My life was thrown asunder by a single declaration from my aging grandfather who decided to reveal the truth to the family, “you are all Jewish!” The declaration broken open a yearning I had nursed since first discovering an atlas at age 8, a yearning for the Middle East. My parents decided it would be good for me to travel to Israel and nurse the ache in my soul. So I put myself through the interrogation at Johannesburg airport by the El Al staff and I landed in Tel Aviv with my small tour group 12 hours later. I brought along my best friend Colette just in case a bomb fell or I was abducted, just in case. Over the next 4 days we bussed around archaeological sites and hills but I stared out in to the hazy distance and prayed for Thursday to come, the day we would travel to Jerusalem. We arrived in Jerusalem at a youth hostel and got settled in. Colette and I looked at each other with a glimmer in our eyes, let’s haul it over to the Western Wall. We walked down the stone steps through Jaffa Gate, down the narrow passage of bustling Arab stalls and out in to the Cardo, the heart of the Jewish quarter in the Old City. I smiled at the young soldier in his olive green uniform with his big, black gun at his side, I hoped he would smile back but he didn’t. We kept on walking but my pace slowed, I was standing on old stones, stones that had rested beneath the feet of travellers for scores of years. Hebrew writing flicked across the signs, a for Sale sign hung on one of the passing flats, I made a mental note to call my father to make an offer. Men, women and children played in a large square around tables at an open air restaurant, I felt that ache again, the ache to belong. We marked the way to the Western Wall and in the distance we saw the infamous site on every postcard picture of Jerusalem, the Al – Aqsa Mosque, it’s golden dome shining in the dipping sun. A man passed by with a t – shirt on, the smiley face with its curls on his white shirt remarked “Don’t worry, be Jewish.” Was it that simple?
I pulled the collar on my leather jacket up, to frame my freezing face. As we passed through the security booth I realised how inappropriately I was dressed in my tight jeans and biker jacket, but I was there to bring my heart not my clothes so I pressed on. The stones wore deep wrinkles in its skin, and I marvelled at how clean everything was. I breathed in deeply, passed some beggars at the gates leading to where others were praying, they looked as though they were going to swear at me for ignoring them. One of them leaned up against a sign that read “no beggars allowed at the Wall.” The sun had collapsed in to the horizon and the lights flickered on around us, I had made it and thankfully few women filled the women’s section for prayer. The ancient limestone wall I had only seen in books finally stood in front of me, the last memory of the temple that once graced the holy city. I pressed my hands on to the cool stone, a small tuft of grass tickled my palm. I closed my eyes and heard sobs somewhere in the distance, women’s voices mourned somewhere. I struggled to find the words until in desperation I pressed my head against the stones and felt as though I was pressed in to the tunic of God. My heart broke, every question I had carried with me came loose. I could no longer carry my own weight, I collapsed in to the smooth gutter that held the wall, still pressed up against the stones. Hours passed but it felt like minutes, I did not want to leave, Colette wrapped her arm around my shoulders and together we wept in prayer. I stood to my feet, touched the wall as if touching the cheek of a lover I was leaving, and as I turned around a woman dressed in white, with yellow blonde hair, threw her arms around me. I allowed myself to be gathered up in to the arms of a stranger, “may God answer all your prayers,” she whispered in to my ear. I did not want her to let go.
As we passed back through the gates I would not turn around, for fear that it was all a dream and that the woman in white was an angel in disguise, now disappeared and back in heaven. An Orthodox man dressed in black approached us, “shalom do you have a place to go for Shabbat dinner tomorrow evening?”
“Yes thank you,” I replied and he was off. The rest of the evening unfolded in a blur, I did not taste our evening meal, I did not hear the conversation at the table, I can’t remember if I slept that night or not. The friendliness, the love, the warms arms, the children playing in the streets, everything, it asked more questions of me. The following evening Shabbat arrived like a daughter whose family were longing for her return. My rabbi back home in South Africa arranged for Colette and I to spend the Sabbath meal with his brother in Jerusalem. We arrived at his home and were astonished to find an old building that appeared rather creepy on the outside but as we entered the door of his house, the modern, spacious open plan apartment was breath – taking. His wife barely spoke, I thought she didn’t like us at first but I came to learn a few hours later that, she did not speak a word of English. Rabbi Mendy was incredibly kind, leading me through the ritual of washing my hands before the meal, helping me with the blessings, the bread and the wine. He kindly asked about my life, my family and my dreams. “You come to yeshiva next year.”
“Yes, we are starting up our first girls only yeshiva this year, I will arrange it, you come.”
“But rabbi,” I protested, “I have no idea how to do all this, I’m still learning so much, will they even accept me?
“I will get you in, don’t worry.”
Our conversation ended, my mind swirled, I could change the way I dressed, get deeper in to my Hebrew studies and convince my parents to agree. He pulled out a book of Sabbath songs, his soft voice filled the air with a tale, a song about a lost pilgrim trying to find his way home. The pilgrim with a bag of worries on his back found his way to the Western Wall, lowered his bag and found home in the arms of the stones. I tried to hold back my tears but my heart would have none of it, I let them go. I suddenly felt whole in a land of strangers, I finally found what I had searched for in that atlas, home.