Magic of the Kotel

This post is part of my Israel travel series Scrolls from the Holy Land: Travel stories | Photo gallery

Joining the Jews at the Kotel celebrating the arrival of Shabbat was quite a wonderful and unexpected experience.

Shabbaaat Shabbat Shabbat Shabbat Shalom, Hey!
Shabbat Shalom, Hey! Shabbat Shalom, Hey! Shabbat Shalom, Hey! Shabbat Shalom!

This is just one of the songs that is still ringing in my head. Exhaustion from the long flight and the struggle to reach Jerusalem from the Airport did not deter my enthusiasm to catch a glimpse of the Western wall on Friday evening. I had a couple of recommendations to visit the Western wall at the beginning of Shabbat (that’s Friday sunset) and I was told that it will be lot of fun. However, walking briskly along with the orthodox Jews scurrying thru the Damascus gate and the Muslim Quarter, I admit I was not prepared to witness what I was about to see…

It was a sea of people at the Western Wall plaza, predominantly dressed in black. Honestly, I hadn’t seen so many people at the same time since I left India about a year back. I was also a little shocked to see many young soldiers with huge guns at the entrance, a sight so ubiquitous in Israel that I didn’t notice it after a few days!

As you can see in the picture, the Kotel plaza has 4 major sections. The first is the wall itself – a huge stone wall rising to abt 60 meters, and quite intimidating on first sight. The second is the open praying area, separate for men and for women. The third is the indoor praying area to the left side of this picture (north of the Wall), and fourth is the casual area which is common to all visitors and does not require wearing a skull cap.

I spent ten minutes moving in the common area trying to make sense of the chaos. The place was crowded – literally as crowded as an Indian mela or the Mumbai rail stations during rush hours (better to visualize). I noticed a group of youngsters forming a circular chain and singing songs. I noticed another group dancing and moving round and round in their circle. There were many people praying at desks with books, what I later understood were the Torah, or the Jewish holy book(s?). In another corner, some elderly men or soldiers with guns were hugging and screaming with joy. I found it impossible to tell what was going on.

Gathering courage and wearing the paper kippah they give you, I entered the praying grounds demarked for men. Walking down the ramp I literally felt as if I was immersing myself in a sea of people. If you have walked with the Ganesh statue to the sea during immersion, you’d know what I’m saying. A number of hands stretched out, saying something in incomprehensible Hebrew. Initially I thought they were blocking me from going in, but later realized that they were simply asking for money*. Hmm…. religious places…!

Unfortunately, there are no pictures to add to this travelogue as photography is prohibited on Shabbat I am posting little pictures from my visits on other days to help you visualize.

No longer had I descended the ramp and approached a group of guys singing to check what was going on, a number of hands grabbed my shoulders and pulled me. Before I knew, I was roped into one of the groups and was part of a new circular chain of guys. With hands firmly stretched, grasping each others’ shoulders, and led by a Rabbi at the center, the guys started singing and moving with the rhythm. It was some slow shloka like chanting, and a composition pattern very similar to our mantras. Gradually the pace increased and people started hopping. Then they started singing, hopping and the circle started rotating. Then the song grew fast, the singing grew louder, the hopping turned into dancing and the circle was rotating fast. Finally, the song became really really intense, the chain broke apart, everyone danced and hugged each other and that was it. Promptly things settled, a fresh circle was formed with some new people, some old people and the celebrations continued.

Boy! Was that fun!

Personally, the singing and dancing here reminded me of how similar the devotional practice is among Hindus. As the tempo of a bhajan or aarti picks up, so does the enthusiasm and the energy of the crowd. I love the fact that music is a central aspect of worship. Praying by having fun, by singing and by dancing was not something that I thought existed in other faiths. It was almost like talking to God as if s/he is your buddy.

I broke out of the circle and moved ahead towards the Wall. It was a challenge to get to the wall as there were layers and layers of people who were praying. The Jewish praying style is quite rigorous.* People stand with books in their hands, facing the wall and jerk their upper bodies back and forth bending from their waist. Quite similar to what I saw (on TV) Muslims doing at their religious school (Madrasa). Like an ant, I crawled through the maze making sure I don’t disturb anyone (but I think I did, it was just too crowded, hehe!)

The wall was before me. It was a wall made of pale yellow stone and bits of papers were stuck into the crevices. This was the wall over which so many wars were fought. This was the wall beyond which – as Jews believe – once stood the Holy Temple. This was the wall where hundreds of Jews grieve every day. This was the wall whose pictures had mesmerized me for months, and finally I was standing right in front of it. Ok what should I do now?

Nothing complicated, I did what anyone else would do – touch the wall. I was picturing a bolt of divine energy zapping into me or me getting transformed suddenly to some other dimension, but (alas) nothing such happened.

“It’s just a wall”– my rational mind spoke in a matter-of-fact manner
“Steer clear of these shadowy matters of worship” – the atheist me sighed
“It’s a landmark in human history” – quipped the historian in me
The religious in me was happy. Being a Hindu gives me so much freedom to respect other religions, without reserving a place in hell.
“I wonder how many people came here today” – the statistician in me started counting
“Feed me” – I heard my stomach ramble
“Lets go to the inner praying area” – that was the explorer mind
“Get back to the hostel before the dinner is over” – that was the scheduler
“Better, look at the beautiful faces around you” – the animal in me roared.
And so on. Maybe touching the wall made time pause and I could hear all these voices 🙂

Ok suddenly I realized that I’m writing too much. Just because its my blog and my story, and internet is free, that doesn’t give me the right to keep rambling.
Oh wait a minute, it does 🙂

I prayed briefly at the wall, I have a favorite prayer, which I just realized was extremely secular. Nice!

Next, the explorer in me drove me into the praying section inside a tunnel like structure. It was brightly lit and full of people praying seriously. There were cupboards and bookshelves (full of religious books I presume) and probably a Synagogue inside. Jewish temples (Synagogues) are so obscure (well that will be another post).

I emerged out of the tunnel to some fresh cool breeze and again a plaza full of people. Once again I started walking around, occasionally participating with the celebrating boys. Plenty of women were watching over the fence that separates men from women. I presume they were looking at their boyfriends or simply checking out the guys or were curious to see or whatever.

A Rabbi* spotted me and started talking to me. He was fascinated to discover that I was from India and quickly called another rabbi friend of his. Apparently they had spent almost six months in India trying to understand Hinduism and learn Yoga. For next ten minutes, they gave me a huge basket of information about Judaism, which was pretty interesting until the point it started swaying into organized religion and the predictable sermons. I’ll share with you readers what I learnt about Judaism just by talking to people over my three weeks in Israel.

Finally I gave in to the screams from my hungry stomach and started walking out of the open praying area. I took off my kippah and cast a final glance at the whole Western wall plaza.

It was Shabbath, a Saturday, something that happens every 7 days. Yet, the energy and enthusiasm of the celebrations at the Kotel moved me completely. Indeed as the Rabbi said, “Shabbat has kept Judaism alive”. I have attempted to make justice to this amazing feeling in this travelog and if you liked reading this, then you’ll love the place a hundred times more. Indeed, this magical experience is something that will be etched permanently in my memory.

Next: Visit to the Bethlehem (West Bank)

* Update: A reader from the TripAdvisor forum made some clarifications to my observations:

1. You mentioned how a Rabbi came up to you. You would have no way of knowing who was and who wasn’t a Rabbi. Ultra Orthodox men all have black outfits and long beards. They are not necessarily Rabbis.

2. I don’t know what the men who came up to you with outstretched arms wanted. I doubt it was money. Once the Sabbath starts handling(and spending) of money is prohibited. It solicitation, while technically illegal at the Kotel and always an annoyance would not be tolerated!!

3. There is no requirement for Jews to move back and forth when they prayer. You can stand completely still if you want. The movement ends up being subconscious as you get into your prayers ( many women do it too) The amount of movement varies from person to person. I don’t know if it has to do with keeping one’s balance or not. But while usually present in Jewish prayer it is not a requirement for Jewish prayer.

Thanks ‘rdglady’ from New York 🙂

This post is part of my Israel travel series Scrolls from the Holy Land: Travel stories | Photo gallery