I have literally lost count of how many times I have visited the Western Wall in my lifetime. As a Jewish person, this should be a paramount feat since the Western Wall (also referred to as the Kotel or the Wailing Wall) is the holiest site of the Jewish people. Instead, I've recently started to feel that I've become jaded to its holiness. Due to its crowded nature, I even find myself avoiding it at times. And forget bringing a camera, I've got enough pictures there to last a lifetime. Perhaps feeling jaded is a symptom of having been here in Israel long enough that I've finally adapted to the culture. Regardless, it was odd then that I woke up this morning, for no particular reason, thinking it was time for a visit to the Western Wall; and not with guests or visiting tour groups, but a solo visit, with just me alone.
I first visited the Western Wall with my family the summer after the 3rd grade, so I must have been just about 9 years old. It's one of those memories that sticks out in my mind. I recall vividly having to walk quietly with my mom and sisters on the women's side of the wall, which was so much smaller than the men's side. I stuck a note in the wall and later that day, an elderly woman on our group tour told me that little doves come down and grab those notes with our wishes, hopes and dreams and carry them up to G-d. A sweet little story for a little girl to hear, and being 9 years old, I of course believed it.
The next time I visited the Kotel was with my Birthright Israel group in the summer of 2006. I was 23 years old and it would be my first visit there as an adult. This was a special visit, not having been back since I was a little girl. Accompanied by our Israeli soldiers and a bus full of other American Jews, it was a memorable and moving moment. I had a greater understanding of my place in history, the struggle of my ancestors, and the sacrifices made by fellow Israeli soldiers for Jewish people around the world. Still, at that time, I had absolutely no clue on Earth that I would be moving back there just over 4 years later.
Here are some more images from that 2006 summer trip to Israel with the amazing program Birthright Israel which has, to me, changed the face of modern Jewry and the relationship of young people to the Jewish religion:
I am always moved by watching people praying at the wall. Their deepest fears, concerns, hopes, wishes and dreams are poured out from inside their soul into their prayers at the Kotel. Understandably, this emotional display results in many tears being wept. Hearing someone else cry almost always draws me to tears, too. Being at the wall is a very humbling experience. You can't help but jerk back a tear as an Israeli soldier places his head against the wall and we all know exactly what he is praying for: his survival. This display of tears is exactly why the Western Wall is also dubbed the Wailing Wall.
The next time I returned to Jerusalem was 18 months later just prior to New Year's 2008. I had met Rafi, my husband (then my boyfriend) earlier that year and was going to see him there for the first time since we began long distance.
In the photos above, we had just placed our respective papers into the wall. It was just moments after this December 30, 2007 visit to the Kotel, as we were wandering throughout the Old City's walls that we received the unexpected and unfortunate phone call that Rafi's father has passed due to a sudden and unexpected heart attack. As you can imagine, this horrible day forever changed our relationship and attachment to this holy place.
It wasn't until a year later, just prior to New Year's 2009, on my next visit to Israel that I was able to return to the wall. Understandably, Rafi did not want to go due to the memories attached to this place. However, I thought it was an important part of the healing process, thus here we are in December 2008:
I wouldn't return here until November 2010 on the day after making aliyah to Israel. Even with all those visits to Israel, I never suspected when I was growing up that I would ever immigrate to Israel, accessing my birthright. Alas, here I am at the Western Wall once again in November 2010, just a day after making aliyah, obtaining Israeli citizenship and just a few months after marrying my husband:
Looking back on my life, it seems that I have been here at the Kotel many times and that indeed it really does intertwine with the story of my life, thus making it a holy place, despite the fact that I've neglected to go back there with frequency since my move here. You know how it works, you sort of stay out of the tourist traps of your home town.
Of course, I've made it back there multiple times with an abundance of visits from friends, family members and Birthright Israel trips, the sum of which cannot be seen from the pictures below. Like I said, I don't bring the camera there anymore, since the wall has lost its novelty to me, in some way. I'm proud to have had handfuls of visitors to Israel during my year here: Melanie, Samantha, Kathy, my parents, the Schneider's, Yavneh Academy alum, Rafi's cousin and a few of Rafi's best friends. I really ought to start taking pictures of my guests, but I usually let them snap away as they take it all in, because really, at the end of the day, this is a special place.
And I'm certainly not the only one to have such a relationship with the Western Wall, aptly named due to it being the only remaining side of the 2nd temple after the destruction of the temple nearly 2,000 years ago. Ever since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, it's become sort of a pilgrimage for the Jewish people to make it here in their lifetimes to the exact place where our ancestors built the 1st and 2nd temples. As you know, this same spot is also in walking distance of the Christian's Via Dolorosa & Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Islam's Dome of the Rock. An true epicenter of history and religion.
As you can see above, you can easily watch Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies taking place at the Western Wall throughout the year on either Mondays or Thursdays. So, if you're interested to see this rite of passage in person, all you have to do is show up and stick around for awhile on either one of those weekdays and you'll be sure to witness a spectacular events, sometimes even with a entering entourage and festive parade carrying the Torah to the wall. These people, like me, have their own relationship to this historic site and their own stories to tell.
The Western Wall is a place I've had the luxury of visiting time and time again. I've visited during the brutal cold of winter and the relentless heat of summer. I've seen holidays take place at the wall, Shabbat services, rites of passage and soldier ceremonies taking place where the plaza is packed from side to side without an inch of space to move.
I've heard people crying their heart out, women scolding chatty visitors, men chanting and praying. I'm fortunate to be able to visit here whenever I want to for the time being. For those of you who are far away from the Western Wall, it is now possible to have a personal note printed out and placed inside the grooves in the wall. Visit this website here: http://english.thekotel.org/ and click on "Send a Note"; your personal prayer will be placed for free inside the wall. Of course, I'd be happy to make the trip there personally, too.
Wow, there's even an Android application for messages to be put into the Western Wall! Pretty impressive. If you haven't yet been, here's to hoping that each and every one of you reading this blog will make it here one day to visit this special place.