As an eighteen year-old college student, I had only begun to wade in the waters of Jewish observance, when I made my first visit to Israel in 1972. Coming with my Bnai Brith Youth background, I was ready to see a living Israel and gave little thought to the Torah side of the country. Still, once I had visited the Western Wall and did all the hikes and museums that were part of my summer tour, I felt drawn to Rachel's Tomb. Why Rachel's burial spot and not Leah's, I really couldn't say. Perhaps it was the lithograph of Rachel's Tomb hanging on my grandmother's wall that I had grown up with. Maybe it was the Sunday school notion of poor Rachel, Jacob's beloved, who had her happiness sacrificed by wicked Lavan. Whatever the reason, I decided I would see her Tomb, so one day a friend and I took the bus to Bethlehem.
I don't know what I had expected from the visit, but it certainly wasn't what I found. My grandmother's picture had prepared me for the small, domed building surrounded by trees where Rachel's grave stood. I expected the tall, stone tomb covered with a velvet tapestry inside the building. What I did not expect at all, though, was all the elderly women gathered around the tomb.
Looking back, I wonder how old they really were, forty, fifty, sixty? From my youthful viewpoint they seemed ancient and all of them seemed to have come to Rachel full of heartache. Why else did each and every one of them pour out their hearts, voices full of sobs, faces full of tears, hands clutching handkerchiefs and prayer books?
My friend and I had entered the room gingerly, tiptoeing and quiet, not sure what to do with ourselves. What did one do at the burial spot of a holy person? Reciting Psalms was certainly not for us. We looked at the women as if for guidance, and finding none, we looked at each other. Suddenly, without warning, we both simultaneously burst into giggles. Both of us tried to swallow them, and if we had been alone, we probably could have succeeded. Every time we looked at each other, the laughter bubbled to the surface and escaped out of our mouths as if it controlled us.
Now it is hard to understand just exactly what struck us as funny. Growing up with a sentimental mother and a European father, tears were not uncommon in my house. We cried, believe me, we cried. We always took handkerchiefs to Bar Mitzvas and weddings, going away to parties and graduations, to tear-jerking movies, and the like. Our tears, for the most part, were quiet, well-mannered tears. Sobs of prayer or despair were reserved for the privacy of our own home. I never heard anyone cry out loud while praying in a synagogue.
Here, at Rachel's Tomb, these women seemed totally devoid of inhibition. They were acting at her graveside the way I would behave only in my own room, on my bed, all alone.
These women had an entirely different culture and I guess it was the contrast that did us in. We did have enough manners to feel embarrassed and finally, we managed to pull each other aside. Collapsing on the stone bench, we gave way to hysterics, and although we received sympathetic glances from a bus load of tourists, the guard looked at us as if he was scandalized. Not wanting to offend anyone, we dragged each other out of the enclosure and to the bus stop across the road.
So ended my first visit to Rachel's Tomb. I returned not long afterwards to America, dove deeper into the waters of Judaism, and married. Fourteen years later, with five children, I made aliya and settled in Shilo, where the biblical Tabernacle had once stood. For various reasons, I never managed to return to Rachel's Tomb until Passover 1992.
It had not been an easy winter. Like every year, we had our hands full with normal family crisis. What had made this year so hard was the intensification of the Intifada. Rocks and firebombs had become passe, and our Arab neighbors had begun using firearms against us. Five months earlier, a bus full of friends and neighbors was attacked, and Raquela Druke was murdered. Not only did I mourn her but I became terrorized. I struggled with my faith every time I or a loved one had to travel.
No longer could I casually load up my family and food into our van and enjoy a day's outing. Still, it was the middle of the Passover week and hope of springtime was in the air. All of us deserved a good time and I was determined that we would have one. Swallowing my fears, we made our way south to picnic, sightsee, and to visit the burial sites of our fathers and mothers. Rachel's Tomb was our first stop and I was eager to step inside. In spite of everything that had happened, I had much to be thankful for.
We emptied out of the car, groggy from the long, hot drive. My husband took the boys to the men's side of the Tomb, and I took the two girls. I entered Rachel's Tomb, my girls' hands in mine, and suddenly the tears started.
Just like the laughter twenty years earlier, I could not stop the tears. It was as if they controlled me.
"Why are you crying, Mommy?"
I could only shake my head at my three-year-old's question. Had I tried to speak, the silent tears would have turned into heartrending sobs. Besides, what could I have answered? Was I crying for our biblical mother Rachel who had died in childbirth so many years ago? Were my tears for my neighbor, Raquela, who had left behind her seven children and, in my eyes, was a symbol of all Jewish women today? Or were my tears for myself as part of the Jewish people who were still waiting, after such a long time, for the Children to return to their Borders?
Unable to talk I squeezed my daughters' hands tighter. My tears continued to flow unchecked, and in my imagination I envisioned two college coeds, dressed in clothing of the seventies, staring at me and trying to control their laughter. Was I now so comfortable in a synagogue or holy site that I could let my private feelings show? How had the "me" I had been twenty years earlier changed so much? Thankful for the metamorphosis I had undergone, I suddenly felt a sense of hope and healing that I had not felt in all the time since Raquela's murder. Surely if G-d had changed me from the giggling teen-ager I had been into the weeping mother I am, He could change the violent world that we live in to one of peace and redemption.
Reproduced here with permission from the author.
Originally published in the Jewish Observer of February 1997.
Agudath Israel of America, New York.
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