Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
I was born in 1978, so as a Jewish American child, I was expected to know about three walls: The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
With portions built as early as the seventh century BCE, the Great Wall of China is a good, old fashioned wall. Marking the historic northern border of China, it was built in stages, over the course of hundreds of years, in order to protect the Chinese from northern raiders. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a pride of the Chinese people.
The Berlin wall, on the other hand, was a bad wall — a slice of the Cold War captured in stone, a symbol of the outer limits of the reaches of democracy, or so said the American narrative. One must admit, though, that this wall served its purpose, staving off war, allowing enemies to rest on either side of it. We rejoiced in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down, allowing the Germans to express in concrete their renewed will for unity.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem seems to be another kind of wall entirely. Old like the Great Wall, the Western Wall is a monument to destruction and to the cherished past of the Jewish people. The Western Wall, or the Kotel, is a masterpiece of ancient construction, its oldest stone standing nearly as tall as I do. First destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt and destroyed again by the Romans, one external wall of the great structure remains: weighty and strong, a symbol of Jewish resilience and unwillingness to forget.
In its time, the Western Wall was nothing special at all, just a retaining wall demarcating the outer edge of the elevated Temple platform. But, as a survivor, it became something else entirely, a site of Jewish pilgrimage throughout the ages; a beleaguered wall for a beleaguered people.
No one better captures the power and symbolism of the Kotel than Yitzhak Rabin, the fifth prime minister of Israel. Reflecting on his experience there when his unit of Israeli Paratroopers retook the Wall from the Jordanians, who had controlled it since 1948, Rabin recalled in an address to Knesset in May 1995, “It was as if Providence had directed the whole thing: the paratroopers weeping — loudly and in pain — over their comrades who had fallen along the way, the words of the Kaddish prayer heard by the Western Wall’s stones after nineteen years of silence, tears of mourning, shouts of joy, and the singing of “Hatikvah.”
Walls were added to the Wall from the moment the Kotel returned to Jewish hands in 1967. The war was fought just weeks before the sacred holiday of Shavuot, and the leaders at the time were aware that Jews would flock to the site to celebrate the ancient pilgrimage festival. In order to make it a fitting place for Orthodox prayer, a mechitza, a partition separating men and women, was erected. This new wall transected the old one, as a symbol for the recognized Judaism in the Holy Land — men empowered on one side, and women, whispering like their matriarch Hannah on the other. Secular and liberal Jews were welcome to visit, as long as they were willing to don the costume of the Orthodox and divide themselves accordingly.
In late January of this year, the Israeli Government undertook the historic decision to add a second wall to this ancient Jewish space, creating a third domain for those who do not wish to separate by gender, who do not find themselves in the categories constructed by Orthodox Judaism.
If our ancient wall is like the Great Wall of China, what is the status of these new, younger walls?
In recent weeks, the creation of the newest wall has been heralded by the leaders of the liberal Jewish movements as a great success: “One Wall for One People,” they proclaim. If so, then we are a people divided. I prefer to regard our new walls like the Berlin Wall, serving a purpose for a time, but not a reflection of the ideal. An ancient wall in the heart of a besieged city surrounded and transected by walls of separation is not the metaphor I choose for my homeland.
Instead, as a new immigrant to Israel, one here to pursue justice and build peace, I’d rather look just a few blocks away, to an interlocking grid of tiny partitions at the open-air market, Shuk Machne Yehuda, for inspiration. There, humans born in countless countries, speak Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, Spanish, and more, offer tastes of goods grown from this sacred earth, to shoppers heading home to feed families nearby, a celebration of diversity of every kind. And, as for our ancient wall, I hold out hope that its partitions will come down some day, so that a Hatikva resonant with the one sung by the paratroopers in 1967, a song of hope and unity, can be heard at the Kotel once more.
Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at www.herisrael.com.
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Rabbi Sara Brandes was born in Los Angeles and received her rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She worked as an educator, yoga instructor, hospital chaplain, and director of the Neshama Center and Mikvah before moving with her family to Kibbutz Hannaton in Israel.