Trip Start Apr 11, 2009
40Trip End Aug 06, 2009
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
This is not, in itself, all that extraordinary. Even though I have grown up in heavily Jewish areas, and been to a dizzying number of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I am not Jewish myself. This is a puzzling thing to many of the Israelis I meet. Why, they ask, am I here, if I am not Jewish? Am I particularly devoutly Christian? No, I explain, not really that, either. Don’t get me wrong, I am interested to see the Christian sights. I am moved by the idea that this is where Christ was crucified. But I haven’t, accurately speaking, been to Church since I was about 17. Unless you count the ones I went to for the pretty singing and free sherry, which I don’t.
I grew up a Christmas and Easter Christian. But when I turned twelve, and we were all officially too old for the egg hunt, that dropped quickly down to Christmas. Even then, my mother’s valiant attempt to make us go to midnight mass this year was passed up on the infallible argument that we were a little sleepy.
For someone like me, seeing demonstrations of religious conviction alone is something foreign enough to justify the exorbitant price of flights to Israel. Though I grew up among many who were strong Christians, they were quiet about their faith, only making a point of it on Sundays, or perhaps during grace. It was enough to live it. Yet no matter how little you believe, it is hard to see a group of fifty Spaniards sing silent night in the chapel of the manger, kissing the spot where Christ was born, or watch an Armenian nun dissolve into tears while kissing Christ’s tomb, and not feel there must be something to it. There is a famous syndrome, cited a lot around here, called Jerusalem Syndrome. Those who are afflicted are so overcome with the power of their surroundings that they become convinced that they, too, are holy. They decide they are messiahs, or saints, or devils. There’s a special ward at the hospital for the serious cases, and somewhere between 50 to 200 people a year are affected. According to Lonely Planet, it passes after about a week outside the city, and "when the patient resumes his or her old self, they become extremely embarrassed, and prefer not to speak of the incident."
But this isn’t about Christ. Not now. I’ll write about Christ in a bit.
This is about Shabbat.
The strangest thing about the Western Wall is that it has a power, even if you don’t believe. Even if you’re not from the Jewish tradition. Even if the temple it once held in means nothing to you – religiously speaking. Even if you’re downright skeptical. It is, after all, only a wall. This may seem like and obvious point, but after getting lost in the covered, winding streets of Old Jerusalem, getting turned around at two Muslim-only checkpoints, waiting in line, and finally passing through a metal detector, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that it is, really, just a wall. For the first fifteen minutes, I sat in the late afternoon sun, watching worshipers on their way to and from the wall, listening to the American family next to me complain, and wondering what, exactly, it was that drew people here.
I am generally fairly reserved about going into other people’s places of worship. For one, I don’t know the rules. And I hate not knowing the rules. It’s the same reason that I refuse to go to a Burger king. It’s not that, if I’m already filling myself with reconstituted junk, I'm opposed to their food. It’s that I don’t know what anything’s called. And no one looks at a menu in a fast food joint, they just know how to order, and go right on with it. Which is, in one of the worst metaphors ever used on this blog, what happens in places of worship. With the exception of Anglicans, who aren’t a real religion so much as a cake-and-sherry distribution service anyway, no one tells you what’s going to happen, They just worship, and assume that you know the rules.
After half an hour, curiosity overtook my nervousness. I went to the back of the relatively unexciting women’s section (even this early – around 6 – there was more activity on the men’s side) and I watched. For ten minutes, I observed the women at prayer approaching the wall, praying, maybe touching it, and then backing slowly away. When I felt ready, I arranged my scarf over my shoulders and ventured in.
It’s hard to describe what makes a thing holy. In theory, the enormous chiseled stones that make up the Western Wall are merely stones. I grant you that they are old – they were put in place by Herod the Great briefly before Christ was born – but all they are is a wall. Herod built the wall as part of improvements on the Second Temple. He created a vast plaza around it, and several ceremonial entrances. Later, after the Islamic invasion, the Temple was destroyed, and the Dome of the Rock was built in it’s place. All that was left for the Jewish people was the wall. Technically, Jews aren’t even allowed on the plaza that currently surround the Dome of the Rock – there is a sign at the one gate of seven that admits non-Muslims which reads “According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site.” The reason, our tour guide at the politically suspect Citadel Museum told us, is that no one knows quite where the Holy of Holies – the place few could enter – was located. In any case, the Wall was not part of the Temple. But even with their age, even with the remarkable thing they once contained, they are just stones in a wall.
I approached the wall slowly and silently. It is only from up close you can see the hundreds of thousands of tiny scraps of paper bearing prayers that have been shoved into its cracks. While it may be only a wall, but it has been sanctified by millions who have prayed at its edges. Approaching it, watching the women pray, I was overwhlemed to the point of tears. Whatever made it so – whether it be the prayers of others, the faith of those around me, or the place it contained, a place so special it is believed that it was from the dust on this rock that Adam was created – it was a holy place.
If I had been in any doubt, all I needed to do was wait for sunset. I knew, from my trusty Lonely Planet, that it was worth waiting, so I settled down on a back wall to people-watch and wait out the remaining hour until Shabbat truly began. I watched birthright groups come and go. I took pictures of them posing with soldiers, and soldiers in civilian clothing who still toted enormous semi-automatics. Orthodox families came in, and soldiers – a lot of soldiers. There were almost a hundred of them by the time one politely asked me to stop taking notes or photographs. Shabbat had begun.
The next hour was incredible. The soldiers danced, the men sang, a soldier lifted a four year old on his shoulders and ran him around. The quite solemnity that had pervaded when I arrived was gone, replaced with mad, joyous dancing and singing. I went and stood behind the men’s section, watching the celebrations. Beside me two people were talking, a Scot and an American, about where to get dinner. I asked them if they knew where would be open on a Friday night, and they invited me to join them in their search. We waited for the rest of the group from Miriam and Maurice’s hostel (those being, I quickly learned, the names of the Glaswegian girl and the guy from San Diego who I ended up spending the next several days with.)
Somehow – and I honestly don’t think the three of us could say how it came about – we found ourselves walking in a group of about a dozen, led by an obnoxious man from Florida who referred to everyone as “guy” through the most conservative neighborhoods of Jerusalem. We followed him down empty streets, and dark windows, past families walking in the street, and found our way into a crowded living room lined with bookshelves. There a Rabbi and his family were hosting close to a hundred strangers for Shabbat dinner. I was seperated from Maurice and Erik, a freelance web-designer and travel-writer from Brooklyn I had met on the walk over, as they were ushered into the men’s section. I sat down at the end of a table of women, next to an enthusiastic and friendly Canadian, two Danish girls who seemed deeply lost, and a woman from Oklahoma who was so overwhelmed by the crowds and the unnaturalness of the situation that she continually buried her face in her hands as a gesture of defeat. I tried to draw her out, but once she was done with comparisons of Jerusalem to Oklahoma – Jerusalem is much older, Oklahoma has more space – she was pretty much done with conversation.
We sat through a three hour dinner, served in plastic bowls by the Rabbi’s wife and children. He spoke of the excitement of the evening, of the joy, and it was palpable – though the sanctity of his message was somewhat dampened by the consistent interruptions of food, calls for bread, and arrivals of new guests who had to be accommodated through a loud and unnecessarily complicated process of putting up more tables. At one point the chicken spilled, which led directly to half an hour of the Floridian's jokes – hey guy! Why’d you drop that? We were the chopped liver table, now we got the klutz table! Look at that, guy! Got sauce down his shirt! Looks like he was drooling! – and some of the teachings of the guests went straight to politics despite the Rabbi’s repeated requests that they refrain from that. A long rant in Hebrew about the new parking lot outside the old city was followed by a long rant, delivered sitting down, by the Floridian about nothing in particular. A school teacher told an interrupting American that she taught kindergarden, so it was fine, she was used to this kind of behavior, to which the American responded that she’d never been so dissed before. The chicken somehow passed by my table, and the guys at the next table suggested several times that I stand to give a teaching on the meaning of Michael Jackson’s memory. So, all in all, not far off from any other holiday dinner I’ve been to.
But at the end, the Rabbi stood and invited us, all hundred of us, back for lunch the next day, and I thought back to how it began, standing, watching dancing, and asking strangers if I could tag along. I thought about how much work goes into having a hundred people to dinner weekly, cooking for them and cleaning up afterwards. How much patience it takes to tolerate the Floridian, who I learned attends weekly, without leaping a table to tackle him. I guess that was the power of the Shabbat for this Rabbi's family, to make him stretch beyond what’s expected, like the power of a wall to make a dubious gentile cry, it’s not the day of the week, or the stones themselves, it’s the way it draws people that counts. I walked home thinking about all of this, and wrote the better part of an entry I didn’t post about how overwhelmed I was. But I’m very far away, in England, now. I’ve been gone from Jerusalem a while, and looking back at what I wrote, I’d have to say I’m extremely embarrassed, and prefer not to speak of the incident.