Daniel Adler, Bareback In Jerusalem

Western Wall
The Western Wall and the (Golden) Dome of the Rock

I had always imagined Jerusalem as crowded, sweaty, and somehow more third world than the rest of the Middle East, with arid dust rising behind me, monkeys screaming in the distance, the call to prayer sounding and lots of white robes and payos.

In reality, Jerusalem is built on a small mountain, about two thousand feet high. It is beautiful. The British mandated Jerusalem stone to cover every building in the city, as of 1936, and the effect is one of solidarity. Lush evergreens grow, high rosemary bushes sprout purple flowers, their scent wafting into the air. It is quiet, respectfully so. And it is clean — there is no desert dust at all.

We went to Yad VaShem yesterday, the Holocaust museum atop Jerusalem. It was very informative, with detailed placards tracing the rise of Nazism from ’33 to the Departed Camps before the founding of the state in ’47. Usually when we are exposed to the attempted genocide of WWII or any other atrocity, we tend to feel emotional for as long as we are exposed to it, before putting it into the back of our minds. But a video we watched beforehand about a Sephardic Auschwitz survivor began with him stating that today (the day the film was shot) is a beautiful day, and he is the happiest man alive. His will to survive kept him alive throughout the camps, even though his stomach was so shrunken, he couldn’t even eat a biscuit when the Americans found him…While he died a few years ago, that phrase, spoken in the December of his life, reminded me that I have only today to live and that I should do so with the collective passion of the six million whose chances were stolen by the Nazis.

Then we went to the Western Wall for Shabbos. Since my usual Shabbos consists only in breaking a few slices of liquid bread with my brother and my cousin, I assumed that religious Jews would take their Friday evening more seriously. But the dancing and singing commingled with the praying. I walked to the wall, took off my gloves, put my hands and my forehead on the cool stone and began to pray. I prayed for all the people important to me, the obvious ones, and some not so obvious, who slipped in accidentally, which disturbed me so that soon thereafter I ended my prayers and walked back outside the gate. But we still had twenty minutes. I walked back in, and decided to enter the prayer warren where hundreds of men stared at me, their faces open and their eyes–blue, green, hazel, black–burning with wonder. I looked straight back in wonder and pride. I turned sideways to pass through them, inhaling their musky scents and wondering where they came from.

I went back to the wall and prayed again. I put everything away and remembered all the Jews, who for thousands of years had walked through the Muslim domination of Jerusalem, to get to this small corner to lament the temple’s end. I heard their wailings, remembered their death. And when I pulled my head back from the cold stone and opened my eyes, it was as though I were somewhere entirely different. And I felt at peace.

This morning, despite how we neglected the Christian and Muslim areas of the old town, we saw superb views of the city, from the lavishly-Saudi-oil-money-funded Dome of the Rock back to the Mount of Olives. We went back to the Wall again, and this time, I felt the warm Middle Eastern sun berate my neck. My back felt itchy. But I didn’t move. I opened my eyes at one point and looked at the small notes stuffed between the close-fitting stones, and the itch went away. A cloud passed over the sun. I felt the holiness of this place, and remembered that history as I know it began about three thousand years ago, when David first founded Jerusalem. And how in those three thousand years all the Jews and people who fought over this land, in attempting to cover one tradition with another, to lay the groundwork for a greater history to come, how all of this was what I knew, and how I was not a particle of sand on a hundred mile beach, but a person in a thousand generations, who has the ability to live and make a difference. That I am a person who, with the power of words, will inspire and teach, refocus our attention to what is important. And I pulled back, off the wall, and sat in a plastic chair and watched the other men pray, imagined their scents and origins, and remembered their–our–past.

Published by Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel was born in Brooklyn, NY, and has lived in Portland, Oregon. He studied literature and philosophy at NYU and creative writing at Edinburgh University. He is finishing an MFA in Fiction at University of South Carolina.

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