I cannot believe that I have gotten this far into talking about Israel without mentioning Jerusalem, which is, perhaps, an indication that my journey to Israel was not one of a religious awakening. Even standing in front of the Western Wall (called haKotel in Hebrew) did not ignite a religious fervor in me. I must admit, this disappointed me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if standing at an important religious site you are suddenly filled with meaning and purpose, and the realization of who you are and what you need to do to fulfill yourself? And that, you know, God speaks to you. Well, that didn’t happen and so the journey continued—continues.
A few weeks after arriving at the kibbutz I went to Jerusalem for a weekend. (A weekend in Israel is from midday Friday, when most stores and official offices and services stop so that the Shabbat can be preserved, until Sunday when people head back to work. While the weekend is shorter than in the US, it feels longer, because you don’t go out shopping and filling your time with to-do lists, but have family meals and visit friends or go on day-trips, and generally do relaxing things, even, yes, stay at home and do nothing but eat nuts and seeds.) For some reason I got it into my head that I need to walk into the Old City of Jerusalem, like some kind of a pilgrim. No, not from the kibbutz, but from the central bus station in Jerusalem. Sometimes I come up with these truly absurd ideas, and then as a true absurdist, I act on them. So instead of taking a bus from the bus station as any normal person would do (as all normal people do everyday—this was long before buses were being blown up in Jerusalem), I started walking down Jaffa Road to the Old City. My intention was that my arrival to the Old City would be the culmination of a journey; that it would not resemble arriving at an ordinary tourist site. What better way to do that than by walking in the midday summer sun in the Middle East for two miles down a busy street?
Two miles is not a lot, nor was it an uncomfortable walk. This was, really, my first introduction to a more metropolitan Israel than I had been used to. I almost felt like I was back in New York, what with all of the people walking around and hurrying about. Of course, except in only a few parts of New York do you see men all in black with black hats, and women in long dresses with long sleeves and scarves covering their hair, and lots of girls in long denim skirts, and male and female soldiers strolling about as if it's an ordinary thing (which it is, but not in New York) and so many men wearing kippot (yarmulke) to make me realize that I was, indeed, in a Jewish city (even more so than New York). Jerusalem had the feel of an old, tired city, ancient even in the non-ancient parts.
The buildings were a lot lower than in New York, and older as well, or felt that way since they were mostly made of stone. Everything was in beige stone. There’s a building code that I learned about later that proscribes that all buildings must be constructed out of this type and shade of stone to keep the uniqueness of Jerusalem intact. Sure, that’s the only reason why Jerusalem is unique, the color of its buildings. (At some times of day and seasons, the color is more of a rose hue, and it truly is a sparkling city atop a mountain.)
Back to the walk. So there I was, with my daypack on, walking down Jaffa Road with my hiking boots on, the ones I bought for this, my one-year journey abroad (my plan was to travel in Europe and/or Australia after my dabble in Israel). When I got them, I didn’t know that Israelis don’t do hiking shoes; no, the ubiquitous sandal goes from along a street, up a mountain, and down to the beach. So as I walked in my hot and heavy, but extremely sturdy, shoes, I couldn’t help but be excited by being in Jerusalem. After all, every year, twice a year, at the two Passover Seders we would pray “Next year in Jerusalem,” and here I was—I was in Jerusalem. I felt a sense of accomplishment that I had brought myself to this place, or that things had brought me to this place, or that my $3,000 inheritance from my Grandmother had enabled me to be in this place. It wasn’t a spiritual feeling, but a sense of fulfillment, of positive purpose.
Unfortunately, I cannot lie and pretend that my memory is as clear as a bell and that I remember all of the details of that walk that I took 26 years ago, so I will skip right ahead to arriving at the Wall. I was wearing shorts (ah, the good old days before thigh-humiliation got the better of me) and a tee shirt, so I think I was given a piece of fabric to wrap around me like a long skirt so that I would be properly dressed when coming close to the holiest site in Judaism. (I think most of the other sites are gravesites. Fun religion.) Unlike others who protested or complained about this infringement of their rights, I did not oppose, it seemed right to me. After all, I would never go into a synagogue to pray dressed in shorts. Besides, I didn’t have to wear a cardboard kippa like the boys were given if they didn’t have a head covering.
I remember noticing how many more men there were there, this was easy to do since there is a divider: men’s side and women’s side. So I could easily get to the front, get to the stones that are all that is left of the great Temple built by King Solomon and destroyed, yes, by those who would have Jews not be Jews. But let us not delve into history. God’s spirit is supposed to be in the Wall, and people put notes in the cracks between the stones with their prayers to be heard by God. I, too, put a paper in, although I do remember doing it subconsciously. I stood there, waiting for my bolt of meaning or whisperings of divinity into my ear, but, alas, I am a mere woman destined to walk the ways of my life without the surety of being touched by God or even of God's existence.
There were men there trying to identify the young Jews among the tourists and to bring them back to the fold, or into it for the first time. They had the boys reciting prayers, which, I guess, were meant to make them see meaning and make them think, Yes, this is what has been missing in my empty existence, I will commit myself to learn about Judaism and join the Yeshiva (religious school) that these men are from. I resisted them, which wasn’t too hard since—shock—they seemed more interested in the boys than the girls. They did offer a place for Shabbat (at different people’s homes) to present a picture of religious life and meaning to the waiverers.
Luckily, I had a place to stay. I spent the weekend with one of my third cousins (of Tzfat fame), where I recall I was not required to do any dishes, and so I offered. They were gracious hosts, the young religious couple with all of their “B’ezrat haShems” ("Thank the Lord"s) and beautiful table with all of the homemade foods—even the challah (a special bread). But it was not enough to sway me from my path of uncertainty.
When it was time to head back to the kibbutz, I think I took the bus, but I can’t remember. Maybe I walked back, gave myself some more time to absorb the feeling of Jerusalem (and feeling of being incapable of figuring out how to deal with a city bus), and my own feelings of being on an uncertain path amongst so many people who were so sure of themselves and their paths. At least I had sturdy shoes for the journey.