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The Story of Rachel's Tomb [ Hebrew: 'Al em ha-derekh: Sipuro shel Kever Rachel] (review)

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 97, Number 3, Summer 2007
pp. e100-e103 | 10.1353/jqr.2007.0048

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I have already reviewed this book in the Israeli press and my review was quite favorable; my present review, in an academic journal, is far less so. Since the author states right off that his work has not been written ''in the ivory tower of academe'' and that he does not profess to be totally objective regarding Rachel and her tomb (p. 11), is it really fair to subject the work to academic standards and review? The author, however, also states that the book is ''an attempt to add another dimension that will round out our knowledge and make our understanding of Rachel and Rachel's Tomb more complete'' (p. 9). Student and scholar who would take this book to ''round out their knowledge'' and to complete their understanding deserve to know its limitations. Those who would just seek a fascinating, well-written read on Rachel's Tomb, with equal amounts of knowledge, fact, and scholarship on the one hand, and emotion and faith on the other could do much worse. I found the book fascinating and read it in one sitting. Tracking down what was missing took more time.

However, before we describe what the book is not, we should explain what it is. Shragai begins with a prologue devoted to Rachel's tears, with occasional reference to rabbis and none to scholars. The book consists of nine chapters, an epilogue, and five appendices. The story opens ''at the beginning,'' with the Bible, and ends on the Fast of Esther 2004 when the ark in Rachel's Tomb is covered with a parokhet made from the wedding gown of Nava Appelbaum, who had been killed with her father, Dr. David Appelbaum, on the eve of her wedding in Cafe´ Hillel in Jerusalem. Shragai is less concerned abut Rachel than about the tomb and its history, especially regarding the physical appearance of the tomb and its ownership, and all of this somewhat within the context of the immediate surrounding Bethlehem region.

The first chapter deals with the physical appearance of the tomb from the Byzantine period through Turkish rule, from a monument of stones [End Page e100] to an enclosed building. The next one surveys the legal status of the site and the Jews during the nineteenth century in light of conflicting Moslem and Christian claims, as well as with the renovations of Moses Montiofiore in 1841. The next three chapters bring the story up to 1948 with one chapter dealing with the tomb's ''custodians,'' another with prayers, supplications, historical data, and personal experiences that can be discerned from the entries in the ledgers near the grave marker, and the last chapter of these three deals with issues of land ownership in relation to the tomb and the surrounding region during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before 1948. One of the strangest and most ironic things about this site is that no Jews settled then in the vicinity of Rachel's Tomb as they did in the Old City of Jerusalem and around the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The next chapter deals with the period between 1948–67 when the Jews were denied access to the tomb in contravention of Article VIII (2) of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement which theoretically provided free access to Jewish holy sites, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem and Rachel's Tomb. It was at this time that the yearning to return to the tomb became stronger and these longings found expression in poetry and literature. These first chapters seem to owe a great deal to the (popular) writings of Ely Schiller, in his Ariel Press. While Shragai does mention him in his introduction (p. 11) and occasionally cites him in his text (pp. 86, 297) and footnotes, he hardly does justice to the contributions of Schiller's prior publications on Rachel's Tomb and the surrounding area.

The remaining chapters of the book deal with events after the Six-Day War in 1967 when the site was renovated and turned into a place of Jewish worship only. The Muslims complained to then-defense minister Moshe Dayan but were ignored. Dayan, however, while considering including the shrine within the...

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