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The Old City in Jerusalem, I’m convinced, can best be appreciated through the eyes of a guide. And if the guide is a religious Jew, all the better.
Rather than recount the story of Jerusalem, I’d rather share my experience of the day there. History and my impressions are intertwined as they are impossible to separate; my focus is on the most memorable moments. My friends, Alizah and Menashe joined me as our guide, Avi, took us back in time.
We entered the Old City at the Jaffa gate, where we could see the Dome of the Rock site with its golden sheath. This was known as the precise spot from which Muhammad entered heaven; it is said that the hoof of his horse left a permanent mark in the rock. Unfortunately for the Jews, the Dome was built over the rock where the Holy of Holies (the place where G-d dwelt on earth in the First and Second Temples) had been located hundreds of years earlier; it is the most sacred spot in Judaism.
Today, the Muslim community makes it extremely difficult for Jews to walk near the Dome and the Al Aqsa Mosque. I remember that 45 years ago I was walking in the area with my Israeli boyfriend, hand-in-hand. The Arab Muslims kept shouting at us, “Blee Yadayim!” (no hands); we kept forgetting and were shouted at a few more times as we mindlessly rejoined our hands. This day we could only look at the Temple Mount from a distance since we are not welcome there.
The Old City streets are home to the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters. As we meandered our way through the ancient streets filled with shops of all kinds, selling clothes, spices, chachkis, and tourist items, we made our way to the Temple Tunnels. Our walk was an awe-inspiring experience, as we observed places where layers and layers of construction were built, after each attack and destruction of the Wall that surrounded the Temple, the shops, and rooms. At one point we could see a stone that likely weighed 63,000 tons—impossible to imagine! Even more mind-boggling were the methods and manpower they must have used to construct the Temples. And then there is the danger of moving stones of that size.
The most moving moment for me in the Tunnels was when Avi explained that the place we were standing was likely the closest to the location of the Holy of Holies (which was still quite a distance). I stood silently, touched the Wall, and we all spent a few minutes praying. I closed my eyes and breathed in the dust of the ages.
After leaving the tunnels, we had an animated virtual reality experience, where we saw ourselves within the Temple areas allowed to non-Jews and to the Jews, and “watched” the priests lead prayer. Rather than simply seeing the remnants of ruin, we had a sense of what the process and experience might have been while visiting the Temple during ancient times.
Finally, we approached the Western Wall itself. After touching the stones on the woman’s side, Alizah and I sat down and prayed and meditated. When I finished, I couldn’t help noticing the different ways the women responded to being in the Wall’s presence: silence, hiding their faces, crying, lips moving in prayer, eyes closed. I sensed our shared purpose in the shadow of the Temple that no longer existed: drawing closer to G-d.
I would like to comment on the controversy about the separate prayer areas for men and women. I understand its purpose: our attention should be only on prayer, and the presence of the opposite sex can be a distraction. The separation is not intended to be punitive but rather is meant to be helpful. We can rest in the spirit of the moment with the Divine, and only Him.
My final impression centers on the southern wall of the temple. I was struck by the area where the Jews had run to hide from the Romans in underground tunnels. Unfortunately, the Romans realized where the Jews had gone, and began to bludgeon the earth to kill the people underneath. The Jews were trapped.
There are many other impressions I keep in my heart. My overall sense of the Old City of Jerusalem is that, in one sense, it belongs to the world as a reminder to everyone of the tragic history and resilience of the Jews. In spite of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Jews look forward to the time when Moshiach comes and the Third Temple will be built. Jerusalem is the place, the receptacle, the memory where, I feel, G-d watches over the Jews. The world can destroy and desecrate our holy places, they can unjustly criticize and condemn us, and we will continue to find ways to survive. It is our mission. It is our responsibility. It is our faith.