Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Western Wall Part II

Traveling alone has never once been a problem for me. I prefer to call it "traveling with myself". And when well-meaning people in far-flung places have asked me, "Are you with anyone, dear?" I typically reply: "Yes, I am with myself."

Being with myself allows me to indulge my inner geek, which most travel companions would find utterly nauseating. For example, a few years ago, I traveled (with myself) through Greece in the company of a worn paperback copy of Plato's "Republic" shoved into my back pocket. I don't think I can adequately re-tell the story of that blistering hot afternoon in July when I stumbled upon the site of the prison (which is now just a stone) in the ancient Agora in Athens, where Socrates was held prior to consuming the hemlock. No, it wasn't the heat that brought me to my knees. It was the sheer awe that, I--whose alter-ego resides somewhere in a double wide trailer at the Pensyltucky border--was actually walking in the hallowed ground of those philosophical giants before me. I can only liken this to the time my 17-year-old (then pot-head brother put all of his savings together to journey to Jamaica on Bob Marley's birthday. He sat at Bob Marley's own kitchen table, rolled a huge doob and smoked it in the man's honor. It was a very big thing for him. I suppose we all have a version of personal pilgrimage. If anyone even cared to pay close attention to me that day, they would have seen an overly-tanned young woman practically vibrating under her straw hat, perched and rocking back and forth on an old rock in the middle of a bunch of other old rocks, completely geeking out...

...So, there I was, standing alone in the small sliver of shade offered by the opposite wall of the Kotel. For whatever reason, I was at a complete loss. It was the first time I'd been free of any company during the entire time I had been in Israel, and I hadn't planned for this. It felt like someone had yanked off my five-year old arm floaties for the pool, and while I was unencumbered by the air and plastic, I could also just as easily drown. I stood there, just watching all of the activity around me for a bit, when it struck me as amazing (and, of course, incredible un-PC) that I had never seen so many Jewish people gathered in one place at one time. Incredible. Sure, sure, I have seen my fair share of ultra-orthodox men and women during my times in NYC, but this...this...well, this...was unlike anything I could have imagined.

As I walked out into the open square before the Wall, I immediately noticed that the men's side of the Wall was restricted by a fence from the women's side. And while the men's side was twice the size of the women's, there were perhaps half as many men there as women. On the other hand, the women's area was packed with all shapes and sizes of the female form. One had to patiently and respectfully wade through the group in order to get to the Wall itself.

Detached and observant, I wandered through the crowd. In doing this, I reached into my bag and drew out my all-purpose for Israel white linen shirt. It was long-sleeved and in the style of what young women wear there in order to look respectable. I put it on when I noticed that there was a self-appointed patrol of women who were stopping other women if they weren't in "proper" attire. I could write another blog on this entirely, but I will let it go for now.

Honestly, I wasn't prepared for what happened to me as I approached the Wall. All around me, women and young girls were praying and rocking, swaying back and forth and crying. In the past, I had read about the energy that prayer creates, but I have never felt something so tingly and real come over me like this. I looked around and found myself a chair, just so that I could steady myself, remain objective, and not get washed away in this tangible flood of invisible energy that in the same instant felt like love and lunacy combined into one. I watched the women standing at the Wall itself, press their bodies against it, whispering private prayers to it, and kiss it with their mouths. Then, they would back away from the Wall, eyes half closed. They walked backwards in silence, not turning their backs until they were well out of the women's portion of the gate.

To say the very least, it was surreal. I sat upon my white plastic chair for what felt like a year, as I deliberated whether I should approach the Wall myself and also say a prayer. The lapsed Catholic in me warned that I was going to burn in hell for this. Not only because I don't even take communion in my own house of worship, but because I had no business trying to do something holy in a sacrosanct place of another religion entirely. The academic in me warned me to remain detached and rational, and not get involved in the mucky matter of worship. Finally, mere curiosity and a sense of adventure got the best of me. I hadn't traveled all of the way around the world to come to the Western Wall and not allow myself to touch it, for heaven's sake!

So, I slowly got up and waited for a spot to open on the Wall. As respectfully as I could, I bowed my head and placed my right palm flat to the stone, mimicking the other women around me. In a flash, I felt something zip through my body, from my hand to my feet, and then it kept cycling through me. I didn't want to take my hand from the stone, because, however odd this felt, it also felt good...and big....really big....and real. Before I knew it, my rational mind kicked in again. I was prepared for having to wrap my mind around the idea of what to say in a prayer. Dumbfounded, the first thing that came to mind were the prayers that my grandmother taught me. So, I said a few Hail Mary's. And then I said The Lord's Prayer. And then I laughed at myself and looked around and thought, "I bet I am the only one here that's prayin' to Mary and Jesus!...Maybe I should just say some other prayers instead." So, I prayed for my family and their health and happiness. I prayed for a few other things, too. And I stood there, thinking about the people that I love and my hopes in life, I suddenly felt this wave of goodness and absolute joy come over me. I wasn't accustomed to this feeling. It scared the hell out of me, and like a child, I started to cry.

I stood there, crying and praying and letting these emotions wash through me. In a way, and I can't say for sure, but the best words I have for this is that I think that as I stood there at the Wall, I not only felt the thousands of years of human prayer and energy that had been projected into and held within the stone before me. It literally felt like I was talking to God. I looked up and noticed all of the small pieces of paper that have been shoved into the cracks of the rock that week. It was a wall filled with belief, wishes and hopes, and, above all else, the pure essence of human humility in the face of something larger than ourselves.

I sobbed without too much embarrassment, in the comfort of other women who were doing much of the same thing. Finally, when I reached the end of my conversation with God, it took everything in me not to publicly cross myself in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I stood there for a second, consciously trying to resist this in-grained habitual urge, when finally, I decided that it really doesn't matter how I pray, as long as I just do so with clarity and intention. And furthermore, it's not my fault that I was born into a Catholic upbringing, or that I happen to be American, or that one of my eye's happens to be half green. If there is a hell, let me burn in it, but for now, I'm going to hope that God really doesn't care how, where, or in what language I pray. It's all the same thing. And every place of worship is God's house, too.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I'm reminded of the words of the psalmist David, "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Ps. 8:4 KJV)

As one who prescribes to the notion that we are all created in the image of God, I find it absolutely stunning that he would long for my company, but there it is.

There is a profound aspect to prayer, which you've captured so well: the notion of feeling uplifted and at the same time humbled at how utterly finite one is. It's enough to move one to tears, as you have discovered.

Namaste said...

Thanks for the wonderful comment, Jay. I'm actually in tears just thinking about it again. I had a feeling you would especially get a kick out of this.

Shabbat shalom, by the way. It's Rosh Hashanah...and I'm heading to services tomorrow. :)

Anonymous said...

Shabbat shalom. I'm having flashbacks from my Jewish Lit classes. There's a poet whose work I need to excavate from my notebooks from you. Lived in Israel, writes beautifully about what it is to live there -- and for the life of me I can't remember his name. :/

Thanks for the Jerusalem dispatches. I'm hooked. ;]

Anonymous said...

I truly hope that this one event opens your heart up to more great things God can give you.

Brian said...

I just love the fact that you managed, in two sentences, to sum up the lunacy/idiocy of 2000+ years of religious conflict and bloodshed. Well done.

I sometimes wonder whether one has to experience a departure from faith in order to gain real perspective on it. I don't know, but it certainly seems to help.

Namaste said...

Thanks, WiB!