23 May 2015 14:51IST
I had arrived in Jerusalem two evenings prior, carrying a duffel bag by the handles since its strap had broken during my transit from the base. I was weary, lost, and the beginnings of a caffeine headache had me desperate for a sandwich and espresso. Yet the scene astonished me. Arriving at the Central Bus Station following a forty-minute transit from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem was chaotic contrast unlike anything I had ever seen.
Religious Jews everywhere among a modern setting; an ancient city with the gung-ho bustle of the West. Exiting the station, mobs of pearl-colored apartments on curving hillsides could be seen in the hazy distance. Hundreds of people in the streets before me, of different colored clothes and families, mostly Jews yet of different movements, all going and coming from the light rail I was about to board.
An old woman sitting on a stone bench nearby begging in Yiddish, “GELT! GELT?”
I was white-knuckled from the journey and wanted nothing more than to sit down, sync the gps on my phone with a café’s WiFi, and find the apartment I had rented out for the night.
One of the light rail workers kindly pointed out that the street I was looking for was just past a park called Gan HaAtzmaut. Before going to Gan HaAtzmaut, I shouldered my way to a coffeehouse on Rehov Yafo, had a reasonably priced espresso (five shekel!), and found my gps marker in the center of Jerusalem. I found Gan HaAtzmaut in no time.
Staggering with my luggage past the green hills and Italian-esque sidewalk shops, what a change in scenery from home, I saw families having cookouts and young lovers perusing the sidewalk wineries and souvenir shops, beautiful Israeli women with headscarves and Milan-style sunglasses, numerous feral cats, when ah! Rehov Gershom Agron.
I walked down Gershom Agron Street and located the alleyway where on I could access my apartment. I found the humble lavender-metal door, which opened to a beautiful outdoor patio. I located the house keys beneath an ashtray, unlocked the glass door, and stumbled into an interesting living space with Bob Marley carpentry and a body mirror with sex-line and escort business cards tucked into its frame. The scene was comical, and at the same time, the place had a Bohemian sophistication to it; the space itself had to have been hundreds of years old.
The communal area was a grouping of floor sofas with half-melted candles, ashtrays, empty bottles of Goldstar and the faint scent of marijuana. My room, which I found in a bordering hallway, shared a space with a kosher kitchen, divided only by sliding door.
The bedroom was romantic; white plaster walls with curving stone ceiling, a bed with salmon-colored sheets, a desk space with a window looking up into the sky, and a bookshelf with a sliding case housing works ranging from Hebrew fiction to modern sexuality. I could rest easy here.
HA’IR HA’ATIKAH – THE OLD CITY
The sun was rapidly setting as I left the apartment to discover the Old City for the first time. Before however, I stopped at a coffeehouse to cap the evening with an espresso.
The shop was quaint; a beautiful olive-skinned barista with perfect American accent, confessing to my surprise that her English was not very good, and serving me the darkest coffee I’ve ever had. A Russian sitting at the bar proved to me why this was one of the most unique, kindred places in the world; especially for the Jews.
“Where you come from?”
“America. This is my first time in Israel.”
“First time? Why do you come here, why here?”
It’s a true trait of an Israeli that they will appear discouraging to you from having any ties with the land or pursuit of the faith, citing valid reasons, such as elaborating a Jew’s strict lifestyle or the anti-Semitism which consumes beyond its borders, why any sane person shouldn’t convert or make aliyah. But after much excavating and perseverance, the smiling Russian explained to me why he too loved the land so much; his mask of what appeared to be self-questioning came off to reveal a man just like me, driven by a mysterious passion whose enigma dissipates the first time you set foot in the land.
He shared that he is a practicing anthropologist with a deep love of the ancients, and what better place could you live in for such a profession? After jotting down some books the Russian recommended, the fetching barista behind the bar pointed in the direction of the Old City, and I left.
I enter through the Jaffa Gate. Tower of David looming over the Old City walls, I am awe-struck as I climb the numerous stairs leading to the Armenian Quarter. The streets are quieter at this hour, I wonder why? The stones of the city eclipse from a beautiful bright gold into an earthly brown, the golden blue sky slumbering into a deep purple.
I am anxious to see the Wall for the first time; in my mind I recall the Israeli paratroopers, my dream unit, who fought in this maze of alleys not even fifty years ago, to allow someone like me to witness this without the threat of death.
And after following this twisted road for a few minutes, down steep glazed steps from where I watched Jerusalem fall asleep, I catch the bright glare of the Wall. Is this it?
For a moment I think I can see the rusty steel dome of Al Aqsa, but I am waiting to confirm the sight with the unmistakable Dome of the Rock. And following these dangerous steps down, slowly, the first glimpse of the Dome has me standing still, the green-lit slabs of the Kotel hoisting the landmark on its shoulders.
I have to walk through security twice, as I forgot the dozens of shekel coins in the small pocket of my shorts. I gather my materials, wallet, cell phones, camera, backpack, and enter the courtyard of the Kotel, the Western Wall.
Children are bellowing together in song, and stampede in my direction as I walk dumbstruck toward the towering stones. I notice the gender barrier between the two sections of worshippers; and it isn’t until I find myself in the women’s section that I realize there is no access gap in the Mechitza partition; I have to reenter on the men’s side, somewhat embarrassed.
I shoot a few photographs but almost feel wrong doing it.
Enter the plaza before the Wall. Only forty-eight years ago next week in June, Paratroopers had entered the now-extinct Moroccan quarter, on whose bulldozed ghost I stand, whose houses and shops once crowded along this strip of sandstone Wall, the Wall being the closest structure to the ancient Second Temple.
The Paratroopers led by General Motta Gur were the first free Jews to access their holiest site in two thousand years. Non-religious kibbutzniks in camouflage uniforms removed their helmets in awe and prayed as the Chief Army Rabbi blew into his shofar hesitantly, unsure of angering the Jordanian snipers pick-pocketing the Israelis as they desperately retreated from the Old City.
The soldiers “who don’t cry” had eyes swelled with uncontainable tears. Motta Gur stood atop the Wall on the Temple Mount, yelling for his lead communications officer to fashion the Star of David atop the golden Dome of the Rock, an action prompting then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to utter over radio the famous words “remove that flag immediately. You’ll set the Middle East on fire.”
But a fire indeed burns here. Thousands of years of history, years of my own desire before me, and I stand alone and unsure of how to go about this.
And years of suffering and hardship, which I will elaborate on as this journal progresses, has hardened my heart; vivid emotions of my younger self live in the memory of a man who has not himself cried in years, whose passion remains as dry as a desert.
Covering my face, out of place amid the Orthodox black and white, siddur absent from my hands, not a lick of Hebrew prayer on my tongue, I uttered the only blessing I knew in Ivrit, and cried; I kissed the Wall and left.