Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Western Wall Part I

Friday and Saturday, otherwise known as Shabbat, is a very big deal in Israel. Everything (including your mama's kitchen) dwindles down to nothing on Thursday evenings, and pretty much doesn't open up again until Saturday night. Technically speaking, there's a rule that 3 stars have to be in the sky on Saturday night before everyone is back in business. During Shabbat, it's incredible to note how tranquil and subdued everything becomes, if only for a few hours. Of special note is the fact that even the sounds of gunfire coming from the West Bank are put on a momentary pause. Well, relatively speaking, that is.

My first week in Jerusalem can best be described as eye-opening chaos. The Hebrew University was an absolute maze of gardens, ferrall cats, and endless white stone. The pragmatist in me devoted way too much time to trying to find the most efficient way to get to class, even though I was continuously lost. With these best efforts defeated, I was unaware at the time that I was learning one of the key principles of life in the Middle East: there simply is no efficiency. On top of this, I was still struggling with having my identification card on me at all times, and being stopped at gates and doorways by men with their fingers on semi-automatic rifles. To say the very least, by the time Shabbat came around, I was ready for a good meal and a good day of rest.

That first Friday, since classes were on hold for the next two days, I decided to take the afternoon tour of the Old City before attending my first Shabbat dinner that night. It was well over 100 degrees, and yet in flip-flops and a sweaty linen skirt, I forged over the slippery Jerusalem stone staircases at the heels of my tour guide, who spoke Arabic to me and kept yelling "Yallah, yallah!!!" at the group meandering several paces behind us. We literally plunged over and under the city with such speed that I could barely take in everything around me, let alone stop to take pictures. Finally, at the top of yet another mysterious staircase (which, by the way, I was never able to locate again), at last, we came upon this view:

Despite my dehydration, I nearly wet my pants. Ok, maybe that's an overstatement, but it was still surreal. Somewhere in the stone walls behind me, came the sounds of a Christian group singing Jesus hymns in English. A hundred feet below me, thousands of Jews were making their way to the Western Wall to give their Shabbat prayer. And in the distance, the Dome of the Rock was fluttering with devote Muslims, who were making their way to evening prayer. I turned to my tour guide, who was, at this point, hitting on me, and said, "So, this is it, huh? This is the place that everyone has been fighting about." "Yep," he said non-chalantly. "This is pile of stones is what all of the fuss is about."

It was weird. On one hand, yes, it was just a place. But on the other hand, it was undeniably a special place. Even as an outsider, I couldn't help but feel it. The rational part of my brain made note of this feeling. Given all that I know about the history and politics of Jerusalem, however, I silently wondered if I was inventing this "feeling" or if it was actually "real."

At the top of the city, my tour group disbanded, and the tour guide offered to show me the way down to the Kotel, or the Western Wall, where the Jewish folks pray. I followed him through the white stone maze of the Jewish quarter, where strange looks from passing people ubiquitously read: "What is this uncovered girl doing, walking out alone in the company of this Arab man in the first hours of Shabbat?" Just before we arrived in the opening to the wide open expanse that lies before the Wall, my new friend stopped and bid me farewell.

"Wait--You're not coming with me?," I asked.

"No," he said. "This is not the place for me. It's for only Jews."

"But, I'm not Jewish," I said.

"Yes, but, no one will stop you. With me, they will point a gun at my head until I am outside of the wall."

In that instant, I must have looked like a lost puppy.

"You should go to the Wall and say a nice prayer," he said, almost consoling me. "And if you feel like it, you should pray for peace."

I thanked him for his tour, and, instead of giving him my phone number (which he asked for), I gave him a few shekels and said good-bye. Before I knew it, he disappeared with the moving crowd in the direction of the Arab Quarter. I turned back to the giant stone courtyard in front of the Western Wall. Despite the fact that I was just a human dot in a flurry of human activity, it was the first time in Israel that I found myself all alone...


WiB said...

Couple of quick things:

First and foremost: this is fascinating, and I'm really glad you're sharing/writing it down (plus, you're an excellent writer, so that helps a bit).

Second, at the Gazuza HH I mentioned an article to you that Gene Weingarten had written a couple of years ago, about spending a few days in Israel and Madrid after bombings there. I finally managed to track it down, and thought I'd share:
in case you're curious.

Very good stuff, I look forward to reading more. :)

Namaste said...

Thanks, WiB! Glad you are enjoying the babble. I will def. check that article out. I'd forgotten that you mentioned it, too, so thank you so much for remembering to mention it again! :)