Thursday, July 14, 2016


Even in its destruction, it is a blessed Land
-Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban)

I had a lousy week. You know the kind, they happen to everyone; running out of milk right in the middle of your bowl of cereal, being stuck in traffic for 15 minutes causing you to be late for your morning coffee, being a witness to a shouting match with colleagues at work, who then both complain to you, discovering rats in the ceiling....

While, far worse things happen (and do in this Land), stupid things like those take their toll, and I felt I needed and deserved a day off from work. A group of Facebook friends were meeting in Jerusalem, and I decided that I would join them, and spend the day in the city, eating good food, seeing lovely people, meeting up with my daughter, and, most importantly, staying away, for one day, from the rat poop.

One of the things I love about Beer Sheva is that it is only one hour and 15 minutes by bus from Jerusalem, How many cities in the world are an hour and a quarter away from Jerusalem?  Very few, that's how many. And there are buses approximately every half hour. AND the buses have free wifi.

As I mentioned, I had had a lousy week. I was irritated, bad tempered, and had some serious decisions to make. I therefore decided to leave Beer Sheva early, and spend the morning at the Kotel (aka Western Wall) - something I hadn't done in years - before meeting friends for lunch.

I have been to the Kotel many times over the years, but it was always for some occasion; a military swearing-in ceremony for my sons, a siddur party for my daughter, a friend's son's bar mitzvah, a family meeting place, or just a quick stop to daven mincha (we'll meet you back in 10 minutes!). It's been years since I'd been to the Kotel on my own for some quality introspection. It was time to go.

I arrived in Jerusalem at about 9:30 AM. My first hurdle in the Holy City was getting on the train. Israel has recently had a 'transportation revolution' which has caused me, once again, to have no idea at all how to pay for a bus ride. The train ride was simply beyond all understanding. In the end, I think I rode for free. There was an inspector on the train with me (and the other 12,354 passengers), and I prepared myself to flee if I saw him coming near. But I was safe, and I got off at my stop without mishap.

I love visiting Jerusalem. Everywhere you go and everywhere you look modernity harmonizes with antiquity, mundane melds with holiness, cultures mingle seemingly without effort. Jerusalem, according to Wikepedia, has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.

Jerusalem is not only one of the most ancient cities in the world, it's also one of the most modern. And it absolutely reeks with history.

King David Hotel, the YMCA, and a building chrane

Situated in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem - which itself is surrounded by a stone wall rebuilt the Sultan Suleiman in the 1500s - the Kotel plaza is the closest to the Temple Mount (where the two Jewish Temples stood) that Jews are allowed to pray.  It wasn't always the closest. For 19 years -  from the foundation of the reborn State of of Israel in 1948, until the Six Day War in 1967 - Jews were not allowed access to the Old City at all, including the Kotel, by the Jordanian army, which controlled the area.  Under Israeli rule, of course, the Old City and its holy places are open with free access to all [except for the Temple Mount, where Jews, to this day, are not allowed to pray (!)].

But this post isn't supposed to be about politics.
It's supposed to be about me.

It should be said that all roads lead, not to Rome, but to the Kotel. I alighted from my free train ride and headed up the road. There's a very special miracle that occurs only in Jerusalem. No matter in which direction you walk, it's always uphill. Even if you climb up a hill,  turn around and go the other way, the hill tilts- like a teeter totter - and you walk back still going uphill.

I entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate (שער יפו), so named because when the wall was built, that was the gate you had to leave by to go to Jaffa. [There's also a Damascus Gate, which in Hebrew is called the Shchem Gate (שער שכם). Shchem, in English, is Nablus, (which is not really English, but Arabic, but adopted by the English because, I suppose, they can't say a guttural ch) and not Damascus, which in Hebrew is Damesek (דמשק). I suppose if you speak English you have to go to Damascus, but if you speak Hebrew, you have to go to Shchem. I don't know where you have to go if you speak Arabic.
But I digress.]

Jaffa Gate

The Jaffa Gate is where the Citadel of David is situated.

Citadel of David

Upon entering the gate, the road splits into two; one way leading to the Arab shuk and the Moslem Quarter, and the other to the Armenian and Christian Quarters. While the shuk is a great place to wander, full of colors and aromas, I opted for the Armenian quarter.

I promptly got lost.
I love getting lost.
I was in no hurry, had hours before my lunch date, the day was beautiful, the air clear. So I enjoyed myself.

There are very few cars in the Old City; most of the roads are for pedestrians only. The buildings are all stone, many rebuilt since the destruction that took place in that 19-year interval mentioned above.

Rebuilt wall

I meandered through the streets. One can only meander there. One can't stride or march, or traipse, or sprint. Ambling is possible, but bustling is decidedly not. And certainly, there is no strutting or prancing.  There are too many windows to look into, too many signs to read, too much history to process, too many diverse cultures and people to watch, too many gorgeous children to smile at to hurry.

Armenian artwork for sale
An embrasure or arrowslit, to shoot arrows from

Sign outside the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
I meandered.

The Old City is pretty small, so even meandering, it didn't take me more than 10 minutes to arrive at the center of the Jewish Quarter.  I knew I had arrived because of the noise of the crowds, and because towering above the plaza, is the Hurva Synagogue.

I sat there a few minutes, drank some water, and continued on my way to the Kotel.

The Kotel is guarded by lions,

a golden menorah,

and an army of determined defenders

And finally

I descended to the Kotel. (These are the only stairs that actually go down in the whole city. All the other stairs, no matter in which direction you are headed, go up.)

The Kotel plaza is made of white stone - walls, pavement, and stairs, It can be blinding, and hot.  I found myself a chair, planted it in the shade of the Mughrabi Bridge, which leads to the Temple Mount, and sat.

My view of the Kotel from my chair

There were a lot of people there, hundreds probably, coming and going; tourists, teenagers, babies, pensioners. Some were there for what was obviously the first time, others come daily. But it's a very large area, so it was not at all crowded. The atmosphere was still and relaxed, Everyone behaved respectfully, and considerately,  Nobody shouted, or bellowed, or demanded.  A few begged. Some gawked. Many wept. Many more smiled.  Almost everyone prayed.

I sat for a long time. I watched, I listened, I reflected. I dreamt. I meditated. I prayed. Much of the time, my eyes were closed. When I finally looked at my watch, an hour and a half had passed. It was almost time to go.  Before I went, however, I wanted to touch the stones. I had been sitting well back from the Wall on my own; but I needed to get closer.

Right next to the Wall was a another wall made of humans, and an unfortunate amount of elbowing is often required to get near it. I usually don't get there. There are people who have permanent places next to the Wall, others who stand there for hours. It took a few minutes, but, on this occasion I managed to wiggle my way through the human layer, without any pushing, and place my hands on the cool stones. I found myself leaning my head against them, and then my whole body.

The Stones

I stood there, only a few minutes. But it was enough. I stood straight, brushed the tears from my cheeks, and backed away.

There is a custom to back away from the Kotel, so that your back is not toward the Holy Temple Mount.

 One meets a lot of people by doing this. ("Oh so sorry, didn't see you there, I'm walking backwards. Come here often?")

Taking advantage of the cold water tank placed next to the steps, I left the site.  I had made no decisions, drawn no conclusions, made no commitments, yet I felt a great relief, and a knowledge, that, despite being employed in a building that housed dead rats, life can be sweet, even when it doesn't feel good.  Even walking up what seemed like thousands of steps, I felt immeasurably lighter than when I had come.

I meandered back through the streets past Zion Gate,

and David's Tower,

and out of the Old City, and on to my lunch date.

Which will have to wait for another post.

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