July 19, 2013

Tisha B'Av and the Little Wailing Wall

Tisha B’Av was this past Tuesday night and Wednesday. It is a day when we fast from sunset to sunset, much like Yom Kippur. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning.

In the Jewish calendar, this was the date both that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, which resulted in the exile of the Jewish people. In 135 CE on this day, Bar Kochba’s fortress Betar was defeated by the Romans, and 100,000 Jews were slaughtered. This was also the date of the first Crusade which began in 1096 and eventually resulted in the death of 1.2 million European Jews.

On this very day in 1290, Jews were expelled from England; and on this day in 1306, Jews were expelled from France; and on this day in 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain.

In our century, this date in the Hebrew calendar marks the start of the First World War, which was August 1and 2 in 1914. Himmler received a go ahead from the Nazi Party for the Final Solution on this day and this was also the date for the final deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.

This calamitous date also represents tragedy for Jews in recent history. This was the day the Jewish community center was bombed in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring 300 others; and this was the very day of Hitnatkut, when the Israelis disengaged from Gush Katif, forcibly removing Jews from their homes and communities.

Yes, this is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Yet when one walks through the streets of Jerusalem, or sits at the Kotel on the eve of Tisha B’Av, there is a sense of euphoria and renewal. Yes, the Jewish people are a strong, growing nation and have gathered together from all corners of the world. There is prosperity and economic growth. We have an army to protect us and an independent Jewish state to govern us.

This year, I left the bustle of the Western Wall, leaving behind thousands deep in prayer, the chatting of teens and the swirling horas, and slipped down a rabbit hole into another world. Together with a small group of friends, including one who was armed with a hand gun, we entered the Arab Quarter. The sights, sounds and smells were shockingly different; the tension was palpable.

It was Ramadan and colorful lights twinkled from the archways above. Boys played soccer in the alleyways while men sat in silence puffing their houka pipes. Smells of hyssop, sweet licorice and cumin wafted from shops and shuttered windows. Women in long buttoned coats and silken scarves floated by.

I dared not stop for one second, fearful of losing our group which was carefully navigating the alleys in a large, compact huddle. Occasionally, we saw Hebrew writing on a wall or a sign and felt an irrational sense of relief. Suddenly, at the end of an alley was a small sign: “HaKotel HaKatan.”

We entered a low archway into a courtyard and there it was; a small section of the Western Wall, isolated, quiet, modest. A few people were sitting there reading from the Book of Lamentations, others were praying. 

Men and women sat together. Crumpled notes were jammed into crevices, countless supplications placed near the original Holy of Holies. Not far from here, some 2,000 years ago, sat the Aron Kodesh, where the high priest would connect directly with G-d. This small part of the wall, along with the tunnels below, are the closest Jews can get to the holiest place in the world.

Yet this very place is unknown, abandoned,  and sits in a neighborhood that is dangerous for Jews to walk. It is controlled by the police and has been a place of contention with the Arabs. It smelled a bit like urine and I later read that this place was once used as a toilet. Black cats fought over garbage, fiercely seeming to stake more claim here than the praying Jews.  The cats hissed and spat and rolled in a fight, sending a few young girls running. We sat briefly and said a few kinnos, poems that mark Jewish tragedies, then left.

As I walked away, I had a deep sense that we still have much to mourn over. We risk our lives to pray in this tiny place that has utmost significance to us. We are not free to wander through all the streets of Jerusalem and yes, just like Jews over the centuries, we must still live in fear.  Suddenly Tisha B’Av became strangely significant and incredibly sad. We hurried through the Arab Quarter and into the abandoned and dark alleys of the Christian Quarter.

Finally, we exited through the New Gate, practically bumping into a group of police. I felt safe, but only for a second. Within minutes, a group of people marched by, waving Israeli flags and singing Am Israel Chai, the Jewish nation lives. They were walking around the Old City Walls, including the walls in East Jerusalem. Organized by Women in Green, this is the 19th year people participate in this walk. However, this was Ramadan and flying Star of Davids is akin to putting a red flag in front of an angry bull.

We joined the crowd and started to walk into East Jerusalem. It was lit like a Christmas tree, with lights strung across streets and homes. Pavilions set up on grassy areas were serving food. Muslim men, women and children were out and we created quite a scene.

The police were ready to quell a riot. In some places, there was a barricade between us and the Arabs. The Arabs stared at us, some filming the procession with their iphones. We stared back at them.

And then there was a ruckus. Immediately, I saw a group of police run chase after young teens. Then again. A skirmish on the left. Commotion on the right. We marched on.

We passed police men sitting high above on horseback. Even the horses  were wearing protective gear. I shivered. The last time I felt this kind of tension, I found myself in a New Delhi market, with vendors madly shuttering down their shop doors, fleeing before an angry mob.

Yet the police presence stilled all potential violence and on we marched. Our group finally sat in the middle of the road and mourned the fact that Jews still cannot pray at Har HaBayit.

Tisha B’Av 5774 (2013). Some two thousand years after the destruction of the First Temple, , we have much to pray for. We all want the violence to end and we are still living amidst hate.

As a postscript: That very night around 9 p.m., outside the Damascus Gate, a Jewish man was stabbed multiple times by Arab youth. He was returning from his Tisha B’Av prayers at the Western Wall.

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