Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (The Kotel)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

Today would mark our last full day in Jerusalem. On the elevator ride down an older couple made eye contact with me. Rather than saying "Good Morning" it was "Guten Tag" which reminded me how much this was an International hotel. I nodded acknowledgement as they kept softly speaking in German.

When we reached the lobby I wished I'd tried my very limited German by asking them from where they came and telling them my grandmother was from Klagenfurt, in southern Austria.

We started out by going to the Western Wall (The Kotel in Hebrew), the most holiest site in all of Judaism. Gone were the long lines to get through the two inspection points we experienced two days earlier.

The main courtyard area is divided into four parts. There are two main prayer areas immediately in front of the Wall, separated by men and women. A common area runs the full length behind the prayer areas, separated by a three foot high way. Finally, there's the museum area below several arches to the far left, also cordoned off by a small wall.

We would be visiting the underground tunnels first because groups needed to schedule by reservation. While waiting for our time we had to opportunity to use the restrooms and freshen up.

As we gathered by the entry doors the museum person checked his reservation list. However, he said there was another group booked for our time. Needless to say Doron wasn't very pleased as it had been booked months before.

After they sorted things out they allowed us in. Upon entering there was a long passage way heading off to the right below the arches which were visible from the outside. Nearing the end of the corridor Doron stopped to make sure everyone was with our group. Where was SH?

Apparently not everyone heard the call for our group, but nobody noticed until we' entered the tunnels. Doron told us to wait here while he went to check, saying they'd had people get lost wandering the tunnels.

All accounted for, we continued further into the tunnels to a model of the Temple. An elevated gallery provided seating while Doron gave us a tour of what the old temple may have looked like. It was really cool because he could change the look of the model with a flick of some switches so that specific parts were highlighted.

We next stopped at a huge stone. Doron had me go to the far right side and indicate with my hand where the seam was. He then had RV do so on the far left side, so the group could see just how big it really was (44 feet long, weighing 570 tons).

After walking along the Wall we made a small zigzag, only to be surprised by the sight of several older women praying against the Wall. Doron said that the women had permission to come and go to this point, and some consider it the best place to pray as it was the closest you could get to the inner sanctum of the sanctuary.

Part of me would have loved to have taken photos of the women in prayer because it was such a unique sight. However, it's one of those things I would have thought about because I wouldn't want to intrude on the moment.

Continuing on, we stopped by Warren's Shaft, which had a glass plate, a person could look down. It basically revealed older stones from the collapsed parts of the Wall, knocked down by the Romans.

Doron told the men we had to wait here, taking the women down and around a corner.

After they came back I asked CG what was going on down there? Apparently, it was a women's gallery, close to the Western Wall. What was strange is it was blocked off from the men's section with glass, though she said you could see the men in prayer.

We now wandered through the narrow tunnels that were dug next to the Wall. Wooden scaffolding was above and to our left, holding back dirt to allow for this walkway. I felt sorry for anyone even a small bit claustrophobic.

Part of old Herodian Road was uncovered during the excavations, including a couple tall columns. Doron pointed out this would definitely have been one of the roads at the time of Jesus.

The last part of our underground experience came as we wandered through an old aqueduct, before finishing up at the Struthion Pool once again.

Rather than retrace our steps underground, we now wandered through the Old City, taking the Via Dolorosa and other alleyways. At one corner there was an older Arabic women with boxes and boxes of fresh vegetables. Sure wish my camera had been working at that point.

One of the funnier sites were a group of Arabic women, in their full black Abaya, having an animated conversation while looking at a vendor selling women's lingerie. They didn't sound like they were upset about it. It was more along the lines of how impressed they were. Really funny.

After several alleyways, vacant except for Palestinian graffiti, we came to the security station we'd seen when coming off the Temple Mount. Passing through deposited us back in the Western Wall courtyard.

TS said we would have ten minutes if any of us wanted to say a prayer at the Wall. We went to our respective side of the prayer courtyard. Despite having over two-thirds of the space, the men's side was fairly spartan of prayer goers when we were there.

Some men were standing by the Wall with those small leather boxes tied to their heads and/or long leather straps wound around their forearms. These are called Phylacteries and the boxes contain little papers inscribed with Torah verses. For some, finely ordained yarmulke coverings on the crown of their head were not enough. They also employed prayer shawls. Some had their face's visible. Some completely draped over.

With a leather bound Torah in front of them, they'd sway side to side quickly, or bow back and forth, while facing the Wall. Supposedly this blurs everything else around them so as to be more one with God.

Other men had set up chairs with huge copies of the Torah on lecterns, obviously planning on staying for quite awhile.

My search for a San Jose Sharks' yarmulke defeated, I had to dawn one of the one-size fits all paper ones the Western Heritage Foundation made available for people needing head covering. It didn't fit very wall, but served its purpose, though it blew off once, sending me scurrying to cover my naked head.

Several of us placed our hands on the Wall while saying prayers. Additionally, I had written a small note to tuck in the Wall. It was amazing to see how much paper was folded or wadded up and stuck in the cracks despite young rabbis being in the process of cleaning it out every year for the next week's Passover. (The notes are buried rather than simply incinerated).

Later on CB would say the women's side are fairly packed, and what was funny was that some of the women praying took a moment to grab chairs to put up against the dividing wall so they could peek over at the men's section. There were no men doing the same from our side. (Case of Forbidden Fruit again?)

Here, in the USA, we joke about the Fashion Police. There, in Israel, they are very real.

When visiting the Western Wall, women are to wear long pants or dresses which don't expose the knees, Shoulders and biceps should be covered, be it by shirt or scarf, and the head is kept covered at all times. ED and GC found out just how real the Fashion Police were as a short squat women, in military-like uniform, came over insisting they cover their shoulders.

They both adjusted their scarves. However, GC apparently didn't do a good enough job for this woman's taste, who felt it was her job to actually start grabbing GC's scarf and adjust it for her, all the while being very verbally tenacious.

Understandably, GC got annoyed by all this pawing. The crazy thing is we were all standing in the common area far away from the actual courtyard prayer sections. We left before the woman could return and chastise anyone else.

(Ironically, in 2009  a woman was arrested when she went to pray at the Wall wearing a traditional prayer shawl, and reading from the Torah, actions forbidden to women by ultra ultraorthodox Jews, especially in Israel.)

On a way back to the bus I had another whimsical observation. I'm sure most people are aware that military service is compulsory for all Jewish Israelis once they turn 18, no matter whether they're men or women. (Muslims and Christian Arabs are exempt). There was a squad of girls, probably not more than 18-years-old, standing by.

They were dressed in full military combat uniforms, carrying pistols and on their hips, or with Galil assault rifles slung over backs. If you took the military hardware away, and dressed them normally, you couldn't tell them from any normal high school cheerleaders, purely based on all the makeup they were wearing.


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