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At the Kotel
By Debra Elias
With a sweaty brow and tired feet, I reached the metal detector entrance of the Kotel , the Western Wall, the last remnant of the second Temple. As a first timer to Israel, my expectations were that the moments before I entered this most sacred place I would feel something, excitement or a sensation of awe, but I felt nothing.
The night before I had cried twice upon arriving in Eretz Y'srael (Land of Israel). The first time was as the plane touched on Israeli soil. The tears were both relief that nothing happened on the flight to Israel and shear joy that I had arrived in a place I had only seen in pictures and my dreams. As I disembarked from the Alitalia plane, I ached to get down and kiss the ground like the refugees and immigrants did, but I was afraid the Catholics from Rome, who arrived with me, wouldn't understand.
The second incident occurred shortly after we landed. The Israeli woman at passport control asked, "What is the purpose of your trip? Have you ever been to Israel before? Where are you staying? How long will you be here in Israel?" By the time the questioning was over and my heart stopped pounding from fear that my answers were going to be wrong and she'd send me home, she said the way a mother welcomes home a child, "Welcome to Israel." My eyes filled with tears and a tingly sensation overcame my body that I had made it to the Holy Land, my Homeland.
So here I was, entering the place I have faced my entire life while praying, and nothing was happening, not even the slightest twinge of emotion. My friend and travel companion, Eve, and I walked toward the Wall, camera in my hand ready to snap at anything that caught my eye, and there it was, this artifact, this most special place and nothing.
I approached the women's section, taking pictures wondering when I was going to feel something. Before I actually went over to the Western Wall, I took out my spiritual guide to Israel and read the passage I was supposed to on arriving at the Kotel. I walked quietly to the crowded Wall and put my hand on the limestone. And I felt nothing. I then took the notes out of my pocket and stuffed my most intimate thoughts and feelings into an already full hole. And I waited for something to happen, a feeling to come over me, anything, a tear, a smile, but still, nothing.
I backed away from the Wall and put my knapsack on a chair and pulled out my reform prayer book. As I was reaching for it, I noticed two twenty-something-year old girls taking pictures of each other in front of the Wall. Like the Wall was Mickey Mouse and now they had proof that they had been there. Didn't they understand that this was the last remnant the Jewish people have of the great second Temple? Didn't they realize that they prayed toward this Wall? Didn't they grasp that being in this place is what people wait their whole lives to see and feel, that it could not be as trivial as a tourist attraction? And I sat, prayer book in hand, feeling nothing.
I prayed. I asked G-d for goodness in the world. I asked for peace and love in my life and in the lives of everyone. I asked for the normal things a twenty-five year old desires, a nice Jewish husband, a good Jewish life, a happy and healthy life for my parents, friends, relatives, strangers.
I prayed from the prayer book that I used while teaching 5th graders. Not the prayer book I pray from at home because I wanted G-d to know that teaching Jewish children was still important to me and, I still felt nothing.
I finished, backed away from the Wall, and started taking pictures. Kodak moments of men and women touching the Wall, praying, kissing it, feeling like they can now die peacefully because they have been to the Kotel and still I felt nothing. I clicked the camera on the Wall itself and on its surrounding area, I even took a picture of Eve waiting for me and as I walked towards her, ready to leave, I was disappointed in myself and in the Wall for not feeling anything.
"So, are you ready for lunch," she asked as we approached the steps leading to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
I nodded my head yes and on that step high and far from the Wall I took one last look at the Kotel before leaving. And it hit me, like the Angel who stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. A feeling, an overwhelming sensation that I was standing at the Kotel, I transformed into a 6th grader.
I was now the student who built a styrofoam replica of the Western Wall in the basement of her house with her father. An almost Bat Mitzvah girl, who never went to Hebrew school, a Jew who was proud of being Jewish, who always felt a connection to Israel but never comprehended why she had those feelings. I won first prize for my Kotel , with its brown spray paint and notes in the wall. And all of a sudden I was standing in front of the real thing and I didn't know what to do, didn't know how to feel.
In some way, I knew I was there representing everyone in my family who would never make the journey to Israel. My grandmother, Ellie, who was at that moment, sitting in Brooklyn thinking she is too old to make the trip. Grandma Irma who doesn't feel the way I do spiritually, yet yearned to travel to the Holy Land, but is now physically unable. And for my grandfather, Bernie, who died when I was seven and is now in the next world. In my heart I know he is proud that his granddaughter grew up to be a Jew, an observant, conscientious Jew.
And especially for my parents, who will one day make it to Jerusalem, who wanted very much to go with me, for them I felt gratitude, acceptance and love for raising me as a Jew and for supporting my Jewishness even though it goes way beyond their own.
And I couldn't move. The tears just streamed down my face as I realized that I was the first of my close friends to be in Israel and I thanked G-d for making me wait. For 10 years my heart ached to reach this place but many things stood in my way. And in the way only G-d knows, He knew that I would not truly appreciate Israel, Jerusalem, and the Kotel until now, until I found my own place within Judaism.
My world, my life and my heart are forever changed. I now know what it feels like to have a dream come true and to feel G-d. And in my synagogue at home, when I close my eyes as I pray, I picture myself standing in front of the Wall and I am filled with joy and peace of heart.
from the October/November 1999 of the Jewish Magazine
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