Wishes at the Western Wall

Only about half of the Western Wall is real.

Most of the portion that dates back to the Second Temple Period, as built by King Herod two thousand years ago, is submerged beneath the ground. The rest of the limestone has been pieced together over the centuries to preserve the original appearance. But it depends on what you mean by real.

Picture courtesy of Tudor Giurgica-Turon

In the darkness, it sounds like the wall is humming — a rhythmic chant that seems to emanate from the wall itself. It is also huge, large enough to be divided into a section for men and women. Large enough that from a distance, each person looks like a tiny ceramic figurine, with colored headdresses on one side and black top hats on another.

Amir, our tour guide, tells us it is customary to write our wishes on paper and put it in the wall. The wall is a direct link to God, and our prayers are more likely to be heard.

I don’t believe in wishes, so I don’t write anything at first. Call me your jaded maiden aunt. At the sun-ripened age of 20, I have discarded too many pennies and spread too many dandelion seeds to believe in wishes. Nevertheless, some Trekkers borrow my pen. Right as I approach, I jot down a few sentences on a ripped piece of notebook paper, and fold it once, twice, thrice, into a small fragment the size of my thumbnail.

Historically significant holy sites aren’t exactly in shortage in Israel. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Room of the Last Supper, Dome of the Rock — if an event belongs to the canon of an Abrahamic faith, chances are you’ll find the exact location it took place in Israel.

Yet over the course of the Trek, I found myself moved not by knowing that Jesus was taken down from the cross right where we stood, but by the remains of what people built to leave their mark on a holy site.

I did not find Jesus’ bones, but I did find a church built by Hadrian, christened by Constantine, torn down by the Ottomans, and rebuilt after a fire. On the inside, it looked like fifteen architects belonging to different sects had partitioned the building, so that each could worship what he knew best.

It reminded me of graffiti I had once seen on the underpass on the way to my high school, where generations of teen rebels had carved their own subversive messages into the concrete. Each grouchy suburbanite aimed to leave some record of their hopes and dreams in stone only a tad more permanent.

When I get closer to the wall, I realize that the humming is actually a frenzied mix of whispered prayers, muffled by mouths directly on the limestone. Across the barrier separating the men and women, the only noise that floats over from the men’s side is an acapella of strange, monotonic syllables I cannot make sense of.

On the women’s side, chairs have been placed starting ten feet from the wall, so that worshippers can pray in the presence of the holy site. I pick my way through chairs and people backing up from the wall (you are not meant to turn your back on God, even to rejoin your family).

It is only when I am five feet away, stopped by yet another literal barricade of humans, all clambering to place a hand or a forehead or a folded paper prayer between the brick crannies, that I realize the steady murmur I am hearing is crying.

There are numerous reasons to cry in Israel, numerous reasons to cry in life alone. The interminable Arab-Israeli conflict shapes the region like water shapes the land it flows around. How many people have desperately wished for the war to end? How many people have wished for peace, for God’s blessing, or for health for their loved ones? How many of those wishes had materialized into reality?

I stand there, holding my paltry wish, and the wall seems to loom above me, large and indifferent.

I cannot see any faces, but I hear the knocking of foreheads and low, fervent sobs. The only thing I can think about is that only half of the wall is real, and the other half has been constructed. A woman wearing a purple headscarf makes room for me, and I find a precarious perch for my slip of paper.

But if wishes are futile, perhaps Israel is the right place to make them anyway. Days later, we are driving through mountains carpeted with green when Amir tells us that this is the land God promised Moses at the burning bush, a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey. Amir looks fondly out the window.

And when the Messiah comes, he will be riding a white donkey.

For a moment, I could picture it, a man wearing simple garb, riding a donkey somewhere between this mountain and that. It seemed absurdly logical. What else would he be riding, on these hills, against these skies?

The landscape blurred and darkened around us, rendering everything — the bus, the sky, the land — real and not real all at once. I thought of my small fragment of paper, one undistinguished speck amidst all those wishes.

In Israel, it might still come true.

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