Thursday, December 7, 2017

Jews don't worship stones

     I'm actually on vacation this week, working on a long-delayed project around the house. 
     But I don't want to abandon you entirely, particularly as the news keeps coming, alas.
     Tired of tossing lit matches at the powder keg of the Korean peninsula, Donald Trump decided to shift Amateur Hour to the Middle East on Wednesday. He announced that the United States would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a reckless and destabilizing move, done against the counsel of his top advisers, one that pleases Trump's evangelical, let's-end-the-world-now-so-Jesus-comes-back Christians, and hard right Jews who support whatever folly Israel happens to be cooking up at the moment, and nobody else.
     Otherwise, it lights a fire under parties that need little provocation to unleash their basest instincts. Peace is now even more distant, hair-trigger tempers will flair, innocent people will die and nothing has been accomplished, except the kind of tough guy posturing that the right finds so appealing. 
     To be honest, there isn't much point to picking apart the folly of what Trump has done. All we have to do is step back and wait for the latest chapter of the half-century disaster to unfold.
    In the meantime, here's a visit I took to Jerusalem 13 years ago, as a guest of Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service. If you can, try to get to the end, because what the tour guide says reflects back on the whole situation. We're in love with land, but we used to stand for something, for justice. God has unleashed a number of his little jokes upon the Jewish people over their 5,000 year history. But if they've gone through all that only to end up as permanent jailers to an ever-increasing Palestinian captivity....well, the Big Guy wouldn't do that to us, or to them. Would he?

     JERUSALEM -- They don't call it the "Wailing Wall" anymore. For thousands of years Jews went there to lament the destruction of Solomon's Temple. But wailing is so, I don't know, negative, and Jews are trying to put a cheerier spin on life, where possible. So instead we call it the "Western Wall." Either way, it's an expanse of limestone blocks, the only remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago.
     I took a cab to the Old City. We pulled up by crenelated ramparts. I strolled in the direction of the Wall, illuminated by floodlights. The sight stopped me in my tracks. Enormous limestone blocks, with tufts of greenery spilling out. Above it the golden Dome of the Rock. As I hurried forward, my dead relatives shuffled into mind. As if all those slaughtered Bramsons, sleeping in their slit trenches in Poland, stirred.
     What would it have meant to them, I wondered, to have gotten here? To do what I could do right now? My grandfather, Irwin Bramson, had been the only one of his large family to slip out of Poland before the charnel house doors clanged shut. I have a hundred letters from his relatives left behind, his brother Zalman, his mother -- my great-grandmother -- Devora. Letters describing the tough life in Poland in the 1930s, expressing joy over the birth of a baby—my mother—and asking if my grandfather might not send another bundle of warm clothing and, maybe, a little money.
     The tradition is that you write down prayers and tuck them into cracks in the Wall, so God has an easier time finding them. Several people gave me notes to put in, and I created my own note, a small triangle cut from paper from an envelope from one of the letters to my grandfather. I liked the idea of paper used by a doomed Jew in Bialystock ending its days stuck in the Western Wall, melting in the soft Jerusalem rain.
     What to write was a puzzle. You can't comfort the dead, can you? What could I ask God now to do for them? It's a little late.
     For being the holy focus of Judaism, the atmosphere at the Wall is surprisingly casual. People came and went, with no one in apparent charge. A Hasidic beggar cadged coins. A box of cardboard skullcaps stood unattended. Most of those praying at the Wall were from the ultra-Orthodox sects that populate Jerusalem, rocking back and forth. Some sat on the chairs scattered around or stood still at little lecterns. Others merely folded their arms against the Wall and laid their head down, almost as if resting.
     I slapped on a cardboard skullcap and walked slowly up to the Wall. I found an open spot, placing both palms flat against the stone. Then, leaning forward, I touched the Wall with my forehead and prayed.
     It seemed the thing to do.
     In 30 seconds I exhausted the store of Hebrew prayers I know by heart. So I prayed the standard pleas, for the health of my family, for the future of my boys, and—this is scary—to be a better person. Jet lag.
     Then, without forethought, I kissed the Wall—a big, full-lipped smack—lingered for a long moment, and then left. That kiss really surprised me. I hadn't planned to kiss the thing.
     Caught up in religious frenzy, I suppose.
     If I didn't quite find faith at the wall, I did experience a temporary suspension of cynicism, which might be about as close as I come. I didn't carefully observe the scene, as I should have. I didn't take notes. I forgot to estimate how high the wall is or how wide (nearly a city block, with the men comfortably praying at three-quarters of it and the women jammed in the rest. Islam isn't the only religion where women can get the short end of the stick).
     Reason quickly returned to me. Kissing the Wall, I later realized, was as hygienic as drinking a teaspoon of Ganges River water. The next day a wonderfully acerbic tour guide took us through the water tunnel running parallel to the Wall. He reminded us that the Wall is not actually part of the Second Temple. Rather, he explained happily, it is part of the retaining wall used to create the mount where the Temple stood. There was no religious reason for Jews to pray there.
     "The stones there are as holy as the stones in my backyard," he said. "A stone is a stone is a stone. Jews don't worship stones."
     He's right, I thought, feeling a little embarrassed about the kiss.
     But not about the note. The Jews weren't praying to the limestone Wall. They were praying at it. Which is a different matter. We don't worship stones, but we do venerate life, and remember those who came before us. This was the place that Jews all over the world hungered toward. They didn't want to come here because of the weather, or because of the Wall, necessarily, but because this was their place -- is their place -- the place where they can stand and pray and not be afraid (OK, the "not be afraid" part is still a work in progress).
     You can't comfort the dead. But you can do what you imagine, had they known, might have brought them comfort. Perhaps Zalman Bramson, trapped in Poland, tried to rationalize his fate by telling himself that at least his brother escaped and that maybe, just maybe, one of his descendants will someday find himself in Jerusalem. He will overcome his skepticism. He will take a 70-year-old scrap of paper, write on it a prayer asking God to bless the memory of a family he has never met, and place it reverently into the Western Wall.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 30, 2004


  1. I would never claim to have a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but I do know that the answer can't be found in that damn fool president of ours.

  2. Lovely article, filled with reverence and insights into the human condition.

    Somehow, a minority of people have elected perhaps the most ill equipped person on earth to lead the most powerful nation on earth. Trump has no beliefs, but apocalyptic zealots have figured out how to leverage his narcissism to give him a sense of righteousness. When he was elected we were appalled, even a little frightened. We had no idea just how bad it could get. There is virtually no upside to the Jerusalem deal, but unlimited risk. I'm afraid it will get worse, much worse, before this fool leaves office.

  3. Amateur Hour -- how apt. I have to admit I didn't like it when George W. Bush resurrected so many Republican functionaries from past administrations, but at least they knew the way to the washrooms; Trump and company have proved their incompetence over and again. For a man that doesn't drink, he's awful fond of bar room punditry.


  4. I wonder what Trump's son-in-law, who is nominally in charge of bringing peace to the Middle East, had to say about the Jerusalem declaration.

  5. "... the place where they can stand and pray and not be afraid."

    A nice justification for observing a tradition without going all in on believing in its validity. Similar to a quote by Steven Weinberg: "We who are not zealots can rejoice that when bread and wine are no longer sacraments they will still be bread and wine."


  6. Update to my comment above: Turns out Kushner was all for it:

    “I think [Trump] and Jared figure that after all the posturing and a few days of riots, things go back to normal when it comes to the negotiations,” said a person close to the administration.

    Blundering amateurs in charge of policy for the world's most volatile region. What could possibly go wrong?

    1. The one that motivates Kushner and his sugar-daddy-in-law is profit. What do those greedy fucks have to gain by stirring the pot? Someone needs to keep an eye on those boys.

  7. It makes you wonder that for all their bleating that God is in control of everything that some Christians think they can manipulate God by doing their best to bring about the end of the world through stupid things like this. Jesus said that you won't get away with putting God to the test but these people don't think it applies to them. I do look forward to the end of the world because it means a better one will be upon us. However, it's not our job in either case to bring it about. If anything, we ought to be doing as much as possible to keep this world from going to you know where in a handbasket.


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