by Simon Jacobson
JERUSALEM, Tuesday, August 14, 2001
Dinner at the home of my cousin, Bezalel Shif,
director of the Yisrael BAliyah party, headed by Knesset
Minister Natan Sharansky. Bezalel sits like a godfather in a
silk bathrobe laughing and serving me caviar (or whatever Russian
fish he imported). We lost our sensitivity here,
he tells me. When the Sbarros massacre took place I was
sitting and eating sushi at the Jerusalem Hilton. A year ago
everything would stop and the entire nation would be mourning
the loss of one Jew. Now, when we heard the news, we
eating. We have become desensitized, he says with a sigh.
A Russian immigrant who arrived in Israel in 1972,
Bezalel worked for many years as Director of Shamir, publishing
and communicating Judaism to Russian Jews. He now is the director
of the party (while still fulfilling his responsibilities at
Shamir) representing over 1 million Russian immigrants,
who have arrived in Israel in the last 10 years after the fall
of communism. Yes, 1 million. Now, that requires a real study
to know how that changes Israeli demographics. And how it affects
the attitude today to the terrorism.
Late at night, 4AM I decide to walk back to the
Old City with my son. Peaceful walk through the silent streets
of Jerusalem leading to the Jaffe gate. As we get closer to
the gate, we notice a group of teenagers across the street.
Arabs, my son says. How do you know?
I ask him. They are speaking Arabic, they look Arabic
and the people that hang around there at that time of night
are usually Arabs. I must admit that a sudden dread entered
my heart. Here we are alone, no one in sight. Do we cross to
enter the gate or not? We quickly pass them by, hoping they
dont notice us. But they did, and they begin walking our
way, across the highway, but in our direction. I ask my son
what we should do. He seems pretty calm. His fear only fueled
by mine. We walk quickly downhill and try to flag down a cab.
A cab across the way sees us and begins to make a u-turn toward
us, when my son says, no, could be an Arab driver.
Great. Finally a taste of reality here in Israel.
Heart beating, we decide to take the steps back
to the gate. If we see the Arab guys well run for it.
My son tells me, once we get into the Jaffe gate there is a
police station, so well be fine. But
from here to
the gate. Happy ending as you can tell from the fact
that Im here to write this piece we make it into
the Old City, enter the Armenian Quarter. Armenian what
the hell are the Armenians doing here?! Bad enough Moslem and
Christian, but where did the Armenians come from? Later Im
told that when the Turks slaughtered the Armenians, they placated
them by giving them a piece of the Old City. OK, so thats
the four quarters of the neighborhood around the Temple today:
Jewish, Moslem, Christian, Armenian. Must have some Divine plan
Walk from the Armenian to the Jewish Quarter.
Take a back road. You see the Jewish Quarter by foot is only
accessible through the other quarters (except if you enter through
the Dung Gate, the way buses arrive to the Wall). Its
now 4:30AM. No one in the stoned alleyways, except for prowling
cats. And then some. What are all these cats doing here? No
mention made of them in the Talmud which documents all the goings-on
during the Temple period (even the snows that would fall in
Jerusalem). My son tells me that Moses Montefiore, who was instrumental
in rebuilding Jerusalem in the mid 1800s, imported the
cats to get rid of the rat problem in the City. And now
the cats have become the rats. Great. Yet another batch of intruders.
Jerusalem is sure a magnet... Kabbalah and Chassidus do say
that kelipot (negative energy) gather to wean energy
in the holiest places, where there is abundant nourishment.
A spider... in the kings palace (Proverbs
With all this adrenaline rush I barely sleep.
Wednesday, August 15
Good morning to G-d. Good morning to The Wall.
Every time I don Talit and Tefillin and pray at the Wall I feel
embarrassed. In New York when you daven you create kedusha,
holiness. Here your kedusha is overshadowed by that of the Wall,
the City, the very ground. Sharga btehira mei ahani
(what benefit has a candle in the light of the sun)? the Talmud
asks. Indeed, the candle creates a dark outline with
the sunlight at its back. Yet, we all play along, hundreds of
us davening at the Wall.
My hosts Ronny and Chaya notify me that I am giving
a class tonight at their home, for a whole bunch of people they
have invited. OK, if you say so.
Sushi dinner at the Hilton. Overlooking a beautiful
view of the Old City walls. One of the guests at the table broaches
the topic whether the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe could be the Messiah.
Is that what I came to Israel to discuss? No choice, being the
scribe of the Rebbe for so many years, authoring Toward
A Meaningful Life has sealed my destiny as the defender
of all Lubavitch positions. I explain to no avail: This
is not a Lubavitcher issue. Lubavitch is a Torah
movement, which has one and only criteria: Torah law. If anyone
says that the Rebbe is or could be Moshiach, the same question
that is asked regarding all issues must be posed: What does
halacha say about this? Read the Rambam (Laws of Kings chapter
10) who defines the criteria for Moshiach, and draw your own
conclusion, or ask a trusted Rabbi what the halachik position
should be on this issue.
Do not get off the hook, needless to say. More
later (Friday entry).
Class at the Vances home. So strange. Been
giving my Wednesday night class for close to 20 years in New
York, never canceling, and tonight Im doing it here in
the Old City, while my friend, Phillip Namanworth will be filling
in for me soon in New York. We discuss the month of Av and its
unique relationship with Jerusalem. The midrash states, that
in the month of the lion (the mazal of the month
of Av) the lion (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) was
destroyed by the lion (Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon),
on condition that in the lion (Av) the lion
(the Temple) will be rebuilt by the lion (G-d).
Aryeh (lion in Hebrew) is the acronym of Elul, Rosh
Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hoshana Rabba. The New Year is conceived
in the month of Av. In the throes of the Temples destruction
is born the salvation. Moshiach is born on Tisha BAv,
and this gives birth to our New Year. The greatest joy originates
in the heart of darkness.
Sit up conversing half a night. Really feel at
home in this land.
Take another stroll to the Wall. I have this mischievous
need to make some cell phone calls from the Wall to New York!
Just love the bizarre contrast, and love to shake people up
a little with a call from
Jerusalem. Hey, guess whos
calling? Simon from
the Holy Wall.
Thursday, August 16
Visit my Georgian as in Russia, not Atlanta
cousins in Givaat Zeev (suburb of Jerusalem, fifteen
minutes away from the city). Elissa Sapir is my fathers
first cousin. Her mother Chana was a younger sister of my grandfather
and namesake, Simon. They were all shvilis then. What
I mean by that is, all Georgians (Gruziner) go by surnames with
the shvili suffix. Shvili means son
of. Simon Yakobashvili (son of Jacob) my grandfather,
changed it to Jacobson upon arriving in Toronto in 1947.
Whenever I see my father sitting silently, loudly
but peacefully taking in everything going on at our table, I
love saying to him: bizt a gruziner, ah (youre
a Georgian, after all, ah)? You see, my father is a character.
A real character. Gershon Gruzin (Gershon the Georgian) is one
of his pen names. A strange combination of deep, intimate inner
peace and restlessness which you just dont find quite
the same anywhere else in the world. Except for Georgia.
And now I was to discover a new ingredient, that
I am sure will rock my family up a bit. Cant wait to share
it with them.
Elissa has my fathers nose and eyes. Shrewd,
darting, warm. Welcoming but dont get in my way,
Im in control type of look. Elissas husband
knows not a word of any language in which we can communicate.
He sits silently smiling as we speak in Hebrew. Then the food
starts rolling in. Jews are Jews after all. And then the family
members roll in, with more food in hand. Figs. Wine. Baby tomatoes.
Elissas son, Shalva and his wife, Gulnara
and children, Eli and his younger sister all doctors
are like long lost family. Secular but exceptionally
warm and intelligent, secure and comfortable. Highly educated
and articulate. What a pleasure to know that there are Jews
like this in Israel, let alone relatives of mine. I feel real
We talk about everything from philosophy to the
situation in Israel, from Russian TV (one station on Israeli
TV is in Russian) to sports. Medicine, spirituality, quantum
physics, human consciousness and humor are all part of
the conversation mix.
They insist that my son and I sleep over. A week
ago there was a terrorist shooting on the road back to Jerusalem.
Why risk it. Is a night of comfort worth your life?
Shalva argues. No recourse except to look him in the eye, Georgian
to Georgian, and say: Listen I am an adult. I need to be back
in the Old City. I will take the risk.
Enough said. He and his son drive us. Thats
what I like about them. Kind, but know when to stop if necessary.
And then kind again. No need to win.
Comfortable, secure Jews. Oh, how we need more
of them today.
And my thoughts go back to Elissas words.
You see my husband here. He is a pure Georgian Jew. Going
back 2600 years, from the time of the First Temple. Yes, 2600
years of an unbroken chain of Georgian Jews. I guess, when the
Jewish people were exiled to Babylon, some of them ended up
in Georgia, which shares its southern border with Turkey and
What do you mean your husband. Arent
you, Elissa also pure Georgian? I ask. No,
she says. And here comes the surprising news. Our grandfather
Solomon (father of Simon and Chana) was born in
He fled there to Georgia after a pogrom. Are you
sure? I inquire. Definitely. It was known that he
spoke Georgian with a Jerusalem accent.
Now, what does that do to the gene pool, I wonder.
Yerushalmer and Gruziner, hmmm. New ingredient in the equation.
The plot thickens; I need some serious rethink of my fathers
personality and my entire life. Need some new arithmetic here.
Oh well, got my work cut out for me upon my return to New York.
Another thought comes to me. 2600 years of Georgian
Jewry why thats older than the Wall!
I ask Shalva, what is it that preserved Georgian
Jewry for so long in one place? Was the area non-strategic,
hence left alone during all the wars and upheavals that amputated
so many Jewish communities? Why did Georgia not suffer the fate
of Jewish communities virtually everywhere? No, it was very
strategic region, situated right on the Black Sea, entry to
the Mediterranean. So what was is it. He tries to explain that
for some reason this region was always safe for its population,
including Jews. [There is the story of the Khazars who allegedly
converted to Judaism led by their king. Does this have anything
to do with it? Needs some research].
And now, he tells me, that with the fall of Communism
and the ensuing corruption, its 2600 year history has come to
an abrupt end. Jews have all left and emigrated primarily to
Can it be that G-d with His higher plan is sending
us a signal of what is coming and what we need to prepare for
by showing us how a 2600 year history longer than the
Wall is ending and the Jews are returning to the Holy
So, now you know: The Jacobsons are a mix of Yerushalmer,
Gruziner, Russishe, Americaner blut (blood). What does that
Back in the Old City with all my genes shaken
up. Another sleepless night. Another rejuvenating morning at
(to be continued)