Category: News

The Priestly Blessing (Birkat HaCohanim) at the Western Wall

Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall
Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall

The priestly blessing (birkat hacohanim) has always held a certain fascination for me. Although in Israel, and in all Sephardic communities, it is recited daily in synagogue, in Ashkenazi Diaspora communities like mine it is only recited during festivals, so it became something of a special event. I remember from a young age the priests ascending to the stage at the front of the synagogue, by the ark, in preparation for this ancient ceremony. Those who were sitting in seats that were to the side would get up and move so that they could be in front of the priests in order to receive the blessing. We would stand and my father would take me under his tallit (prayer shawl) and instruct me firmly not to look at the priests while they were blessing us – it is forbidden. This combined with the unique and haunting tune sung during the blessing made it a very special moment.

In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time, and Jews had unrestricted access to the Western Wall. Those of you who have toured with me will be aware of the various complexities associated with that war and its results, but putting that aside for a moment, this was an event of huge importance. This was the first time in memory that Jews were free to visit and pray at this most holy of sites. Whether religious or secular, the significance was huge.

Those of you who have visited the Wall will be aware that there are normally several services happening there in parallel, but in 1970 a rabbi decided to try and create one large public service which would incorporate the priestly blessing. According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, an important commentator and mystic from the middle ages, there is special significance to hearing the blessing from over 300 priests, close to where the temple once stood.

Today, the special unified service takes place twice a year. Once during Pesach (Passover) in the Spring and once during Sukkot (Tabernacles) in the Autumn. These festivals are significant as they are two of the ‘Three Foot Festivals’; festivals on which a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is required, as commanded in the Torah in Deuteronomy 16:16:
Three times a year shall all your people appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [referring presumably to the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot [Pentecost], and Sukkot. They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you

Often when guiding in the vicinity of what used to be the Temple, I try to help people imagine what it would have been like on these occasions – tens of thousands of pilgrims arriving from around the region in order to offer sacrifices and to be part of the service. And one of the only parts of that ceremony that we can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that would have dated back even to the time of the First Temple (from roughly 3000 years ago) is the priestly blessing. In fact, the oldest version of any part of the bible that exists was found inscribed on an amulet from the 6th century – it was the text of the priestly blessing (and in my opinion one of the highlights of the Israel Museum’s collection).

In Hebrew the word for a pilgrim is an oleh l’regel, the literal translation of which is ‘someone who goes up by foot’. One goes up to Jerusalem both physically (it is in the hills) and spiritually. This week I was due to guide a family in the Old City on the day of the priestly blessing during Pesach. As a sat by the Jaffa Gate, waiting for them to arrive, I was struck by the nature of the hordes of Jewish people thronging through the gate on their way to the Wall for this ceremony. The whole of the Jewish people were represented – ultra-orthodox, modern-orthodox, progressive and secular; elderly, middle-aged and child; man and women; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite; speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French and Russian; a flurry of different hair styles, head coverings and colours. As I looked upon this mixed multitude moving past me I was transported to the First and Second Temple Periods, 3000 and 2000 years ago, when such scenes would have been a regular occurrence.

As we descended towards the Western Wall, I could hear the beginning of the mussaf service being broadcast over a loudspeaker. The plaza was packed, as were all the viewpoints, not just with the Jewish pilgrims but the large numbers of tourists who had come to see this special occasion.

Eventually, we reached the part of the service where the cohanim gave their blessing. There was complete silence around the plaza as the descendants of the priests of the original Temple raised their prayer shawls over their heads. The way that the blessing is given is that the chazzan (cantor) recites each word of the blessing in turn, and the priests repeat after him. Although the chazzan had a microphone, the priests did not, but even far at the back of the plaza, it was possible to hear the hundreds of cohanim join together to repeat after him in unison – the power of their combined voices reached far and wide.

Participating in this most ancient of ceremonies, right next to where it would have taken place on a regular basis (the blessings would have happened on the Temple Mount – not feasible today for obvious reasons!), was a truly moving experience. It really helped give me a sense of what the ancient pilgrimage festivals would have been like, and was a remarkable connection to my heritage and tradition. From my small synagogue in South London, with a largely homogeneous community of a few hundred people, I was suddenly part of tens of thousands of Jews from a huge variety of backgrounds, sharing in common the blessing that has been passed down to us through the millennia:
May the Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord’s face shine light upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord raise His face unto you and give you peace.

If you are planning to come to Israel during Pesach or Sukkot, and would like build this ceremony into a guided tour of Jerusalem, I would love to help you do so! Please do be in touch.

2015: A first full year of guiding in review

Happy new year! With the advent of 2016 it seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect on what has been my first full year as a tour guide in Israel. Although I officially received my licence in July 2015, and indeed did do some voluntary bits and bobs before that, because of the Protective Edge operation and then a honeymoon trip abroad I only really began working in November 2014. And even that was reasonably light.

So, 2015 was my first full year of guiding. How did it go? Well, let’s start with the numbers, which are encouraging. I worked 163 days (not bad going at all for a newbie), guiding 1866 people from 53 countries (although always in English!). This is particularly encouraging given the drop in overall tourist numbers to Israel because of perceived security risks – although those of you who have been here with me will know that this perception does not really reflect reality.

Although the vast majority of the time the weather conditions were great for being outside, I also experienced some extremes, working in temperatures ranging from 5-40 °C (that’s 40-104 °F for my American readers), in weather ranging from dust storms to torrential rain to hail and gale force winds! As they taught us on our guiding course, we need to be prepared to work in all weather and I have built up an appropriate wardrobe to help me perform at my best even in extremes!

The majority of my work has been in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but I have had the opportunity to criss-cross the country from Merom Golan in the north to Eilat in the south, working in desert and lush greenery, from the heights of the Hermon to the depths of the Dead Sea. I have guided in museums and on hiking trails; in religious sites and archaeological excavations; in cars, trains, buses and even on a plane.

I have guided leading businessmen, journalists and politicians, religious and communal leaders, academics from the world’s leading universities. I have guided students, pensioners and young families; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs; pilgrims, historians, bird lovers and water specialists; large groups of up to 55 people to individual visitors; right-wingers and left-wingers, Zionists and anti-Zionists, religious and secular.

And, thankfully, I love it! I feel privileged to have the opportunity to show my adopted country to visitors, to try to help them understand the significance of this small place to so many people around the world whether from a religious, historical, geological or even zoological standpoint. To discuss the amazing innovation at the heart of Israel’s powerful hi-tech sector. To engage on the political challenges this country faces whether externally with its neighbours or internally with its different sectors of society. To understand how our archaeological discoveries help us to reconstruct the past. And importantly, to taste the best food and drink Israel has to offer!

I have also enjoyed the opportunity to meet such a wide range of people from all over the world. Often I feel that I learn as much from the people I guide as they do from me. Over the past year I have gained valuable insights into life and different cultures; new ideas about faith and what it means; inside information on global politics and even some free marketing and IT consulting!

I really enjoy the variety in my clients and the challenge this presents of adapting my guiding to the people in front of me. How do I ensure that young children are enjoying themselves while their parents and grandparents are getting the information that they want and need? How to discuss politics with a group with a wide range of views? How do I ensure that people with strong faith have a spiritual experience? How do I focus on giving people a meaningful, stimulating and entertaining experience instead of overloading them with information? How do I read them, to know when they need to have a break; when do I need to explain a little bit more or when do I need to back off and give them some time to reflect on their own?

Have I been successful? I think that most of the time I have. I have built up a nice collection of reviews on Tripadvisor (and if I have guided you and you have not yet written a review, please do feel free to do so via this link!) which is helping drive further business, and a few times now I have been referred to new clients by people I have previously guided over the past 12 months. This is most encouraging!

It was a big jump into this new career but I am pleased to look back on my first full year in the profession as one of great challenges, great people and most importantly, great fun. I look forward to many more years that will be as fascinating, entertaining and enriching as 2015.

Here is to a fantastic 2016!

 

Graduation from the Taglit-Birthright Institute for Tour Educators

This week, I proudly graduated from the Taglit-Birthright Institute for Tour Educators. For those not familiar with the Birthright programme, it facilitates a short trip to Israel for young Jewish people from around the world. The mechanics involve some support from the Israeli government, wealthy philanthropists and local Jewish communities, so that the participants themselves do not actually have to pay. Since its creation in 1999, over 400 000 participants have come to Israel through the programme.

A few years ago the organisers of the project established the Institute for Tour Educators, designed to improve the quality of the guides who accompany the groups. It offers a full tour guide course, or alternatively a three week seminar for those recently qualified, or a week seminar for experienced Birthright guides. The objective is that in a couple of years, all Birthright guides will have gone through the Institute (the figure stands at about 80% at present).

I like the idea of Birthright and am keen to work with the groups; on a more practical level they represent a significant proportion of tourism in Israel (and many of the groups still ran despite the security situation in the summer). I also felt that although the Ministry of Tourism course had given me a great deal of knowledge, it had not really equipped me with many practical tools on how to guide in the most engaging and interesting way. All of these reasons led to me applying to participate in the seminar this summer, and I was grateful to be accepted.

We were a small group of around 25, a majority native Israelis but also some immigrants whose origins lay in South & North America and the FSU. I was the EU representative! There was a broad range of religious perspectives, from Haredi to ideological secularist; the political spectrum among the participants was also far from narrow.

The course consisted of three separate weeks, spread over June, July and culminating just now in September. We covered a wide range of material, from practical advice on logistics and group dynamics, to training on public speaking and leading discussions, to sessions on how to build our guiding around a theme and connect the various sites we would visit throughout the trip into a coherent narrative.

I was very pleasantly surprised. Stereotypes about Birthright do exist, but it was great to see that there is no message proscribed from the management at the top that we have to deliver. The way we as guides, or indeed educators, as we are now trained to be, deliver the content is entirely up to us. Indeed there are also no obligatory sites, although for various reasons most of the groups do follow a similar itinerary.

The seminar also included a Shabbat together, where we talked about how to manage a Shabbat on Birthright, and experienced one ourselves. It was very interesting to hear and learn from the different perspectives in the group, it was clear that shabbat was a meaningful experience for all of us, but the ways in which it was so (family, prayer, beach or hiking in nature, for example) varied significantly. The nice thing was that all were open-minded to learning from the other, it created a very nice atmosphere. The food wasn’t too bad either!

I really enjoyed the seminar. The other participants were great – energetic, thoughtful, passionate people. We will definitely stay in touch and continue to learn from each other in the months and years to come. The sessions were really interesting, and in many cases extremely helpful. I know have many new tools and ideas about how best to show this country to visitors, and to help them engage with it in a meaningful way. On a more personal note, it was a bit like a return to my FZY days, back in the world of informal education. I even had some teachers from my time on the Machon!

Not only was the seminar helpful in a theoretical way, it was also great practically. We had the opportunity to meet various organisations that operate the Birthright trips (the central staff does not actually run any of the tours), and I even have my first booking for a Birthright group over the new year. Here’s looking forward to many more!

The Eichmann in the Room

About once a month since we got married, we spend a shabbat in Holon with my in-laws. We are fortunate in that we get on very well, the food is delicious, and best of all, we always get doggy bags that keep us going through the rest of the week!

On Friday evening, I always accompany my father-in-law to his synagogue (on Shabbat morning they begin at 7am; I am yet to make it!). He is Yemenite, and I have always found the service fascinating. Broadly speaking, it is the same as any other service, but there are two main differences: nearly every part of the liturgy is chanted out loud in unison; the Yemenites have their own very unique pronunciation of Hebrew (which many believe is the closest pronunciation to the original Hebrew language). A non-yemenite, familiar with the prayer service, but not with the local ‘slang’, as my father-in-law likes to call it, would be a bit bemused on walking in, but once you learn the rules it is actually quite easy to follow; by now I am pretty much at home with the service and am doing my best to adapt my pronunciation accordingly!

My father-in-law has a fixed seat in the synagogue, and next to him is a space for my brother-in-law. As my brother-in-law now normally prays elsewhere, this has become my seat when I visit. On entering the synagogue last Friday, I saw a gentleman that I had not seen before in the synagogue, sitting in the seat I usually occupy. He was an elderly, pious looking man, in a long black gabardine and a small black hat; his silver payot (sidelocks) curled in the Yemenite style.

Shalom Nagar
Shalom Nagar

Someone must have said something (not us), as he moved, and ended up sitting directly behind me. As we approached our seat, my father-in-law whispered in my ear: “haish hahu tala et Eichmann” (“that man hanged Eichmann”).

Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Final Solution, was famously apprehended by the Mossad while hiding in Argentina, smuggled back to Israel, and put on trial in 1961. It was a seminal moment in the history of the state, when for the first time the majority of the country really began to come to terms with what had happened in the Holocaust. It was also the first time in Israel’s history that a death sentence was actually carried out (in other cases it has been ordered but cancelled on appeal).

I vaguely remembered hearing that they had selected a Yemenite to perform the execution. This was in order to avoid any hint of this being revenge, as opposed to justice. Too many of the European and even North African Jews living in Israel were affected personally by the Holocaust, but the Yemenites were not. It was remarkable to think that this diminutive man sitting behind me had been responsible for the death of this most famous criminal.

Even if I had wanted to forget about this during the service, it was not possible. The vast majority of a Yemenite liturgy is chanted aloud, in unison, and often in a loud voice. I kept hearing his voice, with a very strong Yemenite accent, sounding in my ear. I kept being reminded of him, and thinking about what he had done. Thinking about the morality and virtues (or not) of capital punishment. Thinking about Eichmann and the horrors he perpetrated. Thinking how it must have felt to carry out this sentence.

The service broke for the rabbi’s sermon. The weekly Torah portion mentioned the obligation of a man witnessing a murder to bear witness against the perpetrator. He suggested that part of this was a sort of catharsis for the witness who had seen a terrible crime, as well as the need to bring justice. He began speaking about the large amount of violence in modern media, both theatrical violence in film and TV dramas and real violence on the news or available in the latest ISIS broadcasts. He argued that by watching this violence, one is like a witness, and one needs to cleanse one’s soul somehow.

I could not help thinking about the gentleman behind me, and what he had not just witnessed, but actually done. I was not the only one; a fellow congregant began to rib him, asking him how he had cleansed himself of what he had witnessed. I felt so sorry for this poor man. Fortunately, other congregants stepped in and ordered that it came to an end. But I could still hear the old man behind me, muttering “there were three witnesses”, as if somehow the shared burden made things easier. It was heart-wrenching.

The service concluded, we stood up to leave. Our new friend was still busy praying, reading the aleinu prayer which they do not normally recite in this synagogue. He shook my hand as we left, wishing me a “Shabbat Shalom”; the hand which shook mine was no doubt the hand that ended Eichmann’s life.

It was a bizarre experience. I was filled with pity for this man, who is famed for performing this most terrible of deeds. And yet there was something about his demeanour which was just so pure; his dress, his side-locks, his extra prayers, his elderly cracking voice escaping the gaps in his teeth. I was excited to have met this man who was a part of history, and desperate to question him on it, yet aware that this was far from the time or the place. I was horrified by the thought of what had happened.

After Shabbat, with the help of Google, I learned a bit more about Shalom Nagar. It seems that he has come to terms with his past and lives a happy, uncomplicated life. If you are interested, you can read an in-depth interview here.

In Israel, it so often happens that what would appear to be an entirely normal evening ends up being extraordinary; thought-provoking; somewhat emotional. It never ceases to amaze me.

Launch of new website

Now that I have passed my exams, I decided that it was time to give the website a refresh, moving it from a focus on the blog to being more appropriate as a page for people to come to when searching for a tour guide. The blog is still here and I shall continue to update it while I explore the country (there are always new places to see and discover) but I have created a new landing page, updated the about section (including the details of my guiding philosophy) and have included a series of testimonials that I have received from previous participants in my tours.

The new design also automatically adapts to different size screens (for example a laptop vs a telephone) and in general looks a lot cleaner.

I hope that you like the new site and would welcome any comments and feedback!