An Open Letter to The Mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Nir Barkat, Concerning the Establishment of Sabbath Peace in the City of Peace

Dear Mr. Mayor,

On the lovely spring afternoon of Shabbat Tazriya-Mezora, April 25, 2015, at exactly 5:30 PM, I desecrated the Holy Sabbath by entering my partner’s car in Moshav Beit Zayit, where we live, and drove to the corner of Street of the Prophets and HaRav Kook Street in downtown Jerusalem. As you probably know, this is the only corner in the city on the Day of Rest where you can find a cab to Tel Aviv, on the Sabbath.

Until I reached Street of the Prophets, the idea that I was desecrating the Sabbath was a low-grade thought simmering on the back burner of my consciousness. Anyone who has lived in Jerusalem for thirty-eight years, as I did until 2005, cannot help but be conscious of the Holy Sabbath. But my personal desecration morphed into a full-fledged public affair when I reached the cab, for surrounding the yellow ten-seater van were fifteen middle-aged men in long coats, their high furry hats miraculously balanced on their heads as they stretched their vocal chords to the extreme roaring, like lions, SHABBES, SHABBES.

Roaring Lion

Fear spurred me to counter their unpleasant screaming, so I belted out a song I learned at my Reform Sunday school in Cleveland, Ohio, where the love of Zion first took root.

Shabbat Shalom, hey, Shabbat Shalom, hey, Shabbat Shabbat shalom, Shabbat Shalom.

When I saw this had no effect, I raised my voice to a roar.

SHABBAT SHABBAT SHABBAT SHABBAT SHALOM, SHABBAT SHABBAT SHABBAT SHABBAT SHALOM, SHABBAT SHALOM, HEY, SHABBAT SHALOM, HEY, SHABBAT SHABBAT SHALOM, SHABBAT SHALOM.

A police officer stood nearby and smiled. Behind him a police woman adjusted the rifle strapped over her shoulder. Several cadets standing around gave each other confused looks, wondering, no doubt, what this crazy old woman was doing. It was not clear to me what these men and woman of the law were doing there. Were they there to protect the screaming ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, the passengers trying to get into the van headed for Tel Aviv, or the unfortunate drivers.

Once I was seated inside the van, the men with fur hats inched up to the window next to my seat and repeated their cries SHABBES, SHABBES. I did not want to look at their ugly, hateful faces, so I slid the curtain on the window closed. This did not prevent their Hebrew words from registering, however: “The punishment for desecrating Shabbes is Death.”

I am sure you will agree with me, Mr. Mayor, that those are strong words, especially when screamed into your ear with only a glass window separating you from the screamer. Fortunately, half the passengers in the now full van did not understand them. They were tourists, foreign workers and African refugees, but we Hebrew-speaking, Sabbath-desecrating Jews, we understood.

I had left home with love and joy in my heart, with great expectations for seeing my new grandson whose brit was the next day. Yes, in less than twenty-four hours my grandson would enter the covenant. Now it was with a heavy heart that I sat in the van that drove to Tel Aviv, not fast enough, I might add. As the van climbed the Castel, I thought of that Friday afternoon in August 1966 when I first wandered the narrow streets of Mea Shearim. Such holiness I saw in their filth. Men in long coats carried plastic bags under their arms, their damp towels sticking out. They were running home from the mikvah to greet the Holy Sabbath Queen. The smell of cooked chicken emanated from each apartment, or so I imagined. I was moved to tears by a world filled with meaning and beauty. Now, in 2015, that feeling was dead.

Sure, I rationalized, these men have a right to protest. After all, they live in a democratic state. It is important for them to get their message out, because they believe that if every Jew keeps the laws of the Sabbath, the Messiah will come. I defend their right to protest, but why can’t they do it from the other side of Street of the Prophets, standing behind a police barricade? Do I not have a right to enjoy a peaceful Shabbat on the streets of Jerusalem? Must I be harassed by a crowd of what the tourists termed “lunatics?” All I wanted, Mr. Mayor, was to see my grandson in the profane city of Tel Aviv. For this my punishment is death?

By the time we passed Ben-Gurion Airport, I had calmed down enough to weigh my options. My first instinct was to sue the Municipality of Jerusalem for not keeping the City of Peace peaceful on the Day of Peace. Granted, no stone was thrown and no spit was fired. No rubber bullets were released towards the lower half of anyone’s body. I endured no physical harm. But the soul, Mr. Mayor, the soul. My own was ripped, torn, wounded, like the small penis that would be cut in less than twenty-four hours in Tel Aviv. Does the soul have no value in Jerusalem? Are there no bylaws that define the distance between protestor and object of protest? This was not a one-time incident, I learned from the driver. “It happens every week,” he said with disgust and resignation.

I refuse to be resigned. I do not care if these men belonged to a small group from some minority sect, as some of the Jews in the van claimed. They were disturbing the peace and physically intimidating. Did they have a permit to protest? Do they have a weekly permit to protest? If not, why doesn’t the Jerusalem police force tell them to go home and copulate with their wives, a mitzvah on Shabbes, or study, rather than degrade Torah.

It hurts me to blemish the name of Jerusalem in public, Mr. Mayor, but it hurts me even more to see how screaming hooligans can ruin the quiet atmosphere in Jerusalem on the Holy Sabbath and threaten the tenuous status quo.

When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I took a cab to my destination. On Shderot Chen the atmosphere was peaceful. Young parents played with their children in the shaded parks along the boulevard. Old people sat on the benches with their foreign caregivers. Middle-aged couples strolled in the shade of the enormous sycomore trees and couples, both gay and heterosexual, kissed in public. Peace and quiet reigned, undisturbed by the few cars that drove by.

As the sun set and the holy light of Shabbat faded, I walked along King George Street. Groups of twenty and thirty-year-olds gathered in outdoor cafes and restaurants. They talked softly, looking cheerful and happy to be spending time  with friends at the end of their day of rest in their beloved Tel Aviv. Many were desecrating the Sabbath in more ways than one, but nobody screamed that they deserved Death. In fact, nobody screamed anything. All was peaceful.

Need I describe my confusion, Mr. Mayor? I felt a strong desire to forget Jerusalem. I know my tongue will cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget her and my right hand will wither. This is a steep price, but after what happened on the corner of Street of the Prophets and HaRav Kook Street, forgetting Jerusalem was exactly what I wanted to do.

I look forward to your reply and advice. I need to know how the city can help me stay within its realm. How can I strengthen my attachment to a city I once loved, when Sabbath peace beckons only forty-five minutes away in a saner place?

Yours sincerely,

Judy Labensohn

Citizen of Jerusalem, 1967-2005

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About Judy Labensohn

I'm a writer and teacher of writing.
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22 Responses to An Open Letter to The Mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Nir Barkat, Concerning the Establishment of Sabbath Peace in the City of Peace

  1. estherhecht says:

    A practical comment: Forward your “open letter” to Anat Hoffman at IRAC. She can actually do something about this.

    Like

  2. Jane Arsham says:

    I am heartsick reading this letter, Judy– At once thrilled that you have a new grandson to welcome into the world, and so saddened thinking about the world that our grandchildren are inheriting, as humankind seems to be devolving at a very rapid pace. Perhaps Mayor Barkat will read this and pay attention– who knows but the forces of right wing zealotry are alive and dominating in all corners of the world. Why has this happened? Not sure we can take action to remedy until we truly understand and address the underlying issues.

    Like

  3. STEPHEN G HINDS says:

    A timely message, as we here in the US are viewing the current strife in Baltimore. In the Baltimore case, such Restraint on the part of the Police seemed to serve negatively on the resulting destruction and looting.Where do we draw the line on the rights of protesters?

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  4. Mazal tov on the birth of your grandson. The behavior you witnessed is part of the reason many who love Israel are spending far less time in Jerusalem. I was always taught, including by Orthodox rabbis, that one hallmark of Judaism is an individual’s personal relationship with God. Segments of the Haredi community are desirous of imposing an ever-narrowing set of acceptable behaviors on the population of Israel and all others with whom they may have contact. To the extent that Israeli politicians/leaders kowtow to those rabbis for their ability to dictate the votes of their follows, they should be ashamed.

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  5. Mazal tov on the birth of your grandson. The behavior you witnessed is part of the reason many who love Israel are spending far less time in Jerusalem. I was always taught, including by Orthodox rabbis, that one hallmark of Judaism is an individual’s personal relationship with God. Segments of the Haredi community are desirous of imposing an ever-narrowing set of acceptable behaviors on the population of Israel and all others with whom they may have contact. To the extent that Israeli politicians/leaders kowtow to those rabbis for their ability to dictate the votes of their follows, they should be ashamed.

    Like

  6. James Stonehill says:

    Great letter/article- I hope you mailed it to the Mayor and send it to the CLE Jewish news

    Like

  7. carol Novis says:

    Good luck getting a reply. It’s a lost cause.

    Like

    • evelyn abel says:

      vapors

      steaming black coats
      jostle past bare-armed July hussies
      to the men’s section
      at the back of the bus
      the radio blasts “Mashiah! Mashiah! Mashiah!”
      loud as rage
      god is in the driver’s seat
      careening down Prophets Street
      to smithereens

      (just something i wrote years ago – Evelyn Abel)

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  8. I’ll let you know if and when I get a reply, Carol.

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  9. George Becker says:

    Amazing stuff, Judy. Wow! Love, George

    George A. Becker & Co. 贝可平公共关系公司

    USA Office/美国: 23802 Duffield Road Cleveland, OH 44122-3111 216.921.6454 (p) 216.921.6553 (f) 216.533.3622 (m)

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    @GBecker1018 george@gabecker.com http://www.gabecker.com LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/georgeabeckerco

    From: WRITE IN ISRAEL Reply-To: WRITE IN ISRAEL Date: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 2:48 AM To: George Becker Subject: [New post] An Open Letter to The Mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Nir Barkat, Concerning the Establishment of Sabbath Peace in the City of Peace

    WordPress.com Judy Labensohn posted: “Dear Mr. Mayor, On the lovely spring afternoon of Shabbat Tazriya-Mezora, April 25, 2015, at exactly 5:30 PM, I desecrated the Holy Sabbath by entering my partner’s car in Moshav Beit Zayit, where we live, and drove to the corner of Street of the Proph”

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  10. barbara gingold says:

    Wonderfully said, Judy! As I prepare to spend a peaceful Shabbat walking up Broadway to diverse Uppper West Side shuls, I wonder whether we can turn your letter into a public petition to the Mayor of Jerusalem? Shabbat shalom & mazal tov on the new grandson, Barbara (a traveling Citizen of J’m.)

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  11. Thanks, Barbara. Enjoy the Upper West Side. Feel free to turn my letter into a petition. Anything that works . . . Shabbat shalom!

    Like

  12. I loved your post. It reminded me of the dumbfounding experiences I had when living, literally, above the Iraqi shuk my first months in Israel, my half year in Jerusalem. That was when, possibly, those same fellows shouted at shopkeepers moments before shabbat descended on the Holy City. Michael and I posted a link to this post on OneWayOr.com and mentioned you and your experience during our latest episode when we were talking about exclusivity/inclusivity with regards to redemption.

    Like

  13. Esther luro says:

    Judy,

    I really enjoyed your writings above,
    You do it so well! Reminds me of the Jpost columns that we looked forward to every week especially when you referenced my friend Rita. What I just read was even better! 70? Must be a misprint…. Love, esther

    Like

  14. Judy Labenson: With do respect, you are a hypocrite. Talking about Shabbat, how much you love it and then admit to blatantly ignoring it. Moreover, describing Charedim faces as “hateful” comes off as Anti Semitism, or at the very least Anti Charedi.

    Like

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