Ever wanted to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem? Here’s how…..
On an August Monday a while ago, my darling wife Yehudit and I organised at the Kotel in Jerusalem, the final part of the Barmitzvah of our son Sha’uli Gordon. The experience is seared into our memories…..
08:00 Monday 13th Av: A coach takes our recently-awakened Barmitzvah party from Ramat Rachel, the kibbutz hotel at the high southern edge of Jerusalem, to the Kotel Ha’Maravi in the Old City.
Sha’uli has survived his Barmitzvah on Shabbat Nachamu; leyning sedra V’Etchanan in the morning and the start of sedra Ekev at Shabbat Mincha. I’d been droning on at every Shabbat meal, and the party on Sunday, about the spiritual climax awaiting us on Monday morning, when Sha’uli would reprise Ekev at the religious home of Judaism – the Kotel, adjacent to the Temple Mount. Humbly, I’d kept emphasising that we were about to connect with 2000 years of history, amidst the sights, sounds and atmosphere of holy, old Jerusalem.
Hoping to avoid the main heat of the middle-eastern, height-of-the-summer, day, our sleepy guests board the coach for the 30-minute early-morning trip through the rush hour traffic to the old city; everyone equipped with a bottle of “Eden” water. Just a short walk from the Kotel plaza, we are released from the coach into a busier and more crowded scene than I’d expected – but then, this is the first Torah-reading weekday after the fast of Tisha b’Av; so the Kotel has to accommodate the pent-up demand of three week’s worth of Barmitzvah celebrations.
We need to commandeer a prayer-desk at the rear of the plaza so that our ladies (segregated from the men) can still see, hear and participate in the davening (prayers). Phase two of operation “Shokel at the Kotel” is now launched: we send ahead a specialist platoon of my wife’s Israeli relations (Rabbi-paratrooper, reserve-major, and two commandos) to seize and occupy a strategically suitable position. The rest of the team, dear Barmitzvah, Rabbonim, grandparents, parents, relatives and friends, amble through the security checkpoints and onto the plaza. I find that, in the already over-crowded site, we’re in exclusive possession of a perfectly located desk. To this day I don’t know how the platoon did it.
09:30 Slightly behind schedule, our party spreads out around the desk and the rear wall. We put on tephilin and talesim (prayer shawls) and start shacharit (morning prayer). We’ve certainly got atmosphere: heat, light, and sound, but no smell – for historic reasons associated with Tisha b’Av, the Temple sacrifices have had to be sacrificed.
It’s already far too hot; the water is as vital as our prayer books. However, in the intense sun my head tephilin are acting like an halachic heat-exchanger; the straps are softening and stretching and the headbox, lubricated by perspiration, is slipping, gently downwards off my kippah-covered, bald head.
Meanwhile, the noise is deafening. The plaza is packed with Barmitzvah groups (that old safari joke is no joke) and to the sound of the praying is added the high-pitched ululating of the Barmitzvah mothers and grannies like some never-ending Teruah (sound of a ram’s horn). Someone tells our chazzan (cantor), Michael B, who is renowned for the strength of his voice, “You should now say Chatzi Kaddish” – he replies, “I just did!”.
With the Amidah concluded, it’s time for Kriat ha’Torah (reading of the Law). My wife is shocked to realise that we’ve left the Barmitzvah sweets in the hotel. Her prompt resourcefulness now makes up for her (our) forgetfulness; she sees that actually there’s plenty of sweets on the plaza – they’re being thrown about by all the other Barmitzvah groups – we’ll just recycle them! So we assemble a second commando; our younger kids, equipped with talit bags, go over the top into the crowds. Problem solved – this must be the first Barmitzvah where the children get to collect the same sweets twice.
I’ve decided that having distributed mitzvot (various honours)appropriately around family and friends on Shabbat, all the Kriat ha’Torah mitzvot would today be allocated to Sha’uli’s young cousins and friends. Our guest Cohen has agreed to absent himself temporarily at this point, so we have maximum flexibility. I’ve allocated Rishon to slightly-built Ephraim C, whilst beefy Yehudah L will have Hagbah (lifting of the heavy Torah scroll). This arrangement produces an unexpected problem: Ephraim is a Levite and our resident Dayan (my father-in-law) decrees that as we’re not using a Cohen, we also cannot use a Levite! OK, OK – Ephraim and Yehudah swap roles and I utter a precautionary Misheberech (blessing) for a successful Hagbah.
We retrieve a Sefer Torah from the tunnel by the northern corner of the wall and plaza. The scroll is unwrapped and …. there’s no Yad (pointer) with which to point to the words. My wife’s brother, Dudi, with the same resourceful genes as my wife, quickly contributes his quality retractable ballpoint pen as a substitute (a “Cross” pen l’havdil). I’m in the prompt corner ready to assist Sha’uli, but it’s now even hotter and my tephilin are about to arrive at the bridge of my nose. With panic-induced clarity, I realise why Cohanim cover their heads with talesim when giving the priestly blessing – these were their parasols. Likewise I now shelter my tephilin with my talit.
Sha’uli leyns (chants the reading from the scroll) perfectly, we re-scatter the sweets over the plaza, the Hagbah stays clear of the ground, my tephilin stay clear of my nose, and we add our Mazeltovs to the hubbub.
11:00 We retire triumphant from Judaism’s spiritual home, to a restaurant in a nearby quarter of Jerusalem for a well-earned brunch.
Let Jerusalem be the “J” in your joy and try your own “Shokel at the Kotel”.