The Western Wall, along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, make up what I consider to be the Big Three holy high points in my self-created interfaith tour of Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the world’s most important Jewish shrine. It’s a retaining wall of the structure Herod built to be the Temple Mount, and near where the remnants of the Second Temple, which was destroyed when the Romans wrecked Jerusalem in 70 A.D., are believed to be.
My boys were so excited to pray at the Wall. It was the high point of our Jerusalem trip for them. They’d heard about the Wall from family, friends, and their teachers for years. They compiled a list of prayers and wrote them on white slips of paper to place in the Wall’s cracks, in accordance with tradition. Their excitement was contagious, and as we entered the plaza in front of the Wall for the first time I found myself a little in awe. To get to the Wall, my husband and two sons entered the men’s section while I found my way alone to the women’s, following along with everyone else the Orthodox rules set by the rabbis who govern the Wall, which require gender separation. I grabbed a shawl and looked around with something like admiration at the devout women around me, their heads bowed as they approached the Wall.
I reached the Wall and stood before it. For a moment, just being in its presence moved me. I felt at peace and went with the feeling, praying for my family’s health and being thankful for the opportunity to be at this place and spend a whole summer in Israel.
But the feeling lasted only a moment before a nagging loneliness shoved it aside. What are my sons doing right now? I wondered. Now that they are up close to the Wall, what are they feeling, praying, doing? Are they excited? Respectful? Moved? Are they holding my husband’s hands, placing their hands on the Wall, or standing with their hands at their sides? Have they stuffed their prayers in the Wall? Are they looking at the men praying around them, or are their heads bowed?
And, more fundamentally, why was I standing there alone? Why wasn’t I instead enjoying a peaceful, maybe even prayerful moment with the three people who matter most to me?
I turned my head to get a sidelong glance through the slats in the fence that separates men and boys from women and girls. I needed to know how my sons and husband were experiencing this holy place and what it meant to them. It was no use: I could not see a thing. There were neither enough slats in the fence nor space between them for me to get any view of my family at all. And not being able to see my own children experience the place that meant so much to them sucked both peace and pleasure out of the being at the Wall for me. Anger seemed like an emotion wholly inappropriate to the location. But it was what I was feeling. Silently, and following tradition, I backed away from the Wall without turning my back to it. I tossed the shawl aside and returned to the plaza to hear my sons’ visit to the Wall recounted for me.