The ‘Fall of Zion’ in 19th Century Israel
ReflectionsGuest Column

The ‘Fall of Zion’ in 19th Century Israel

Reflecting on Tisha B'av through the words of author and Zionist Isaiah Raffalovich.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

The Western Wall in 1898 with some stones containing writings in Hebrew, believed to be the work of visitors who wanted to commemorate their names upon the wall.
The Western Wall in 1898 with some stones containing writings in Hebrew, believed to be the work of visitors who wanted to commemorate their names upon the wall.

Tisha B’av has always been the “figment of my imagination” fast day. I have observed Tisha B’av in so many places that I could never recall them all. I dressed in white, black and brown, depending where I was, once even fasting on a canoe trip. I helped my campers build the Temple, and then my friend’s campers burned it to the ground.

To be sure, Tisha B’av has had it tough, occurring in the summer when many of us are on vacation. The heat can turn one’s fast into an ordeal.

However, a half century ago, my wife, Rita, and I fasted here in Jerusalem and peered from the roof of David’s Tomb at where the Kotel was supposed to be. I felt that Tisha B’av, in spite of the number of Jews who observed it, was one of the moments in the Jewish year that kept us focused on returning to our land.

Tisha B’av was no longer a figment of my imagination. It provided, annually, a poignancy in time that lifted us from the ruins of the past and deposited us in a new Israel.

Growing up 7,000 miles away, I knew being at the Kotel for the fast day was an experience in itself. Since our family made aliyah in August 1977, I have been at the Kotel for Tisha B’av. Guess I was expecting too much; I was never moved by Tisha B’av at that sacred space.

Turned out my search was for someone to describe the experience at the Kotel for me. Took a long time to find, finally in the pages of The Jewish Chronicle in 1902. Isaiah Raffalovich, the author and a committed Zionist, returned to Eretz Yisrael, his home, in the 1890s, making sure to arrive on the eve of Tisha B’av, thereby carrying with him to the Western Wall that night the memories of the past and the hopes for the present.

Raffalovich, born in Eastern Europe in 1870, was brought to Jerusalem in 1882, when his parents made aliyah. In 1898 he published his most famous book, “Views from Palestine and its Jewish Colonies,” which was an album of his own photographs.

Returning to Europe in 1901, he was ordained as a rabbi. From 1904, for the next two decades, he served as a spiritual leader in England. Fulfilling his dreams, he moved back to Israel in the ’30s and died here in 1956.

Never having arrived in Israel by boat, it was enriching to see his view back then: “The steamer entered the harbor of Jaffa. The picturesqueness of the little town, looming out between the orange and lemon groves, with its white flat-roofed rows of houses, was quite enchanting.

“I was carried away to the time when on this day the country was overrun by the Roman legions landing at this very place, intent to shatter the bulwarks of the Jewish defense and to crush the independence of Judah, sending my brethren fleeing before them, taking shelter in the caves and in clefts of the rocks.”

Having watched two cousins return alive from the hell of the Holocaust to walk erect again, I could understand exactly the meaning of Raffalovich’s words:

“I felt a sudden change come over me; the blood rushed quicker through my veins, my back bent for centuries in ghettos and Pales, straightened itself and I so desired to replant them on the beautiful but desolate spot before me, our land.”

“After disembarking, bargaining and bribing, I succeeded in settling in a carriage of the newly-built railway to Jerusalem.”

My wife, Rita, and I took that train ride seven times on the circuitous route around the hills of Judea. Each time we felt the excitement of our return to Jerusalem before 1967 and afterwards, when the Kotel belonged to the Jewish people again. As he traveled on the train almost 120 years ago, Raffalovich knew, with all his heart, that he “was bound to join in the evening of the mourning of the fall of Zion” at that actual site.

“The view of the Sharon and the mountains of Judea … recalled olden times when the brave zealots, besieged by Titus, defended heroically their ancient City, and fought bitterly for their treasure, the Temple of God.

“Jerusalem! The goal of my journey. I am at last in the place for which all Israel has yearned these last eighteen hundred years. The City seemed to be clad in deep mourning.”

Remembering a walk from the Jaffa Gate once on a Tisha B’av, the sadness there reverberated from the walls surrounding me with each step I took.

However, Raffalovich was able to draw a moving contrast: “The sun in the West looked like a fiery ball, and the minarets and the steeples of the many churches were streaked with gold. The effect was marvelous. It seemed as if the whole of Jerusalem was wrapped up in flames, and it forcibly reminded one of the time when on this very evening the City was illumined by the flames of its burning Temple.”

Yes, but the Romans, who put the city to the torch, have disappeared, and we are here.

He wrote: “When I reached the Jewish quarter the inhabitants, barefooted and in tatters, were hurrying to the Western Wall, there to pour out their hearts in prayer and supplication. The paved little space before the wall was crowded with men, women and children.”

That sight has been presented in various photographs, but when you hear a fellow Jew describe the scene, it is, oh, so different:

“… Moroccan Jews, squatting by the wall, responded in tones difficult to describe, to the lamentations read by the Chacham, now and then raising their hands pathetically heavenwards. At the other end a group of calm Sephardim were singing the same verses to their own tune. Just in the middle, and nearer to the wall, hundreds of Ashkenazim rent the air with their cries.

“In front of me stood the ancient monument, as eternal testimony of former greatness. Nine rows of huge and gigantic stones is all that is left of Israel’s glory.”

How fortunate am I to stand at the Kotel triple the size.

“The crowd became denser, and the weeping and wailing, deafening … sobs and lamentations broke out afresh.”

I also wept. I wept bitterly. I wept not only for the destruction of the city but also for Am Yisrael.

Raffalovich was resolute: “recognize that after eighteen centuries of wailing and lamenting, …rise and do something for the regaining of the old greatness.”

On this Tisha B’av, 41 years since our aliyah, our family has done its share to as Raffalovich put in, “regain the old greatness of our country.”

“Midnight, a new group came to mourn at the sacred spot from whence the Divine Presence has never departed. I remembered the legend that at this hour foxes are seen to walk about the place … no foxes except in the form of Arabs apparently greatly enjoying the ‘fantasia’ –mocking and laughing at the poor ‘Yahud,’ who thinks to retake their country.”

Thankfully we can say: “Our country is retaken!” A believer back then, Raffalovich still experienced the sadness Tisha B’Av evoked, but he believed that Am Yisrael-Eretz Yisrael restored was sewn deeply in the fabric of the day, merely waiting to be called forth.

This column is in honor of our grandson, Daniel Geffen, who is graduating high school in Ramat HaSharon.

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