At the Western Wall, you don't see the past. It's two thousand years old, but when you're here, you only see the present and the future. You see the present in the spirit and the togetherness of the people here now, and you see the future in that our people will always be here—just like the Temple was destroyed yet this wall still stands, our people have been destroyed yet we still stand. Any tour guide will take you here and talk about how old this wall is—how it's such a big part of our past.
You don't see the past at the Western Wall.
That's what this man, an Orthodox Jew, a Chabad volunteer, told me on my second trip to the Western Wall. Three campmates and I stood semicircled around his miniature bookshelf of siddurim-to-be-lent, listening with attentive wonder that only a gaggle of teenaged American tourists would devote as he recited anecdote after anecdote and yet maintained their profundity. We stood on the outskirts of the chaos that from an aerial view probably resembled the inner workings of a beehive: things of near indiscernibility, traveling, following the path of the hive-mind, fulfilling their duty. To someone who's never been, the sea of black hats may seem like a sort of reverential mosh pit, and that to even glimpse at the base of the wall you'd have to knock out a chasid and bear a broken rib. But it's unlikely that you'll end up touching anybody. There is a bubble around you, and a bubble around those praying. You can get there.
It was the second time I'd spoken to this Orthodox man. Two weeks before, my campmates and I had visited the Western Wall. Then, it was nothing like a Friday night; we were nearly the only ones there as we entered, wearing our yarmulkes, and said "hello" to the stones. As we strolled toward the barrier to exit, feeling fulfilled enough, the man called to us, and warmly coaxed us into practicing our Judaism (this is the mission of a Chabad volunteer: to help people to practice their Judaism) and so we sheepishly put our arms forth and let him and his colleagues wrap us in tefillin. I watched as a Californian expat spiraled my arm in worn leather. It was unnerving to meet a person who appeared so foreign yet spoke so familiarly.
I approached the wall and sang the shema. I felt a magic in my veins. I kissed the wall.
I'm a Jewish man. I feel Jewish, and I like Judaism. But to say I follow a loose interpretation of Jewish practice would be an understatement. I believe in love and I live my life accordingly, and that is my personal, reformed subset of Jewish belief (it's also an Iris DeMent lyric). So my existence as a Jew does not include a strong connection to the words of prayer. But then, in that moment, it did.← back to blog