The oldest part of Jerusalem isn’t a city so much as a warren, a truly medieval place built on layers of ruins going back almost five thousand years. Often the way to get from one place to another is over roofs and staircases built into walls.
We spent most of our time in the Jewish quarter and did the things most people do there. It didn’t leave my mind for a second that for Jewish tourists to be strolling around the Old City, shopping for kippot and chowing down on felafel, is the realization of at least seventeen centuries of anguished prayer.
The Jewish longing for Jerusalem is everywhere in our liturgy, our holidays, nearly three milllennia of literature. Even the most disconnected Jew whose entire religious life consists of one Passover seder in a whole year raises a glass and says, as our people said for almost two thousand years, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
In the Old City, I remembered, of all things, a story from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today, told by an elderly Jew who had grown up in Iraqi Kurdistan.
We lived in clay … huts with straw roofs. Twice a day we made bread over a coal stove. All our pots were made from clay, and we sat on the floor. Everybody spoke Aramaic, like they did Yiddish in Eastern Europe.
We were big Zionists. For twenty-five hundred years, we sat on our suitcases because we wanted to go to Jerusalem. We didn’t know the name Israel — only Jerusalem. When the state was created, we left everything and came, first by bus to Baghdad, then a train, and then a plane to Lod. When we arrived in 1951, we were herded into buses like sheep into the mountains of Castel, close to Jerusalem. They gave us iron beds with straw mattresses and a gray army blanket. I keep the blanket as a memory of those difficult times. It was very cold, the beginning of April. We danced all night to get warm. We had no food but we were happy because Kurds know how to survive.
I tried to let the beauty of the place, the sheer improbability of our presence there, untie the knot that had been in my stomach since we arrived in Jerusalem. If you believe in anything like miracles, the Jewish return to Jerusalem has to be one of them. If you’re attuned to it, the knowledge permeates the air and clings to the cobblestones like dew.
And Then There’s the Wall
You hear it called the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, ha-Kotel in Hebrew.
It is a physical remnant of a much earlier form of Judaism that centered on the slaughter, butchering, and burning of sacrificial animals in a Temple. For almost two thousand years, sending animals and pilgrims to the Temple was among the highest expressions of Jewish faith.
The Wall wasn’t part of the first temple or even the second one, but a much later structure built around the time Jesus of Nazareth lived. It is the closest accessible place to where the heart of the Temple once stood, the kadosh k’doshim, the Holy of Holies, a room at the heart of a complex of altars and courtyards, thought to contain the most intense manifestation of G-d’s presence in the universe. All of it — the Temple, the sacrificial cult, the priestly caste — was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE in the course of brutally suppressing a Jewish revolt.
Here’s the thing. Ask any liberal Jew and they’ll probably agree with me: losing the Temple was maybe the best thing that ever happened to us.
What could have been the end of Jewish civilization was instead a new beginning, a flowering of devotional practice centered around prayer, family, community, and acts of compassion that have sustained the Jewish people through two thousand years of bloodshed and repression. The destruction of the Temple was only the the first act in centuries of death and banishment, but out of it, we built a tradition that is — at its heart of hearts — hopeful, optimistic, loving.
I don’t know if we would have gotten where we are if if the Temple had been functioning all these years.
Still, the Temple is everywhere in Jewish life. When Jews pray together, we pray facing Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, we pray facing the site of the Temple. Ever see Jewish people rush to wash their hands before eating bread? That’s done in memory of the Temple service. Like challah? That word for rich, braided Sabbath bread designated the portion taken from rising dough that was added to the Temple sacrifice.
What strikes you immediately is how small it all is. The Kotel, the Muslim sites on top of the Temple Mount, they look so big in pictures. Maybe that’s our spiritual eyes playing tricks on us. In actuality, it’s all small enough to fit inside a large indoor mall.
If you’re going to pray at the Kotel, one of our leaders told us, maybe think about all the spiritual focus being directed over your head to that very site. Understanding that part didn’t take much in the way of visualization. In our luggage, we had carried a little ziploc bag with slips of paper containing heartfelt prayers of people in our community back home. We followed the tradition and put them into cracks and crevices in the Wall.
Here’s What Happened
When they pray at the Wall, traditional Jews go through an entire service, which depending on day and time can be very long or very short. We got there with not a whole lot of time to spare before our next event; some of us went to pray, others hung back. The gender politics of the wall are difficult for a lot of us, as Idit Klein has written about very eloquently.
I hung back. I had packed my tallit and a siddur and fully intended to go through the entire afternoon service.
But when it came time to approach the wall, I couldn’t. I felt so conflicted, so self-conscious. “I’m not ready for this,” I told Arthur.
It didn’t help that it’s actually quite chaotic at the Wall, as it is in most traditional prayer settings. Everyone kind of goes at their own pace, people come and go, children play. An Ethiopian family (I think) was even celebrating a bar mitzvah there — singing, cheering, carrying around their young man on a chair. From their side of the mechitzah, the wall that divides women from men, the women of the family were standing on chairs, leaning over, cheering and ululating.
How was I supposed to pray in the midst of all this noise? Here’s what my journal has to say:
I half expected to have another of my more typical G-d encounters — the wordless presence that came over me in the desert. Something powerful. What happened instead is difficult to describe. It was hard to concentrate. I was feeling very self-conscious. The sun was shining on my right leg but not my left, heating up one half of my pants, etc. etc. I hadn’t brought my siddur, thinking there just wouldn’t be enough time to put it to use, so I just started going through prayers I have in my head. Half-way through Adon Olam, I blanked on the words. Same thing with the sh’ma.
But then something else floated in. A sweetness, a quiet feeling in the midst of the noise, a lightness I’ve never experienced before in prayer. I stopped trying. Everything else drifted off into the background, and there I was, my hand on the Kotel, feeling very relaxed. After a while, I moved away, walking backwards. I bowed, then took off my tallit, and then I was ready to leave.
Like a lot of things that happened on the journey, I’m still working to make sense of this. But I think one thing the encounter at the Kotel taught me is this. Prayer can and should happen everywhere, not just in quiet, decorous sanctuaries or in the early morning before everyone else is up, not just in the safe places.
Pray in chaos, Jerusalem teaches me, and the quiet will come. Pray in noise. Pray in tension and conflict. Pray at the clashing of worlds.
Next Up: Yad VaShem