In June, my last Jerusalem Friday before my return to the US, I went to the Western Wall (the Kotel), to say a prayer for a friend's father who was seriously ill. I jotted down some notes, and returned to the US. A few weeks later, this piece emerged. I'm posting it here, now, because it's the 9th of Av, which commemorates destruction in Jerusalem because of baseless hatred between and among people. This hatred has contemporary echoes, and daily we receive reminders that the world is battered and broken.
And so on the 9th of Av, a day which is designated for the remembrance of tragic events, I offer this, a look at the Kotel plaza and what it represents, on an ordinary day, to the natives and tourists alike, all seeking connection to something bigger.
This is emotional Ground Zero, for ache and despair, for the suffering and the wounded. I made aliyah b'regel (ascending to Jerusalem on foot) here, walking all the way from the edge of Katamon, through the German Colony and past Sultan's Pool, arriving at the zigzag, snaking path up the side of Jerusalem's Old City.
I feel the topography in my feet, as my heels land on not-so-holy-ground and propel my stride forward, pressing my toes into service. My sneakers-clad feet aren't in perfect shape, and I'm sweating in the Mideast heat. But this is how it should be done, if you can; on foot, feeling the incline as you walk.
This is the way our ancestors did it, from locations far removed from Emek Refaim, the street in the German Colony which is as saturated with Anglos as any street in a foreign country could expect to be. Our forefathers (and sometimes our foremothers) treaded these paths in a time far before Marzipan rugelach or wifi cafes were a thing. They did it three times a year, from points north, south, east and west, trudging on foot and on the backs of donkeys, pulling with them offerings to be sacrificed on Temple altars, as well as any items needed in order to create a campsite along the journey. All I had was an empty backpack, my passport, credit cards and a 1.5 liter bottle of water. I was traveling light, and had no excuses. No treadmill in the world replicates aliyah b'regel, ascending to the Old City, on the power of one foot moving forward at a time.
At the stairs, I join a group of schoolchildren and guardians doing the same thing, erev Shabbat, bound for the wall that never talks back. One of the children slips and falls, bursting into tears and dropping his toy on the stone path - I rescue the toy and return it to him. He looks up at me through tears, but doesn't say anything. (Much like a wall would, but more tearfully than a wall, even a "Wailing Wall," that never seems to weep.) I walk away.
On the security line, two secular Russian-Israeli parents and their completely Israeli kids are waiting to go through the metal detector. "It's separate, banim (boys) and banot (girls)," the daughter observes. "Why?" "You know why," her father says crisply before transitioning to Russian and talking to his wife.
On the plaza, I hear one Israeli man in his 50s, part of a tour group of Israelis who may have never been to Jerusalem before. "Higanu laKotel!" (We arrived at the Kotel!) he says excitedly. Then he looks around. "Nu? Az eifo neshot hakotel?" (Nu, so, where are the Women of the Wall?) I chuckled at the indication that he thought the Women of the Wall - a group of women who are fighting for equal access to prayer space and the freedom to worship as they would like instead of according to Orthodox dictum - were so called because they actually lived at the Wall, as if they were a permanent tourist attraction. This confusion is understandable, considering both the name, and that other social protests in Israel happen daily, sometimes all day and all night for months, instead of the one morning a month that the Women of the Wall gathered.
At the plaza, I sit at the back, perched, preparing the note I'd come here to bring. I am here, emissary for a friend who believes or may believe or needs to believe, on behalf of Stephen, Shlomo, son of someone whose Hebrew or English name I don't know. I am opposite the wall that represents hope, healing and perhaps a deity. I have no evidence of any divine link, no real belief in the efficacy of prayers uttered here or perhaps anywhere on behalf of the infirm, and most certainly lack the faith to merit a response.
My brain finds liturgical phrases about healing the sick, freeing the imprisoned, straightening those who are bent or who cannot find their footing, helping those who suffer in agony, in broken bodies or fractured souls. I'm also remembering all the times I uttered these words with emotional specificity, in the years before my mother's death, and even after, during a year of mourning's synagogue-going, and kaddish-saying. Is there a value in the repetition, the clinging to words that don't seem to help in reality? Where is faith if not in the repetitive drone, and yet, as drone and repetition, how does it count as authentic prayer?
While composing the prayer and struggling with my own inadequacies as a faith-challenged messenger, I overhear the brilliant, cacophonous symphony of cultures and languages clashing and interweaving.
"A Jew shot a Jew here this morning," the woman said on her phone in Hebrew. Having already heard about the incident, my reaction wasn't panic. "He wanted to make a joke, and that joke cost him his life," she said. "OK, kaparah (term of endearment), Shabbat shalom u'mevorach." Hanging up, she spies a tour group from Florida. "Are you Jewish?" she asks in English, somewhat unnecessarily, since they are wearing kippot and t-shirts that announce why they're there. Their nametags hang around their necks and across their mid-chests, like contemporary Urim V'Thummim, the breastplate worn by the High Priest that served as a divining rod of sort, a point of closer access to God. One of the tourists nods as the others look on, uncertain of how to engage. Beaming, the woman leans in, and says, "Be proud Jews. PROUD JEWS." Then she wishes them Shabbat shalom and goes on her way. The members of the tour group chuckle.
Another tour group arrives. As the second tour group approaches the Kotel plaza, they pass the first tour group. "Shlomo!" one tour guide calls to the other, and the guides give each other a high five, that slips into an extended handshake as they pass. I wonder about this secret alliance of tour guides, all made in the Ministry of Tourism factory, like a second army service for those who elect to serve. They're on the front lines of shaping Israel's face to visitors, almost as important as internal security. Perhaps there is a similar brotherhood (with the occasional sister) of cab drivers. They all have their stories, I am certain. I think about the Shlomo who is a tour guide, and the Shlomo who is my friend's father, the reason that I'm sitting her right now. I think about how common a name that is, and how the tour guide might not have actually been named Shlomo. Maybe it was something else, and my memory has tricked me into believing that it was Shlomo. Not everything is connected. It couldn't possibly be, could it?
I wrote the note as I sat there listening to the ambient masses and scorching under a Middle Eastern sun - I wrote from a place of humility, proclaiming that I was not a worthy emissary. I know enough about liturgy to know that this depracation of self is often embraced by one who is leading others in prayer, even written into the liturgy at the High Holidays for the prayer leader to incant as he or she contemplates the burden of representing the prayers of others to a divine source of mercy and judgment. These feelings of inadequacy almost seem to be a point of ritual, especially in representing the heart-wishes of my friends. And here, in the place where faith used to live and occasionally still visits, I felt them most acutely.
A thought occurred to me, about connection in today's age, and that despite how global this plaza was, at any single contemporaneous moment, my network may rival it. "Someone I know must be here," I wrote in a tiny purple notebook, not knowing who from my social circles was there at the Wall with me that day, or if I'd ever find them (I did, about 15 minutes later), but I was confident that in that space and at that moment, that I was not alone. Somewhere, close by, there was someone with a closer connection to me than I had with the other Jews (and non-Jews) who were there to have an encounter with some divine spark.
My divine spark of connection lives not in a wall, or the potential for prayer-activated healing that some ascribe to it, but in the people themselves - the connections between Shlomos and non-Shlomos, far-apart name doppelgangers whose names echo in my ears; between Jews greeting other Jews and non-Jews, and people from different faiths and remote geographies. This togetherness of peoples, wandering through the world and encountering each other in front of walls and on plazas, is a salve for the cracked skin of history, the beginnings of a repairing of brokenness. I remember a poem about this particular wall, which states, "There are people with hearts of stone/And there are stones with human hearts." Stone is constant, cool, unencumbered by anger. But it is unyielding, unmalleable, unfeeling. We recognize our own potential for stoniness, and hope and pray for stones to renew our humanity.
Closing my eyes and listening to the multiple accents floating through the air at different decible levels, I knew we were all visitors, we were all searching for some kind of divine or human or religious or historical connection, and that connection with someone or something meaningful seemed suddenly within my grasp.