Friday, June 10, 2011

Har HaBayit - BeYadenu?

On Friday around 2:30 p.m. Israel time, tens of Arab youths threw stones from the Temple Mount towards Mugrabe Gate, which out of the Kotel plaza. For the first time since September of this year, Israeli police entered the Temple Mount to disperse crowds and prevent injuries below.

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Two weeks ago, a friend of mine who is exploring her Jewish roots and was previously involved in Arab-Jewish peacemaking arrived in Jerusalem. Her acquaintance with Jerusalem up until this point was no less with the Arab neighborhoods of the city than the Jewish parts, and so she naturally stayed in a hotel in East Jerusalem. Her plan had to been to travel to Safed for Shabbat and delve into the wisdom of Kabbalah through the educational and spiritual resources at Ascent. However, as a result of miscommunication with Egged, she missed the last bus up north and found herself minutes before Shabbat stuck at her hotel in East Jerusalem.

Although I could not accommodate her on Friday night, a friend and I had the unconventional idea to surprise her at her hotel on Shabbat day. The only problem was - myself, an American and my friend, an Israeli - had not been to East Jerusalem in years, and never during such volatile times. We dressed (modestly of course) as non-obsequious tourists, and walked nonchalantly across town towards the hotel, near Damascus Gate. Soon it was time to cross Kvish Echad - Road #1 - that separates the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of the city. It was one of those experiences where you think lightning is going to strike, and then suddenly - it doesn't - and you realize - there may be a wall of invisible glass dividing the city, but that at its heart, Jerusalem is one.

After meeting at the hotel, we decided to take my friend to the Kotel, as her curiosity for holy places was peaking and she had few resources to explore these places on her own, and besides, what better time to arrive at the Kotel than Mincha on Shabbat. Naturally, she suggested we walk through Damascus Gate, as it provided the most direct route from where we were to the Wall. When our Israeli friend heard Sha'ar Shchem, he replied, are you crazy? I can't walk through there. Eventually we convinced him that there was nothing to worry about, and that chareidim (ultra-orthodox Jews) walk to the Kotel via Damascus Gate all the time.

I don't know exactly how to put into words the experience of walking through East Jerusalem on Shabbat on the way to the kotel. It was like discovering your backyard for the first time, and feeling a bizarre mixture of at-homeness, foreignness, belonging, familiarity and otherness. Granted, I (unlike some others) would not have felt comfortable walking through identified as religious Jews. However, in camouflage, the experience provided an intimate, deeply-sought and deeply significant experience with the city's other half.

The walk from Damascus Gate to the Kotel was new, rich, full of history, and exhilarating. I should note that there were many religious Jews who walked with us, and I resolved to use this route again in the future. Indeed, several days ago, I returned to the Kotel for Mincha on Shavuot, this time dressed as myself, a modestly-dressed religious Jewish woman. Although when I was with the others, we had stuck to the one path leading from the Gate to the Wall, this time I noticed a large group of seminary girls coming out of one of the side alleyways, and I couldn't help but walk a few steps to see what lay at the other end.

To my surprise, the dark alleyway suddenly gave light to an archway filled with blue sky, fresh olive trees, and, behind them - the Dome of the Rock - the present-day marker for the holiest spot of Har HaBayit. This was the regular-old-tourist path to Har HaBayit, and I would soon discover, it was manned by soldiers to ensure that Jews would not enter the space, so as to not turn up the heat on the already hot-spot of conflict. Yet seeing an opening, as any (naive) Jew would do, I abruptly picked up the pace of my steps and went forth. Then, I saw two soldiers waiting by the archway, and right before me, a religious man ascended the steps, eyeing the jackpot. "Excuse me!" the soldiers called in Hebrew. "It is forbidden to go up." A short exchange ensued but it was clear the man had no chance. I had a few seconds before my turn to internalize the situation, and so, eager to ascend (I conveniently forgot for a moment the fact that I should only go up with an expert who knows where I am allowed to step), I decided to try my luck out as a tourist. Yes, that's right, hide my Jewish identity in front of Israeli soldiers to be allowed to enter the holiest place of our people on the festival of Shavuot - 40 years after the reunification of Jerusalem. [God bless the soldiers - they're just taking the Left's (and for that matter, the Right's) orders!]

In any case, my impersonation of a goya did not go very far. At first I tried to sneak but surreptitiously - no luck.  "Excuse me, you cannot go here," the soldier said resolutely in Hebrew. I put on my best clueless tourist, although my Shabbos shoes left me hapless. " it always closed?" The soldier perhaps bought it for a moment, and then said: "You can come back tomorrow (in English), mi sheva vachetzi ad achat esre vachetzi". I'm assuming saying the opening hours of the Temple Mount in Hebrew, he was testing my Hebrew as translated in the response of my facial muscles. I couldn't bear to continue the deception and so I smiled and turned around. Maybe another time. As I walked through the metal detectors and to the Kotel Plaza though, I couldn't quite shake off the tense, Kafkaeque and twisted reality of these holy alleyways: After millenia of separation, why is an Israeli soldier the last barrier between a Jew and the Foundation Stone?

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