I spent Shabbat in Jerusalem.
Shabbat (for those who don’t know) is the Jewish day of rest. Starting on sunset Friday night and lasting until sunset Saturday night, we are traditionally supposed to just relax and take a break from our normal everyday life- some might have dinner with family, go to synagogue Saturday morning, maybe even give up facebook and e-mailing for the day.
For most people in Jerusalem, Shabbat is so much more than this, and Friday night into Saturday is holy- and treated as if it were a holiday.
I was visiting a friend who is currently studying Torah in a very religious seminary with a group of other 20-something women in Har Hof- a very religious area that is located high up among the winding hills of Jerusalem. Her campus was surrounded by rosemary and jasmine trees, which gave off a refreshingly sweet and clean smell. I wish I could post photos for you, however, on Shabbat we were not allowed to even touch our cell phones or cameras! It was so strange for me- we couldn’t drive anywhere, we couldn’t carry anything, they even ripped toilet paper the night before so no one had to tear paper because even that is considered a form of ‘work’.
We had Friday night dinner at a friend of a friend’s apartment. It was so nice, all white with floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking the sun set over the old city. Our host was a 27 year old girl from Australia. There were about twelve other girls there from my friend’s seminary, some were from South Africa, another from England, one from Paris, all very religious. I wore a long skirt, long sleeved shirt and scarf as a form of modesty. None of the girls expose above their elbows or below their knees. (Yes, it was also 90 degrees out.)
We ate a huge homemade meal when it became dark, and the dim orange lights of old Jerusalem twisted around the distant hills as we feasted on different types of quiche, roasted eggplant and sweet potatoes, cucumber tomato salad, pita hummus and tehina… It was all so colorful and delicious (and kosher, of course).
After prayers and dinner, we had a discussion about a woman’s role in society according to religious Jewish law. I remember feeling confused and out of place while I was there, sitting among other women my age who have given up their secular life to live their life according to the Torah (or “how god has intended us to live”).
The girls told me that as observant Jewish women, they cannot become rabbis, cannot partake in or sit with their husbands during temple services. They are not allowed to have sex until marriage (oh, by the way, having sex on Shabbat is actually seen as good deed, or ‘mitzvah!’) and their most important role is to provide their husband with many children. The girls explained to me that they have the same views of a feminist, they just express it differently. They say this because women are already closer to god, and seen as more holy and powerful than men. So, in order for men to create a relationship with god, and to create a living to support their family, and to study Torah, they need to first get rid of the ‘distraction’ of the woman.
For those of you that know me well, I had to bite my tongue when they were describing all of the restrictions women have in this so called ‘man’s world’ and this new perspective of ‘feminism’ was hard to wrap my head around. (I mean, my final college essay was about the positive influence of female power and sexuality in film…) Soooo, when they asked me if I wanted to go to a party where men sing, dance, and drink in a circle while the women watch from the outside of the circle, I had to kindly decline… (plus, what’s a party if you can’t grind up to Lil’ Wayne?) And to make it clear, I am not saying by any means that this is the wrong way to live, I think it is an extremely beautiful and respectable way of life, but it is not for me.
I asked my friend if she would instead like to take a late night trip to the Kotel (the Kotel is another name for the Western Wall). According to history, the wall is what remains from the destruction of the 2nd temple, the oldest and holiest of holy places for people to go and pray.
I have always thought of god and spirituality to be extremely personal, and figured this could be an interesting experience for my own personal beliefs and definitely a change of spiritual scenery. (Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not at Back Bay Yoga any more!)
My friend thought it was a really good idea to go to the Kotel, and so did a few of the other girls. But they told me that the only way to get there was a 2 hour walk, and then another 2 hours back. (Remember, no driving = no cabs.) So, like a good observant Jewish girl, I changed into sneakers, and 2 hours later I found myself face to face with the Wall at 2:30 in the morning. There were five other women sitting there (which is extremely rare, the Kotel is usually packed with people) and I felt very lucky to have so much of this precious and holy space to myself. However, I also felt like I was on a movie set- flood lights surrounded us, making the Dome of the Rock look like plastic gold. Everything was so bright, looking so fake, and the prayer book my friend gave to me felt like a useless heavy brick in my lap. Oh, and I was sitting in a white plastic lawn chair.
I leaned forward, closed my eyes, and pressed my forehead against the Wall.
“Hello God? It’s me, Allison.”
“How are you, God?”
“So, um, God… Do you want me to pray to you or something?”
So I decided to open my prayer book. ‘Praying at the Kotel on Shabbat: For Beginners!’
Page one: “Hello reader, this book will guide you with easy instructions on how to pray at the Wall, including English translation of what your prayers actually mean. Welcome to the holiest place on earth!”
Wait a minute, was I actually on a movie set? Or in a movie? I was feeling really confused as to how I was supposed to be feeling. I was sitting at one of the most fascinating places in the world, where some believe that physical and mental spirituality are combined as one, yet I feel frustrated and completely disconnected.
I closed my eyes again and tried really hard to meditate. Didn’t work. I opened my eyes and felt like crying, so I stopped trying altogether.
I stopped trying to feel, stopped trying to pray, stopped trying to think, and that’s when things started to get good. Being so overwhelmed with my experience in Jerusalem thus far, I guess I needed to think about nothing in order to feel something. I do not remember how long I sat in my generic little lawn chair for, but I do remember how much of a release it was. To really think about nothing for a long time left me with a positive and meditative experience. I left the wall feeling very present, and in control.
My friend and I walked home through the old city and up the winding hills, and 2 and a half hours later, I was in bed, with blisters on my feet, sweat down my back, and a powerful spiritual experience still lingering in my mind.
I took a bus home the next night when we could drive again. As soon as I got back home in Tel Aviv, I was elated to be back in the big city, overjoyed to wear my bikini at the beach the next day, and thankful to be a woman who can dance with other men. But I was also extremely grateful for the weekend that I had in one of the most sacred places in the world.
Next post: Camping at the Dead Sea!