There was a time when I did not always enjoy going to the Kotel. At that time I was often intimidated by the crowds of tourists and sometimes aggravated by the beggars who would interrupt my prayers. It seemed as if whenever I went it was hot and crowded and I would always be anxious to leave. All this changed when I discovered that the Kotel is not just the crowded plaza we always see in the pictures.
My spot is not far from the Holy of Holies, the closest accessible point to where the Holy Ark stood in the First and Second Holy Temples.
It is also near the Huge Stone, a rock in the Wall that measures twelve and a half meters long and three and a half meters high, weighing over five hundred metric tons.
This rock is an important archeological site and the tour groups that come through the tunnels always stop there to hear some history from their guide. Every tour guide brings his own views and prejudices with him. Over the years I have eavesdropped on some very different interpretations of history while praying at my spot.
One of the most fascinating talks I have heard was given by a Dutch woman who had made Jerusalem her home. She spoke to a group of religious American students in easy Hebrew and told the girls about her grandfather. He had spent most of the war years successfully hidden by a family in Amsterdam but towards the end of 1944 he was forced to leave his hiding place. With no place of refuge he randomly knocked on a door of some stranger’s house. A Christian woman was shocked to see someone so obviously Jewish standing on her doorstep. Without hesitation she gave him shelter until the war finally ended. It was after liberation that he asked her why she agreed to harbor him and her answer was poignant. I thought there were no more Jews left in Europe. If G-d had saved you thus far, it was obvious He wanted you to live. So it is with the Kotel, the tour guide declared. HaShem has allowed this one wall to remain standing throughout the centuries. It is the survivor.
Not all of the tour guides are religious or even Jewish. And the tourists come from all over the world speaking many different languages. Still, I manage to hear a number of remarkable opinions and bits of information. Recently, I overheard an Arab tour guide telling his group that although he grew up several meters from the Kotel Tunnels he had no idea they existed. He travelled to Egypt as a young man and saw the majestic pyramids. When he finally came back home he discovered there was something just as magnificent practically in his own back yard. According to him, the area of the Huge Stone and Holy of Holies were once the women’s section in the Holy Temple and until today only women are allowed to pray at these sites. His words were not one hundred percent accurate but they were said with respect so I was not bothered by them.
I was bothered by the tour guide who shared the Arab's opinion that the area was mainly for women. If that had been her sole conjecture I would not have been concerned. However, it was not. With cynicism she wondered aloud when the rabbis would take away the women’s right to pray there. She declared that until the Six Day War men and women were able to pray together without a partition at the Kotel. As proof she mentioned pictures from the times of the Turkish and British Mandates. It is true. Everyone can see in the photos from those times that the men were on one side, the women on the other, and there was no divider.
She neglected to mention, however, that there was no divider because neither the Turks nor the British would allow one. In the same vein it was illegal to blow a shofar at the Kotel because it might offend the sensibilities of the Arabs. Once the Kotel was liberated in 1967 a partition was erected, the plaza enlarged, and once again Jews were able to pray properly at our most holy site. These were facts this tour guide chose to ignore. Obviously she had a political agenda.
What could I have done when faced with such manipulation of facts? The heroic path would have been to politely interrupt the woman and state the whole story she had disregarded. I was not a hero. I was intimidated, shy, and knew I express myself far better in writing than in speaking. So I stayed silent and prayed that the tourists in this woman’s group would discover the truth on their own.
Sometimes, even in my unique spot, the tourists and their guides do intrude on my special time at the Kotel. I know that I have to learn to concentrate more on my prayers and less on what is going on around me. I pray that soon the Holy Temple will be rebuilt and then, as in the past, we will have the miracle of having enough room for everyone to pray together and not bother or offend anyone else.