A day in Bethlehem and Hebron
The All Nations Café

A solitary sight-seeing Shabbat

This past Shabbat morning I walked to the Old City and made my way through the souq to the Kotel. A sign beside the metal detectors indicated that the chief rabbi has ruled it permissible to go through metal detectors on Shabbat -- apparently, somehow, the functioning of the metal detector doesn't constitute melacha (one of the 39 categories of forbidden labor). I followed an old lady through and emerged into the space before the Kotel plaza.

I snapped a surreptitious shot of this sign (which forbids photography on Shabbat), then walked over to the women's side of the wall. The divider between the two gendered sections was pushed well to the right: 2/3 space for the men, 1/3 space for the women. The men's side was packed; the women's side was emptier, though women were clustered in the margins. I walked up toward the sliver of shade near the base of the wall, but couldn't get too close; all of the chairs were full, and even the standing-room near the wall was pretty densely packed. Women in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, women in headscarves and hats. One woman caught my eye, in a long sweeping skirt with a bustle and a high-necked, frilly Victorian blouse. The women prayed silently or in a whisper; the men sang with gusto.

I hadn't even brought a siddur with me. I just stood there in the shade, swaying gently, and whispered quietly to God. I had a lot to say. I talked about how grateful I am that I've had the opportunity to come here, and about the wondrous moments of my previous week: the visit to David Moss' studio, a dinner with dear rabbinic school colleagues, translating new (to me) poems in ulpan and feeling like Hebrew is slowly beginning to open itself to me, uplifting erev Shabbat services that left me feeling connected with everyone and everything.

And I talked about what had been hard for me: the trip to the West Bank, the experience of witnessing first-hand some of what's broken here. That isn't the way things are supposed to be, I told God. This place is supposed to be the expression of our highest religious ideals; how can You let us screw this up so badly? Perhaps predictably, God didn't answer. Maybe the silence is meant to imply that the solution, like the problem, lies in our own hands and hearts.

And then I left the Kotel, and wended my way back through the market. At Jaffa Gate, I ascended to the top of the Old City walls to take the Ramparts Walk around the perimeter of the city. The views are glorious: looking out into the surrounding new city, looking in at the rooftops and winding streets. Steeples and minarets and domes. The walkway is bumpy -- old cobblestones, not easy on the feet -- and often zigs and zags up small flights of stairs and then back down again. But from time to time it was blessedly flat, for which I was grateful.

After a while the Dome of the Rock made itself visible on the far side of the roofscape. The bright gold above the blue mosaic always draws my eye, no matter where I am. At one point I walked past a school where children were at play. Music poured forth from a window, and an impromptu soccer game formed. I stood and watched for a little while before moving on.

Of course, it's not possible to walk the whole perimeter of the Old City. Once the path began to draw near to the Temple Mount, I hit a dead end. I turned back and began retracing my steps, and the next time I was able to exit, I climbed down and left the Old City. I walked toward home, past busy outdoor markets where merchants sold clothing and fruit. (I bought a plum. I had been walking outdoors in the hot sun atop the walls for an hour and a half. It was one of the finest plums I have ever tasted.)

As I crossed from East Jerusalem back into West Jerusalem, the streets became quieter and the visible commerce disappeared. When I got home, I took a delicious cool shower, ate some vegetables and hummous, and curled up with a book for the remainder of the afternoon.

Last week was so dense, so jam-packed with people and with experiences, that by its end I was overloaded on every level. I needed a mostly solitary Shabbat in order to recharge. Sometimes the Shabbat I need involves community and conversation; other times, what I need is to spend Shabbat alone. This was the perfect balance: I was surrounded by people (people at prayer, people haggling and selling), but able to be alone in my own private emotional and spiritual sphere.

Photos from my Shabbat -- mostly of the ramparts walk -- are here.

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