I’m a rationalist. I’m not into mysticism or spirituality or New Age stuff. An “intellectual,” I like to fancy myself. Yet there I was in Jerusalem one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, putting two kvitels, little notes, into the crevices of the Western Wall. One was a petition for a friend; the other a personal plea. I laughed to myself as I pressed them deep into the cracks, knowing that like untold others, I somehow ascribe special powers to that Wall and the missives it bears. I had done this before and will do it again. So much for rationalism.
I was in Jerusalem to attend a wedding, which turned out to be an extraordinary event, exuberant with song and dance that felt especially joyous for being in this city. Song and dance also permeated the Shabbat morning service at the Wall honoring the groom, but I was not part of that. I sat on the women’s side of the Wall, while the “action” took place on the men’s side. The mechitza, or divider, that separates the two is so tall and tight that the only way to see the service is to peek through its slats or — as some young women did — stand on chairs and look over it. We could hear the groom lead part of the service and follow the prayers and Torah reading if we listened very carefully.
It was so hot at the Wall in mid-June — 110 degrees in the shade, someone said, except that there is no shade. Drinking the bottled water I had brought with me and trying to ignore the blazing sun, I mentally renewed my commitment to the Women of the Wall.
For more than 20 years, a group of women have attempted to hold prayer services on the women’s side. They have not sought to integrate the Wall, but to create a community for women, just as the men have their community, and they have been thwarted time and again by the ultra-Orthodox. Hearing women’s voices lifted in prayer instead of straining to hear men’s would change the tenor of the experience at the Wall. Women would feel less excluded. We might not even mind the summer heat as much.
Of course, the heat in Israel is not confined to the Wall or the outdoors. Every discussion we had about the political situation became heated. I have been to Israel in many difficult times, including intifadas and terrorist bombings. But I have never seen Israelis quite as edgy as they are now. They feel so isolated, as one government after another has found an excuse to delegitimize them, with the latest pretext being the Gaza-bound flotilla episode. (Incidentally, Israelis on both the right and left defend Israel’s absolute right to stop ships heading toward Gaza.) They also feel vulnerable, particularly to the threat of a nuclear Iran. For the first time ever I heard people speak equivocally about the future, as in “if Israel will continue to exist….” The fear of Iran and its mischief-making is real, and the sense that nobody, including the United States, has adequately addressed that issue is also real, and frightening.
We went to Paris for a few days after Israel, to relax in that beautiful city. On our minds, however, was something we had learned in Israel. French Jews in significant numbers are buying houses and apartments there, not to move into right away, but as a hedge against the growing anti-Semitism in France. If Israelis question their future, French Jews rely on it.
On the way home I tried to sort out the jumble of emotions I carried with me from this trip. When will the attacks on Israel cease? I wondered. When will Israelis simply be able to enjoy the fruits of their incredible achievements? Their technology soars above most any in the world. Their economy remains strong while others falter. Their young people, like the bride and groom we celebrated, radiate creativity and commitment to the land and its culture. When will the world give them their due?
I remembered sitting at the Wall during the Shabbat service and watching the birds that fly around the area. For a moment I forgot the heat and high mechitza, and I imagined the birds swooping into the crevices and carrying all the notes tucked away there up to the heavens. I remembered thinking that despite the country’s many problems, things will work out, as they have in the past — for the struggling new state in 1948 or after the devastating Yom Kippur War in 1973. Like the messages of hope people send up high, this is a land of optimism and promise, a land whose people have overcome the greatest challenges, a land where miracles are not unknown.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”
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