In living color

I walk onto the Western Wall Plaza on the other side of a cloudless noon, as the brightest part of the Jerusalem day is already fading. The wall’s rocky strata that hold the stories of shed blood and tears seem mute and implacable, but they are actually stones that beat with human hearts, as Nomi Shemer wrote. The colors of the Kotel, the Western Wall’s Hebrew name, change in relation to the sun’s wax and wane. They make me think about what it would be like to walk inside of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings, which capture the church’s façade at different hours of the day. I realize that these Kotel stone colors are all variations of the same color, a uniform, sun-light gold.

I watch ultra religious men and women move across the sex segregated sections of the plaza, their alternating, endless, pious blacks and white uniforms appearing to wave in the breeze like swaths of flowing cloth or unfurled flags. These are flecked with the occasional blue or red of a tourist’s shirt or jacket; yet they are largely a bi-chromatic matter that beckons to me, a dull dresser, with the enticing but naïve possibility that life, like dress, can be framed simply in black and white. I imagine them bleeding into each other in a washing machine and emerging grey, the dull and disconcerting color of real life defying certainty.

I wonder at the energy of the brigade of young, armed Jewish male soldiers filling the plaza, who struggle in relative quiet to conform to the rigid formation patterns barked over a loud speaker by their commanding officer. He rehearses them for their impending swearing-in ceremony that will mark their final transition into military life. He is scolding these fighting men for not falling into line, like a sour school marm herding a crowd of unruly boys. Their monochrome green fatigues and reddish brown army boots could be mistaken for a field of slightly swaying trees, their trunks and branches pulled between the freedom promised by the wind and the firmness promised by the rich earth enclosing their roots. I am struck by the interplay of those green fatigues and red boots: the color of new life reaching up, the color of blood spilled and reaching down to the dark burial ground of earth where they or their enemies might enter untimely homes.

I wander past the plazas along Tel Aviv’s Tayelet, the relaxed ribbon of miles long promenade that hugs the coastline, gently coaxing the city and the sea toward and away from each other in a slow, almost erotic dance. The Judean prophet Habbakuk imagined stones crying out from the walls of a house filled with oppression. Along the promenade, the colors sing out from the facades of the storefronts, attempting, like the sirens, to distract the walker, the biker, the runner with the promises of endless pleasures. These colors abhor binary opposition. They are a living Jackson Pollock painting, joyous splashes of mad, multicolored paint split into a hundred thousand many-hued rivulets pursuing their own paths down the canvas. By their sides, an endless march of people wearing and walking in their own living colors makes its way up and down the coast. The endless blue of the sea calls out quietly from its waves to the passersby to return to the place from which we all crawled at the chaotic dawn of monochrome creation.

I worry as I watch the lightning silver fireworks display of shoulder launched rockets brighten the slowly dusking sky over the Syrian town of Quneitra, where Syrians and their government dance toward death. I am standing on top of Mount Bental in the Golan Heights. In the valley below adjacent Mount Avital, IDF troops fire rounds of ammunition and tank mortar in military exercises. This is as close as I have come to war, its simulation on my right, its execution on my left. Someone bitterly half jokes, “Oh, those aren’t missiles being fired, it must be a wedding in the town.” If I shift my focus into fantasy, I can almost pretend I hear the boom and see the fiery comet tails of the Roman candles that arc up then fizzle downward to celebrate the happy couple.

I wait and listen to a young Israeli couple scoffing with nervous dismissal at the civil war happening to our east. “That battle isn’t our problem, we’re here for the sunset.” Over our shoulders, the Golan day is fading, as the sun’s ball of fire burns a million dying embers of tranquil, multicolored light over the clouds. Hers is a cyclical drama of death and rebirth, encompassing all births and deaths in living color. We watch her descend, as we tightly clutch the promise that tomorrow morning she will return and the world will reawaken.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.