Religion & Beliefs

Shul Hopping: Wailing At The Wall

If you’re gonna shul hop, sooner or later you have to go to the O.G. Read More

By / August 30, 2011
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What better shul to hop than the synagogue of all synagogues: the Wailing Wall? This home to Conservative, Orthodox, Chasidic, Secular, Reconstructionist, Reform, Lgbt, Yeshivish, religious Zionist, Charedi, Breslov, Lubavitch, Neturei Karta, Karlin Stalin Jews, just to name a few, acts as the great religious equalizer. (At some point this proliferation of labels both impresses and depresses my soul.)  Here denominations do not fall away, they just matter less, if only for a minute or five. I come here this particular Friday night as a Birthright counselor. Though I’m a kotel veteran, seeing the wall and experiencing the service through the eyes of kotel virgins changes everything. The wall turns into a no cynicism zone. It freezes me, imposes genuine feelings, and forces me to confront what I want to give to this world. The kotel purifies against your will. The air tastes sweet and heavy with the groans of history. It evokes the whole panoply of emotions.

Here I find it hard not to think in platitudes that normally hurt my heart. I smile at the Jewish unity. I cry bittersweet tears over the fact that generations of my ancestors, including a great grandfather killed by the Nazis in front of the young blue eyes of my heroic grandfather, prayed thrice daily for thousands of years simply to glimpse what I can now touch with my fingertips. My heart swoons over the tears eeking out of even the most impenetrable of participants. I stand in awe over the ability of a place to evoke such calm, such focus, such desire for something more. I stop caring about the complexity or aesthetics of my thought. I try not to think why this wall, a wall impossibly weighed down by notes, by the deepest desires of the world, by our caresses, our tears, our screams, our anger, a wall that bears the brunt of history, why it evokes such deep feelings. (Yehudai Amichai, Jerusalem’s greatest poet, once described the walls of Jerusalem as a pulsating nervous system. If so, then the Wailing Wall acts as the heart that beats on despite the beating it takes.) For a moment I don’t care if the wall’s power stems from something real, something truly holy or from the holiness we attribute to it. I just feel, immensely.

The cold air warms me and the pervasive odor of sweat-soaked woolen clothing smells oddly sweet. I see a father bringing his son to the kotel for the first time. In the top left corner I join over 300 Chasidim swaying and singing as one unit to a tune that sounds strangely familiar and foreign, as if sung to me in the womb. From there, I move to a group of 40 soldiers surrounding an energetic rabbi as he calls and they shout in response. Something struck me watching these 18-21 year old kids carrying enough firepower to massacre all the thousands of people at the kotel, as they jumped around and shouted the songs of the Sabbath. I will never feel comfortable, regardless of my political thoughts, seeing teenagers decked out with automatic weapons, but I cannot separate the discomfort from my joy at their religious excitement. I attempt to keep the implications of this at the outskirts of my mind. A Chasidic man dances around, smiling, switching his streimel with the differently colored berets of soldiers. If only I could capture and cage this elusive feeling of elation.

The men’s section abounds with different forms of prayers, of people, of chants. Some sway to the tune of a niggun, a wordless song, others, religious Zionists, jump to the tunes of Shlomo Carlebach wearing their strange white kibbutznik shirts. The birthright participants run around in a circle to those songs that anybody with Hebrew School training would know (am yisrael chai, david melech yisrael) while throwing our jovial Chabad rabbi up into the air in the way of crowd surfing. I peer around and  feel unconditional love towards the tourists with cameras, the French, the Russians, the Sephardim, the Ashkenazim, the Dosim, the Arsim, and to the Chasid who always runs, pushing people out of his way, to where I do not know. For a second I forget the tiresome complexities of country entrenched in an endless war with the Palestinians, of a country with a dwindling middle class, of a country that despite its democratic nature insists on not separating church from state.

But as I make my way to the back, to watch over the men and the women, to stand as an observer, I realize a person can become hardened even to holiest of sites, inured to the most beautiful of scenes. The analytical side of my personality returns. I remember how the second Intifada started here, that not 50 feet away stands the dome of the rock, a place holy to all but only open to some. I cannot forget that Christians and Muslims lay claim to this territory, and that the word birthright itself carries along with it a whole set of expensive baggage and bloodshed. More specifically, coming off the heels of some real comfort-zone-pushing shul hopping, the mechitza here, the high metallic wall that requires climbing to see over, the allotment of half the amount of space to women than given to men offends my religious and human sensibilities. The orthodox hegemony over the rules of the country comes roaring back. How do I separate the complexities of this country from my simple desire to connect to something larger than myself?

In the end, despite all my reportorial distance, the religious calm of this site pulled me back to a moment of true human beauty, which transcended all religious boundaries, all the complexities of this precarious country. A Chasid dressed in his uniform: a mink streimel, a specially made golden-striped Shabbas bekeishe, white socks over patent leather shoes, and a scraggly blond beard covering his handsome face, this foreign family member walks over to the corner of the mechitza. He stands there for twelve seconds, covertly peers through the cracks and checks his expensive looking watch. After two minutes he leaves with a look of tender disappointment on his face. One minute later, a Chasidic woman, with a shaytel, a tichel, thick, beige stockings, and modest black pumps, dressed in her Shabbas finest comes to the exact spot on the other side of the gate. She waits a few seconds, peers around her section and looks through the cracks only to find no one. She walks away, a bit downtrodden. I know they will find each other, I know they will meet outside of the inner walls of this sanctum, but the symbolism of this moment, this small, tiny human drama pulls out tears from my eyes.

The scroll of the Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), a part of the bible, describes a lover coming to the door of his beloved only to knock without her noticing. They miss each other by a hairsbreadth, a tragedy of Romeo and Juliet stature. The rabbis interpret this love story as a metaphor for the relationship between God and each human being. They exhort us to attune ourselves to the eternal knock of God on the door of our souls. If anywhere in the world, if at any synagogue I can feel God knocking at my door; it is here at this Wailing Wall. Sadly, I cannot discern the sound of his knock from my hope for its existence.  I don’t even feel confident in my ability to respond. Despite these doubts, I stand there, tears sticking to my face from the gusts of the chilly Jerusalem air hoping with my deepest desires that I don’t miss the knock. That like that Chasidic couple, God and I will meet at some point for our tryst. Because what else can we hold on to but hope?

Afterwards, all 51 people in our group walked two hours back to our hostel. When I asked each participant, with the remnants of tears around their eyes, what they felt right now, or why they were crying, each person lost their power of speech, “Overwhelmed… too hard to put into words,” they responded. What causes this in the natural course of life? What robs us of the basic human faculty of speech? Even hours later we can only fall back on the clichés that organize our experiences: powerful, moving, meaningful, spiritual, but we all know, despite the origin of this oceanic experience, that it eludes capture by the jail of words, that it remains in the realm of the ineffable. The best we can do is to treat the experience like great poetry, art, or music and talk around it. If only every shul could affect us the way the kotel weaves its magic: circumventing our cynicism, finding its way into our heart of hearts, our own holy of holies whispering into our ears that home is where you let God in.