Monday, January 8, 2018

Western Wall: The X-Ray

 Even in summer, it’s so chilly on the plaza of the Western Wall (or Kotel) at 4 AM that most of the women wear sweaters or shawls. We’re all here to catch vasikin, morning service where the standing silent prayer is said exactly at sunrise. It’s not seeing the sun that counts, vasikin is considered devotional even if it’s said in a windowless building or a dungeon or a cave, which it has been.

 It would take me ten lifetimes to move up one rung from lazy, let alone achieve devotional. But there’s a buzz here at this time that draws me. Often there’s a buzz of chitchat, before prayers begin at dawn, from the ladies who cluster near the Wall to blab while they wait. I’ve ignored them other times but this very early morning I’m a grenade ready to explode; I storm over to them and shush with a nasty hiss. They look startled. After five minutes back in my seat I evaluate; have I acted like a sailor looking for a brawl? Maybe no, maybe yes, and this pain in the neck court martial of self-examination goes on for a while until a part of my brain that operates only in this place says, “Next time shush, but nicer.” Gently, the court martial ends. At home, it would last for days, transforming me from a single grenade to a cache.
 When one of the women who asks for charity comes to me I’m calm enough to give, and to take in her benign warmth. There’s another however who is clearly unbalanced. She pushes her hand out aggressively, and her laugh is so loud it ricochets off the stones. She wears a heavy winter coat and carries a suitcase tied with cord. When prayers start she parks herself on the small stone staircase abutting the Wall. I look up and examine her features, x-rayed by floodlights that bathe the plaza. Praying, she appears neither fanatic nor remote, but focused, and she does not miss a single amen.

 Afterwards I get coffee at the little stand behind Kotel Plaza, and drink it beside a very old man in a pilled stocking cap who has stopped to rest in a chair. He has the nut brown skin of a Jew from an Arab country, maybe Yemen, or Iraq. He declines the men who stop to ask if they can bring him a coffee. Each of these men wears a suit and carries his prayer shawl in a velvet pouch; the old man carries his in a see through plastic bag. Two young guys, one quite tall, are talking close by. Though the tall guy is listening to his friend his eyes are on the old man, until he gives up listening and walks over to the old man’s seat, shakes his hand, then does something I’ve seen only once before. The young guy rubs his fingertips along the back of the old man’s hand then kisses his own fingers, as though he had touched not a hand, but the parchment of a Torah.

 By now it’s 7 AM and the line to enter Kotel Plaza snakes down past the Dung Gate and out to a narrow road. It’s too early for group tours but not for indie tourists. I’m on my way out, to return home, when a finely dressed couple looks up quizzically from a brochure and I’m the human in their line of sight. They’re Swedish. They ask, in elegant English, what, exactly, can they see here. I’m wearing my ankle length denim skirt and work boots. The blazer I needed against the chill at 4 AM looks abnormal in the rising September heat. I have a Brooklyn accent I do not wish anyone to associate with holiness. I address the wife as madam, something I learned from movies. I open my mouth, hoping to sound as refined as Katherine Hepburn, and then, like a strip of film stuck in a projector, I freeze.
 What can they see here? I can’t be flippant, and tell them the Wall is a leftover, the two Temples that were alive here are gone; they can’t see nothing. I can’t get professorial about architecture or archeology; I care for neither. I cannot relay this place’s history, at least not as Clift Notes. When I point to a table with the same brochure they already have, they look disappointed, so I produce.

 I tell them the story of my friend’s six year old son, Tzvi, of South Bend Indiana. Tzvi and his mom were getting into their car when two kids stopped to tell Tzvi they were walking to Jerusalem to re-build the Temple. Tzvi appraised their collection of curtain rods, baby blankets, and floor tiles. Buckled in the car he shook his head, “They don’t have enough tiles.”

 The couple smiles wanly. “But you must understand,” explains the lady, “Children do not know what is real.”

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