Jerusalemites walk from neighborhood to neighborhood on Shabbat, and think nothing of trekking for an hour to get to the Kotel on holidays.
But it's the revival of an ancient tradition of walking around the walls of the Old City on Tisha B'Av that has captured the attention of growing numbers of Jerusalemites in recent years.
This year marked the 10th anniversary of the revival of the custom by the Women In Green organization headed by Nadia and Ruth Matar. It's difficult to estimate the crowds, but it took the better part of half an hour for the masses to move out of Safra Square and set off on their way after a public reading of the Eicha dirge, penned by the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the First Temple.
An easy 10,000 people took part in the march -- just one day after most of these same folks stood for two hours as part of the human chain protesting the planned destruction of Jewish communities in Gush Katif.
Tisha B'Av is the one day of the year when Jewish prayers are broadcast over a public address system, in contrast to the five times a day call to prayer blasted out over the city from mosques in eastern Jerusalem. It's actually a little disorienting to hear the Hebrew of Eicha amplified over the main city square.
As the marchers moved off following a huge banner proclaiming a slogan of allegiance to Jerusalem, organizer Nadia Matar reminded the crowd that this is not a demonstration or a rally, nor is it a social event. In fact, no reminder is necessary, as the restrained mass of Jews soberly sets out to encircle the gates of the Holy City.
Scattered amongst the marchers were a significant number of non-observant Israelis. Women wearing pants walked side by side with others whose hair was carefully covered with a scarf or hat.
A group of 45 young Austrian members of the International Christian Embassy stood out with their distinctly non-Semitic features and black T-shirts. This year, Nadia translated her remarks into French as well as English to accommodate the large number of French olim among the marchers.
There were wheelchair "marchers" and a number of octogenarian walkers, some supported by younger relatives, who managed to reach the end of the hour-long route.
As we passed New Gate near the Christian Quarter, it was clear that all traffic on Route #1 (the main north/south gateway through the city) had been redirected as we took over the streets and poured down the road toward Damascus Gate. Spotlights and snipers dotted the rooftops and helicopters hovered about to monitor the event.
Most of the Arab stores were shuttered tight, but one or two Arab women looked out of the second story windows of the Golden Walls Hotel on Saleh El-Din Street. A few shebab (Arab youth) loitered around as we streamed by Herod's Gate, watched over by the ubiquitous Israeli policemen, burdened on this warm night by their bulletproof vests. That small gate into the Moslem Quarter is shuttered tight with its centuries-old wooden covering and guarded by a lone policeman.
Walking down the hill toward Damascus Gate, we turned to look back at those behind us. People as far back as we could see, accompanied by huge Israeli flags, were reviving an ancient Jerusalem tradition of encircling the walls on Tisha B'Av.
It was a hands-on outdoor classroom for many parents. All along the way, fathers explained the significant sites to sons and daughters. "Saba [Grandpa] fought here," one tall, bearded man told his 10-year-old son as we rounded the corner towards Lion's Gate, where Israeli paratroopers entered to liberate the Temple Mount in the 1967 Six Day War.
"Look over there," said a young mother to her wide-eyed daughter. "You can see the stairs where the Jews used to go up to the Temple," she said as we walked up the hill in front of the southern wall.
In front of us we saw the Mount of Olives crowned with its Arab and Christian institutions. There was a refreshing feeling of freedom as thousands walked freely down the road that overlooks the ancient Jewish cemetery.
Many marchers wandered over to the wall to gaze at the Kidron Valley below with Absalom's Tomb and the monument to the prophet Zecharia. Across the valley we could see the new Maale Hazeitim development that acts as a buffer between Abu Dis and the Temple Mount.
At Lion's Gate, two members of Knesset addressed the masses who found resting places on the hard stone. The voice of MK Benny Elon echoed off the city walls and the ancient headstones as he began his remarks by calling those seated around him, "This holy assembly..."
Rounding the corner, we looked up at the imposing Southern Wall of the Temple with the steps and Huldah's Gate, before making the ascent towards Dung Gate and the entrance to the Western Wall. Glancing backwards again, the sight of the masses of people still behind us was awesome. Quiet and dignified, the march had gone off without incident.
Getting out of the area proved challenging, as the Egged bus company deployed dozens of buses to get people in and out of the Old City, causing their own traffic jams. At midnight, there was a line of the green vehicles packed to overflowing with the faithful, who would spend the night sitting or lying on the ground at the site of the catastrophe that gave us Tisha B'Av.
It's just another sign that the people of Israel aren't about to give up....
This news has been published by title Tisha B���Av Is Just Another Day For Over Half Of Israelis
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