Ezra, Robin’s first cousin, once removed, is living in Israel, and he gave us a tour of the old city today. He studies in a yeshiva and works on a farm. Five years ago he came to Israel, "So I could learn Hebrew and prove the rabbis were wrong about Torah. I found out that they were right."
We were headed for the Western Wall, and I wanted an appropriate yarmulke. Head coverings here are loaded with code, of which I am ignorant. "Your white ball cap is appropriate. It doesn’t matter what you wear so long as your head is covered," he reassured me. At a display of headwear he pointed out, "The blue and white one means you’re Pro-State (meaning Pro-Israel). The others have no particular meaning other than that you’re a religious Jew." But I’m secular, I thought. Wait a minute, I’m not Jewish. I just go to synagogue and say the prayers every Friday. In the end, I couldn’t make a decision (which exactly matches my mixed-up spiritual identity), which made my REI white cap the most appropriate thing I could wear.
Ezra accompanied me down the ramp to the men’s side. Hundreds of black-clad Orthodox were praying and davening. The murmur of their combined voices rose like a fog. Ezra kept wanting to explain, but I wanted to feel where I was. I stood, and the skin on my scalp and back felt electric. "Are you feeling anything?" he wanted to know. "Yes, but it goes away if I describe it." Then I felt sadness. A wave, an ocean of sadness, a monumental wall of it. I felt the passion of the prayful throng. But mostly I sensed a huge, timeless grief of something irreparably broken. "That’s amazing! It’s so true!" His explanations, which were detailed, all had to do with the loss of the Temple by the Jews. Even though this is obvious, it didn’t ring true in my gut. This loss has much more going for it than 3000 years of Jewish history. Why I know that I can’t say.