July Fourth: A Festival of Light

Daniel and I are often oblivious to American holidays. Inevitably we forget about Mother’s and Father’s Day until our siblings start sending messages to our parents and we realize that we ought to chime in; here in Israel we instead have Family Day, a Friday in the winter when parents are invited to the preschools to sit with their children on low chairs, painting and modelling clay or creating some other sort of visual representation of one’s family to hang on the refrigerator until it’s replaced by a Tu Bishvat tree with a toilet paper roll trunk. We generally forget about Halloween entirely, since our families don’t celebrate it, but some time in the middle of November we try to remember to ask our parents and siblings about their Thanksgiving plans. Some of our American-Israeli friends make turkey dinners for Thanksgiving, but we never have; there are enough Jewish holidays to cook for already, and I’m not voluntarily taking on more time in the kitchen.

The one exception is July 4th, which coincides nearly every year with the annual Jersualem light festival, a series of art installations illuminating the walls, towers, gates, and other architectural features in the Old City in vivid color. Although we rarely go out together once the kids are asleep, each year we have tried to set aside one evening to get a babysitter and walk the cobblestone streets holding hands, enjoying the cool evening breeze and taking in the spectacle – video installations, three-dimensional projections on the building facades, and, for the first time this year, a giant illuminated disco ball flashing atop a giant crane.

We’d asked our Roman Catholic Indian babysitter to stay with the kids that evening. She lives in the Christian quarter and had been lamenting to us all week that her neighborhood had become even more of a tourist attraction than usual. She told us which sites—or which sites transformed into sights—we must be sure not to miss. But the other equally important guide was Daniel, who walks to the Jewish Quarter every shabbat morning at dawn to daven at the Kotel and knows all the shortcuts and all the loose rocks. As he led me by the hand up the twisty path to ascend Mt. Zion, he commented that the lighting at dusk is similar to the lighting at dawn; he was accustomed to the shades of gray. I thought of “The City in Gray,” Naomi Shemer’s song about Paris, which I grew up listening to on my parents record player. I always assumed the song was about Jerusalem, since it was in Hebrew; I’m not sure why the mention of the wharf didn’t give me pause:

If you want, I will show you
Show the city in gray
Come and let us go strolling
On the paving stones…
You’ll cover your head with a kerchief
When I give you my hand
And we descend to the wharf.

We didn’t see a wharf and we didn’t see or any fireworks, though I’m told there were some, but the illuminated walls all around us felt like a fitting July 4th festival of light nonetheless. We took one of our first “selfies”—I’m not a fan of the genre—while posing in front of Damascus gate illuminated with a dark-and-light geometrical pattern that recalled the Alhambra, before winding our way through Muslim and ultra-Orthodox families to head to the next attraction. We were surprised to bump into the Torah scholar whose daf yomi classes I listen to every morning; she was visiting Jerusalem with her family for the festival. The book of Proverbs compares Torah to light (23:6), and we exchanged a few words of Torah against a backdrop of columns of neon light. We were learning tractate Erchin, which I joked is the one tractate in the Talmud that deals explicitly with human values – the tractate is about individuals who vow to dedicate their own monetary worth, or the monetary worth of another person, to the Temple. The third chapter, which we were in the midst of, has a long excursus on the dangers associated with lashon hara—evil speech, or slander—with a discussion of the sin of the spies who spoke negatively about the land of Israel they had been sent to scout out. “Tonight the land of Israel—at least this corner of it—is beautiful,” I commented, feeling grateful that unlike the spies and their generation, we had been granted the privilege of making our home here.

Our walk back took us through Gei ben Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom, also known as Gehenna – the valley of hell, which was notorious in biblical times as site of child sacrifice. “Oh look, the food trucks are back this year,” Daniel commented. We’d noted already a few years ago that throughout the summer months some of the more famous restaurants in Jerusalem had set up food trucks in the valley to sell their food at discounted prices. Daniel had asked me earlier that week if I had heard anything about the food truck festival this summer. I’d joked that while our American counterparts were wondering about whether Trump would indeed go ahead with his plan to station tanks on the National Mall as a sign of America’s military prowess on July 4th, we in Jerusalem were wondering whether the city would bring the food trucks in the valley of hell. “I guess they’re both intended to achieve the same effect,” I joked with Daniel. “Americans are supposed to stroll across the National Mall and feel safe and protected by the military, and we’re supposed to walk through the valley of shadows and fear no harm.” I was quoted Psalm 23 in Hebrew, but Daniel responded in English, “I will fear no harm because thy sushi and burgers are with me,” he said, and the melding of old and new in his diction reminded me of the incongruity of children buying hot dogs in what was formerly a site where children were sacrificed to pagan gods.

We came home and checked our phones to find pictures of our siblings’ kids dressed in red, white and blue watching the fireworks and participating in a sand castle competition, and the latest news reports telling of rockets fired at Beer Sheva. Our kids, still blissfully asleep beneath their whirling ceiling fans, know nothing of July 4th and nothing of the political tension. We’ve never been in the States on July 4th, and Jerusalem, in recent years, has been a relatively safe place. Daniel and I agree that when the kids are a little older and can stay up later, we’ll take them to the light show and perhaps even make our way to the fireworks display. I doubt the flares of light will be red, white, and blue, but as long as there are no tanks in sight, it’ll be reason enough to celebrate.

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