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Valley of the Ghosts

Atonement Day came and went this year. The Jews pled their case before their Creator, begging for a line in the Book of Life. I am still breathing. I count my blessings, and move on.


Take a second, and zoom in on Yom Kippur afternoon. Walking the streets, one cannot help but notice the glaring absence. It comes in the form of an unsettled feeling in one’s stomach.

No, it isn’t the fast speaking. It may seem that the lack of food is playing tricks on the mind, but it is not.

In the middle of the day, in the center of the Israeli capital, there is not a moving car in sight. The silence is unsettling. Nothing. Literally, nothing, to be heard.

In place of cars are people, having taken over the roads entirely.

It feels like the end of the world. In the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, the people slowly come outside to see what has become of their planet. It is that odd to the eye. It just does not happen anywhere.

Nowhere but here.

And so, as I stepped down the main street of this German Colony that I call home, reveling in the serenity of peace and quiet, I wanted to grab onto the experience and never let go.

Because it made Emek Refaim feel so normal, so real.

It is anything but.

This street is first mentioned in the Book of Joshua. It is here that the Philistines took position, having been attacked by King David, many centuries later. It is here that, legend holds, a race of giants once dwelled.

Hence it’s name, Emek Refaim, “Valley of the Ghosts”.

I see these ghosts every morning when I board the bus. The stare at me every afternoon, as I pass shops and cafes on my walk home. They surround me every Friday as I buy groceries for Shabbat.

Look over there! That’s where the German Templars first settled this area.

Psst. Just past that cafe, an evil man once murdered innocents, as part of some political game.

Get this: a little beyond that hill, look to the left of that big church. There your ancestors built a home for God.

Every inch of this place is seeped in these stories, history just waiting to be remembered. Like a soaked-through sponge, ready to be wrung out, every step feels full of the past.

The ghosts reach out to grab you; the giants want to catch your attention.

What is the meaning of this place? I ask the same question every day.

I want to pretend it has no meaning.

This is just a place. A place where Jews live. And I am one of them. I have an apartment, I wake up in the morning, and go about my business. I study, I pray, and try to save the world in the process. I watch some television. I go to bed.

But no!

Those Jews, over there, are speaking the language of my ancestors. Were it not for Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the dream would not have come true. That lintel, it has Arabic, because this neighborhood, after the Germans, was settled by Arabs, who fled in ’48, the year my people was redeemed, just over there, around that corner.

Every morning, the sun rises over the Jordanian hills to my east. And if I squint just enough, I can make out the profile of Moses, looking here, into the Land of Israel, just before his death.

History comes alive at every moment, the ghosts grab at me continuously.

I tried to use Yom Kippur to shake myself of it all. Let it be. It is what it is. You can’t figure it all out in one instant.

Another day passes. Still no answers. Lots more questions.

Not like it’s actually a bad thing. We all strive for a life of meaning, infusing each moment with rich ideas and rituals and history. Sometimes, here, it can feel like too much though.

And so I let it be.

In the silent moments, the times no cars are passing, when there is no yelling or shoving or sirens or gunfire, I try to pause. To take in the beauty and love it all. To appreciate it for what it is, all that it has been, and all it strives to be.

Here in the Valley. The Land of the Giants.

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