It is nothing like I imagined it. After 24 hours of air travel, my attention span is limited. This, however, is much more captivating than debriefings and orientations. When I first see it, I think I might be mistaken. In my mind, it was a colossal structure. I’m taken aback by its normal size. Our group of North American Jews wearily sits on a balcony a short distance from the wall. As our guide describes our surroundings, the Muslim call to prayer echoes across Old Jerusalem. In this small space there are so many beliefs, all competing for prime real estate. Our guide ushers us through security and then sets us loose with a strict time limit. I glance at my phone and make a fuzzy mental note.
The wall is divided. Men on one side, and women on a noticeably smaller side. As I enter my side, other women exit walking backwards. It is crowded. Rows of white plastic chairs are scattered in front of the wall and clash with the ancient stone. Women sit with small children and prayer books. Navigating through this sea of lawn furniture is not how I expected to approach the wall. I
squeeze my way through, and plastic arm rests catch on my long skirt.
Everyone is dressed modestly. The hush of words whispered and mumbled fills the space. When I finally find myself close to the wall I wait patiently to find a space. I haven’t yet learned that no one waits patiently here for anything. But aggression seems inappropriate at this holy site. So I stand and observe. It’s dark outside, but the lights overhead illuminate the space like a sports stadium.
Young girls stand flush with the wall, prayer books pressed so close to their faces that their voices are barely audible. Women approach and place a hand on the wall. Most bury their faces in the wall. Some sob. Some rock forward and back. I usually look away quickly, feeling as though I’m watching something that should be private. One woman stands right next to me and manages to force her hand upon the wall immediately. I’m jealous of her technique. She
pulls out her iPhone and opens Google. I’m confused, and I glance at another part of the wall. When I look back I see her reading aloud from her iPhone. She Googled a prayer.
I start to feel unlucky in my spot, so I walk along the wall to a slightly less crowded area. I stand and stare at the cracks in the wall, trying to figure out where I’ll put my note. Even at the Western Wall I plan. I repeat what I wrote on my note in my head and look at the folded notes forced into 2000 year old stone.
When a woman in front of me begins to leave, I step forward quickly. After watching so many other people, I feel a little self conscious about what I should do. I place my hand on an empty space on the wall. I don’t know what to expect, but I feel something: energy. As though the moment my hand touched the wall, my feet were pulled into the ground. I am rooted, grounded. I keep my hand in place, scared to lose my spot, and look for the crevice I’d found for my note. I try to slide it in, but it won’t stay. So much for planning. I find another spot. It’s a little too big, but my words will stay here for now.
I’m hesitant to leave. I remember our time limit and notice that many people from my group are already gone. I take my hand off the wall and stay for just another moment. As soon as I back away my former space is quickly absorbed by another occupant. Walking backwards through the chairs challenges my limited coordination. I wonder how the other women here, many also holding the hand of a child, do it so effortlessly. I must look ridiculous.
When I am far enough away, I turn around. But it doesn’t feel right. I want to go back. To make sure it was real. Only a day ago I boarded a plane at LAX, and today I put a note in the Western Wall. People say that when you visit Israel, you go home on both legs of the journey. In only a matter of hours, I begin to understand why.