By Kirstyn Brendlen
At 7:45 a.m., Izzy came over the mic from the front of the bus and said, “Okay guys, time to wake up.” We left Haifa at 6 a.m. after I had hauled myself out of bed and into my most modest dress at 5:30 a.m. It was only 10:30 p.m. at home in New Jersey, an hour earlier for my sister in Chicago and I texted my dad and sister that I was already awake, and how insane it was that their days were still happening.
The bus stopped outside Jaffa Gate on the west side of the Old City. The square just inside was bustling. A small stage was being set with speakers and lights for a festival later that day.
Two young Orthodox boys – brothers, about five and eight or nine – walked toward us in an alley in the Armenian quarter. Our group was mostly female and the boys swerved to the other side of the alley, staring at the ground. It was the first, but not the last time, this happened in Jerusalem. I knew that some Orthodox men would avoid touching or speaking to women, but many in Jerusalem cross to the other side of the street or use their hands and hats to cover their eyes as we pass.
Izzy brought us first to King David’s Tomb – the first time that day that we had to split into two groups – male and female. King David was the man who slayed Goliath, built the First Temple and united Israel. We filed in through two separate doorways on opposite sides of a low wooden wall. King David’s casket was at the front of the room, covered with a white and gold embroidered cloth. We could just see the tops of the men’s hats through the latticed top of the wall and their low voices, singing and praying, filled the small stone room.
In the courtyard outside the tomb, just in view of a statue of King David, Izzy broke the news – he isn’t really buried there.
“In the Middle East, faith is more important than fact. So, King David is buried in there. But we know this building was built by the crusaders – so he’s not in there.”
It was the first of two times I would visit the Western Wall – we split, again, into two groups, men and women, to go through security. Our male security guard came through the women’s line, flashing a card that justifies the gun strapped around his waist. I pinned shut the slit in my skirt and pulled out a scarf to cover my arms to the elbow.
The Western Wall is the last remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans thousands of years ago. Now, what lies beyond the Wall is the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam and one of the biggest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
We shuffled into the women’s side, about half the size of the men’s, split from each other with another low wall. Rows of white plastic chairs faced the wall, filled with women praying, reading the Torah and chatting quietly. Hundreds more women were lined up against the wall, their foreheads tipped against it while they prayed. The cracks in the stone are filled with prayers written on wadded-up pieces of paper – they say this is where God is still listening.
I stayed back from the Wall – I don’t pray, and even taking up some of the precious space where I stopped a few feet away feels almost disrespectful. A friend of mine goes up to press her hand against the stone, ducking her head. I turned away as it dawned on me again that for many people, this is one of the most important moments of their lives, and how strange it was that I could just stand here and watch.
Walking away from the Wall when my friend is done, we noticed a group of five or so women backing away from the Wall, not taking their eyes off it. We stopped and decided to follow suit, backing slowly into the wider courtyard behind us. Later, Izzy will tell us that it’s a sign of disrespect to turn your back on the Wall.
When we left, climbing a set of stairs away from the Wall, our guard was chatting with the social coordinator, Moshe.
“I don’t even know why people bother to come here anymore.” He turned back to me and said, “God left Jerusalem a long time ago, right?”
Some people think the physical presence of God left Jerusalem when the Second Temple was destroyed. In his poem “Jerusalem,” Israeli professor and poet Shlomo Vinner refers to the city as “Jerusalem, the former address of God.”
The second time I went to Jerusalem, my class had just taken our final and we were all scattering. We gathered at the bus stop – a few girls are heading into Haifa to spend the night at a friend’s apartment, some to Tel Aviv and some to the airport. I was heading back to Jerusalem to meet my mom and my stepfather for the night before we all headed home. I went to Haifa’s central bus station, where a security guard saw me and my 60-pound suitcase and made me show my passport before I went in. The station was buzzing – it was 5:00 p.m. on a Thursday, the end of the Israeli workweek.
In line for the bus, I watched the people in front of me step forward to throw their suitcases into the compartment. I was struck that despite the security at the bus station, there’s no one to supervise the suitcases. Just before I got on the bus, a young IDF soldier walks over to the line and asked me if there was still room on the bus. I shrugged, suddenly panicked that there wouldn’t be. She pulled her phone out of her bag and set it on the ground in front of me while she tossed her camo backpack into the bus. I stared at her phone, thinking, “oh my god, if you put your phone on the ground like this at Port Authority it would be gone in a second.”
The next evening we headed back out to the Western Wall. It was nearly sundown on Friday – the start of the Shabbat, Judaism’s day of rest – from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. We were not sure where to go when we headed out of the hotel, but it seemed like everyone in the Old City was heading to the Wall, it was only a matter of who to follow. We chose a man with his two young daughters in matching dresses and thick white tights, then we lost them and followed some somber young men in their long black coats.
That night you can hear the crowd at the Wall long before you got there – everyone was celebrating.
Past the metal detectors was a huge group of IDF soldiers, both in uniform and out, marked by the guns still slung over their shoulders. They were all singing, led by a man in slacks and a button-up in the middle of the circle and joined by some of the children.
The same was happening in both the women’s and the men’s sections – women were holding hands in circles and dancing, the men had their arms slung around each other’s shoulders. A security guard flagged down my mom when she tried to take a photo – no electronics are allowed at the Wall tonight.
A few weeks before I had thought the Wall was beautiful, but I was distracted by how hot it was and by trying to figure out what was acceptable and what wasn’t. That night the feeling was almost electric, everyone there was celebrating their faith and thanking God at the Wall for their families. Even though I don’t thank God, I remembered a professor talking about Israel with so much love and pride and thought that everyone there must have been feeling the same way.
At the hotel, every table was set with bread and wine for each family to say their Shabbat prayers and nearly every family did so – a moment of quiet before the kids start begging for dessert from the buffet. It was my last night and the first time I had ever seen a full Shabbat dinner and the first time I had watched each table pass around a loaf of bread to rip off a piece each, but it was just another Friday night there, nothing out of the ordinary.