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October 04, 1985 - Image 23

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-10-04

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1 : A

The Gate Behind The Wall:
A Pilgrimage To Jerusalem

Friday, October 4, 1985 23


Caught between the orthodoxy of his
fathers and the modern world in which
he had been born and raised,
sociologist Samuel Heilman tells of his
search for a spiritual wholeness.


Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor
at Queens College in New York, went to
Jerusalem to learn about the society and
culture of ,those who devoutly study the
Talmud. As a sociologist, Heilman, in the
jargon of his profession, would be "parti-
But at a less scientific and more personal
level, Heilman also wanted to pursue a
spiritual quest. Raised as an Orthodox
Jew, he felt estranged from Judaic texts
and Orthodox mandates. He was more
Western than Orthodox more skeptical
then observant.
After attending several chavruses (Tal-
mudic study groups), Heilman was still
caught in that middle ground between the
ancient world of the Orthodox, and the con-
temporary scene. •
"I knew that however much I tried to
identify with the traditional world of the
Jews around me," he later wrote, "I would
never give up who I was, never abandon
my foothold in the modern world."
All the time he was in Jerusalem, Heil-
man tried to resolve his ambivalence
toward these very disparate, yet very com-
pelling worlds. In the following adaptation
from The Gate Behind the Wall, Heilman's
recently published account of his spiritual
quest. in Jerusalem, Heilman settles his
ambivalence. — A.J.M.

person can spend time with himself
on the streets as easily as and
ometimes more easily than in his
room. For a few days, I walked the streets
of Jerusalem. Not the Old City — that was
too filled with sights and sounds that
would take me away from myself. I went
instead to the neighborhoods adjacent to
Mea Shearim. Here where every other
doorway seemed to lead to a synagogue or '
study room, I thought I might find a place
for myself. Here was the world where peo-
ple remained attached to an eternal land-
scape of the past and to the tradition. And
here, I believed, I might discover whether
or not I still had any connection to that
Every so often I would walk into one or
another little synagogue, directing my feet
toward the corner or bench where men sat
at study and resolved that I, like them,
would take down a volume from the shelf
and begin to lern [the review and ritualized
study of sacred Jewish texts] on my own
in their company. But when I got inside,
all I discovered was my feelings of embar-
rassment and a sense otbeing out of place.
And so I would act as if I had forgotten
something, turn andleave.
Back on the street, I caught the bus pul-
ling up at the corner. It was bus number
nine. Of all the lines running through the
city, none offers a more remarkable route
than number nine. Starting from the cen-
tral bus station and its social underlife, it
winds its way through the posh neighbor-
hood of Rehavia, populated by govern-
ment officials and wealthy Ashkenazim,
past the headquarters of the Chief Rab-
binate, fancy tourist hotels and the Jewish
Agency building where the modern Zionist
state was born. From there the bus con-
tinues into the city center, where it skirts
the open-air vegetable market filled with
bargain hunters on one side and on the
other the golden triangle of streets named




Adapted by permission of Summit
Books from The Gate Behind The Wall by
Samuel Heilman ©1984 by Samuel

Ben Yehuda, King George and Jaffa with
their expensive specialty shops and de-
partment stores. Next it turns up a hill
past the old Bikur Cholim hospital,
touches the fringes of Mea Shearim and
then drives past the massive houses and
up the wide avenues of the once grand
Bukharian quarter, built in the nineteenth
century by rich Jews from Bukhara, in
central Asia.
Afterward, number nine glides across
the old border that cut the city in half
before the 1967 war and passes from old
salvations to new ones, alongside the sym-
metrical, gleamingly modern apartment
blocks and little shopping centers of
Ramat Eshkol. Finally, the end of the line
and the bus climbs up to Mount Scopus.
A ride on number nine from beginning
to erid is a trip across every kind of border,
through various circles of Jewish ex-
istence, back and forth from old to new. In
each neighborhood the people getting on
and off the bus change. And' if one allows
himself to become imaginatively trans-
formed with each turn — to become, as I
did on occasion, a part of what he observes
— the ride can be a sort of spiritual
journey through Jewish life.
Mount Scopus, the end of the line. To
the east, where rain never falls, lies the
awesome wilderness of Judea. The prophet
Jeremiah, and others like him, had always
found a needed solitude there when the
city and its people became too much. Since
April 1925, the Hebrew University had
stood there. Enlarged after 1967 when the
ground around it was regained, the place
now hugged the mountain like a fortress.
Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in
the city, I felt at home and strangely safe.
Here, like the bus, I came to rest and for
repair. This was, after all, the university
— and that was where I best fitted in,
where I had already learned how to learn
and where I knew I should at last return.
I walked to the library and found the
social-science section. In the past,
whenever I felt overwhelmed by the people
and places I observed, I had often been
able to steady myself by walking amid the


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