Friday, July 8, 2011

One Wall, Two Perspectives

Last Saturday night, we wandered around Jerusalem for five hours and found ourselves (quite accidentally) at the Western Wall. Below, our two reactions to one place.

When I visit the Kotel, I see major inequality. The men’s section, taking up two-thirds of the Wall, with ample space to get up close and pray, next to the women’s section, where women stand in a crowd three rows deep in order to try and touch it. The varied stones the Wall is built of, unequal in size, remind me of the inequality between the genders. Once a month on Sunday mornings, progressive men and women gather at the Wall for the women to wrap tefillin, wear tallises, and read Torah. The police watch from nearby and often make arrests.

I have trouble understanding the ultra-religious. I want so badly to feel like one family, but all I do is judge them. I know I need to work on this.

On another afternoon, we walk down the street from our apartment towards the park, and on the walk we see in the distance the Security Barrier, the fence that separates Israel from the West Bank. Since its construction in 2002, suicide attacks in Israel have decreased by a half every year. And yet, I can’t help but think of the videos I’ve seen of peaceful protestors on the other side of this wall being beaten bloody and having tear gas shot at them. The stories I’ve heard of old women trying to enter Israel through one of the checkpoints, where there is much crowding and waiting, and the guards push her back and beat her. How can this Wall and that other wall carry such different meaning?

And yet, here at the Western Wall, I’m reminded of a beautiful I experience I once had. I was a counselor for a group of high school students spending the summer in Israel. As is common on Jewish youth trips, we had designed colorful group t-shirts to wear on our final day. And there we were, this group of 120 Jewish Americans, dressed matching in neon green t-shirts. And around us were men in black hats and robes, as well as young Israelis dressed in everyday work clothes with knit yarmulkes, and folks with dreadlocks tucked underneath a head wrap, and families of tourists in sunglasses and khaki shorts with cameras around their necks. And I thought to myself, this is what it means to be the People of Israel—varied in shape and in color, and yet whole.

To be here with Leah, together for the first time (I’m sure of many), and to see her reaction to this place, softens me. My grandparents and great-grandparents could only dream of this place, and here we are, casually strolling on a Saturday evening. This afternoon, we had set out with no intention of coming here at all. In fact, we had planned not to come, to save it for later. And yet, our wandering has led us straight here. What a beautiful city—that can hold both the restaurants in the German colony and the Houses of Study in the Old City; that can hold both the modern stores on Jaffa street and the beautiful gardens in Yemin Moshe; where the old kisses the new.

When I pray at the Wall, I am reminded that the name Israel means to wrestle with God. So I close my eyes, I rock forward and back, and wrestle with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might.

The last time I was in Jerusalem was quite literally half a lifetime ago. The summer I turned 13 my family took a two-week Bat Mitzvah holiday through Israel. My memories of the trip are beautiful although slightly faded, as often happens over time. However, a small handful of memories were carefully wrapped and packed in a box in a corner of my mind, which when opened (13 years later) have reappeared as vividly as the day they were packed away.

The first moment we found ourselves in view of the Kotel, it was as if the memories began rattling in their carefully packaged box. I held Daniel tight as the tears came effortlessly running down my face. I was nothing short of shocked at the immediacy of this visceral reaction. I pulled myself together as we walked through the security gate and wrapped myself in shawls to cover my legs and shoulders. As Daniel took my hand the tears came flooding back. The dust was being blown off the box. We made our way towards the Wall and Daniel asked if I wanted to walk up to it. It was at that moment the lid of the box blew off and I was face to face with the memory that had prompted the free-fall of tears. I saw a 13-year-old me standing between my mother and grandmother, all holding hands, walking towards the wall. I saw myself standing between the two women who are the great loves of my life, placing our hands and heads on the wall and praying. In that moment, being Jewish meant something. Truly meant something. And in this present moment, standing in front of the Kotel, holding hands with the man I love, it meant something again.

It is no secret that I have had a tumultuous relationship with Judaism. I am a Jew. I have a strong sense of Jewish identity and the traditions of my history hold a deep, enduring importance in my life. But I’ve never really found a way to tap into my spirituality through my religion. Unable to connect with my spirituality through Judaism, I set out in search of meaning. I’ve traveled all over the world, experiencing foreign cultures, and studying eastern religion, philosophy, and art. I was taught Theravada Buddhist prayers in a fishing village in Thailand, I meditated with Buddhist monks in Tibet, I was taught Jainism by a priest in a marble temple, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah while trekking the Nepali Himalayas and I spent Yom Kippur meditating on an Ashram in India. It took traveling around the world for me to be able to look in and find spiritual fulfillment. However this spiritual growth was something entirely separate from my religion.

Somehow, standing in front of the Western Wall, a wall that is just a wall, I felt something. Something unexplainable. Something that felt, dare I say, spiritual.

Wrapped in the arms of the man I love, remembering a moment that happened half a lifetime ago, imagining what it might be like returning to this same place with my own daughter, her hands in mine and my mother’s… for me, this is what it means to be a Jew. Yes, the Kotel is just a wall, but for thousands of years it has stood as a symbol our history, of my history.

Most days I would look at the Western Wall with frustration. Frustration, at the separation of men and women. Frustration, that women are unable to wear tallit and pray aloud. Confusion, at some of the seemingly antiquated behavior. Worry, at the state of tolerance in Israel. A collection of conflicting feelings over this exalted wall.

But this night was different than other nights. On this night, the Kotel stood as a symbol of my history. On this night, this Wall was more than a wall. On this night I was more than a girlfriend, a daughter, a granddaughter… on this night I was a Jew. And for the first time in a very long time, that meant something.

1 comment:

  1. lovely guys...wonderful thoughts and reactions. so happy you are there together to experience it all. love you, c xo