The Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is THE place to be at sundown on Fridays when Sabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, begins.
Late Friday afternoon we followed a steady stream of worshipers, dressed in their finest, up a steep path just outside the Old City walls. The gold Dome of the Rock , part of a complex of buildings on the Temple Mount, glistened in the setting sun. It was a landmark to get us to the Western Wall.
In the open plaza of the Wailing Wall, as the Western Wall is commonly called, large circles of young people, separated by gender, were singing, clapping and dancing. As we approached the Western Wall, the sounds in the air were electrifying – joyous singing and chanting in the open-air sanctuary competed with the clamor of voices in the bustling plaza and the loudspeakers of nearby mosques which were calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.
The female side of the sanctuary was relatively small as compared to the men‘s side. I approached it via a ramp, passing modestly-dressed Orthodox women with numerous children in tow. I soon found myself next to a group of young ladies who were singing together. Women who were chanting and praying solo – some seated, some standing – surrounded us. Taking a cue from others as I left, I backed out of the sanctuary while continually facing The Western Wall.
More reveling was going on on the men’s side than on the women’s. A group of military men in uniform with rifles were dancing and jumping in a circle along with others. Tables with prayer books stacked on top were scattered about. From where I stood peering over the enclosure, the cacophony of sounds coming from the men’s sanctuary pierced the atmosphere.
Jerry and I spent the rest of the evening enjoying a quiet Shabbat dinner in the home of our new *Servas Host Barbara along with several of her friends. Our special dinner included the reciting of prayers along with wine and “hallah” (traditional braided bread).
The following day after sunset “normalcy” returned to the streets in the Jewish parts of town. Shabbat was now officially over until the following Friday evening. Buses started running again, and shops and restaurants opened up for business. Watching this transition take place was somewhat like watching a city come alive after a blackout.
That evening we ran into a well-attended protest. It was against a new unwritten concession given to the ultra-Orthodox sector by the bus company in which all women are required to sit in the back of the bus on bus lines which are frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews. “This is a dangerous precedent,” stated Taffy, one of the protesters we met.
“Normalcy” in the Holy City is a relative term.
* Servas is an international non-profit peace organization of hosts and travelers. For more information visit http://www.USServas.org