This year in Jerusalem?
By: Rabbi Dr Dovid Fox
When the Army transport plane crash-landed, apparently an attempt at sabotage by Axis agents, the American soldiers were glad to be alive. The fire which engulfed the aircraft was extinguished by the primitive means available at this desert airfield. Having left their bases in Morocco and in Libya, the soldiers were shaken, yet excited about seeing yet another North African country, although still wary of the enemies who were moving closer to the Allied installations, and still uncertain of the domestic elements who would be their hosts on the new base.
In Alexandria, the American GIs mingled easily with the British and other forces that had converged on that desert city. It was a place of fabled Jewish history, dating back to Talmudic times, and on leave, the soldiers got a glimpse of cultures that had come and gone as the centuries passed.
The summer was coming to a close and, as fall beckoned, those who had survived the plane crash received good news. They would all be on furlough, two weeks of relative break from their military duties. The men clustered in their hot barracks, planning a trip here or there. The consensus was to hit the local riviera, perhaps Sharm el-Sheikh or even Elat, anywhere near the sea where the air would be breezy and rules would be relaxed. Everyone missed home and family, and some fun would be a healthy diversion from the stress of war.
One man, a young soldier, contemplated the options. Their ‘vacation’ interval would coincide with the High Holy Days. With one additional train ride, he could be in Palestine, as the British called it then. He approached some of his friends. “We are Jewish Americans. Just think, we can enter the land of our ancestors and can make it to Jerusalem in time for New Year. Rosh HaShanah in the Holy City!” He urged his buddies to consider this option and, fortunately, three of them agreed to accompany him.
So, as the others departed for some fun in the sun, the small group of young Jewish soldiers found a train which would travel straight to the outskirts of Jerusalem. With anticipation and excitement, they rode the rickety rails until reaching the final station, surrounded by glowing groves of oranges. And from there they made their way into fabled Jerusalem.
The young soldier inquired about prayers on Rosh HaShanah. There were countless little synagogues and some larger places, but his heart and soul longed to be at the “Wailing Wall”. Virtually off limits to Jews, the area was known to be an unsafe one, with the ground approaching the Wall littered with refuse and rubbish, a sign of the attitude of other residents of the Old City who disdained all that this sacred site meant to our people in those days of uneasiness. The Jews felt exiled within their own historical land of origin, and even the British, who patrolled the area near the Wall, discouraged Jews from gathering there. People were afraid of triggering the wrath of those living nearby. Any activity could lead to an assault or a riot. Few Jews ventured forth, and even the blowing of the shofar was forbidden, viewed by the British forces as “a provocation”.
He was contemplative and still young and spirited. To be so close as the holiday approached but to feel restricted and limited did not seem right. His one “shield” would be… his American army uniform. So, early Rosh HaShanah morning, armed with his government-issued pistol and clad in his neat attire as an American corporal, he strode forth, traversing the market stalls and the throngs of locals, and marched his way down, or up, to the small strip of land adjacent to the Western Wall. Stepping over garbage and waste, oblivious to the curious stares of those who watched him move forth, he approached the ancient stones, felt their cool smooth surface, breathed deeply, and closed his eyes, reciting the words of prayers which came to mind and spirit while lacking a prayer book.
He had made good on his pledge to his soul, his heart, his people, and his heritage, and opted to spend Rosh HaShanah at the Kotel, rather than spend his furlough at the beach. A few days later, he was torn with the temptation of making that land his home, or surviving the Second World War as a soldier so that he, the only son of his worried parents, would be able to return once again and share his stories with family.
He returned to Egypt, and finished off his tour of duty. He eventually made it back home and told his tale to his parents, his little sister, the parents of his boyhood friends, some of whom never made it back. And he told his tale to his own son, who followed in his footsteps, making his way back to Jerusalem again and again, as have his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Each of us is in his or her own subjective exile, wherever we might be. Each of us can find the courage to move ahead, out of our personal Egypt. That is the lesson of Passover. That is what I learned from that soldier, my late father, Gershon ben Nachman, alav ha’shalom.