Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jerusalem then and now

While visiting family members in Israel for summer two years ago, I took my 8-year-old son to Jerusalem, to see the Temple Mount and the West Wall. My elder brother Chalin met us there, which brought back memories from times long gone.

I remember the excitement of my strongly Mormon and Catholic mixed faith adoptive family when visiting Israel--they got a chance to walk where Jesus walked! They made sure to visit all the Christian holy sites. I have to admit, as child the religious significance of the place escaped me. It was the cobblestones of the old streets, the mixing of cultures and languages, the pot-bellied reservist with his gun in the shade of a tree, the scent of roasting lamb, the postcard and religious salesmen at the major sites, the full-bearded Orthodox men praying and the touch of the hot rocks of the West Wall that got engraved in my subconscious.

It was spring break, shortly after my 13th birthday--the last time I was in Israel before this year. My whole adoptive family came, and they were dragging me from one place to another almost non-stop. Luckily one day, at the request of my birth family (with whom we were all staying) they left me with my brother Chalin as they headed out to Nazareth. Around ten a.m. Chalin told me to get ready, wear my best shirt and trousers, we are going somewhere. Chalin at the time was 22, a good friend of mine, recently done with his IDF service, and a fairly recently observant Chabadnik. I loved him probably most of the Cohens, and we are still close.

In the car he gave me a nice package. Wrapped in soft blue and white paper were a tallit bag, a matching tallit, tefillin and a navy blue suede kippah. "You are now thirteen," he said, "and I know you didn't have a bar mtizvah celebration, but you are actually now a Jewish adult, a bar mitzvah." It had been years since anyone dared to refer to me as Jewish--having been raised Catholic and then pretty much forced into becoming LDS with my family--but it sounded fitting. During the 60 km drive Chalin went through some of the prayers with me, honestly surprised that I still remembered what I had learnt as a young boy.

Arriving in Jerusalem he parked the car and we set out towards the West Wall, Chalin quietly explaining to me what I already knew. "After the U.N. decision, East Jerusalem became a part of Jordan, and Jews were denied access to the West Wall. A generation grew up without being able to visit the most holy of our holy sites, up until 1967, when during the Six Day War East Jerusalem was retaken by Israeli forces. That was Grandpa's last and Dad's first armed conflict when they were on duty. You know that famous picture of the three IDF soldiers at the West Wall, right?" I knew that picture and soon started to experience the awe that was reflected on their faces.

Arriving at the West Wall, Chalin and I lay the tefillin, recited the blessings, and soon I found myself facing the wall itself. I touched the side of my forehead to the wall and closed my eyes, laying my hands on the ancient rocks. The coolness of the rock, the touch of generations gone by answering to my touch suddenly brought me to the realization that no matter what I wanted to make myself believe, I belonged there. I closed my eyes and offered a prayer for peace, happiness and understanding.

Now, twelve years later, I told the story of the Temple and the Six Day War of 1967 to my son as we waited for our turn. Told him what this place meant to Jews and even some Christians. I told him about John Paul II coming here years ago, and about my first time there. Then I put on that old tallit, lay that tefilling, closed my eyes and turning sideways I touched my forehead to the ancient stone that radiated heat in the summer. I offered a prayer for peace, happiness and understanding.

At home I showed Craig a recent picture from the Jerusalem Post. You can see it below. It is the same three soldiers: first on the day of entering East Jerusalem, then 40 years later, in 2007, at the same place at the West Wall.

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