Yesterday evening, Tisha B'Av, the fast that commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, I had intended to hear the beautiful, melancholy lament of Eicha with a group opposite the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. In the event, I heard it at shiva - the mourning house which is maintained for 7 days following the death of a family member and possibly a place as apt to hear the Megilla as the Old City itself.
For millenia, Jews have concluded the Passover Seder by singing "Next year in Jerusalem"; our daily prayers express out hope that she will be rebuilt speedily, in our days. It is somewhat ironic therefore, that my visits to the Kotel HaMa'aravi are infrequent at the best of times. I would be tested if asked to remember the last time I visited, previous to my visit yesterday night. The wall is something which has become somewhat taken for granted; "Next year in Jerusalem" rings false. Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish State and the Kotel is in our hands - we should visit more often.
Despite the best efforts of the traffic police, in shutting roads, seemingly at random, my fiance and I eventually made our way into the Old City via the Jaffa Gate. Noticing the stream of people going straight ahead into the Arab Souk, we elected to follow them rather than taking the more accepted, safer route through the Armenian Quarter. It was a route that I remembered from my earlier visits to Israel in the mid '80s when I still felt safe to wander through, haggling with the storeholders for some souvenir or another. In normal circumstances I wouldn't contemplate going that way in today's climate.
The crowd swelled as we reached the security gates at the northwestern end of the Kottel compound. We were pushed together with a good humoured mix of black hatted hareidim, American tourists, soldiers, young couples with children and an ancient Yemenite woman as we surged forwards eventually spilling us out into the bustle of the Kottel. We didn't even bother to try to get close to the wall but rather, sat down and drank in the atmosphere, contemplating the comings and goings around us. Despite the solemnity of the fast day, it was clear that there was quite a social scene going on with young yeshiva and seminary students mingling freely. The wall attracts a crowd that is both eclectic and eccentric; a metre long shofar was sounded above the crowd, dressed in every colour of the rainbow.
As we sat and learned the halachot of the fast, we were irritated to be told by a solitary moron that my fiance should be on the other side - despite being nowhere near the prayer area and the mixed crowd around us. Quite why he picked us out I'm not sure - perhaps the idea of a woman learning was a little to much? Certain groups often appear to have the opinion that they have some sort of authority around the holy places - thank goodness we are not living in a theocracy.
With the clock ticking towards midnight, we decided to head for home. I trusted by better half's sense of direction by we were clearly heading too far to the north and as the crowd thinned out I was feeling rather nervous to be in the Arab Quarter late at night without knowing where we were going. Thankfully the route was well lined with members of the security forces but it was a little unnerving to finally find ourselves at Sha'ar Shchem - the Nablus Gate which is a little too close to Arab East Jerusalem for my tastes.
Reconnecting with the Old City, both familiar parts and those which I had long forgotten, was an appropriate way to spend the evening of the Ninth of Av - even if I doubt that I'll be going down certain of those paths again on my next trip.