Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Things My Shaliach Never Told Me: Aliyah La'Regel

You may recall that, inspired by Sarah Smile, I was searching for something "different and special" to do on Shabbat. I loved everyone's suggestions. In the end -- this was so bashert -- I was talking to someone on Thursday and he mentioned that he and his wife live right outside the Old City, and anytime I want to come for a Shabbat meal to just call . . . so I told him about the "different and special" challenge, and got a Shabbat meal invitation literally across the street from the Old City! Bishvili nivra ha-olam, indeed.

Friday night, just as Shabbat was starting, I headed out for my personal "Aliyah La'Regel" to the Western Wall. I took Emek Refaim Street all the way up, and then walked under the footbridge that goes over Hevron Street . . . and there it was, the Old City, rising up like a Phoenix from the ashes, on a hill over yonder. Between me and the ancient wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, Hevron Street wound around, with parks on my left and a yawning valley on my right. The street was busy with cars going very fast. I got a weird feeling, almost like vertigo, being the only pedestrian in this panorama-- it was like a picture postcard of "Jerusalem at night"-- the cars and the electric lights and the City of David ahead of me. Somewhat surreal, except that it is real. I was practically dizzy from the juxtaposition of the Old and the New, and from my proximity to this, the holiest place on the planet. The epicenter. Biblical and spiritual Ground Zero.

I walked up Hevron Street and then to Chativat Yerushalayim Street, taking some comfort from the presence of a few yeshiva students walking in the same direction - at least I wasn't alone on this uphill climb, this street that hugs the millenia-old center of the center of the center on the right, but has speeding cars missing me by just a few feet on the left.

Through the Jaffa Gate, and from there I found my way easily to the Kotel, despite my usual disorientation in the Old City; I just followed the foot traffic of all the religious Jews who were going the same place I was. They took me through the Arab marketplace for the first time in my life (note for my parents: The Arab marketplace runs between the Christian and Armenian Quarters, not through the Muslim Quarter, and it was full of Jews going to and from the Western Wall). I noted the stores that were still open selling beautiful scarves and dishware, making a mental note to return some time to go shopping.

The Kotel on Friday night is just as spectacular as readers had told me. I missed a lot of the "action," I think, because I wasn't there when Shabbat started. But it was just incredible, being there, and realizing that for my hosts and so many others, the Western Wall is their synagogue. Even for me, it's only a 45-50 minute walk. Why don't I go more often?

[I should also note here that yes, I bumped into someone I know. Remember Andrea F, the reader from Baltimore who took me to a dinner and gave me magazines and an Enya tape? Well, she was there. I promised to mention her on the blog so her husband could shep nachas.]

The prayer experience wasn't as moving for me as it usually is, because I was late (of course) and didn't want to keep my hosts waiting. But I said a prayer for my friend who recently had a mastectomy, and for a lot of other people and things, too. I kept thinking when you live in Jerusalem, the Kotel can be your shule. Incredible.

I met with my hosts -- a young couple and 2 children in a double stroller-- at a pre-arranged spot amid the crowd, along with 6 other guests, a few of whom they'd "picked up at the Kotel." They live between the New Gate and the Shechem Gate, and took us on a walk through the Muslim Quarter on the way home, which made me nervous and was rather unpleasant. (I later asked the wife whether it doesn't make her nervous too, and she said it does, but that her husband insists on it -- I didn't ask why -- and it's one of the compromises she's made for him. She added that it was also a lot easier than going "up the steps" through the Jewish Quarter, with the stroller. Note to potential suitors: Sorry, I'm not willing to put myself in physical danger for you, no matter how much I might potentially love you. But, um, I won't nag you if you leave the cap off the toothpaste, OK?)

Dinner was very nice and, for me, entertaining. A real "kiruv" experience, with 4 boys who had been at Aish Hatorah for 4 months trying to convince 2 young tourists from Australia to come to Israel and learn in yeshiva. They spoke with so much passion that I practically wanted to enroll myself. But whenever I thought they were going a little overboard, I served as the voice of "spiritualism and idealism tempered by reason." The two children were adorable. I got to hold the baby and he was awesome. My new little friend.

I ended up walking home by myself. Once again I took a busy street that hugs the Old City walls (Hatzanchanim Street). The sidewalks were deserted. It was just me, the fast-moving cars, and the ancient wall. At that moment I totally understood why people get "Jerusalem Syndrome"-- the phenomenon of people coming to Jerusalem and losing their minds. The so old juxtaposed intimately with the so new . . . it was too much. [Later, I asked a friend whether she'd experienced the same feeling when she visited Athens. She said that it was almost as incredible . . . but since the ruins in Athens are kept more as museums, it doesn't feel as bizarre. Apparently there you don't have cars and streetlights and people living normal lives with cable TV and the internet, right next to the ancient buildings and artifacts.]

It took me 45 minutes to walk home. It was downhill all the way, literally, which is appropriate since I was also coming down from the holiness and the vertigo. I took a different route that I knew would have more pedestrians: King Solomon Street to King David Street, and then I said goodbye to the Biblical sites and Biblical street names, and walked through the German Colony on to home. My home. In Jerusalem.

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