Our first activity for the day again began at 8:00 as we headed off to Mount Scopus overlooking the old city of Jerusalem (above). Our guide, Einat, pointed out several destinations within the old city, laying out the general geography for us along with some of the historical context for the city and its passage through the hands of many rulers through the past several thousand years.
Einat asked for volunteers to pour kiddush wine at the top of the mount, at which point I was nominated by a chorus of my peers, who at this point well knew my experience with wine. I impressed myself as well as some of my peers when I was able to pour 45 nearly even cups of wine from a single bottle, leaving only two servings to spare. At this point, I've become the "wine guy" in the group, with my peers every so often asking me about certain wine-drinking norms both during the day and after hours at the hotel bar.
We next headed into the old city, marked by the Ottoman-built wall during their time as rulers of the city. We walked along the southern perimeter from the Zion gate to the south end of the Temple Mount, which used to include several entrances to the top of the mount, which are now blocked with stone. Along the way we saw remnants of each of the former ruling groups, as vestiges of Ancient Israelite, Byzantine, Umayyad, Ottoman, and British civilizations sat alongside accommodations by the modern Israeli state.
Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the Old City, including the Montefiore Windmill.
The Dome Of The Rock, seen from the south end of the Jewish Quarter.
tairs leading up to the south end of the Temple Mount (outside the Ottoman wall), where the former entrances are now blocked.
[taken by Benny Berezin]
Approaching noon, we headed deeper into the center of the city to pay our respects at the Western Wall. I had been struggling to come up with something I wanted to write as a message to stick in the wall right up until the time we got there. Einat said something which really spoke to me before we went in, which got my mind going, discussing what it meant to be Jewish. I had my mind pretty made up that she was devout from the moment we met her, but in walking around the ruins on the skirt of the city, she mentioned that she was not very religious, and yet Judaism connects all of us in the group, bringing us here to Israel and experiencing these religious sites together. That admission combined with my feelings of being in the country the past two to three days inspired me to jot down some thoughts on what my pilgrimage meant to me, which I wanted to part with at the wall.
Upon entering the men's section for prayer (roughly four times as big as the women's section, including indoor portions) I took a yamilka, and I was immediately after approached by elder Hasidic Jews, who wanted to know whether I was myself visiting the wall as a Jew. When I replied "yes," they immediately pulled me—almost physically—over to a little station where I was wrapped with tiffillin and tallit, while being led through a prayer. When asked what my name was, I instinctually replied Adrian, but much like when I would say my name in Italy, the Israeli man did not understand, so I repeated: Aaron. Our conversation with the artist in Tzfat about the Kabbalah and the importance of names—he gave up his English name Robert when he moved to Israel to take on his Jewish persona of Avraham—inspired me to share my Hebrew name. I have never up to this point had a reason to use it, but it felt right at that moment, assuming a Jewish identity in context just as I became Adriano Ponti in Italia. The man immediately understood, and gave me one more prayer to read at the wall, which I did, following the English translation.
I think I can safely say that this experience of attending the Western Wall didn't mean nearly as much to me as to nearly everyone else there, but I am still happy that I had the chance to make that trip not only as a tourist and observer, but as a Jew.
We were given the next hour or so to get lunch and hang out in the Jewish Quarter. A little tired of falafel and shwarma, I went to an "Italian" place, ordering a dish of penne in a mushroom cream sauce. I was at first a little apprehensive about getting cream on such a hot day, but it turned out that just meant there was shredded cheese over top, which gave necessary flavor to the otherwise bland but well-cooked pasta.
The next few hours were reserved for free time at the hotel, where we got to use the pool, although during the week it was split between mens' and womens' times. I was fortunate that most of the time while we were around happened to be mens hour, but many of the women felt there might be some sexism involved, especially after seeing how uneven the split of the Western Wall was. We played volleyball in the pool with some Hasids, who brought the ball, until someone hit it over the wall of the eighth floor rooftop pool. Someone eventually recovered it, but at that point nobody was interested in playing. I was able to get a few laps in though during the intervening time with the pool more clear.
At 5:15 we met for Shabbat in the lobby with everyone dressed up, a little like prom for birthright. We bussed into the old city and had our own memorable service in an empty courtyard overlooking the Western Wall some 500 feet away. We had some poetry and prose readings about the meaning of Shabbat, the day of rest, the lighting of the candles, and also had an open discussion of what Shabbat meant to us. We ended with some Hebrew songs/prayers, which led to a bit of dancing, and then we were given another half-hour to see the wall up close.
Having been earlier in the day, we were not wrapped in tiffillin or tallit, but it was even more special to be there around so many other people coming to pray at the end of the week. I particularly enjoyed something Einat said right before we went to the wall: all the Jews around the world are looking at us right now, on this night. It is something I hadn't really considered prior but made me feel my trip was that much more special.
We left the wall just before sunset as the area swelled with people coming to pray. This second time in the city the streets were much quieter, as everyone prepared for and celebrated Shabbat. We passed through blocks seeing only a handful of people and those we encountered were on their way to mark their own day of rest. On our walk back to the hotel—our bus driver Schlomo was with his own family celebrating Shabbat—we did not see a single moving vehicle. It is something I get a taste of at home in Bala Cynwyd where all the Hasidic Jews are out walking on Friday night and Saturday, but not entirely absent. It was fascinating, seeing the open streets not by government intervention but through personal choice.
We arrived at the hotel for a rather late dinner. Everyone was pretty starving, but we first commemorated our Shabbat meal with kiddush and motzi. Even after a long day, most everybody was around to hang out deep into the night knowing that we had a late start and smaller program for Shabbat the following day, and we conversed both with each other and with other birthright groups from America and Russia into the wee hours of the morning.