In Joshua’s Shoes: The Sounds of Zion

It is strange being in a country that you are not familiar with. Aside from the cultural differences, the strange smells and the foreign language, it is the sounds that I have not gotten used to here.

For those of you that have spent any time at summer camps, there are certain sounds of summer that you just don’t get here. Think about the crickets, the sound of any substantial water source, or even something that I never thought I would miss, mosquitoes. Yes, there are bugs here in the summer, but I still have not gotten used to the sounds of Jerusalem.

There are other sounds that you can hear if you pay attention, many of them surround holidays and Shabbatot. I walk a long a busy street to school every morning. You can hear the cars and the construction going on from sunrise until late into the evening.

Then there is Friday night. One weekend I came back from Tel Aviv after Shabbat had started. It was only 6:30 PM, but it was almost silent. I walked home through the normally busy Ben Yehudah Street. Very few places were open and it was eerily quiet.

How do you know that it is Shabbat? Aside from the sun setting and people not being out anymore, there is a siren. About an hour before sunset, if you are in the right places, you can hear the Shabbat Siren sounding to let you know that it is almost time to cease work. Then, just before Shabbat, you can hear another siren that announces that it is now Shabbat.

If you are out for a walk, or sitting on a balcony or rooftop, there is something else amazing you can hear on Friday night, z’mirot. After dinner on Friday night, you can sometimes hear groups of people singing in their homes honoring Shabbat with their celebration. Even from another rooftop blocks away, my friends and I paused our conversation one night to just listen to the songs they were singing.

But it’s not only Shabbat Sirens or the occasional late night z’mirot you can hear throughout Jerusalem.

From a roof in the Old City; the top of a church, mosques and in the background is the Mount of Olives

Ramadan is a month long holiday. Part of the observance is that Muslims do not eat during the daytime. It would seem logical that every one would need to know that the fast ended. The first time I heard this announcement, I had no idea what it was.

There was a group of HUC students that had been getting together for Havdallah. In the middle of the service a loud blast went off. Most of our group jumped because we had no idea that it was coming. After a few seconds of panicked glances from one to another, one of the interns told us that this was only the blast that announces the end of the fast day for Ramadan.

If you walk in certain places, other sounds of the city are prevalent, especially when in the old city. On a walk with some friends, we were near a Mosque around prayer time. Then, exploding through the tight rock corridors that make up the streets of the Old City comes the call of the Muezzin announcing the coming prayers. It is incredibly powerful to hear the call and to know that in moments a large group of people would be coming together to pray.

There are other times when I don’t even need to leave the classroom to hear the announcement of a prayer time. I still have not located the church that it comes from, but from the HUC-JIR campus, we can hear church-bells ringing every Sunday at noon.

From the foundation up, a synagogue, a church and a mosque.

In various places around Jerusalem, there are constant reminders of the different cultures that exist together. This place is a large mishmash of various cultures, if you open your ears to the sounds, you can hear them all over the city. It is a constant reminder of how varied the population is here. It also reminds me of the difficulty we have being a part of this community.

I remember the sentiment that one of my instructors expressed earlier this year; If you listen carefully, you can hear the symphony of Jerusalem. It really is a beautiful grouping of sounds representing the different people here.

Shalom from Jerusalem,

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About Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson has spent the last 25 years living in or near Minneapolis. After completing a B.A. in History at the University of Minnesota, he worked for Temple Israel, Mount Zion and Bet Shalom in a variety of capacities. While working in the Reform Movement, Brian developed a passion for Reform Judaism and is currently studying at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in the Rabbinical School.

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