Women praying in the Rabbinical Tunnels

Women praying in the Rabbinical Tunnels

After our visit to the Christian Quarter, we spent a day in the Jewish Quarter. The sacred spot is the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), built by King Herod in 20 BC, the only extant part of the Second Temple.

At the time (between 516 BC and 70 AD), there was only one temple in all of Judaism, and Jews were required to turn up there three times a year. It was in the Second Temple that the boy Jesus, having wandered away from his parents as kids will, was found discussing issues with elder rabbis. It was here that he later raged at the moneychangers in a sacred space. There is still no commerce in the Western Wall plaza; you can’t even buy a bottle of water.

men and women at western wall

Men and women divided at the wall

The holiest site in Judaism is divided into the part where men pray (two thirds of the wall) to the part where women pray (one third of the wall). There’s a dress code even for us visitors: covered knees and shoulders. A few shawls and lower body wraps were available to be borrowed. I came prepared, but was still approached by the shoulder police after I had absentmindedly removed my outer shirt in the 89 degree heat.

Both sections have white plastic chairs where people sit and read sacred texts (also on loan from bookshelves in the plaza) or rest and gossip. Always, there are people pressed against the wall, praying. And there are people pressing tiny slips of paper between the bricks. These are prayers being offered up at the site of the original temple.

prayers stuffed in western wall

Prayers stuffed into the wall

Judy and I hastily wrote out some prayers and approached the wall ready to stuff. It was a Sunday, and the wall was completely taken up by women in prayer, including a passel of schoolgirls in long navy skirts and pale blue shirts (astonishingly like our parochial school uniforms of yore). We were patient; we waited for a break; we stretched our arms over people’s heads; but we could not get close enough to put our prayers in. Fortunately, there was a perpendicular wall, an annex, probably not nearly as holy, where other people had stuffed their prayers. Even this was effortful with the previously stuffed cracks, but we at last succeeded and hope for the best.

But of course, this commerce-free plaza was not there in 33 AD. The real city is now underground, where Zohar promptly led us through one of the city’s many archaeological museums. There were supportive arches, ancient mold, former cisterns, and a fragment of an actual street from the time of Herod. (37 BC to 4 BC) I don’t think I’ve ever actually stood on a street that old. It sends shivers.

Within the walkways, between levels of archaeology, there was a small modern temple, with pews and all the proper accoutrements. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 A.D., no more were built on the site. Instead of a main temple, smaller ones were built in neighborhoods, eventually around the world.

Women praying in the Rabbinical Tunnels

Zohar and the group on a Herodian era street. Note old mold.

The tour ended at a walkway around an ancient reservoir of green water, enlivened by a single black fish. We would exit now, Zohar told us, in the Arab quarter. We were to keep marching straight ahead, do not stop, do not shop, and do not react if hassled. He himself was hassled by what he called “Arab security,” but the rest of us marched swiftly through.

Still, as Zohar kept reminding us, no matter what we hear about Arab-Israeli relations, Jerusalem is a zone of calm. It is the most sacred spot for Jews and Christians, for Muslims, it ranks number three. So there is no interest in conflict; everybody has too much to lose. Still, it seems like a restless city. There are hookah bars, where men drink juice and suck intently on whatever it is, but there are no sidewalk cafes with calm people watchers. The air is rich with a kind of emotional incense that is not unpleasant, but certainly intense. It is a place like nowhere else.