The Ninth of Av in Jerusalem -- the first time Ive been here in at least twenty years. We arrive at Zion Gate of the old city at around 8 pm and walk through the Jewish quarter to the Western Wall plaza. Apparently it is early, as there seems to be no one around -- except for hundreds of police and soldiers, milling around, fooling around, lounging on the staircases, unpacking equipment from fleets of vehicles, passing around styrofoam cups of coffee. There is something vaguely ominous about this massive armed presence in the deserted streets of Jerusalem. We pass through a security check at the entrance to the plaza, similar to that at the airport (but no boarding pass).
In previous years, attempts to hold services with a mixed congregation (men and women) anywhere in the plaza, have resulted in violent responses by the some of the ultra-orthodox, attempts to pass laws in the Knesset forbidding such sacrilege, and police refusal to approve or protect such gatherings. However a compromise has been reached: over the past few decades, archaeologists have uncovered the continuation of the wall of the Temple mount southwards from the plaza that was created just after the 1967 war. Thus, the exposed portion of the western wall of the mount is now at least twice as long as what is depicted in pictures and maps showing the Western Wall and its plaza. This more recently excavated portion is separated from the plaza by the ramp leading up to a gate to the Temple Mount itself, and is fenced off as part of an antiquities park. Thus, while it is no less ancient, authentic, and holy than the area traditionally labelled as the Western Wall, this southern section has escaped being included in the jurisdiction of the ultra-orthodox keepers of the Wall. The police permit the Conservative movement to use this area to hold holiday services according to their beliefs, and the ultra-orthodox pay no attention.
We join those assembling at the entrance to the southern wall excavations, and when the group reaches critical mass, we are allowed to enter and get organized. There are about 100 people, with a heavy representation of anglos -- American rabbinical students and immigrants like me, and a bus load of recent immigrants from the FSU, for many of whom this is their first visit to Jerusalem. Chapters of Lamentations have been assigned in advance, to readers with good voices, so the book is beautifully chanted and easy to follow (I have forgotten a flashlight, but fortunately have brought a large-print text). The floodlit wall towering over us, the familiar melody of the chant of Lamentations, the police helicopters and blimps circling overhead, the heterogeneous congregation scattered among the ruins -- change the atmosphere from ominous to surreal.
By the time we finish the reading and emerge back to the plaza, the place is packed, and people are continuing to stream in from all entrances. In the 70s, gathering at the Wall on Tish'ah B'av was a social and cultural event that attracted Jerusalemites and visitors of all kinds of backgrounds. Now, it seems to have reverted to its traditional role as a religious observance, and we see very few non-orthodox pilgrims among the crowds.
The entire plaza is covered with circles of men, sitting on the ground listening to the chant of Lamentations and of medieval dirges composed for this day. Each circle represents a different community, a different ethnic tradition, a different melody. And circulating among them, hundreds of beggars, both amateur and professional.
One of the circles, in a spot far enough from the Wall to be outside the area separated by a mechitza into mens and womens sections, consists of teenagers from North America with their counselors, girls and boys together. This being just the kind of thing that has provoked riots in the past, it is not clear why no one is paying any attention... because there is no media coverage? because they are obviously kids? tourists?
I am left struggling with the dilemma that has beset the Reform movement for 200 years: just what am I mourning for? Can I identify with the dirges longing for priesthood and sacrifices? Was the exile a disaster, or the next stage in the development of Judaism?