by David Drimer (Kingston, NY)
Every time I visit Jerusalem, it feels like the first time.
There is a force, a powerful magnet, always drawing me to the Kotel. No matter what prosaic thing I may be doing in the city, it’s always on the fringes of my consciousness. As I wander the streets of the Old City, inching ever closer, the pull becomes stronger.
As much for this reason as for any other, this is the essence of why I make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every few years.
Finally, I approach the Wall in silence, if not awe. I enter the Plaza and move closer, keenly aware of those around me. Immediately I put my forehead against the Wall, my hands above my head, feeling the heat of the rock. I instantly marvel: “How many tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands – of my Jewish forebears have prayed here in this very spot?” Suddenly, I am – as I once titled a poem – “alone amongst them.”
Candidly, my thoughts quickly turn introspective and soon lead to grief. I unbury my personal pain, the pains of my loved ones, the pains of the world. I consider each in turn. My emotional response is far from unique. As David Wiseman wrote for the Israel Forever Foundation, “If tears could melt stone, the Kotel wouldn’t be standing.”
I bring little notes of prayer to place in the Wall. One is to my mother Doris/Devorah Leah (z”l), the other is to my father Gideon/Moishe Gidon (z”l). What I know of unconditional love, I first learned from my mother. She was sick for a long time, suffering in acute pain daily for many years. I have often looked for meaning in her suffering. I have still not found it. On my father’s 90th birthday, his last, I wrote him a card that said, “Whenever I have a tough ethical decision to make, I think, ‘What would my father do?’” It was true then. It remains true to this day. It’s a hard path. It has cost me. These are the mysteries of life, my road to travel. I consider the totality of their lives and speak my heartfelt prayers to them partially aloud, but sotto voce.
In this quiet period of meditation, I ask for guidance in solving my and my family’s problems, guidance on how to be a better man, a better father, a better husband. I seek guidance on how to best serve the interests of the Jewish community. It’s my career, it’s my calling, my hope is to do it the best I can. My single biggest remaining ambition is to bring my and my wife’s hopes for our Holocaust Awareness Initiative to full fruition. I pray unabashedly for help.
Time spent at the Kotel sobers me up a little. I start to breathe easier and become more cognizant of the peace of the place, more aware of the simple grandeur of this plain stone wall, a literal wreck for thousands of years. I begin to sense relief. I have put down my burdens.
I finally remember to pray for the Mets to win the World Series. It can’t hurt. (NOTE: It didn’t work; eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.) I don’t bother with the Jets anymore. That ship sailed long ago.
My feelings now drift towards an increasing feeling of serenity and joy. Look at this amazing place. This phenomenal tradition. The spiritual power of this Wall calls people of many religions to dip their toes in the waters of Judaism.
I no longer think of myself as an especially “spiritual” person. Figuratively, I’m the man who blocks the door, while others behind me pray, at least temporarily but blissfully unaware of the looming threat of the outside world. I choose to be alert while others seek transcendence.
But in this place, just before we greet Shabbos, its transcendental for me, as well. It has also been written, again by Mr. Wiseman, “If hopes and dreams could make these stones fly, there would be a wall floating around somewhere in space.”
Eventually – I have no idea how much time has passed – I turn away. The women of the wall (“My women of the wall”) have yet to emerge. I learn later my daughter went back to pray twice. My wife, who lost her mother just one year ago, finally emerges teary-eyed. I know precisely what she was praying about. But they are tears of joy. Her mother was a remarkable, powerful woman. My wife is the living embodiment of her mother’s very strong Jewish values. Ina Frey/Chaya Tsura (z”l) looms over our lives every day.
We leave, refreshed. Renewed. Reinvigorated. More inspired by our faith than when we entered. We exit the Plaza more committed to our cultural imperatives of Tzedakah (Charity) and Tikkun Olam (Repair the World).
Such is my “tongue’s poor speech,” as the 11th century Spanish Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote, on praying at the Western Wall.
David Drimer is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County (UCJF) and a co-founder of the National Holocaust Awareness Initiative (NHAIonline.org). He had been national executive director of the Zionist Organization of America, (ZOA), and Associate Publisher/General Manager of the Forward newspaper. He had been a longtime executive and publisher at Knight Ridder newspapers and the Economist Group. He was recently named a Human Rights Commissioner by the Ulster County legislature. He also serves on the Ulster County Task Force for Preventing and Responding to Domestic Terrorism.