A Jerusalem Funeral, Far From the Speeches

It's 1:30 A.M., and there's a massive traffic jam on the road that circles the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. Elsewhere, the night is quieter than usual. It's Jerusalem Day, which marks the city's reunification in 1967, yet almost no one seems to be around: No one is celebrating, no one is mourning.

Except that suddenly, between Damascus Gate and Herod's Gate, a traffic jam has developed. Cars wait patiently in line; no one honks. What is going on here?

One possibility can be ruled out immediately: This is not a nighttime march to the Western Wall by students of Mercaz Harav, the religious Zionist community's flagship yeshiva.

The yeshiva, located on the other side of the city, is only now finishing its own gala event in honor of Jerusalem Day; it will be some time before the thousands of young men who were there listening to the rabbis' sermons and the politicians' speeches about a united Jerusalem can get here.

"You don't need to strengthen me; I'm strong enough," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the throng at Mercaz Harav, referring to the diplomatic pressure from Washington. "Believe me, I'm very strong, because I come from the same home you come from - the House of Israel."

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin complained that only religious Zionists seem to celebrate Jerusalem Day any more.

"We observe with trembling how Jerusalem is losing its grip on the Israeli public, how many of us are losing our faith that nothing is more moral than our sovereignty over all of Jerusalem," he told the crowd.

The event at Mercaz Harav may have been called a "celebration," but the name belies the sense of fear and grief that overshadowed it.

Hanan Porat, one of the founders of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, gave a pessimistic speech in which, his voice choked with tears, he related a dream he had recently in which he saw soldiers forcibly evacuating Givat Hayovel, the illegal West Bank outpost that was home to two decorated officers killed in battle, Ro'i Klein and Eliraz Peretz.

Jerusalem Day, like Jerusalem itself, has become schizophrenic: The university students who ignored it were unabashedly celebrating Student Day in the city's Sacher Park that evening, with the aid of live musical performances by popular entertainers. The rightists who remembered it were weeping.

But what is going on with that traffic jam by the Old City? From the end of the line of cars, one can now discern a group of ultra-Orthodox men on foot. And suddenly, the penny drops: It is minhag Yerushalayim, the custom of Jerusalem. One aspect of this set of religious practices unique to the Jews of Jerusalem holds that a dead body cannot remain unburied overnight. If someone dies late at night, he must be buried promptly - even at 1:30 A.M.

So the funeral procession is wending its way, on foot, from the Mea She'arim neighborhood via the Old City walls to the Mount of Olives cemetery, just as similar processions did 100 years ago.

A group of 30 or 40 Satmar Hasidim take turns carrying the bier, walking down the middle of the street, and the Palestinian cars making their way to Azzariyeh or Wadi Joz have no choice but to join the procession. Chances are good that neither the Jews nor the Arabs in this strange scene have ever heard of Jerusalem Day.

It is hours before the day's planned marches and demonstrations will begin, so there are no police here, no representatives of any official body.

Yet no one honks, and no one tries to pass, even when the road widens near Lion's Gate. All the cars wait in line patiently, inching along at five kilometers per hour, compelled by minhag Yerushalayim to honor a dead man most of them never knew. A small moment of coexistence - in death - far from the politicians' speeches.