4:40 AM: I wake up and eat breakfast before the crack of dawn, so I won’t have to worry about it after davening. My original plan is to daven vasikin at a local shul before going to the Old City. Then I learn that the first bus out of my neighborhood starts its run at 5:30 and reaches my stop at 5:40. With sunrise at 6:38, it would be entirely possible to make it to the Old City, go to the mikveh, and daven vasikin at the Kotel, which I had never done. I immediately decide to go for it.
5:35 AM: It’s a very cold winter morning. The bus stop is right in front of the Sefardic shul where I would have been a half hour later if not for the change of plan. The lights are on and it’s already well populated, with more people arriving by the minute. I was pleased with myself for getting up ridiculously early on a quiet Sunday morning for a special spiritual experience, but these guys do it every day. Still, I’m going to the Kotel and Har Habayis, and it’s especially special.
5:40 AM: I expect the bus to be empty and to zoom towards town, but it’s already full. I don’t even bother looking for an open rear-facing seat. I feel sorry for all these people who have to get up so early to run to work, and fortunate that I have the opportunity to be going to Har Habayis.
5:51 AM: I get off the bus near King David Street and hurry toward the Old City. If I can be out of the mikveh between 6:10 and 6:15, I should be able to make netz at the Kotel.
5:57 AM: Mamila is a ghost town. I marvel at the fact that this fancy pedestrian mall is literally deserted, yet the Kotel is open for business at all hours for those seeking more than materialism and entertainment. The last cafe on the strip has the lights on and two workers are wrapping pastries. Again, I feel fortunate, and maybe a little special, to be doing what I’m doing at this early hour.
6:00 AM: I enter the Old City, walking briskly and very cognizant of the impending sunrise. An old Jewish man catches a ride with someone on his way to the Jewish Quarter, and a young man wearing tefillin goes left through the empty Arab market on his way to the Kotel.
6:05 AM: I pass a large group of women heading to the Hurva Synagogue. The Jewish Quarter is wide awake with people heading to sunrise prayers. I still feel special about it, but far from unique.
As I hurry past the main square, a man coming the other way asks me if I’m going to the mikveh. Yes. He tells me that the machine where you pay to enter isn’t working, and only people with memberships can manage to enter. I wonder if he’s an agent of Satan trying to thwart my plan and ignore him. No way this isn’t happening.
6:07 AM: The machine is not working. A father with two children and another man are also trying to get in, without success. An older man exits and deposits ten shekels in the box – someone with a membership had let him in, and he was leaving his payment on the way out. No one with a membership is around now and we wonder what to do. Precious time is ticking away. If I’m going to make netz at the Kotel, I need to be there in fifteen minutes, tops. And if I’m going up to Har Habayis, I need to get into the mikveh.
6:10 AM: After they make some phone calls, I tell our little ad hoc group that we’re just wasting time. One of them knows of a Belzer Hasidic yeshiva somewhere in the Arab Quarter, and they have a mikveh. We decide to go there.
6:12 AM: As we walk there, the father asks me where I’m from. I tell him and proudly add that I’m going to Har Habayis for the third time. He seems impressed, then tells me he’s from Lod. That’s about an hour away. I wonder what time he and his kids got up to make the drive. I also wonder if he was just pretending to be impressed to make me feel good.
6:15 AM: The door is locked, and although one of the men found out the code from his contact, it’s not working. Instructions are written on the door that if the code is not working, press hard on a certain button on the number pad, then enter the code again. It still doesn’t work, and we can’t find anyone to help us. We’re out of time and decide to just go to the Kotel, where we split up.
6:20 AM: My backpack has many compartments. The guard at the checkpoint opens up the front compartment and doesn’t find anything dangerous. He pats the back of the backpack, which is bulging thanks to the large towel I brought with me. “Mikveh?” he asks. Yes. He doesn’t open it and waves me through. I think he’s Druze.
6:25 AM: The Kotel is crowded on this cold winter morning before sunrise, to the extent that it’s hard to find a chair (I don’t, as all the dry ones are taken). There are dozens of minyanim, many hundreds of men, women, and children of all types and stripes already there and well into their morning prayers. Did they even sleep at all? Are they human? I feel like an amateur and am honored to be joining them, barely in time to make netz even after skipping parts of the tefilla that I will say later.
7:10 AM: I am privileged to read the Torah, and I also get hagbah for the second Torah (it would have been quite heavy on a different day). A group of yeshiva students is loudly singing Hallel nearby. They are really into it, and many people are watching them and enjoying it.
7:30 AM: I trek back up all the stairs to the Jewish Quarter to try the mikveh again, and the machine is working now! Har Habayis is happening!
7:50 AM: I arrive just as a group of Jews is being allowed up. The security guard politely tells me that I have to wait for the next group. Jews are only allowed to ascend Har Habayis at limited hours, and only in supervised groups. They are surrounded by security forces, not so much to protect them but to insure that they don’t pray demonstrably or smuggle a dangerous article like a religious text that would anger the Muslims and start the next world war. God forbid we should do anything to anger the Muslims! Even though they are always angry, if a Jew sings on Har Habayis that would make them all REALLY angry, and that simply can’t be allowed to happen. If it sounds sad and absurd, it’s because it is.
I do have to acknowledge that the guard by the waiting area was extremely polite and friendly. This is a dramatic change from the way things used to be, before I had ever ascended. As more Jews have begun visiting our holiest place, the situation and the way they are treated has improved. There is still a long way to go, but we’re on our way, and it’s only going to continue.
8:10 AM: I’m still waiting to go up. Jews who arrive have to wait in this small area, where someone has left nuts and dates for us to enjoy. The guard politely informs tourists that these are specifically for us. At the same time, streams of non-Jewish tourists are going up continuously, without supervision, while we are forced to wait indefinitely so we can be shepherded up by security. While this is obviously disgusting, in a way it’s also encouraging. The Muslims are afraid of us going up and praying, because they know the significance of that. The Christians and tourists are basically irrelevant to them. But when Jews come home to claim their rightful place, they know the charade is over for them. They know. And so do we.
8:15 AM: A woman brings a small tour group to the waiting area and shows them the model Bais Hamikdash and maps of Har Habayis. The tour guide is Jewish but clearly far removed from her roots. If her group is Jewish, there is no outward evidence to that effect. She tells her group that today is a special day because it’s Rosh Chodesh, and every Rosh Chodesh for the past thirty years a group of women called Women of the Wall have been going to the Kotel. They wish to be able to “pray their way”, she tells them. “Cool!” a young woman in the group says repeatedly, excited by this band of heroic underdog women fighting for their rights. The tour guide continues by stating that Orthodox Jews throw garbage at these women, and the rabbi of the wall, an “Ultra Orthodox Jew”, is preventing them from “praying as they want to pray”.
I’ve heard enough of this poison, and I speak up that the tour guide is telling them lies and propaganda. No one is against women praying. No one’s throwing garbage. You can’t go to a church or a mosque and just do whatever you want. I can’t go to Har Habayis and pray as I want to pray, and that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. One of the women in the group turns sharply and stares me right in the eyes. I stare right back until she looks away. Not a word is exchanged between us.
One of the other religious men waiting tells me sadly that this tour guide is causing great damage with her words. I reply that we have to speak up and tell people the truth, not be ashamed. The real women of the wall are the hundreds of anonymous women praying there now, not a small fringe group of whiny rabble-rousers, who arrogantly proclaim themselves to be representing Jewish women and their rights. They should be called Whiners of the Wall.
As the tour group leaves to ascend (we’re still waiting!) I say to the tour guide, “Shame on you for telling slander and lies about Orthodox Jews.” She turns to me and dismissively replies, “Chodesh tov,” which, loosely translated, means “eff you”.
8:30 AM: We finally get to go up. Paid employees of the Jordanian wakf observe us from a distance and record us with their cell phones throughout our walk. I make sure to stand proudly and look right at them, while thinking “chodesh tov“.
8:35 AM: Everyone knows why we’re really going up to Har Habayis, but there is an unspoken agreement between all parties that we don’t make a big deal about it, and they don’t make a big deal about it. Even the Arabs watching us are mostly bored and distracted; it’s the Israeli guards who pay the most attention to us, telling us when we can start and stop walking, regulating our pace, making sure we all stay close together. I wish someone would send them the memo that we won the war, God brought us home, and we shouldn’t be afraid to own it.
Most of us daven quietly as we walk, while others look around and think their thoughts or share words of Torah (which is permitted; only Jewish prayer frightens the occupiers and is therefore curtailed). A Kohen in our group discreetly blesses us. A longtime regular on Har Habayis is there with his son, who is getting married tonight. We all wish him a hearty Mazal Tov while sneaking in prayers for the new couple, among other things for Israel and the Jewish people. Someone quietly starts to sing Hallel and is stopped by a guard, who tells him “no singing”. Can’t start a world war over that, after all.
We reach the Eastern Wall (compare to the Western Wall), where we are allowed a few minutes of quiet prayer and words of Torah. At the end, one of the men quietly recites Kaddish. One of the guards says something to him, and the man replies that it’s not a prayer. The guard allows him to continue. The man has a sly smile on his face and so does the guard.
On the one hand I’m thrilled to be on Har Habayis and doing all that I am permitted to do. On the other hand, it’s disgraceful that we have to engage in cat and mouse to do even this much.
Overall, though, it’s an uplifting experience filled with authentic Jewish spirit on this seventh day of Chanuka, and I know that somehow, some way, we are well on our way to the ultimate redemption. All around me are true Jews, full of life, spirit, and genuine connection to our people, our tradition, and our destiny.
9:30 AM: After we leave Har Habayis, a few of the men fully prostrate themselves right outside the gate, where it is safe to do so without igniting the world and jeopardizing Israel’s existence. We go our separate ways. I return to the Kotel area to retrieve my backpack, which I could not bring with me to Har Habayis. It’s even more crowded now, and I can only think to myself: “Sleepyheads!”
That’s my little diary of a quiet Sunday morning at the Kotel and Har Habayis.
So, how’s galus?
- Al-Aqsa Mosque
- Israel: Jewish and Democratic
- Israeli Politics
- Israeli society
- Jewish Education
- Jewish history
- Jewish Identity
- Orthodox Judaism
- religious-secular divide
- Temple Mount
- Ultra-Orthodox Jews
- Western Wall
- Women & Judaism
- Women and the Wall