08 August 2009
Dispatches from Israel - Religious Observations
A few years back I went on several safaris——in the Masai Mara of Kenya, the Serengeti of Tanzania and in two national parks in Uganda. I saw the “Big Five” animals, and the one thing that I remember more than anything else was the magnificence of the river crossings the wildebeest and the zebra made. Both animals know to find the shortest crossing point and when they did, hundreds of thousands of them would wait for just the right moment to cross. The slightest noise and they would retreat. I checked this once by clapping my hands as I was watching them wait for that perfect moment. The challenge for these animals was that they knew that crocodiles were waiting for them. If they moved en masse, the group’s chance for survival was far better than if one lone animal made the crossing. Once one of the wildebeest made a move to cross the river, they all acted as a single organism. The "crocs" picked off the babies, or those on the edges of the herd. Eventually the herd made it to the other side, albeit minus some of its more vulnerable members. This migration happens every year as the animals search for new supplies of grass upon which to feed.
In Jerusalem, there is a road not far from my hotel which divides the Muslims’ area from the Jews’. The road leads to the Damascus Gate through which Jews pass to make their way to the Western Wall to pray at the holiest Jewish shrine in the world. I went to the Western Wall one Friday at sunset and observed as Jewish families made their way on the road. Hundreds of people were dressed in religious clothes, the men wearing either a black fedora or a round flat bushy hat that looked like a cake carefully balanced atop of one’s head. All the men had Hasidim curls, the young boys still with light hair had blonde curls while the older men had black or graying curls.
Unlike any other day, Friday is the holy day, which begins at sundown. To help secure the safe passage of the Jews along this road on Fridays, there is an overabundance of police, with rifles held at the ready who make certain that nothing happens. The massive numbers of people making their way to the Wall reminded me of the wildebeest and zebra pilgrimages for sustenance.
I joined the migration to the Western Wall and walked through the ageless passage ways of the Old City of Jerusalem until we got to what looks like the convergence of 14 different lanes of traffic into 2 lanes heading into the Lincoln Tunnel across the Hudson River in New York. I broke away and took the high road so that I could look from above at the plaza in front of the Wall and the throngs of people. From up there I observed that the Israeli Defense Forces were everywhere, protecting the assembled from attack. Everyone who enters the plaza passes through metal detectors which are set far back from the Wall to protect the people milling about the plaza should something happen.
This trek is repeated daily by some, while others make it every Friday as the sun begins to drift below the horizon. The length to which those who make this trek are protected is amazing. It made me think about what it must be like to be Jewish and weather a history of torment and anti-Semitism spanning over 2000 years. To survive the murder of six million Jews during World War II. Yet, every day people make their way to the Wall, honoring their faith and creed, and paying homage to their relatives and ancestors who sacrificed so much.
As I exited the Old City and returned back up the road to the hotel, people were still making their way in the evening light to the Wall. The police were still there protecting the route. Within minutes I was on the other end of the road in another world where only non-Jews go—Arabs, Palestinians, Christians and tourists.