Talking to a wall, connecting with God

Ben Kamin /

JERUSALEM — It’s different each time, the sensation driven by my religious body temperature at the moment, each occasion leavened by the vicissitudes of life, by doubt, skepticism, spiritual immobility or vague rhapsody — and certainly by my own vanities.

One first has to get past the sense of being an intruder, even if one is incontrovertibly Jewish, because the landlords of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, a conglomerate of stern, bearded men from a variety of ecclesiastic tribes, are rather possessive of their default contract with the place.

They scold you with their fierce eyes if you don’t have a skullcap (though never examining your heart), they imperiously ask you for money as if to pay for your unworthiness, and they seem resigned to the presence of sincere folks who are neither dressed for the 17th century nor given to the very judgmental tendencies that controvert the entire thesis of prayer.

But I arrive with my own liturgy; I don’t care what they think. My cousins fought in the alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967 to reclaim the Jewish Quarter that the Jordanians had occupied since 1948. My father battled and was wounded in Israel’s War of Independence after several Arab armies flouted the United Nations’ two-state solution and kept up their efforts to drive out the Jews.

It is ironic that my mother and her granddaughters are not permitted to pray in the same spaces as the oligarchic men who have co-opted the blood and yearning of Jewish history in favor of their sectarian plutocracy in Jerusalem.

My deal with the wall is my own affair, and it has evolved with the crises and upheavals and reversals and triumphs and breakthroughs of my life, and that is more honest than a chart of robotic prayers.

When I touch the wall, I no longer feel that simple-minded awe that was driven by guilty deference to the swaying rabbinical landlords who swarm about the place as thick as their black coats. I just don’t believe that God sees any difference between them in their traditional garb and me in my jeans and blazer. Neither they nor people like me, men or women, are exclusively right or wrong, just or unjust.

I place little notes in the wall but I don’t think God has a minstrel on the other side of it who collects and annotates the pleas, names and confessionals.

I follow the ritual because so many people have been doing this for so many centuries that the very cycle — and its uniformity and peacefulness and solemnity — instills the absolute holiness that attends this place.

God is there, to paraphrase rabbinical tradition, because we have let God in.

The millions of people — trembling, whispering, diverse, literate, uneducated and of many languages, journeys, dispositions and wounds — who have been performing this ritual for so many centuries add up to the possibility of a divine spark in the open air of a city that both defines and defies peace.

I spoke to an old woman as I walked up the plaza from the wall one day. Her eyes had seen more than mine ever will. She told me she had survived Treblinka. Then she wished me “Shabbat shalom” in Polish-inflected Hebrew.

Who could hear that and then require some passing rabbi to describe God for me?