Reflecting on 10 days in Israel – all but one in Jerusalem and the other in Hebron – several recent experiences shared with my son will remain embedded in my memory. On the first day, following our tradition, Jeff and I went to the Kotel, the towering Western Wall that once enclosed the Temples on the mount above. The ancient Temples are long gone, replaced by the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque. But the sanctity of this place for Jews, and its enduring meaning through millennia of Jewish history, remain undiminished.
Daveners reciting morning prayers and tourists taking selfies with their backs to the Wall came and went. As the sun – and heat – rose we went inside the corner arch that once provided a bridge to the Temple Mount. With its high ceiling and acoustic echoes, it has long been my place of refuge from heat, cold, or rain. There I have watched, listened to, and reflected on the millennia of Jewish history that the Kotel has absorbed and projects.
That morning the massive enclosure was unusually crowded. Jeff and I walked to the far end and sat behind a circle of two dozen young boys (perhaps 7 years old), identically dressed in white shirts and dark pants, wearing black kippot, with their long pais dangling almost to their shoulders. Led by their bearded Hassidic rabbi, they davened enthusiastically and loudly, their voices piercing and echoing through the high-ceiling chamber. Once their prayers ended they stood and danced joyously in a circle – singing, holding hands, pais flying. It was exciting and inspiring to experience.
Several days later, joined by my grandson Cole who studies at the Gush Etzion yeshiva, our guide drove us to Hebron. Looming before us was the towering stone Machpelah enclosure built by King Herod, marking the burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Having been there before, I was inspired to write a history of the Jewish presence in Hebron long before Moslems claimed Machpelah for Islam. Following the Baruch Goldstein massacre (1994), Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, yielding to Moslem demands, excluded Jews from the magnificent Isaac Hall except for Shabbat Chaye Sarah (when I was twice there, once with my son) and half a dozen other Jewish holy days.
Looking at Jacob’s tomb, behind steel bars, I was deeply moved. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my grandfather Jacob, who I never saw (and left behind only one photo). Born thirteen years after his death, I was named after him. Now the circle of time was closed.
Back in Jerusalem, on a very hot day, we took our farewell walk through the Old City. Along the way to the Jewish Quarter Jeff spotted a sign pointing to the Kotel Katan. Climbing some steps we were surprised to encounter an extension of the Western Wall, perhaps twenty yards long and not quite as high. One Hasidic Jew was davening. Delighted with our discovery, we stood silently for a few minutes before leaving for the Kotel Gadol.
In the Jewish Quarter Jeff spotted a shop with a window display of beautiful mezuzahs. He went inside to look while I waited outside, thirsty but without water left in my bottle. Jeff asked the owner – a tall, husky bearded man wearing a kipa – if we could buy a replacement. Having no small bottles he took a large one from his refrigerator, came outside, opened it and filled mine. After I expressed my gratitude he reminded us of the Biblical narrative of Abraham welcoming strangers into his tent. At that moment he became my Abraham.
Then we returned to the Kotel for our farewell visit. Once again we were entranced by a group of young Haredi boys, enthusiastic in their prayers, their high voices echoing through the chamber. Watching and listening, I wondered (as an 83-year-old) if I would ever return. I noticed a Hassidic man across the chamber who had wedged himself as closely as possible to the Kotel while leaning against a beautifully ornate Aron. I wanted to take his place but he never moved during our half-hour stay – until, fortuitously, just before our departure. I quickly took his vacated spot where I felt enclosed by the Wall and the Aron as though I was part of them and they were part of me. I recited the Sh’ma and we departed.
I left Jerusalem with the joy of having once again shared it with my son – and the sorrowful realization that we might not return together.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the recent author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016.