Shavuot at the Kotel

When the Six Day War ended there was tremendous euphoria throughout the country.  Not only had we survived this terrible threat, but the borders were pushed back, we were safer.  There was a giddy feeling that there could be peace and reconciliation with our Arab neighbors.  The miracle of mounting a successful defense on three fronts meant that anything was possible.  Not only that, but we could now have access to holy places that had been forbidden to us, especially the Kotel, the ancient western wall of the Second Temple.

The Old City of Jerusalem came under Israeli control one week before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Pentacost, the festival that marks the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai). For 19 years the Jordanian government had prevented any Israeli from visiting the Kotel.  The closest we could get was Mt. Zion, a hilltop that was not included within the walls built by Suleiman the Great in 1538 (legend has it that Suleiman ordered that the architect be executed because he failed to include this hilltop, and the poor man was buried within the city’s Jaffa Gate).  I do recall making one visit to the top of Mt. Zion in 1966, and looking across into the Old City, seeing a Jordanian sentry guarding one of the turrets in a nearby building.

There was a great deal of impatience among Israelis:  when were we going to be allowed to go to the Kotel?  The army was still concerned about sniper attacks in the narrow alleyways of the Old City, but then the announcement was made:  the Kotel would be open to the public for Shavuot.

I went together with my scout troop.  We met mid-morning, in our khaki uniforms, and walked as a group down King David Street and then across the Valley of Hinnoam.  We made our way up to Mt. Zion along with hundreds of others.  There were old people practically running up that steep slope in their desire to return to this holy place.  Seeing their excitement kindled ours.

It was a bit eerie to step across what had been no-man’s land and actually approach the outer walls of the city.  The army directed us to walk along the outside of the city walls, entering at the Dung Gate (where the Temple garbage had been dumped over the centuries).  Unbelievingly, we crossed through into the Old City itself.  “When the LORD restores Zion’s fortune, we should be like dreamers” (Psalm 126)

Ahead of us was a huge plaza that had been created just a day earlier.  Beneath our feet was rubble and small rocks.  We moved through the throng that had gathered and approached the Kotel itself.

I had seen photographs and paintings of The Wall, always with the distinctive green plants that stubbornly grew between the huge stones, a fragile/tough root system tenaciously defying a hostile environment.  We approached The Wall and I waited until I could squeeze in and kiss the stones.  I expected to be transported into some sort of spiritual ecstasy, but it was just cool rock beneath my lips.  Where was the transcendent bliss that I was supposed to be feeling?

I stepped back and looked up with a sense of vertigo.  I was really here, but what did it mean?

I’ve since learned that a place becomes personally beloved over time.  I can enjoy spectacular beauty, and I can tap into national memory, but it takes repeated visits to create love.  Each return puts down another thick layer of memory, because each time I return I am different, older, changed.  Mom and I were talking once about someone who was going to Jerusalem for the first time.  Mom said that she envied her.  I disagreed.  When I’ve taken the road to Jerusalem after a long hiatus, every rock and every olive tree sings to me.  The valleys, the terraced hills seem to welcome me back.  I know when we’re approaching the exact spot where you can first see the buildings of Jerusalem.  Every signpost, every twist and turn contains memories.  There are, of course, many changes, but the brick factory in Motza is still there, and the bus still has to shift into a lower gear, straining to go upwards.  My ears pop and I know I’m almost there.

That first visit to the Kotel was just a beginning to a very complicated relationship that has unfolded on two subsequent Shavuot observances.

Ten years after that first visit in 1967, I was a junior at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, living in an apartment not far from Nayot, where we had lived during the war.  A beautiful custom for Shavuot is to engage in Torah study all night long.  In Jerusalem, many people come to the Kotel for morning prayers just at sunrise, following the hours of learning.

That Shavuot in 1977 I spent hours learning at the home of a friend.  I left there close to four in the morning and headed towards the Kotel.   When I left that tiny apartment in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood, west of downtown, the streets were virtually empty.  As I headed towards King George Street in the center of the city I could see one or two groups of pedestrians also going in my direction.  Small groups converged on Agron Street, heading east towards the Old City.  By the time we reached the Jaffa Gate it was a sizeable group, walking quietly in the dark.

In those days the primary entrance to the Kotel area was reached by going through the Moslem Quarter, past the shuk (market), and then turning south through an alley and then emerging into the far northern side of the plaza.

We walked quietly past the shuttered shops, feet clattering somewhat on the stone streets, some whispered conversations.  The flow turned into the alleyway as the sky began to lighten overhead.  I walked through the opening and the plaza, containing a massive crowd, lay before me, kissed by the very first rays of the sun.  Exhausted and exhilarated, buoyed by being part of this community of learning, I found a minyan (prayer group), participated in the services, and finally walked the two miles or so back home for a well deserved nap.

The Kotel became precious to me that day.  It was not the stones themselves, but the people who gathered there in joy that made it holy.  There was a popular song in Israel about the Kotel whose refrain went, “There are people who have hearts of stone, and there are stones who have hearts of human beings.”  It’s as if all the kisses, all the caresses, all the prayers of generations of Jews are absorbed into the rocks, almost animating them.

Thirty years after my first visit to the Kotel, I returned on Shavuot with my four daughters.  The days of all night learning were long passed, but I roused the kids around 5 o’clock (a little late, I know), and we headed out.

This time we took the current route through the Jewish Quarter – sadly, it is no longer considered safe to go through the Moslem Quarter.  The huge throng was there, just as I recalled.  It was truly a festival atmosphere.  As we wandered about we greeted friends, everyone dressed in holiday clothes and sneakers.  It seemed that everybody was there.  I felt blessed to be with my daughters in the place I had walked as a ten-year-old, as a twenty-year-old.

A little ways off we heard a commotion, a lot of singing.  We thought that perhaps it was some kind of celebration and went to investigate.  That’s when the atmosphere of the Kotel was clouded and poisoned for me, and to this day seeing a picture of the Kotel makes me sad.

At the edge of the plaza, almost as far as one could get from the Kotel itself, a small group of American Jews had gathered for a non-orthodox prayer service.  They were surrounded by a group of ultra-Orthodox men who were jeering and harassing them, singing loudly about God punishing the enemies of the Jewish people.  Their faces were ugly with their rage at this non-traditional service.  It was a sea of black hats and black jackets buffeting this island of worshippers with their colorful kippot (skullcaps) and tallitot (prayer shawls).    I looked more closely at the non-traditional group and recognized a friend of mine, who was there with her daughters.  What we had thought was a celebration was in fact a scene of fury and threat.  I was frightened and led my girls to the relative safety of the nearby staircase, with those black coats and angry faces swirling about us.

As we watched, the small group of Americans began to withdraw and move off the plaza.  A cheer erupted from their tormentors.  I looked out across the plaza to the Kotel, and then I lifted my eyes to the shining gold of the Dome of the Rock just above it.  The sun’s rays made it glitter and dazzle and I wondered to myself, “Why is it that the Holy Temple is not in that spot?  Why is there a mosque instead?”  Tradition tells us that the second temple was destroyed because of the baseless hatred (sin’at hinam) that existed within the Jewish community.  Here we were, two thousand years later, and no wiser.  I know that my great-grandfather’s dear friend, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (Israel’s first chief rabbi) insisted that the only way to counteract baseless hatred was to replace it with baseless love (ahavat hinam).  Both Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Frank endured a great deal of abuse for their tolerance of non-religious Jews.  I’ve always figured that the type of hatred I witnessed that day signals insecurity, whereas the truly secure can afford to be serene, compassionate, and tolerant.  I love living within my small Jewish community in Ann Arbor, where we more or less get along, by choice as well as necessity.  That doesn’t mean that boundaries don’t exist, it’s just that they can be approached respectfully, permitting coexistence within the Jewish community as well as within the community at large.

I’ve gone back once or twice to the Kotel since that day, but without the joy I used to have.

About the Author
Nehama Stampfer Glogower lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but her roots go back to the old yishuv in Israel. A former Tanakh teacher, she is currently a hospice chaplain.
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