The last time I visited Hebron during the day was in the late winter of 1994 as part of a convoy on an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bullet proof bus with three IDF border police vehicles providing “weapons ready” escort. That visit was in order to participate in an IDF and Government Press Office sponsored on site background briefing for journalists. Since then the only other time I have been in Hebron was under cover of a lovely mid-summer’s night sky to attend the wedding of the daughter of friends in 2007. Just under two week ago I realized that it was time to visit again. This time instead of a government sponsored trip or a wedding it was to be a personal journey to Hebron. I invited Jay along and together we created our own itinerary.
Like many of our other Jewish journeys in the Land this one began with Torah (Bible) study. The reading for the week ending 19 November 2011 was “Parshat Chai Sara” (Beresheet/Genesis 23:1 to 25:8), our first task was to study that section of the Torah. We choose as our specific foci the description of the purchase of the cave by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite (Beresheet 23:1-20) and Abraham’s death and burial there (Beresheet 25:7-10). Then we studied the relevant sections of the Midrashim and the Talmud (both are Jewish commentary) and reviewed the secular history of this part of the Land of Israel from the ancient past to present. Our stated goal was to reexamine the special bond between the Biblical spiritual perspective and the reality that is Hebron today. Sadly, the regional reality of today required us to be very practical. Since the family car doesn’t have bullet proof windows or other defensive protection we decided to take an interurban Egged bus. This meant that our final preparations included coming down from the spiritual heights of Torah to look up bus schedules and to deal with my fear factor. Jay was at peace with the idea of the journey I was not. We reviewed the bus route, double checked general security alert levels for the area and verified that all Egged #160 buses traveling Road 60 between Jerusalem and Hebron are indeed equipped with bullet proof windows and other appropriate safety features.
Late in the morning of 15 November 2011, I locked our door and raised my hand to touch the Mazuzah next to it, in my heart I thought: “Tuesday the Biblical double blessing day, ‘Pa’amim Ke’Tov’ (‘twice for it is good’), surely G-d will be merciful and see us there and back so that not long after sunset I will be touching this Mazuzah again!” Right there next to the door of our home my residual fear fell silent. I was ready. We set off on our journey with our cameras, notebooks, a lunch basket and a flask full of whiskey. The whiskey was for extra blessings, not for false fortitude, as before drinking it we observant Jews make the blessing “Baruch Atah AdoShem EloKaynu Melech Ha-Olam Shehakol ni’h’yeh bid v’ro” (“Blessed are You, AdoShem, our G-d, King of the Universe, by Whose word everything comes to be”), that seemed appropriate to us, after all we were traveling to Hebron after His words!
Instead of driving to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station to catch the bus to Hebron we drove over to Teddy Stadium parked for free and walked over to the bus stop next to Malha Mall. We joined a group of mostly orthodox settlers waiting for the bus. One woman was reading Psalms, another waited for a different bus so that as the door opened she could hand a set of keys to her son who accepting them called out after her: “See you at home, Ima!” There were others carrying grocery bags and a group of secular Israelis from an NGO that works with residents of the Kiryat Arba Settlement next to Hebron. The bus arrived right on schedule and we were surprised to learn that it is a highly subsidized line so that our interurban round trip cost only NIS 20 (about USD 6.50) per person. Our bus to Hebron was old and heavy with thick bullet proof windows and security plating. As we took our seats it belched and lurched forward pulling away from Jerusalem’s upscale mall to begin its 37 kilometer (23 miles) long winding journey through Beit Safafa, Gilo, and the bypass road tunnels connecting to West Bank Road 60.
The ride on the old bus was bumpy and slow 29 stops some scheduled, some just to get through military checkpoints, past the turn off to Tzur Hadassah, past Arab villages, past Efrat settlement, past the turn off to Gush Etzion (the Jewish locals call it “Mickey Mouse Junction” because of an old odd shaped British structure located there), past tended fields and vineyards, past Halul, past beautiful valleys and terraced fields snuggly fitted into the side of the hills. The beauty of the silent landscape easily relaxed our vigilance and gave birth to a reverie about patriarchs wandering the land in search of peace.
Another jerking stop before going through a yellow electronic iron gate pulled us back to the difficult reality of the area as we made the turn into Kiryat Arba. We were not greeted by the sight of beautiful villas like those in the older section of Efrat or other parts of Gush Etzion. Instead we found apartment buildings resembling those in the older parts of Gilo, French Hill or Ramat Eshkol (neighborhoods of Jerusalem).
School had just let out and there were children everywhere – running around in total disregard of the bus and cars on the road. We came to a cul-de-sac and turned around and back out through the yellow gate traveling just a bit further into Hebron. Here too there were children running on the road returning home from school. One hour and fifteen minutes after boarding we stepped off the bus onto the road, into a desolate place. Where is the bustling market adjacent to the Cave of Machpelah? It is gone.
As we walked towards the checkpoints a sharp wind blew across my soul, the Cave of Machpelah – resting place of the Patriarchs loomed up before us.
Our search for His words swept us into the past away from the cold harsh reality that is Hebron – Al Khalil.
All photographs for this post are by Isa David-Ben-Rafael and are owned by IsraeLightly