Scenes at the Kotel

Alex Braver
October 24, 2013
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1.  I was a freshman in college, on a trip to Israel with my family.  I had a K-6 Jewish day school education but was not religiously observant.  The Kotel felt huge, overwhelming, full of meaning.  It seemed like the center of all Judaism, the holiest place on earth.  I felt the enormity of the place and its history.  I felt compelled to write a prayer, I don’t remember for what, and stick it between the cracks as I’d learned one was supposed to do ever since grade school.  I felt uncomfortable with the gender segregation, the fervently-praying orthodox men–like I was a tourist treading on someone else’s property, even though I also felt like the space was my own.

2.  The beginning of my year in Israel as a 2nd-year rabbinical student, I had just moved into my apartment a few days earlier and was wandering the old city with my roommate.  The wall was a destination I had to see, but I was not sure what to feel returning to it after almost 7 years.  The plaza felt smaller than I had remembered, the space less imposing.  By this point I’d become a much more traditionally observant Jew–my Jewish life was operative in a day-to-day way that I could not have imagined it would ever be when I was a college freshman.  And for me, Jewish “meaning” permeated so many other things in my life–books I’d read, classes I’d taken, synagogues I’d prayed in, teachers I’d studied with, institutions in Boston and New York, my own personal thoughts and my own religious practice–that thinking about a place embodying all of that felt a little anticlimactic.  I prayed the afternoon prayer while touching the stone, but couldn’t feel the electricity I’d felt years earlier.  I wrote a short note with my intentions for my year of study, and left.

3.  Shavuot, when many Jews stay up all night learning Torah as a reenactment of the revelation at Sinai, a classmate and I wandered the old city looking for study-sessions to sit in on, but were mostly disappointed by what we found.  Tired and cold, we were drawn to the Kotel around 3 in the morning.  We sat in the back of the men’s section, surrounded by others who were deeply engaged in the singsong recitation and memorization of Talmudic texts.  We took out a book of Hassidic interpretations on the weekly Torah portion and read it together until the sunrise egalitarian minyan was ready to meet at Robinson’s Arch, the small, inconveniently located archaeological dig on the far side of the Kotel plaza that abuts the far end of the Wall.

4.  Rosh Chodesh, I came to see Women of the Wall (and many of my friends and classmates) in prayer on the women’s side.  They gathered in a large circle at the back of their smaller-sized portion of the Kotel prayer space, singing loudly with joy and conviction, and to drown out the jeers of others who loudly made their opposition known.  I stood outside the worship area, in the tourist plaza, behind a wall with a metal grating that now served as a sort of ironic reverse mechitza, keeping the male supporters separate from their female colleagues on the other side.  I tried to pray the morning prayers with tallit and tefillin, tried to maintain concentration on the words and to keep pace with the women who were praying on the other side of the barrier.  But I could barely hear them, could barely see them, and could barely maintain my focus with all the commotion around me.

5.  Doing some last minute souvenir shopping in the Old City before returning home to the states, I felt like I ought to say goodbye.  I went to the Wall to pray the afternoon prayer, then left to sit on the stairs on the far side of the plaza, facing the wall, trying to take in the entire scene–the worshippers, the tourists, the Dome of the Rock, the Haredim, the plaza, the security, the tzedakah-collectors, the plants growing between the cracks in the stones.  I didn’t feel like I’d figured out what this wall meant to me, only that I wanted to remember what it felt like to stand before it.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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