Sibling rivalry is not just for siblings, and family’s not just the nuclear kind. Yesterday at 5 a.m., wanting some quality time alone with my Creator, the fact that the #2 to the Western Wall was packed full of my brethren didn’t seem like anything to celebrate, nor did the sight, when I stepped off the bus, of two long lines already at the turnstiles, waiting for the security check.
It’s always like this in the weeks before Rosh HaShana, and shouldn’t that make me happy? Happy it’s not some end-of-season sale which has Jews of myriad persuasions rising in great numbers before the break of day, but rather, a desire to address G-d at this particular spot, and think one’s innermost thoughts before these particular stones. Don’t ask me how, or why – after all, it’s been going on for centuries — but there’s something about this place that inexplicably arouses our real selves. If you want to face yourself, face the Wall. If you want to see your life more clearly, come here and close your eyes.
In the gray half-light of dawn, a shrill shofar was piercing the air, and on the wide plaza stretching out adjacent to the site, about a hundred singing, flag-wielding children in a Bnei Akiva youth group sat cross-legged in a huge circle, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth to the beat of Zionist folk songs. Turning right into the women’s section, I saw that my access to the Kotel was hindered not only by whatever petty thoughts were going through my mind at the time, but also by a tourist group in yellow T-shirts and matching beanies, and women in headscarves Mea Shearim-style, and teenagers in long funky dresses a la Shlomo Carlbach. One long row of plastic chairs was occupied by about a dozen American women in yarmulkes and Reform tallisim. There were mothers with carriages, little kids running and talking, and an elderly Moroccan being pushed in a wheelchair. A fragile-looking Yemenite in her twenties – suffering from some debilitating illness – supported herself on a walker as she searched for an empty crevice in the stone to insert a handwritten note. There were schoolgirls in navy-blue pleated skirts; beggars circulating with palms outstretched; clusters of pony-tailed soldiers in IDF uniform.
All this might be a heartwarming sight, good for one of those “We Are One” ads put out by the Jewish Federations or for Israel’s PR at the UN, another futile attempt to convince the world we’re not racists. We are in fact a many-raced nation from many lands, disparate individuals drawn inexplicably to this particular spot and bonded in spite of ourselves by the ancient covenant which the majority of us find so hard to take seriously. Surely as individuals we have our fleeting private moments of epiphany and insight, and during war and emergency, do find ourselves more unified than usual, as in any country at times of danger. But what would it take for us to understand that from G-d’s perspective, we are, actually, one?
Eventually I spotted an opening and wended my way through the crowd. But no sooner had I touched my hand to the Wall than I was already distracted by the gesticulations and exclamations of the person on my right.
Garbed in the traditional white garments of Ethiopia, with a turban wound up high on her head, a woman in her seventies was leaning forward from a chair with eyes shut tight, elbows propped on knees, face up close to the stone. The gesturing of her hands was that of a person absorbed in a vivid argument with a friend – uninhibited disagreement and affectionate chiding, persuasion, impatient protests – and I couldn’t help but listen in to the intimately murmured, insistent monologue carried on in her foreign tongue.
The vehement tête-à-tête went on, and on, and my own prayer began to wilt. Unfettered belief such as hers was an unwelcome reminder, just then, of the tricky existential questions that nibble away at the back of Western minds. This woman obviously had no doubt that the Master of the Universe was paying close attention to every word she said; that He took her complaints seriously (more so, by far, than we take ourselves) and loved her as she was, with her weaknesses, even while continuing to send her the problems she was begging Him to solve. It was obviously no concern of hers who else might be talking to Him at the same time, nor did it present any sort of conceptual problem that everyone else was also clamoring for her Father’s undivided love and individual attention. It was a given that listening to two human beings at once – or ten, or two billion – posed no problem for our Creator. Wonders incomprehensibly greater than this does He perform unceasingly.
When it came time for me to rise and say the Amidah — the portion of dovening which must be audible only to one’s own ears, recited standing with both feet close together, without interruption or movement — I found myself hamming it up (for her benefit, if not His.) I took those three nifty little steps forward and back with pious precision, rising up on my toes like some kind of professional gymnast and bowing this way and that as if Queen Elizabeth were around.
My final bow was especially deep, and long. But I myself was not convinced.
Malka, of indeterminate age, is a seventh-generation Yerushalmi. Pausing to drop a shekel in her upheld cup, I saw that she’d changed since the last time we’d met. The features on one side of her face were strangely distorted and twisted downwards in the distinctive manner of Bells Palsy, the sudden-onset neurological disorder.
“You know, there are people,” she said wryly, “who pretend not to see us, the poor people begging. They want Hashem to look at them, but from us they turn away their eyes.” She smiled as if at a private joke. Then, in her melodic, Hebrew-accented English (and as humorist Dave Barry says in his Miami Herald columns, I’m not making this up,) she then said: “Sometimes it happens that we cannot pray.”
“Funny you should say that, right now,” I said, trying not to look into the drooping eye on the affected side. “With all these people around, I wasn’t –”
“Yes, at night sometimes I go up on the roof, with the stars, and I think Hashem, I am the only one with You in the world! But the Jews we should not separate ourselves one from the other. This is our strength, to put together our souls like one soul. To pray, we must all of us, everyone, make ourselves small.”
It was at this moment that I recalled the one and only time – in three decades — that I’d had the Wall almost all to myself.
My husband and children were still asleep as I slipped out into the pre-dawn darkness. In Jerusalem on a major holiday such as this, the buses don’t run, all stores are closed. And at half past five in the morning, it wasn’t surprising to find that the whole world belonged to me. Walking along Rechov Shmuel HaNavi, continuing up Shivtei Yisrael as the sky turned a pale coral and pink-tinged clouds sailed fast overhead, autumn’s earliest coolness was carried on the breeze.
Not a car could be seen. Passing under Jaffa Gate and entering the Old City, I paused. Should I take the shortcut through the Arab shuk or play it safe and go by way of the Armenian Quarter? I heard footsteps at my back and turned – a little scared, then relieved — to see a former neighbor. We’d forgotten each other’s names but joined up together and decided to take the shorter route.
Our heels clicked merrily on the stone steps descending into the Arab market. It was now 6 am. My companion and I talked as we walked, but about halfway through, she said, “It’s strange we’re the only ones here, isn’t it?” Even the usual men with their donkey carts were nowhere to be seen, and by this hour, at least some of the Arab storekeepers would have usually opened up for business.
We continued on.
When we emerged from the shuk’s cavernous dimness, we stood at the top of the staircase overlooking the Wall – with the blue and gold dome of the mosque glimmering high in the background – and my heart rose like a bird. On the men’s side, there were perhaps two or perhaps three worshippers, but the women’s side was mine for the taking. Not even in the first years after making aliyah, long before Israel’s population explosion, had I ever seen it so empty.
My companion took one half of the women’s section and I the other. My Rosh HaShana davening lifted me on wings, where I’d been longing to go, and with remarkable aim — in spite of having so few targets — one of the pigeons nesting in the Wall managed to crown my head that day as only they know how.
Only later did I find out why this peace had been ours. Having been so busy cooking and cleaning in preparation for the Holiday, I hadn’t listened to the news. The day before, Palestinian rioters had thrown rocks from the Temple Mount onto the Jews praying down below, and a curfew had been clamped down on the Arab quarter.
It was the opening round of the cruelest, most murderous, most brutal of all the intifadas.
That’s how I learned to love the crowded bus, and be glad at the Wall when there’s no room at all.
Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. Sarah Shapiro teaches writing in Israel and the United States. This article was reprinted with permission
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.