The night tour of Jerusalem started almost exactly at midnight. We started near to the old city, and after seeing an Ethopian Church and some embassies, we headed over to Me-ah Shearim. Meah Shearim is an Charedi or ultra Orthodox neighborhood. They are famous for having signs demanding that all who enter dresses Tznuit, or modestly. As we entered, our tour guide pointed out the signs plastered around that protest various assaults on their beliefs, such as a Charedi school in the area that needed money from the government being forced to teach some Hebrew instead of just Yiddish. He also told as that we did not need to put on the skirts we had brought, as at that point it was around 1 o’clock and as long as our elbows and knees were covered, we would be fine. We paused to decide what direction to go in, when a Charedi man approached our tour guide, and from my limited understanding of Hebrew, told him firmly, a little rudely, but never in anger, that there we signs around asking people to respect their beliefs and follow the laws of Tznuit. He would not let us further along on the main street, and as the tour guide and man continued to speak, 3 men tensely waited on the side to see what would happen. Though the road we were on would have brought us to our destination and out of the neighborhood faster, we went around. In the end, we walked past a 120 year old bakery, also run by Charedim, that was just starting to bake bread for the day. We sat by the oven waiting for it to bake and then enjoyed some of the most delicious rolls I’ve ever had in my life.
I still haven’t quite figured out what to make of the situation. On the one hand, we walked into their neighborhood with the intention of wearing skirts. We knew their rules. I walked away feeling angry, but not shocked. On the other hand, it was late at night, we clearly meant no harm, and the situation was embarrassing for us. Neither one of us showed the other the proper respect. In a religion with so many different streams and beliefs, it can sometimes be hard to remember to respect one another.
While munching on our delicious rolls, we headed to the Damascus Gate. We stopped at a nearby Arab-Israeli stand that sold coffee with cardamom, lipton tea with sage and other spices added in, and hookah. By this point, it was 2 AM, and the whole evening had been so strange, that this little interlude didn’t even seem out of the ordinary. After some nice discussion we headed towards the Old City.
At this point I should pause and remind you that we were in Jerusalem. I am sure some of you reading have never been to Jerusalem, so I will do my best to describe what it is like. I am not talking about the look of the city, but the feel of the city. I have done a fair amount of traveling in my life, and Jerusalem just has a certain energy that is very hard to describe, and unlike any other place I have been to. I think Naomi Shemer describes it best in her song Yerushalem Shel Zahav when she says, “אויר הרים צלול כיין” or directly translated as, “Mountain air as clear as wine.” You could practically get drunk off the feeling.
As we approach the Damascus Gate and enter the Old City of Jerusalem, the feeling becomes stronger. We are walking in a place that is over 2,000 years old. Yet people still live and work here. It is clear that during the day this is a place that is full of modern life, but in an ancient place, with very much the same layout: arches, thin roads, and cobblestones.
We approach the security checkpoint, have our bags scanned through, and suddenly, there it is. The Kotel. Brightly lit by flood lights, the flowers on the shrubs are in bloom. Our tour guide tells a beautiful story about the need to plug in to the Kotel. The wall looks as humble as ever, but I still start to tingle never the less. We decide to meet back 25 minutes later, the boys and girls separate, and together as a group, the girls wash their hands and head towards the wall. This late at night (3 AM), there is hardly anyone at the wall. Normally on the women’s side, people are 5 deep and you hardly have a moment to plug in before you feel guilty. But there, at 3 AM, with almost no one around, I was able to truly plug in. Before I knew it, 20 minutes had passed, I back away slowly from the Kotel, and return to the real world.
This feeling, this energy that I sense, sounds crazy even to me, so I hope you will excuse me. I kept asking people on the trip, if they felt it too, and almost everyone did. It really was interesting for me, and frankly, reassuring, that other scientifically minded people felt the same thing.
This is my 4th trip to Israel, and every time I have come to the Kotel. And coming to it at different stages of my life has really allowed me to see changes in myself. At 4, I wrote a naive note asking for a doll, not understanding what the Kotel was. At 13, after my Bat Mitzvah, I just stood there in awe. At 18 I felt nothing, simply wanting to flirt with the cute soldiers also at the wall (I had a fabulous rationalization, don’t worry). And at 21, I felt that energy once more and really was able to connect with it. I know I have spent quite a lot of time dwelling on the Kotel in the post, and it’s only 3 AM in a very busy day that I have yet to talk about, but it resonates so strongly with me, and I think many other Jews as well. It truly is an amazing place, and I hope, soon, we will all be able to share the wonder that it is in the way that we wish.
After finishing at the Kotel, we took a taxi home. The taxi driver asks me, in Hebrew, “you were at the Kotel?” and I respond yes, we were. He responds, “It’s strong.” I agree, and then he asks, “So did you think about/pray for a groom?” I, quite startled, say, ” a groom?”, not sure I had heard the word correctly with my limited Hebrew skills. He replies, “yes, a groom!!” I start to laugh uproariously. Such a Jewish way to end the evening. We are all connected, and are all looking out for one another in whatever way we deem fit. Being nagged by a taxi driver about finding a groom was a great cap to the evening, I felt right at home.
The next morning, after little sleep, we woke up, said goodbye to the wonderful Adi and Yitzchak, and headed towards the Knesset, or the Israeli House of Parliament. After a tour around the building, we were able to meet with a Labor Party Member of Knesset, Erel Margalit, who also started Jerusalem Venture Partners, a highly successful venture capital firm. As one of the 120 members of Knesset, he focuses on all sorts of issues, but his main focus is on education reform and reviving the Labor Party as a real alternative. He spoke with us for a minute about his objectives, and then managed to turn a question about ending the separation of Israeli and Arab students into different schools into a talk about his ideas on education reform, which politicians are wont to do. Never the less, meeting a member of the Knesset was a wonderful experience. Often times politicians seem too far away in the states, which made meeting one of Israel’s representative’s even cooler.
After the Knesset, we headed to Machane Yehuda, the Jewish Shuk, or market place. It was full of color and noise. I found some (not quite ripe) figs that are so amazing I’ve dreamt about eating them again since the age of 13. I tried some apple pomegranate juice that was surprisingly spicy, and an etrog lemongrass juice that did not have the bitter note I always expect from etrogim. I spent too much money on dates, and did not shop around for the figs like I should have, mistakes I will learn from. Walking around, it makes you wonder why markets like this aren’t more common in the state, and why farmer’s markets are hoity-toity experiences.
After the Shuk , we headed to Tel Aviv, about a 45 minute ride away. We arrived at the Old Jaffa Hostel, a very eclectic hostel. We said goodbye to David, and headed out to the beach. After relaxing on the beach and eating dinner, we headed home and headed to sleep. Well, not really, we are MIT students after all!
-Ruth Abrams ’14
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