I’m a firm believer when it comes to parents needing time of their own, in addition to time with their children and so, this week my husband and I stole a week to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and his birthday. My oldest daughter and husband came to spend the week with the younger children, Shmulik, my middle son, is home for the weekend, and Elie has no real part in this, since he is in the army.
Long ago, a soldier was killed and his funeral delayed because his parents were vacationing abroad. They returned to Israel, only to bury their son. That would never be me, I promised myself. I would never be that far away when my sons would serve and so, as we talked about celebrating our anniversary, the one thing I knew without doubt, was that I would not be flying abroad. Somehow, in the illogical mind of a mother, Elie’s safety became entwined with my staying here and so, here we planned. Before you get the idea that this is a sacrifice, understand that Israel is packed with amazing places to visit. You could live a life time, examining and visiting every corner of this country, and still not experience it enough.
There are places to visit in Israel for everyone – no matter your religion, gender, age or interests. Israel is, at once, full of fun, full of spirituality, full of history. It’s just a question of picking what you want. We have mountains in the north, if you love hills and rivers and kayaking. We have deserts in the south, if you like hiking and hot, dry sunshine, and finally, we have the seaport of Eilat and an underwater world of wonder. Coral reefs for snorkeling, clean beaches, a long boardwalk with cheap but weird things you wonder why you bought when you get home. We have Jerusalem – there are no words for the beauty there, the breathtaking view of standing above the Western Wall and just listening. If peace will ever come to the world, you just know, you are standing at the place where it is both needed and so deserved.
So it’s not a hardship to stay here, close to family and yet in a world of our own. A week of no dishes, no laundry. A week to sleep when I want. A week to write (and I don’t mean technical manuals and help files). A week to be with my husband, not as the father of my children, but as the man I married 25 years ago.
We called hotels. We thought about up north in the mountains. I thought about the coast and the Mediterranean Sea. For Orthodox Jews, there is the week, and there is the Sabbath. There are al the days when you can do so many things, and there is the last and holiest day where you simply do the opposite of what is done during the week. No rushed meals, no telephone. No hours on the computer and running to make deadlines. We would leave on Thursday, which mean the first part of our vacation involved the Sabbath, and so we decided to divide our week into two parts, two places.
What I really wanted, for the Sabbath to start, was to be as close as possible to the single point that Jews face, three times per day. Or, as close as we can get in these times. The ideal, of course, would be the opportunity to visit the site of our Holy Temple, but that isn’t possible as it was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago and where it once stood, the Arabs have built two mosques. I guess I can put a bit of history in here for those of you who don’t know the history of this land. Essentially, in 1967, when it became clear that the Arabs were once again gearing up for war (they had already closed the international shipping paths through which Israeli ships did business and the level of rhetoric had heightened (as it did in 1956 and in 1948 before they attacked). Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Syria and Egypt, some say mere days before the Arabs themselves would have attacked.
At the same time, Israel contacted Jordan and asked them not to enter the war. There was no reason and they had nothing to fear. They chose to attack and join their Arab brothers in peace and in the ensuing battle, the Old City of Jerusalem fell from their hands. One of the most amazingly generous (and stupid) things that Israel did, was immediately turn around and hand the Temple Mount, the site of the Holy Temple, back to the Arabs.
Why was this stupid? Well, for the 19 years they held this area (from 1948 – 1967), they desecrated the Jewish cemetary that was there. Centuries old, the final resting place of generations, gravestones were broken, and used to build bathrooms. And worst of all, Jews were not permitted to pray at the Western Wall.
In 1967, Israel captured the Old City and reunited it with the New City of Jerusalem. We also opened the Temple Mount and all areas to all religions. Each time I stand at the foot of the Western Wall and gaze around me, I am amazed by the numbers of nationalities and religions that are represented. This weekend, I saw groups from Korea, Norway, Russia. From all over the United States. Arabs walked past the open Plaza on their way to pray on the Temple Mount high above.
Isn’t it interested, I thought, that everyone can pray here, just outside the Temple Walls, but there on top, where once our Temple stood, we cannot pray today. I spoke to a policeman who was there, responsible for keeping the peace and quiet of the holy place.
“Doesn’t it bother you,” I asked him, “that Jews and Jews alone can’t pray on the Temple Mount? That we cannot even stand up there, in that huge area, and whisper a prayer quietly?”
“They can’t pray there either,” he explained as he pointed to the Christian group making its way up throught security, “they are told also.”
It was a rather political and pathetic decision, that successive Israeli governments have placated the Moslem Authorities and refused to allow Jews (and Christians) apparently, from praying on ground we hold most sacred. So what we do have, and what I focused on this past Sabbath, was a close runner-up, the remnants of the Holy Temple’s western retaining wall, which stands majestic and proud in the Old City of Jerusalem. All that remains to us today, it seems, is the Kotel, the Western Wall, often called the Wailing Wall because it is a place that calls to your heart, to the deepest feelings and prayers you have.
The first time I saw the Wall, I was 16-years-old and on my first visit to Israel. As I approached and saw the massive stones towering over the people, something inside of me surrendered to it. I can’t explain why I started to cry, way back then, or why the sight, even today, still can bring me to tears. It is as close as you can get, I believe, to an open channel to the heavens. It’s a chance to open your heart and hope and believe that your dreams and greatest needs will be heard.
Friday night, after lighting candles in the little apartment we rented for the weekend, my husband and I walked down the steps and approached the Kotel. As the evening settled into night, the prayers of thousands could be heard. I edged closer to the fence that divides men from women. There are religious reasons for this separation that I won’t go into here, but it does not separate anyone from God, and that is Who you come to talk to when you pray at the Western Wall. It isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about seeing that boy or talking to that girl. It’s about a private chat and that’s what I did.
Please God, take care of my children. My oldest daughter and my dreams for her and her husband as they find their path and their ways; Elie should be safe and careful, he should wear the uniform with pride, with honor, and with ease and the day should come when he doesn’t have to wear it – not because he’s finished his three years and now it is his brother’s turn, but because our enemies finally surrender…not to us, but to the will to make peace over war; Shmulik should find his path and be happy and when the time comes for him to put on the uniform, he should do it with the same pride and strength as his brother; Davidi should learn well and prepare for his upcoming bar mitzvah; Aliza should grow strong and healthy. This and so much more, I prayed for my family and my country. We are a land without leadership now at a time when we desperately need it.
There were more prayers, but the point is that this is the place to say them; the place to feel they are heard, as no where else in the world. You can pray anywhere, and God hears, but when you pray at the Western Wall, well, it’s the difference between having a converation in the same room with someone versus having it over the phone. When you stand at the Western Wall, you feel that you are right there, that God is right here, and we together have this time. No prayer is too small, too silly. Keep him safe, please, keep him safe.
There are three sets of prayers said daily, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. Between each, there is a period where it is too late for one, too early for the other. During the week, this is no problem, but on Friday nights, when you go to pray the afternoon service, typically you wait around to say the evening prayers as well and so there is this void filled by singing or a lecture.
At the Western Wall, this time, as day slips into night, is filled with song and even dancing. And so, as I approached the men’s section, I noticed that there were dozens of soldiers in uniform praying as a group in the back corner. The Western Wall area is divided into three main areas: the large Plaza area where people mingle or hurry past, the men’s section, and the women’s section. I edged my way over to the edge of the women’s section, where I could look through to where the men were praying.
Their side, like ours, was filled, with thousands of people standing there. And towards the back, there were dozens, probably even close to 200 soldiers in uniform, each with a gun strapped to his back, and a prayer book in his hand. In front of this large group, were men dressed in their Sabbath best. Pristine white shirts, dark formal dress pants. This is the uniform of the Sabbath for many, in a country which prides itself on informal. And, in front of this large group, almost level to where I was standing was another group of air force soldiers dancing and singing, there was another group of men singing and dancing as well. The air force soldiers, or at least many of them, were not religious and so rather than the kippah (skull caps) worn by many, those that were not religious used their berets to cover their heads and show their respect. They didn’t know many of the prayers or tunes and so, no less anxious to show their feelings, they sang songs they know.
At one point, the soldiers started singing a song I’ve always loved, “All the world is a narrow bridge,” they sang, “and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” I have always loved this song because it recognizes that the world is a scary place and yet, even with that acknowledgement, it offers its own solution. This is a song we sing typically as the Sabbath ends, not as it begins. During the sabbath, we put this thought away, of how fragile life can be. But as Saturday night approaches and we know the Sabbath is leaving us, we sing this song to remind us that next week, it will come again, that you can face most things, if you do it without fear.
But this is the song these soldiers knew, the closest thing to prayer they could think of and because it was said in this spirit, it was accpted by those around them. The prayers that welcome in the Sabbath are particularly beautiful and often sung slowly. The work week has ended. We have no where to rush to, nothing to do in a hurry. Relax and feel like a king or a queen. Sing.
The group in the middle, between the two groups of soldiers, began these beautiful prayers, and as they sang, some of them began to dance and soon, the soldiers blended into this middle group. I wished I had a camera and that it would be allowed to take this picture, of so many dancing together so beautifully.
All I can do is describe it, the uniforms, the guns, the pants and white shirts and the beautiful melodies. Later we walked through the ancient alleyways of the Old City. It is the Arab month of Ramadan; a holy time for Moslems. it is also a time, sadly, when many have chosen to express their devotion by becoming martyrs and so security was especially tight.
The Old City is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Armenian. In practical terms, this means little, as each streams into the other. On Friday night, this meant more patrols and more soldiers at the edges of the Jewish Quarter. We wished many of them a peaceful Sabbath as we walked past.
Yes, sometimes parents must steal time for themselves. I spoke to Elie before the Sabbath and must now force myself to remember the rules I have learned. Nothing is final until it is final, but as of now, Elie will be home for Rosh Hashana. Another present, in honor of our anniversary, I suppose. We will gather our children close this holiday and celebrate it together.
May the coming year bring true peace and security to our borders and may we always have the beautiful city of Jerusalem protected and ours. And even when the world seems to be a narrow bridge, may we have the courage to live without fear.