Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Up Against the Wall

We live all of ten minutes drive from the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. How many countless thousands of Jews around the world would just love to be so close? So you probably think we visit all the time.

Well, think again.

I don’t mean to be flippant. It’s just that, the truth is, I can’t remember the last time we came a calling.

It’s not for lack of affection. The Wall never fails to take our breath away. It is every bit as inspirational as you see on the webcam that broadcasts from the site 24/7.

It’s more a matter of taking things for granted. Do New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building on a weekly basis? How many Parisians climb the Eiffel Tower more than once in their lives? If even that much?

And we’re not the only ones. Israelis in general don’t visit the wall. Heck, they don’t even visit Jerusalem. There’s something about our twisting, curving one-way streets that change names every few blocks that simply terrifies Tel Avivi’s.

But, still, this is the Western Wall we’re talking about. The Kotel as it’s reverently referred to in Hebrew.

So when my ten-year-old daughter Merav came marching in from school one day announcing that her class was going on a field trip to the Old City, and that parents were encouraged to tag along, how could I say no? Besides, it seemed like an excellent opportunity for some meaningful father-daughter bonding.

Except that we were surrounded by 28 of Merav’s classmates.

I was about to get a real education.

Now, let me say up front: they’re good kids. It’s just when you set that many kids free in a relatively non-structured environment, it’s difficult to maintain decorum. Especially with boys.

Oh, did I mention that a majority of Merav’s classmates are boys?

As we made our way towards through the historic Old City, the boys reverted to purely pre-historic behavior. As if hunting in packs, they swarmed into every shop, every café, every open space on the short trek from the bus parking lot to the Western Wall.

They fingered the tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) in the religious articles store.

They pulled volumes off the shelves in the book shop and sniffed at the scented candles in the gift corner.

They hoisted napkins out of their holders in the Glatt Internet Cafe, never stopping to consider how the term glatt – which is normally reserved for the how kosher a cut of meat may be – could be applied to the web (did it only allow access to modestly dressed Internet sites?)

Or the seeming idiosyncrasy that there was something as modern as an Internet Cafe smack dab in the middle of a 3000-year-old city.

Now, I normally try to avoid making sweeping generalizations, but it seems that Israelis in general have a certain – how shall I say it – gusto, a zest for life. And it starts at a young age.

Better that we nurture in our kids a healthy sense of curiosity. That’s got to be more meaningful than having them explore the Old City in an atmosphere of detached boredom.

By the time we finally made it to the Wall, the boys were in a near frenzy of curiosity.

I was in charge of taking the boys to the men’s side of the Wall. They were supposed to daven (pray) near the back. But the boys were far more interested in getting up close.

Can’t argue with that.

I saw that some of the boys were indeed praying, others were kissing the stones. A couple had pulled out pen and paper and were writing notes to be stuffed into the crevices of the wall.

This is the custom and the Western Wall is filled with small folded sheets of paper with requests of all types. You can even email the wall and for a small fee, your request will be printed and stuffed for you.

Then I noticed that a small group of Merav’s classmates were huddled together, taking a great interest in some hidden object in one of the boy’s hands.

I moved in closer. He had a wad of notes that he had swiped from the Wall. He was reading.

“I ask for better sex,” read the first note.

“I want my girlfriend to…”

“That’s enough!” I barked, snatching the notes and banishing the kids from the frontlines.

It was time to head back to school anyway.

But how could I be angry. A part of me wanted to stay and read the rest of the papers I held in my hand. I had always wondered what people asked for. But I never would have dared…and I know that anyone who has ever placed a note in the Wall is probably reeling in shock, knowing what really happens sometimes to their missives.

I carefully placed the notes back in the rock crevices. As I turned to leave, though, I felt a certain bonding with those ten-year-old boys. An odd satisfaction and realization.

Apparently, the curious kid in me was alive and well, too.

We really should visit the Wall more often.

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