I find a white plastic chair halfway along the tiled floor of the women’s section and sink into it, crossing my fingers that I don’t inadvertently exude too many telltale signs of my tourist-from-America status. Forcing the rumble of construction from the plaza behind me into the background, I pull out my Bible and let it fall open, watching the pages flutter down to part ways at Psalm 84:
How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord…Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
Two sparrows flitting overhead pause and land on the ground a few feet away, pecking at some leftover crumbs before flapping away to crannies halfway up the wall.
I tilt my head back to gaze at where the wall’s edge juts abruptly against the cerulean sky, a few stray white wisps of cloud scudding beyond the top row of ivory bricks. Closing my eyes, I try to imagine away that highest layer of small, gray Mameluke stones and picture the clouds replaced with rough Roman faces leering over the side in 70 C.E., their helmets flashing streaks of burnished bronze as they push and strain and try to pull down the wall.
But it’s no use. The intrusive droning of construction behind me, the chattering tourists, the yelling children in the plaza, all prevent my imaginative reverie. I snap my eyes open in frustration, somehow unable to tap into that emotional cloud of wonder and amazement that enveloped me when I first walked off the plane at the beginning of my 10-week stay in Israel. Unfortunately, after two weeks in Jerusalem, the automatic wonder I had at almost every stone, every patch of ground, is starting to wear off.
Much as I’d like to, I no longer gaze around me with incredulous amazement, awestruck by my communion with humans from thousands of years ago. I no longer shake my head at the stoic passengers in the Egged bus who don’t seem to realize the history we are in the presence of or the famous footsteps we are riding in. Now, my travels through the city are tainted with the mundane thoughts of everyday occurrence and the attempt not to make awkward eye contact with everyone on the train.
I glance at the wall again, at its medley of multicolored squares. The weathered Herodian layer on bottom is stitched together with the newer Umayyad stones higher up and the topmost gray ones of the Mamelukes, each layer threaded with the gray and brown thread of stony veins and spotted with growths of green foliage here and there like stuffing come loose and spilling out of a quilt — a patchwork quilt of old and new.
Old and new patched together, like Jerusalem itself. I walk up to the wall and lean against it, waiting my turn behind a crowd of other women to rest my hands against the stone and try to mentally comprehend the years my fingers are stroking. But again, the crisp newness of the papers stuffed and folded into the cracks are too distracting to let me slip into a historical reverie. The flecks of blue, yellow, and peach post-it notes, white paper with red pen in shaky cursive Hebrew, scraps of graph paper torn from a geometry notebook and rolled into balls, are all wadded, curled, folded, and stuffed together in-between the rocks as a defiant mortar pressed in place by thousands of hands not old but new, a sealant pressed into the network of cracks leading upward like some visual confirmation of the direction of the prayers pushed and prodded and tucked into these seams. The new holding the old in place, keeping it what it is and making it live on.
Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, God of Jacob.
A flock of little boys pounds through the plaza in a game of tag —brown eyes grinning out of dark faces, payot bouncing up and down in the ecstasy of their play. They’re pulled onto the laps of their socializing mothers, then wriggle away again to dart off among the haphazard array of plastic chairs, shrieking as they nearly crash into the pillars or the fence between the women’s and men’s sides of the plaza.
I laugh. They are no different than the little boys who must have run alongside their families treading up to this temple to pray thousands of years ago, chanting the psalms of ascent at Passover as they made the trip up the hill to sacrifice. And to pray, like the women with their hands placed on the wall all around me, with downturned heads nodding, bobbing, rocking, eyes closed or fixed on prayer-book pages, murmuring to themselves in a solemn chant that mingles with the shouts from the plaza behind.
It’s too much to ask that modern construction engines not drone behind me, or even that I retain the wonder of my first few days in Israel. Rather than regret the intrusion of living life and the overlap of ancient and modern throughout Jerusalem, I should embrace it. Instead of shaking my head in disbelief at those on the bus who don’t seem to fully appreciate their surroundings, I should shake my head at the miracle of their presence — at their continuation of the chain of human life here in the Holy Land.
The children run and the women pray, while other women slowly back away, clutching prayer books and each others’ hands, linking and forming a communion with those other women thousands of years ago who made the same trek and ventured to this same wall to go up to the temple. I sigh and settle back into my seat again. My hopes at slipping into a state of amazement have vanished, but have left me with newfound hope for the wonder of everyday life all around me — life still gathered around this wall just as it was years ago.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.
It is the faces of these boys and these women that I’ll remember for years afterward when my journey to Jerusalem is at an end — the living, breathing faces at the Kotel that make this old Herodian stone live on. Perhaps I’ve lost the starry-eyed wonder I had when I first arrived in
Israel three weeks ago, but the living life in the Holy Land has a different wonder all its own, one I’m still only discovering.