Im eshkachech Yerushalayim…

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It’s hard to believe, but little more than 40 years ago, the area now dominated by the gleaming consumerist wonderland of the Mamilla Mall was a bullet-scarred no man’s land separating Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem from the Jordanian Old City and East Jerusalem. The ramparts of the Old City, the glint of the Dome of the Rock and the tombstone-studded slopes of the Mount of Olives were as visible as they are today, but as inaccessible as a mirage, separated from the residents of West Jerusalem by concrete, razor wire, and ambitious Arab Legion snipers.

That unhappy status quo, in effect since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, was shattered over the course of one fateful day in June 1967, the third day of what would be known as the Six-Day War, when Israeli paratroopers seized control of the Old City and East Jerusalem in response to Jordanian shelling of civilian targets in West Jerusalem. For the first time in more than two thousand years, the historical center of Jerusalem, including the holy sites of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, was under Jewish control, and the result was no less than national ecstasy (and perhaps Israel’s most famous photograph).

While the seizure of the West Bank has proved an unending source of controversy, the unification of Jerusalem is still regarded in Israel as one of the nation’s proudest moments, a realization of centuries of Diaspora yearnings for “next year in Jerusalem.” The day of the paratroopers’ entry into the Old City, the 28th of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, has been enshrined as a national holiday, Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim), a day of celebration of all the things that make the Holy City special to its residents and to millions of faithful around the world.

Naturally, Jerusalem Day is cause for much revelry in Jewish areas of the city, and the municipality festoons the city in decorations. Jubilant throngs bedecked in blue and white fill the streets downtown for the lengthy Jerusalem Day parade, a sometimes surreal affair where a smart military formation of graying Six-Day War veterans can be followed by a garish Mardi Gras-worthy float manned by one or another labor union, and that followed by a legion of cheerful Christian Zionists from the Philippines. Face-painting and miniature-flag-waving are the order of the day, and you may as well learn the words to Naomi Shemer‘s “Jerusalem of Gold” if you haven’t already. Stages are set up in city parks and malls, big-name musical acts descend on the city, and most of the city’s culturalvenues prepare special lineups of Jerusalem-themed content.

The day is also one of the most significant for Israel’s dati-leumi (national-religious; Orthodox Jews who embrace Zionism) community, who highly value its return of the Temple Mount and Western Wall to Jewish hands; the Hallel, a lengthy thanksgiving prayer reserved for joyous religious holidays, is recited in national-religious synagogues across the city, which become the scene of their own brand of semi-wild partying. Even the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who normally ignore any holiday established in the past millennium or two, have been known to acknowledge the sanctity of Jerusalem Day. The Western Wall, as one might expect, becomes quite the mob scene.

Photo of Jerusalem Day festivities courtesy of  Flash90, via (GoJerusalem)

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