Xavier Meets the Wall

Xavier made this pilgrimage from Ireland to Jerusalem for her. When the cruise liner docked in Ashdod, on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza, he got off, found a public bus, and rode seventy kilometers east. He found his hostel within the walls of the Old City, in the Muslim Quarter, and then he and an American couple he’d befriended on the ship went looking for a drink.

The sun was setting. It was the end of September, Rosh Ha’Shanah, the Jewish New Year. They exited the walls at Damascus Gate, walked west and crossed the street at a four-story stone building. The restaurant on the top floor, staffed by a white-hatted chef, sold platters of cheese and fruit. Xavier let the Americans choose the cheese (they chose French), and he paid for it—twenty dollars, plus a glass of wine for them and a beer for himself.

From the balcony, they could see everything they’d read about in their travel guides: the walls of Jerusalem, built in the 1500s by Suleiman the Magnificent; the grey dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the brilliant gold Dome of the Rock; and, in the distance, the Mount of Olives, crusted with white tombs and gravestones.

She didn’t tell me she was Jewish
, Xavier said, slurping some of his beer. I didn’t know until her funeral.

The Americans asked how she had died. Cancer, he told them. If I’d known, we could have done this trip together. They nibbled cheeses and slices of late-season melon, fragrant and soft. The sun was down now, and darkness amplified the sounds below—honking drivers, hissing brake systems on buses, Arabs shouting in the market to the east.

When he’d finished his beer, he asked them to walk with him to the Wailing Wall. Together they re-entered the Old City and navigated the streets, unnaturally bright with fluorescent bulbs, flashing with mirrored tapestries and hand-painted baubles. They hesitated at pyramids of spices and dates, sticky trays of baklava, hurried past bloody meat markets. Foot traffic thickened as they approached the plaza, descended stairs to the security check. A sign read in Hebrew and English: You are approaching the site of the Western Wall where the Divine Presence always rests.

On the east side of the plaza, lit by floodlights, the wall rose before them: massive blocks of limestone, some placed by Herod the Great two thousand years before. A few shrubs cascaded from the seams between stones, finding their nourishment somewhere in the rock. The space near the wall was packed with Jews—women on the right, separated from the men by a wooden barrier. The space near the wall was packed with Jews—women on the right, separated from the men by a wooden barrier—and soldiers stood here and there, young men and women with semi-automatic weapons.

Xavier had a prayer to put in the wall, written on the back of a business card he’d found in his wallet. He didn’t know if he believed in anyone worth praying to, but it felt right, even necessary, to put something there. The American woman had one, too, but since the women’s side of the wall was so crowded (they only got a quarter of its length), he said he’d take hers with him.

He walked on the downward slanting stones, accepted a cheap, white satin kippa to cover his head, and entered the crowd of worshipers: men in black coats and hats, with wild beards and long curls framing their faces, rocking back and forth, chanting from prayer books, eyes closed to slits, mouths mumbling words just under the breath. He noticed a darkened strip on the stones at forehead level—the sweat and oil of thousands of people left behind for decades. He touched the wall, pocked with age, the cracks plugged with folded prayers—this one on yellow legal paper, that one on a pink receipt. They periodically cleaned the prayers from the cracks, he’d heard, and burned them in piles in the Kidron Valley, sweet incense rising to heaven.

He felt for a secure niche and pressed in his paper and the American woman’s, then stepped back, watching the men around him from the corners of his eyes. Should he say something? Should he stand still? Should he back away as he saw some doing?

He looked up, saw the top of the wall and the black sky above. The floodlights snuffed out many of the stars, but he still thought of the night they’d driven out of the city onto the blank moor, of how they’d laughed as the ends of the scarf wrapped around her bald head flapped in the wind.

Rachel, he said to the sky, I hope at least you can see me.

He backed away from the wall, tottering unsteadily as the pavement rose, bumping into a couple of men. Then, when he figured he’d gone a respectful distance, he turned and left, dropping the satin skullcap in the bin near the entrance.

About the author

Heather M. Surls was a Californian until she got married. Since then, she’s been a semi-nomad, first living near gloomy, coffee-addicted Seattle, then spending…

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Issue 15 · June 2012

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