December 5 2010

Warning: Intensely personal religious emotions follow.

Ha Kotel / Western Wall

Yesterday, the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), I went to Jerusalem to visit the old city, specifically the Western Wall that is considered the holiest site for the Jewish people.  In my mind, I wanted to experience the beauty of Shabbat at this special place, and I was carrying a note from my wife to (as per tradition) leave in the wall.  As it was my only free day on this trip, and a decade has passed since I was last in the Old City, I considered it a must-do.

Reality was a little bit different than I expected.  First, visiting Jerusalem as a tourist on Shabbat is relatively pointless, as most every place worth visiting is closed.  That left the Jewish Quarter streets nearly deserted, and the remaining parts of the Old City a warren of cheap crappy tourist souvenir vendors.  For Christians, the Via Dolorosa stations would have been just as meaningful today as any other day, and I did do one touristy thing that I never have before -- walked the available length of the Old City rampart walls from start to finish in beautiful, 80 degree (F) weather.  But I'm not sure overall I would rate the morning out as worth the trip.

Clearly, I understand how privileged I am to have visited the Western Wall for the third time in my life; many Jews will never touch Ha Kotel in person.  But I went to Jerusalem yesterday hoping to have a personal conversation with God, and instead found myself asking many more questions.

When I arrived, I was quickly reminded that I was a visitor.  The Israeli Army guards at the security checkpoint, when I told them in Hebrew that I didn't speak Hebrew, asked me "English? Arabic?" The question felt off-putting since on Shabbat, obviously only a Jew would really want to visit the Wall.  Then, there were all the signs and the people reminding the few visitors not to take pictures etc.  The one I embedded above was taken outside the grounds of the wall, but I still wasn't supposed to take that picture on the Sabbath.  No apologies, I wanted to try to connect to the moment in any way possible.

Upon arrival, I walked down to the men's area in front of the wall.  Large groups were worshipping in clusters, with Torahs being held aloft, chants being sung, and additional cacophony of cheap plastic chairs and wooden desks being dragged around in constant motion.  99% of the men here were dressed worshipfully, with many Hassidic/Orthodox Jews among them.  I had debated bringing my grandfather's prayer shawl (talit) with me from America, but didn't know how I would keep it with me on a day trip to Jerusalem.  Too bad, as at least with that garment, I would have felt more alike these men.  Instead, I felt extremely self-conscious of my relatively casual dress (polo shirt and khakis, versus suits or special garments) and lack of connection to the other humans around me.  Somehow, I expected to feel welcome here, but did not.  In order to make my way to the Wall to pray, I had to push my way through the crowd, with nobody at all moving to assist me and, moreover, several dirty looks.

At one point, I grabbed a prayer book (of course, all in Hebrew, which is reasonable but somewhat unhelpful for me) and sat at the back, trying to collect the thoughts I wished to share.  It was simply impossible for me to concentrate in the atmosphere that should, by all measures, have been one of the most spiritual moments I'd ever experience.  Eventually, I pulled it together, went and prayed.  And left, maybe all of 15 minutes later.

To my surprise, the most moving moment of my visit to Jerusalem was several minutes later, as I passed the open doorways of a congregation worshipping elsewhere in the Old City.  These men and women -- in separate rooms, but clearly able to hear each other via the open doors -- were offering a truly mesmerizing sound, through voices and the percussion of shoe/table-tapping.  I stopped out of sight and listened for a few minutes to what recalled for me my visit to an unknown temple in Paris on the Jewish New Year over a decade ago, where a friend and I were welcomed in as if we were locals.

When I left Jerusalem, the taxi driver happened to take a route out of town that passed through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.  I understand that many streets are closed on Shabbat, but this particular arterial was open.  At a stoplight, a boy of maybe 10 years old started yelling at us for violating the Sabbath by driving; I was told later that I was lucky he did not throw stones at the taxi.

I happened to have dinner last night with my friend Dvir and his wife Dina, both of whom observe, like me, more of what could be called a "secular Judaism".  We are Jewish, proud of our religion and background, worship when appropriate, celebrate tradition with family, but are not orthodox followers of the religion.  Judaism has for at least a century had many different types of affinity and worship, yet we are all Jewish, or so I had always felt.  After a glass of wine, I found myself admitting to them that I somehow felt inferior during my visit to Jerusalem.  No talit, no shtreimel, no Hebrew fluency.  How could I come to the holiest place in Judaism on Shabbat and not feel my religion pulsing through my veins?  

Was it because it was my third visit was somehow more routine?  No.  

It was because in that moment, I felt like an outsider to my own religion.

I think the lesson here was the origin of the phrase "holier than thou" (and I don't mean the Metallica song).  And as Dvir and Dina and I discussed over excellent Spanish tapas, I learned that my feeling was not at all unique.  Not surprisingly, this tension between Jewish Orthodox and secular communities occurs perhaps more frequently in Israel than I was previously aware.  For example, at the security checkpoint for the Western Wall, a sign was posted saying that the local Rabbinic authority has concluded that passing through a metal detector does not violate Shabbat restrictions.  Yet many of those coming to pray were somehow invited to simply walk around the security checkpoint.

I'm glad I went, make no mistake about it.  But as I dress this morning to head to IBM in Petach Tikva for meetings and our event tomorrow, I am sad that I once again really only had one day to experience Israel on this trip.  27 years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend ten days here (see, Mom, I am grateful too) and got to see amazing places like Tiberias, Haifa, and Kibutzim (Israeli farms).  I think what I'm really missing on these business trip visits is the chance to experience things like I did all those years ago.  

For most of yesterday (the subject of another post), I loved being here, with all of the uniqueness that makes it Israel.  I'm just missing an opportunity when I come by for just a little taste.

Other pictures from yesterday: Jerusalem, December 2010 >

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