When you cross over from Zion Square and walk up Rabbi Kook Street, you come to the Street of the Prophets, and from there, a bit to the left, Ethiopia Street begins. This is the shortest, narrowest and most unique street in Jerusalem. Pass four entrances on the right, negotiating the non-existing sidewalks, parked and oncoming cars, and you come to number 10, the huge silver-painted gates of the Ethiopian church. Above, carved into the stone archway, are two crowned Lions of Judah, greeting you. Dabra Gannat, Monastery of Paradise, was one of the first buildings to go up outside the protective walls of the Old City. A door inside the gate will let you pass through to the courtyard and church, built in 1893.
Inside, you will remark on the paintings. Saints, angels, and biblical figures cover every wall and pillar of this circular church, with its black dome and intricate cross. Even the ceilings have been painted, inside the dome, around the tall windows. The church is bathed in light. The monks will tell you with smiles of pride that they themselves painted what you see. In back of the altar, on the floor, are long double-headed drums, awaiting Ethiopian holy days. Incense pervades. Sit down and listen to the monks chanting in Amharic—exotic, hypnotic, enchanting.
If you walk left, around the exterior of the church—though you’re really not allowed— I you’ll come upon the monks’ small cells. Eight or so are adjoined, each with a green wooden door. There are two common latrines. Opposite, and behind the church, you will be surprised to see a lemon grove.
Go back now onto Ethiopia Street and continue walking. There are no more entrances, just the stone walls of the Church’s compound. At the end of the street, turn the corner to the right. You have breeched the boundary that separates the center of town from Mea Shearim, the ultraorthodox quarter. Walk here cautiously if you are wearing a sleeveless blouse or a dress that does not touch your toes—you will be booed, perhaps attacked. The street goes steeply downhill so that the monks’ cells, which are on street-level from inside the compound, sit dwarf-like above a high stone wall.
Opposite this wall you will see an apartment building, two stories high and old like all the buildings in the area, built of Jerusalem limestone which glows golden when the sun sets. In one of these flats lives a mother with her family. She is of the Naturei Karta sect—the ultimate in ultra-orthodoxy. Women shave their heads, cover them with black scarves; their dresses are black and long; sleeves touch wrists; shoes are practical, laced and black. She is very tall, this mother, and big-boned, even obese. She has the build of a woman who is destined to bear many children. When she speaks, it is in Yiddish, not Hebrew, never Hebrew. If you happen to hear the neighbors’ gossip, you will know that she was born in Tel-Aviv and chose this religious path ten years ago, when she married. It was then that she moved here and began having children. Every year, another child.
October now. Yom Kippur. There is a commotion in her courtyard. The rush of a vehicle is heard, breaking through the silence of this holiest of days like a thoughtless demon. And there are people gathered, suddenly out of synagogues, removed from repentance and prayer. So the monks, dressed as always in their brown or blue or white, even yellow, jalabiyas, come out of their cells and peer over the wall onto the street below, into the courtyard, wondering who phoned for the ambulance that is standing there, its siren respectfully turned off.
A boy is on the ground, on his back, still, pale, eight-years-old, perhaps. Even in this state you can tell he’s a mischievous one. A thick broken-off branch lies next to him. His shirt has been torn off by the paramedics, leaving his chest immodestly exposed, chalk white against his sunned face. His clothes are dirty, testimony to his fall. Shoes are scuffed, though maybe they are always like that; no one here is wealthy. He’s skinny, unlike his mother. Children stare. Men and women stare. The medics carefully lift the boy and place him in the ambulance. His mother will not enter; the offence of riding in a vehicle on this holiest of days, she fears, would result in a punishment worse, perhaps, than the death of the child.
The people here—some from curiosity, some from concern—try to convince her to accompany the boy to hospital. She shakes her head, no. Five minutes pass, ten. A man goes into the ambulance, a pantomime of what she must do. Is this man a rabbi? Is he her husband? No, because, as though his shoes are on fire, he jumps out again in a millisecond. He too is frightened of this Atonement Day’s strict injunctions. If he were the father he would ride in an ambulance in an emergency, but he is not. He knows that saving a life comes above all, but she, the newly religious, perhaps was never taught this. Now everyone is shouting. Their shouts reverberating from here to the Wailing Wall. The mother is sobbing, no, no. Someone speaks to her in Hebrew, as though she would better understand the language of her childhood. It’s okay, go, it’s okay, it’s permitted to save a life, pikuah nefesh. The medics stand by, observing, waiting. The good-natured monks, who see a reason for a chuckle in every situation, are not smiling now, but it’s evident in their faces that this moment is invigorating. The boy moans from inside the ambulance. The mother gasps and climbs aboard, head bowed in awe of the forces compelling her to do this. The ambulance pulls away.
The monks smile in relief, shuffle back to their cells. It’s nearly time for their four o’clock prayers anyhow. The Jews return to synagogue. Stars come out, the shofar blows, fates are sealed.
The next day, as you pass by here again, you see the young boy, arm in cast, a little limp, a few bandages. He is subdued. You see his mother fleetingly, thoughtful but content. Now you see his father, a man as large as the mother, fluttering over the boy like a worried helicopter. And you see the boy’s siblings bringing him a drink, a bowl of pomegranate seeds, a bag of sunflower seeds, to nibble, to comfort.
From over the wall, the monks wave to the boy. He looks up and smiles.
Image Credit: Painting by Helen Bar-Lev (technique: brown monochrome watercolour with brush & dip pen.), 1983.
HELEN BAR-LEV was born in New York in 1942. She has lived in Israel for forty-five years and has held over ninety exhibitions of her landscape paintings, thirty-four of which were one-woman shows. Eight collections of poetry to date, all illustrated by Helen. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2013, is the recipient of the 2016 European Homer Medal of Poetry and Art. Helen is Assistant President of Voices Israel. ☆ “Over the Wall” was selected by Maggie Messitt as “Editor’s Choice” for the prize issue.