On a third floor balcony across the street from me in central Jerusalem, a strange ceremony is taking place. On one side of the balcony stands a heavy-set religious man with a an oversized white dress and a huge black skullcap, and on the other side an attractive young blond woman, dressed in colorful clothes, sits. The man steps over to the lady and puts a towel over her head. Then he walks over to a table in the center of the balcony, takes a frying pan and a huge spoon and walks over to her. He pours liquid over her head, over and over again, and steps back. This process, obviously a ritual, is repeated another four times. Once done, the lady walks back into the inside of the house and the man follows.
This ceremony, done by a rabbi, is one of the newest “miracles” performed for a fee, for the purported purpose of “getting the demons out.”
It is the Eve of Shavuot and it’s recommended, of course, that ladies will celebrate the holiday free of demons.
On the streets nearby, stores close one by one. No one here dares to have his or her store operating on a Jewish holiday. This is God’s city and God doesn’t like people doing business on holidays — unless, of course, they’re getting rid of demons.
Night soon falls and I walk out to the establishments that are open on God’s days: Synagogues. Tonight, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, is speaking at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, and I go to listen. The esteemed rabbi discusses the issue of a “Kushi” (a disparaging term for people with dark skin) who converts to Judaism: What kind of a Jew should the Kushi be? Sephardic or Ashkenazi?
I go to the next synagogue, Jeshurun. Here a Haredi professor discusses children of surrogate mothers. What will happen, asks the esteemed scholar, if either the mother or the surrogate mother is a “Goya” (non-Jew): Will the child be a Jew, or must the “two mothers” be Jewish in order for the child to be recognized as a Jew?
As far as I can tell, on this holiday of Shavuot I’ll either become a learned man or I’ll lose my mind.
I think I should go to Tel Aviv. I need a rest from so much studying. The Rolling Stones are having a concert in Tel Aviv later in the day and I need some fresh air.
Well, fresh air might be too much to ask today. According to my iPhone, the temperatures now stand at 99 degrees.
My taxi driver, luckily, is in a good mood and he puts on the air conditioner.
I want to go to the Rolling Stones concert, I tell him.
“Who are they?” he asks.
“Rolling Stones! Don’t you know?”
“Who are they?”
“A music band from England.”
“You like music? Good music?”
“I’ll take you to listen to good music. I’ll turn on the radio for you and you’ll hear the best music there is!”
“I love Umm Kulthum, but she is dead and The Rolling Stones are alive. At least, as far as I know.”
“Who are The Rolling Stones?”
“I told you, from England.”
“Are they the ones with the tschu tschu deafening sounds?”
“Something like that.”
“Let me tell you: the world is f–ked up. Netanyahu, everybody. They are rich people and they are all corrupt. They don’t live the real life.”
“I do! I go to the grocery, I stand in line for my doctor. Does Netanyahu stand on line? Does he even know what it means to stand on line? Did you see the Central Bus station in Tel Aviv? They are all blacks there. Believe me, in four years this country is over. 99% of the taxi drivers in Tel Aviv are Arabs, may their memory be erased. 99%! They come from God knows where, and they take over. Arabs, blacks, everybody, except for Jews.”
“Where are the Jews?”
“Netanyahu is a Jew. He, and the rest of the government, but they don’t live in the real world and they have no clue what’s going on. What did you say is the name of the the tchu tchu band from England?”
“Just out of curiosity: How much does a ticket cost?”
“The cheapest is 700 NIS [$200].”
“If Umm Kulthum lived today, I’d pay twice as much to see her.”
“You are a good man!”
When I finally get off the taxi, I see a never-ending stream of people walking parallel to an endless fence, a visual that recalls the Exodus of Jews from Egypt, only that these Jews are not on their way to Mt. Sinai to listen to the God of Israel but to the tchu tchu band from England. The performance, I’m told, is not taking place in a hall or a stadium but outside on the grass – and the area is huge.
I make the long walk by gulping down my body two bottles of Coke Zero and finally I arrive at my gate. Being that this is Israel, there’s tough security at the entrance, and every man is being thoroughly checked. Women, by the way, are not checked. This is obvious sex discrimination, I point out to the security officer.
“You have to respect the ladies,” he tells me in a heavy Arabic accent.
Once inside, I’m told that The Rolling Stones will start their performance 15 minutes later than scheduled in order to allow Orthodox Jews who can’t get here before holiday ends.
Hopefully the third floor miracle maker and his companion will show up here soon. Maybe even Rabbi Yosef and the professor.
At this point, as far as my eyes can see, no skullcap-wearing man is anywhere near. And everybody around is sitting, many are eating, on the grass.
The people here might not be holiday-observant, but they are certainly law-observant.
Some years back, I went to see the Grateful Dead in New Jersey. The audience there was not sitting on the grass, but in a stadium. The only grass they were busy with was of the smoking kind. But not here. Good and law-abiding kids, these Jews. Where I sit, for example, I’m the only one smoking. Not grass, I admit, but clove. Yeah, I’m a fan of Indonesian cigarettes, surrounded by Rolling Stones fans.
At eight, with the weather still close to 100 degrees, the event starts with Israeli singer, Rami Fortis.
Who is he? I ask a man next to me. The man looks at me in total shock. “You really don’t know who Fortis is?” he asks.
Whoever Fortis is, he sings loudly and the Jews here rock to his tunes. Slowly but surely, some of these Jews — at least those around me — are starting to smoke as well. No, no grass; just Marlboros.
The sound system, it must be noted, is excellent. So loud, in fact, that not even one flying bird is showing up. Just mosquitoes, and quite a few of them. Mosquitoes, I guess, like the taste of people who can afford 700 NIS and up for a concert on the grass.
“The band (Rolling Stones) is coming soon; it will make an important change in your life,” a loud voice from the stage prepares us.
But for the time being, Rami keeps on singing. The audience loves him and many know the words of his songs by heart. In general, the people here look like a tribe composed of many clans.
The holiday is now over, but Rabbi Yosef, the professor and the miracle maker are still not here. The mosquitos are, though, ever congregating on my iPad as I type. They don’t care about the Rolling Stones or Fortis, they just want Steve Jobs’s machine.
“Happy Shavuot,” an announcer now says, obviously disagreeing with me that the holiday is by now over. He thanks the “50,000” people in the audience and tells us that the better and louder we embrace the Rolling Stones, the more they will sing for us. He also tells us that we are to wait 35 minutes, until 9:15, for them to show up
Rabbi Yosef, the professor and the miracle maker might still show up. It would be really great to have them. But until they do I chat with Elina and Ben, siblings sitting behind me on the grass. Elina is presently doing her master’s in political science, and Ben dreams of becoming a doctor one day.
What’s so exciting about a Rolling Stones concert that so many people were willing to throw in good money just to be here with mosquitos? I ask the political scientist.
Very excited, Elina says. “Not many international bands come to Israel, and when one comes — especially of this stature — it is an exciting event that Israelis don’t want to miss.”
It’s not just the songs, or the Rolling Stones’ historical influence on millions, that made these people come here. No. The people here, a tribe that has experienced many international artists boycotting it in the past many years, is emotionally elated that a band like Rolling Stones is not boycotting it as well.
Reportedly, the Stones are getting paid close to $7 million dollars for their two-hour concert here, but it’s money well spent as it offers reprieve from a hating world.
Is Elina right?
At this moment, all lights go off, leaving 50,000 of us in the dark. But they know what it means: Mick Jagger and his friends are mounting the stage. The 50,000 jump to their feet
Lights come up. The Rolling Stones are indeed on stage with Mick singing “Start Me Up” in a great Brit accent and Tel Aviv miraculously transforms itself into London. This Englander, no matter what Itsik thinks, is taking 50,000 people and making them feel that they are part of the world. “Hag Shavuot Sameach, Israel,” Mick the tchu tchu singer says in Hebrew and the Jews roar in approval. Thousands of them, only God could count the exact number, are holding up their smartphones, videoing the miracle. These grown-up Israelis are in truth little kids who want to never forget that they were here, that the Brit spoke in Hebrew to them, and perhaps later they will Facebook to all their friends a clip with a line: “I was there!”
Fortunately, Mick can’t sing in Hebrew. His energy, especially given his age, is inspiring and boundless — as is that of his old partners on the stage. Ahead of me, I now spot a man with a skullcap — only that he is no Yosef.
“Anakhnu Haavanim hamitgalgelot — we are the Rolling Stones,” Mick says in Hebrew, and the Jews are evidently grateful to him for speaking in their tongue.
“He respects us by speaking Hebrew,” an older lady says to me, and Mick indeed prepared hard to remember some Hebrew words – and at times a little Arabic as well. At the end of “Angie,” for example, he says, “Toda, Shukran” — “Thank You” in Hebrew and Arabic. I can’t spot one Arab here, but I guess this is the PC way to speak when you are in Israel. At one point his Hebrew gets a bit funny, as when he says that the crowd here is “meturaf” — a word he probably does not intend literally.
All in all, the performance here is not the best one could expect of this group. Had they not been The Rolling Stones, the critics here would have most likely given this performance two thumbs down. But the critics here are also too excited that this band is even here, and what they see here is not what I see here. Haaretz, for example, reports that the crowd “goes wild.” It takes only few minutes, and the Israeli Ynet reports the same. To say that the crowd here is going wild is a wild exaggeration. “The encore (“Satisfaction”) was so good!” a young fan with a Rolling Stones t-shirt tells me once the show is over.
The little show on the third floor in Jerusalem, I must admit, was far more intriguing, though I have no clue how much the woman had to pay the rabbi for it.
As the audience files out, I look closer at them. They file out in uncharacteristically amazing order, like a couple after a really great session at the psychoanalyst. If I were a pagan priest, like so many ultra-Orthodox rabbis nowadays, I’d put a towel over this crowd’s heads and pour some holy oil on top to make them more cheerful. But since I’m not, all I can wish for is that Itsik and his taxi show up right now. The Rolling Stones are an excellent warm up for Umm Kulthum.
Tuvia Tenenbom is a frequent contributor to the Forward. He is currently working on ‘Alone Among Jews,’ a book set in Israel.