September 17, 2021 •
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Postcards from Jerusalem: Hebron Part 4−Hebron Part 2: Kiryat Arba and Ibrihimi Mosque
by Cantor Jessica F. Epstein

The bus turned right, and I was suddenly in a timeless landscape. The rolling hills of Judea are terraced by worn grey stones and filled with olive trees that are hundreds of years old. A prophet could have walked these lands. There are valleys and ridges. White minarets perch serenely above picturesque Arab villages.

There is also barbed wire.

One of the first stops of Egged #381 was the Gush Etzion Junction to let off some soldiers. Gush Etzion is a cluster of Judaean settlements reestablished again after the Six Day War. In 1948, there was an Arab massacre of previous settlements killing 127 Jews. This event, little known to American Jews, plays a huge part in the Israeli psyche. Some 70,000 people live there now. Just to give you some perspective, this is not two guys with a flag and a trailer on a mountaintop. These are major population centers.

The Junction has been the site of several terrorist attacks while Israelis waited there for buses. Three soldiers just in 2018, and three killed and seven wounded in 2015: This is not ancient history. There are secure concrete barriers now and armed guards at the Junction with fingers on the triggers of machine guns to stop any new attacks. This is not a figure of speech; they are literally poised, ready to shoot.

The Junction, an important transit and security location, was the site of attacks very recently, but additional attacks led to the establishment of a bypass road we took deeper into the West Bank to reach Kiryat Arba It was an important safety measure coming out of real tragedy for Israelis living and working in the West Bank.

This was how we came into a very controversial settlement.

A giant Israeli flag, possibly 100 feet high and high on a mountain top, flies boldly above the town of Kiryat Arba outside Hebron, about 7,500 people live here. This is an in your face settlement. No backing down. No apologies. We’re here. The next thing you see is the kindly image of Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, welcoming you to the “Holy and Miraculous City,” “The City of the Patriarchs, Hebron.” You are now in a settlement fairly isolated from those in the Gush Etzion area which has Arab-controlled areas in very close proximity. The bus meandered through the twisting streets, pretty houses with flowers and flags lined the way into Hebron proper. There was significant new building as well—all had the names of the sponsors of the building projects proudly displayed.

Another stop. And another stop. We entered into a barren cityscape. Shop after shop was closed on this obviously Arab street. After 90 minutes or more, where were we?

“Eliyahu – wake up! Is this our stop!?” shouted one of the tour members. It was the last stop of the route before it returned.

“Oh! Oh yes, yes, let’s get out!” said the half-awake Eliyahu. The rest of us rolled our eyes at one another. What have we gotten ourselves into?

We disembarked onto an absolutely empty and abandoned street. King David Street in Hebrew or Al-Shuhada Street in Arabic. Stores were closed. No cars. No pedestrians. Some soldiers at stations further ahead. A watchtower on a hill. The atmosphere was one of a war zone. This is a street we would walk again at the end of our tour and learn more about. For now, it was our path to meet our Arab tour guide, Mohammed.

Mohammed’s family ran a souvenir shop directly across from The Tomb of the Patriarchs. There was a little strip of run-down stores selling run-down goods. A closed up Arab restaurant sign was papered over again by a tattered and smiling picture of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. The life had gone out of the area—it was dingy, dusty, and hopeless. It had a depressing feeling of loss and abandonment that would characterize most of the Arab section. Mohammed’s father, the shopkeeper, implored us gently to buy a few things, but we were all eager to move forward onto the tour, and no one did.

We were given instructions by Eliyahu in case we were asked if we were Jewish or if we were Muslim by the Israeli guards. Just keep moving. There are two entrances to the Tomb. Muslims are forbidden on the Jewish side, and Jews are forbidden on the Muslim side except for 10 days a year when each is granted access to the entire area. Most of the tour was neither Jewish nor Muslim, and as for me, Eliyahu said just go along with the group and don’t start singing and dancing in Hebrew. I took his advice, and we had no issues.

We walked up a long ramp into the Arab side into the Ibrihimi Mosque, the Cave of Machpelah. Here were the carpeted rooms where peaceful worshippers were murdered by the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein (y’mach sh’mo) who killed 29 and injured 125 before being beaten to death by survivors. That story was vividly told to us by Mohammed and set a somber tone for the tour of this beautiful mosque. The tombs of Isaac and Rebecca are on the Muslim side, and the Muslims do control 81% of the building. The stone structure was originally built by Herod, and is the oldest continual place of worship for Jews, predating even the Temple Mount and Kotel. It has never been destroyed, only added to and amended. The interior is a mix of Ottoman, Mamluk, and even Crusader architecture as each built a holy structure above what Jews consider a pathway between heaven and earth.

Walking around, looking at the ornate ceiling, some of the women on the tour with me started talking to some Muslim women with children who had come to pray. The kids were running around and being kids, and we tried to communicate with these smiling and friendly women, but neither of us had any words to share besides, “Salaam Aleikum.”

Suddenly, one of the women took a little vial of perfume with a roll-top out of her purse and gestured for us to offer our hands. We held them out. One by one she rolled perfume onto our skin. An offering. The first glimmer of hope I had seen in this city.

To be continued…


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