at the centuries-old walls, the now slate-colored sky filtering through its battlements, I began to sing ever so quietly the famous verses about G-d’s promise to restore Jerusalem’s former glory. Looking to my right, I saw the newly renovated, upscale Mammilla mall. Usually bustling with tourists, the polished white stone walkways now slept in silence. A few men and women on their way to the Western Wall passed by the pasta restaurant that served as the entrance to the mall, their vibrant frames striding past the lifeless tables and chairs now bundled together in the center of the plaza.

Entering the cobblestone streets of the Old City, I joined the countless others on our silent walk. Soon, I reached the stairs leading down the Western Wall Plaza. After passing through the security checkpoint, I donned my hat and jacket out of reverence for the holy site. I had to hurry as dawn was rapidly approaching. All around me, there were men and boys facing the iconic wall, engrossed in prayer. As dawn broke, I took a final look around before beginning prayers. I noticed several friends from high school who were studying in various yeshivos in Jerusalem. I realized that it must be a custom for many students and workers to come to pray at the Western Wall at sunrise on Friday mornings, as studies and work schedules are more relaxed due to the coming Sabbath. This image of hundreds of people from various places and backgrounds thronging together from across the city reminded me of a song written by J.R.R. Tolkien I had heard as a child:

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

But I could say.

This was the Jerusalem that I loved. Though for many the city stopped at the south side of the train tracks and for some at the north side, to me the city never stopped. The professor’s office at the JCT, the study hall in the Mir Yeshiva, and the Western Wall were all parts of this unique place. For a Jew, this city was a microcosm of the world. In a matter of minutes he or she could speak with professors and study in and visit historic locations. A few minutes later the person can stroll through the Israel Museum or hike through the Jerusalem Forest. This was a city in which it was common practice to offer rides to pedestrians at 4:30 in the morning. In short, it was a town in which the Jew was free to express his identity, to actuate his values and aspirations in all aspects of life. It was these diverse interests and candid kindness and caring that, while coming from very different roads and tracks, coalesced into the vibrant culture that permeates the streets of Jerusalem even before sunrise.

I don’t claim to understand or appreciate the religious and mystical profundities of the significance of Jerusalem or the study of Torah. Nor do I claim to have any genuine political leanings as to whether Jews have legal rights to claim this city and land as their own. However, in my naivety those hours I spent in Jerusalem walking back and forth across the train tracks from JCT to Mir to the Western Wall epitomize why I consider myself a Zionist and a ben-Torah, son of Torah. Indeed, “many paths and errands meet” at the gates of Jerusalem, and I treasure them all.

 

* Name has been changed.

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