None of the things I’ve seen or places I’ve visited on this last trip to Israel were new to me. Between the six times I’ve been here, there are few places in this country where I have not tread, and yet as I stood on a rooftop in Tsfat looking over the valley beneath I was overcome with the awe of Our Survival.
Minutes earlier I walked through an ancient synagogue which bore a hole in one of its walls from the shrapnel of a bomb. At the time of the explosion, 1967, the synagogue was full of worshippers, but none were injured from this burning piece of metal as they were simultaneously bowed as it whizzed over their back and into the wall. It was but one piece of shrapnel and it is possible none would have died had it hit them, but at that moment that hole represented 4000 years of my people’s struggle, and there was little I could do about myself.
Instead of passing, the emotion further flooded my already leaking ducts when I came to the rooftop overlooking the valley. I saw the place where the source of every living civilization has trodden. From the far reaches of Europe and Asia and the Americas to the very cradle of humanity in Africa – all peoples at some point traversed the valley I now beheld. The great human migration came over this tiny, tiny land, a land to which we have desperately clung for countless millennia, but which has always eluded us as we were flung, time and again, into the far reaches of the globe.
With the valley below me blurred, my mind took me back 10 years when I first stood at the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount). There have been very few dull periods in my life, in fact, looking back, there is a certain maniacal ribbon along which I have soared and which has brought me countless incredible experiences. But this moment, 10 years ago, in the holiest place for Jews around the world, stands out more clearly than almost anything else in my life.
10 years ago I stood at the Kotel for the first time.
I stood there on a Friday night, as the Sabbath was beginning. I stood in a throng of hundreds of other men waiting to begin the prayer to welcome the coming of the sacred day. There was a moment of strange silence amongst this crowd of Jews. Usually we are loud and expressive and excitable, but at that moment we all seemed to stand still, breathless, waiting for the moment that no toll of bells would tell us arrived, but one which we would all recognize – the beginning of Shabbat.
At the time I was not aware of this moment, I only become aware of it once it had passed. The awful stillness was broken by a single rabbi’s cry to God, the opening of the first prayer, and it was quickly taken up by the mass facing the Western Wall. It was little more than a syllable that pierced the air before the others joined their voices to the chorus praising a God in which I did not believe. A chorus singing their exaltation to His greatness, and their gratitude to Him. I was engulfed by the wave of praise raised towards the heavens, but by then, just like the moment of silence that came before, I was unaware. That single burst from our rabbi, the burst that broke the silence, sent me into uncontrollable convulsions of inexplicable tears. For what seemed like eternity I stood, limply pressed against a brother’s shoulder, overcome with… to this day I do not know what. There was no reason to grieve. I was not overcome by a discovery of God. And while there was some cause to rejoice it was not so that tears should flow uncontrollably for a quarter of an hour.
In retrospect I think I was overcome by the experience of being – being Jewish.
I stood surrounded by Jews, more Jews than I have ever seen in one place. We stood at the holiest place in the world for us, and we were able to do so in spite of the countless efforts of history to erase us from this world. We were able to stand there because a group of young, selfless men fought their way up the rocky Judean hills against the Jordanian army. And because when those boys reached the city of David and donned a Tallis and Kippah over their uniforms, and pushed the guns slung over their shoulders to the side so that they could hold the Torah, and pressed their faces to the ivy covered wall of our ancient temple mount and said that never again will the world deny us what they so hypocritically always had themselves: a home.
Maybe it was because I realized the dream of a thousand generations when I stepped up and touched the ancient wall. Maybe because one of the things that makes us Jewish is the inexplicable tie we have to a multi-thousand year history. A tie born of our miraculously staying together even though we were so often scattered over the globe. This is something very few people in this world can say – that they have a shared consciousness which developed over thousands of years of resisting conversions and rape and displacement and against all odds staying a family.
With tensions rising here and Anti-Semitism rising across the world, what lies next in store for us?
The recent music festival in the Old City tells one story, for the other I will go to the depths of the West Bank.
I will share both in the coming weeks.
A beautiful and touching account, powerfully written. Thank you for sharing!
Alex, good write! I think that you left out the heart of the matter, which you seemingly danced around. What I’m talking about is a very spiritual experience, more-so than anything else explained by logic. I hope you’re having a nice time in Israel. I wish we all could be there with ya, bro!
Thank you Sally and Vic, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
There will always be a lack of focus on the spiritual as I do not believe in God. What approaches, is the transcendent sensation of connectedness that I feel to the greater Jewish community throughout the entire span of space and time. For me that is not a spirituality, or a revelation of a greater being through which we are made one, rather, it is psycho-social competence (for example) which binds us on a genetic level and has become a part of us through our evolution as a race.
What I am trying to discover is how and why and whether it can be understood, and whether it is to be preserved.
Though the following articles will focus significantly more on the realistic issues surrounding the current situation in Israel, I will at some point return to this as I will re-immerse myself in Israels nature.
Thank you again for reading! I hope you we can continue this discourse and discover what more people think on the matter.
Excellent essay! I cannot say that in 1989 when I first time touched the ancient stones of the Wall, I had cried, but my feelings were quite close to that.
And one more thing: while I was in refusal almost 10 years in Leningrad, my home was visited by many Jews from US, England, Switzerland, Australia, etc. And at some moment a revelation came down on me – I suddenly understood that we aren’t alone, that we are members of the wast family spread over all the globe, and those “tourists” instead of going sightseeing that beautiful city shlepped around its sleeping quarters to bring spiritual and material help to people whom they never knew and never met before. It seems to me, that that understanding and those feelings of mine are very close to what you have written in your essay – don’t you think so, Sasha?
I liked what you have written very much. Keep going!
Thank you for your wonderful comment and for continuing the discussion!
How I love when Russian people see past the Alexander and go right for the Sasha 🙂
I would agree with you indeed. For those of us stuck in the anti-religious and anti-Semitic and anti-global rut of Soviet Russia, whether immediately upon escape or 13 years later, upon discovering that we are not alone we become overwhelmed at the expanse over which we are connected to so many others.
For you, as a Refusenik, someone who dreamt and fought for something strange and intangeable, the sensation must have been that much more intense. Coming from the states, having had a bar-mitzvah, having seen television and used the internet, it was to an extent less shocking, though, clearly, no less life changing.
Thank you again for reading the outpourings of a wandering soul.