Two memories stand out to me amongst all of my visits to the Kotel, of which there have been more than I can remember . At age 15 I was traveling through Israel with a Zionist youth group and as nearly every teenager visiting Israel, I was brought to the Kotel. I had been there once before a couple of years prior, but rather than just scribble a little note on a slip of paper and shove it into a crack, this time I wanted to try and pray. There was one thing – I didn’t really remember how to read Hebrew from my Bar Mitzvah training, I didn’t know how to navigate a siddur and I wasn’t sure I believed in God. I can still feel the cool stone against my forehead and the smell of the dusty air. I can still recall the sounds surrounding me fading away as I focused with all my heart and soul on connecting to a wall. Today it seems silly, but then it was so very real and powerful. And then, like being suddenly woken from the most pleasant dream, I was torn from my solitude by a tap on my shoulder. I can still see the face of the short man, very broad black hat and yellowish stringy beard.
He beckoned me to follow him. In the northern corner of the Kotel is a dark and stuffy alcove and as I followed him out of the sun and into the shadows of the little room I felt as if I was about to be initiated into some ancient rite, what it was I did not know. The mystery was romantic and intoxicating He spoke to me in Hebrew, I did not understand him. He motioned something with his hands on my arm, I still did not understand him. He rolled up my sleeve. He began to unwrap black leather straps, I recognized it as tefillin but it was something I had never done before or seen up close in my secular upbringing. I was right! I was going to be initiated into an ancient rite! A mix of awkwardness, trepidation and excitement flushed over me. He placed the tefillin on my arm and tightened it until it almost hurt. He wrapped the strap down my forearm so tight I could feel my arm losing feeling. He shoved a siddur in my hand and pointed. I stared at him blankly. He pointed at the words on the page. I stared at the page blankly. He frustratingly shook the book in my hand. I stared at him blankly. He muttered some words in Hebrew I did not understand. I stared at the page blankly. He motioned as if he was pulling something out of his mouth. I started at him blankly. He looked annoyed and loudly and assertively barked “barukh atah adonai!” I repeated. He finished the blessing, and I repeated each word after him. He then grabbed the cardboard kippah a guard had given me when I approached the Kotel off my head and pulled my head towards him. He placed the tefillin on my head, tightly and adeptly wrapped my hand in a whirlwind of soft black leather and we responsively recited the next blessing. He then beckoned with his hand as if I should keep going. I stared at him blankly. He tore the siddur out of my hand, vigorously flipped through pages and shoved the siddur back in my hand. I stared at him blankly. He frustratingly tapped on the page. I stared at the page blankly. He looked annoyed and loudly and assertively barked “Shema!” I said the opening words of the Shema. He beckoned for me to continue. I pretended to read the rest of the words. After what felt like an eternity I pretended I had finished and I looked at him. He proceeded to unwrap my hand, undress my head, and quickly remove the tefillin from my arm. I smiled and said “todah rabbah” and turned to walk away. He grabbed my shirt. I turned back around and he put an open palm in front of my face. I stared at him blankly. He looked annoyed and he frustratingly tapped his open hand with his other fingers. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a couple of coins, truth be told I have no idea how much was there. It could have been a few shekels, it could even have been a few agarot. He stared at me with cold eyes. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a few more coins and turned to walk away. He grabbed my wrist and his cold eyes locked onto mine. I reached into my pocket and gave him every coin I had. He released my wrist and walked back into the shadows of the alcove. I felt confused, taken advantage of, scammed, invaded, accosted, even abused. As I tried to understand what had just occurred, I slowly walked through the plaza to my tour group which was reassembling and I grew increasingly angry. I would have rather had sat in silence with my forehead pressed against the cool stones. Ancient rite, indeed.
Fast forward 13 years. I couldn’t sleep. I had been in Jerusalem for two months during my first visit to Israel in over 10 years, had visited the Old City on a number of occasions and had decidedly avoided going to the Kotel. I would be leaving the country in another month. I was no stranger to sleeplessness, but this was a challenging bout. I couldn’t lay in bed. I got up, left my apartment and stood in the garden courtyard outside the building. At 3am the city was as quiet as I had ever heard it. I wondered onto the street slowly and aimlessly walking. I had nowhere in mind to go. I found myself walking towards Montefior’s windmill. I stopped to sit on a bench near some bushes staring at the medieval walls of the Old City glowing in their yellow lights. I wandered down the winding footpath into the valley. My pace quickened and, like a tractor beam, I found myself racing up the pathway towards the citadel, quickly making my way past the ramparts, through the gates of the city and as if I was late for something important, I rushed through the narrow alleys until I found myself near a security checkpoint. I crossed through, stared at the wall from above and stopped dead in my tracks. What on earth was I doing here? I did not want to be there. I took a turn, found a dark and quiet place to sit, and I cried. Suddenly, as if it was a dream or in my imagination, I could hear the sounds of men singing drifting through the air. I followed. I climbed some stairs and sat a distance from the group of young yeshiva students singing niggunim in the predawn hours of the morning. After some time, something moved me and I made my way down to the Kotel.
The plaza was nearly empty. I eyed the tiny alcove in the corner half expecting to see a short man with a broad black hat and a stringy yellow beard waiting for me. I slowly approached the stones, rested my forehead against the wall and enjoyed the uninterrupted meditative moment I had wanted to have all those years ago. When I opened my eyes, the sky was beginning to lighten. I walked to the alcove and took a set of tefillin off of a cart. I put them on, by this point in my life comfortable and familiar with the ancient rite, I davened the morning prayers with a group of men nearby, I removed the tefillin, put a few shekels in a tzedakah box at the end of the cart and walked home. I felt as though I had made a tikkun, that I somehow rectified that painful memory.
Truth be told, I still think of that man often. But rather than sit with the anger and dissatisfaction I was left with after my experience with him, I now think of him with gratitude. For better or worse, it was with that man in that place where I shared my first experience with tefillin; he did, in fact, initiate me into an ancient rite. No matter what complications I have in my relationship with the Kotel – its politics, its symbolism, its significance (both real and imagined) – to me it will always be that place where I first put on tefillin with that man.email print