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.