February 25, 2022

The Western Wall: A chance to preserve history, ensure the future - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I always feel inadequate trying to describe to those outside our Jewish tradition the milestone moment a boy puts on tefillin for the first time.

The word phylacteries is no help. How do I explain the straps and the boxes or my heart skipping as I watch a preteen grandson who likes pizza and soccer, carefully putting the arm once broken in a skateboard accident through the leather loop, making sure that the parchment-filled box is affixed parallel to his heart?

How can I describe how the second box looks, pushing aside chestnut bangs above soft chocolate eyes? My flashback carries me to the pledge we made at Mount Sinai.

And so, when our latest Sabra grandson, a month short of 13, recently reached this moment, I felt that searing joy and gratefulness, maybe even a greater measure of gratefulness to be here considering the COVID-19 pandemic fear that has engulfed us grandparents. Just living in Jerusalem, my home a short drive from the Old City where the two holy Temples stood is a continual wonder. Our Sabra sons, too, first laid tefillin at the Western Wall. How fast the generations pass!

This time is a little different. Our son and daughter-in-law have opted for Azarat Yisrael, the alternative Kotel venue. This is the part of the Western Wall south of the better-known plaza, beyond the Mughrabi Bridge. You enter closer to Dung Gate, via an elder-challenging narrow staircase. A large engraved fallen stone reminds us that above us was the corner called the Trumpeting Place. Here stood the shofar-blower on Friday afternoons who announced to the shopkeepers and their customers below that it was time to go home for Shabbat. Our contemporary siren before sunset on Fridays in Jerusalem is the modern equivalent.

The area is also known as “Robinson’s Arch” because the American archaeologist Edward Robinson discovered the remains of the staircase that led to the Temple Mount there in 1838. Back then, all our family ancestors were living in Central and Eastern Europe. Could they imagine their descendants living in Jerusalem?

Both sides of the family – now thankfully expanded with multiple first cousins – gather for this sacred act on this prayer platform built in 2013 when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was the Diaspora affairs minister, and later renovated with a smooth wooden floor. Like the Western Wall plaza on the other side of the bridge, there are tables set up for each family and Torah scrolls.

I EXPECTED the space to be sparsely occupied – after all, tourists haven’t returned – but every table is full. Although usually characterized as a place of controversy, a space for only non-Orthodox prayer or a refuge for tourists or uppity women, the plaza is orderly and quiet except for the chanting and singing. The other families look just like ours: Israeli moms in skirts and head coverings, men and boys wearing kippot, ritual fringes dangling. I see a famous Orthodox woman Torah scholar at a nearby gathering with her cousins.

Our grandson, like his older brothers, studies in a yeshiva. The other grandparents, born in Israel, are Orthodox Jews as well. Both the mom and dad are descendants of the Levites who sang on the Temple steps. Since those days, there has been a lot of bittersweet history. Both of our in-laws are children of Holocaust survivors who maintained their faith, farmed the good land and rebuilt their families. Our own families left Europe earlier, sojourned in the US, before joining the ingathering of the nations.

Our ceremony, of weekday morning prayers and Torah reading, is the same as those we’ve celebrated on the other side of the bridge, except that both men and women are nearby. No one has to balance on a rickety chair or argue with other families for a view of the soon-to-be bar mitzvah boy. With the table in the middle, we arranged ourselves men on one side, women on the other.

Only later do I realize why this feels so natural. For the past nearly two years so-called mirpesset minyanim (literally, balcony prayer quorums), ad hoc outdoor prayer gatherings, have proliferated. On balconies, sidewalks and driveways, men and women have found creative ways for group prayers without erecting barriers. Bring your own chair and siddur and, sit down to pray. Best seat is under a lamppost. More than one devout woman friend has confided how much she likes that arrangement or how she will miss singing “Lecha Dodi” on Shabbat eve beside her husband on the balcony when the pandemic ends.

Not that I don’t appreciate the seclusion of the mechitza (partition) dividing men and women in my beloved synagogue in normal times. But these aren’t normal times. Those of us who have enjoyed the ad hoc prayer groups should have, at the least, learned a lesson in flexibility and humility. And yes, I preferred the ringside view of my grandson’s big moment without the usual stress of competing for space at the mechitza divider. From the number of observant local families like ours at the alternative site, many Israelis are voting with their feet.

The southern portion of the Western Wall lay under rubble until it was back in our hands after the Six Day War in 1967. Patiently, archaeologists uncovered layer by layer, revealing a city vibrant with life and spirituality. But the great piles of fallen stones also speak of the destruction of the Holy Temple wrought by the Roman legions in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. The powerful external enemy was aided by the internal strife, the wanton hatred and arrogance that weakened us and angered the Almighty.

What bitter irony that the Western Wall has become a touchstone of internal conflict in Israel and in the Diaspora at the same time that external enemies are gathering their strength. Standing in Azarat Yisrael, the solution seems so simple. The planned renovations of the Western Wall must include both sides of the bridge, preserving our history and ensuring our future.