It is Tish'ah B'Av, a national day of Jewish mourning held in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem. I sit in Jerusalem, in my apartment that for the last two months or so has been known as Beit ROI, where young Jewish innovators from locations ranging from Miami to Brooklyn, from Amsterdam to London have filled the rooms with laughter and energy. We have hosted joyous conversations here over Shabbat dinners - religious and secular, with additional geographical representation from Denmark, Los Angeles, Washington, DC...There is a distinct disconnect.
Last night I sat on the steps near the Cinematheque and listened to a panel of Jerusalemites speak in Hebrew about the City's divisions and potential hopes for unity. Although thrilled by my ability to grasp most of the conversation, what I understood doesn't inspire great optimism - the lines are clearly drawn and yet utterly murky; there is defensiveness and chasms of misunderstanding that prevent unity and peace.
Then I pushed my way into the Old City, making my way toward the Kotel plaza, as people shoved me from behind and glared at me. Heading down toward the Kotel, I saw that the women's side - never as large as the men's side on a good day - was teeming with girls, women, babies in strollers, older ladies begging for money, all united in an act of pushing, shoving silently and sometimes non-silently, again with the glaring as people strode toward the ancient stones, hoping to get as close as they could to the Temple that once was, the place closest to God and to the core of Jewish identity.
By the time I get there, there are no Americans anywhere - it's like English has been digitally removed, and I'm just visiting in an utterly Israeli experience. In the throng of thousands, I am the only one saying "slicha," hoping a "pardon me" will help others who are pushing me to clear a path, allow me access to their holy site and to our shared identity. I never made it to the wall, instead hovering above barefoot girls about ten years my junior, who sit cross-legged and wail soundlessly at the destruction of ages past. I do not connect to them, although I feel a sadness in this place for many reasons.
I re-read the Hebrew notes I took earlier that night at the Cinematheque, notes focusing on the themes of separation, which emerged from the constant mentions of the "kavei hafradah," which I discerned from the context to mean segregated bus lines. There are two kavim, bus lines, that I've heard people discuss - the kavei hafradah (gender-segregated bus lines), and the kavei lailah, the extra buses added in an attempt to curtail the number of Israelis who drive drunk, get into accidents and make Israel one of the most dangerous countries when it comes to traffic accidents. The kavei hafradah were the cause of much disagreement, but I saw other lines that were problematic as well - the lines most recently drawn over whether American Jewish conversions are accepted in Israel, for one, or the dissent over the botched handling of the flotilla just over a month ago.
I see the word kav in my notes and note the absence of hope, of tikvah, that this divide - which exists, as many divides in Israel do, between the religious and the secular. Whose city is this? The religious? The secular? The refugees from other lands who have found their homes here?
I remember a phrase: dina d'malchuta dina. It's Aramaic, but I doubt Mel Gibson would understand its meaning. It means, "the law of the land is the law." But the problem is, that in this country, every citizen is a king or queen, and even those who wander the streets - in particular - of Jerusalem, even the tourists who take wrong turns and gaze at the ancient grounds from air-conditioned tour buses, even they feel a stake in the city. They are princes and princesses of the streets, and even they feel that the impossible crown of rulership over Israel belongs to them. When every man, woman and child feels like royalty, and like the arbiter of justice, who lays down the law and insists that it be enforced? There are lines that honor and distinguish, and lines that divide and diminish. Who draws the lines that separate and isolate, and who decides on what constitutes a border?
Between the pushing at the Kotel and the constant push-pull over politics and religion, I do understand that the city of Jerusalem is far from being an "ir shalem," a city of wholeness. Perhaps it is the fault of all that sin'at chinam - the baseless hatred that is said to have caused the destruction of the Temple - or perhaps it's that we persist in drawing lines that divide, rather than guide, our behavior.
In the word "tikvah" are the letters that make up the word "kav." It's quite possible that there's no etymological reason for this, and I'm certainly not qualified to give this theory a hechsher. But if we are to hold on to hope, perhaps the way is through lines that unite instead of divide, lines of communication and connection among individuals, lines that join us all through human hearts, mortal minds, and Jewish tradition. May we emerge from this year's Tish'ah B'Av observance recommitted to forging connections between and among Jews everywhere, toward a goal of peace, love and understanding.
And for something completely different, here's my video diary of my Kotel experience.