Tuesday, August 19, 1997

The Wall and the Mall (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, 8/97

As an American patriot, I take great pride in how my behemoth nation has colonized the universe with its cultural assets. Pax Americana has now even reached Mars, having long-since overrun earthly Jerusalem. But as I set out on a recent visit to Israel, mindful of growing complaints of "Americanization" by my Israeli friends, I was anxious to find new evidence of the Great Satan's work. And indeed, I didn't have to look far to find the ugliest aspects of my complicated country -- at the Western Wall.

The Kotel I encountered last month was as stratified as a Greenwich country club, as immaculate as Disney World and as spiritless as a Republican Convention. This was not the Kotel I had first encountered as a teen twenty four years ago, on Tisha B'Av, when I was one weeper among the multitudes. The chanting of Lamentations that summer evening, the drone of a single coalescing murmur of anguished trope in and above the plaza, made for a communion of tear-swept flesh and stone. Beyond that what struck me was the curious asymmetry of the place: sprawling stones reaching both down and upward, touched by unkempt clumps of moss, topped by smaller bricks carved by dreams of another era, topped by, of all things, a field of TV antennae. Though mundane in normal use, these masses of wire seemed apt here, a reminder that the Kotel -- and God -- exist on the plane of normal human experience.

In ancient times, the Kotel was the Temple's outer, retaining wall, the place where all the people could gather, from the largest to the small, sheep and pigeons in hand, before arriving at the inner courtyards where degrees of separation set in. The Kotel has always been a festival of earthy democracy for the plain folk: the sweaty Herodian-era laborers who moved enormous slabs of rock, the late-Roman period artisan who scribbled joyous graffiti from Isaiah, the dying whispers of medieval pilgrims having reached their long-sought final destination, the teary paratroopers in '67, the final breath of my grandmother who never got there.

When I first came to Kotel that Tisha B'Av, I saw a white dove about halfway up, glowing in the light, perched on a nest of moss. I quivered with recognition of the Shechina, God's most manifest and loving presence, sent to that very spot to weep with Her people among the ruins. For centuries, that legend and that weeping bound motionless stones to a yearning nation.
Enter the Great Satan. Now the TV antennae are gone and the plaza is as clean and symmetrical as ever. Its aesthetic beauty is unquestioned, like the 18th hole at Augusta, but the sanitized Wall has lost its wail, like a Disneyfied Times Square. The plaza has also lost its democratic ardor, having become as foreigner-friendly as California. A decade ago, I had no problem bringing groups of congregants to the middle of the plaza, men and women together, for Friday evening services, after which we would approach the Wall as individuals to share in the euphoric cacophony of singing Yeshiva students, tourists, new immigrant, worn pilgrims and curious seekers and long-lost friends from the States. At the Wall, the Jewish body beat with one heart.

Now the stones have lost their heart and strangers beware. On Friday night, the hugs and singing have been replaced by a stony silence and a level of suspicion worthy of a Manhattan subway. My group could not pray together, else we risk a Shavuot-style garbage pelting. So we prayed on the newly-excavated steps facing the Southern Wall. When we reached the Kotel afterwards, no one embraced us. No one asked if we needed a place for Shabbat, as so many had years ago. Small cantons of Haredim prayed in pantomime; we kept our distance, hoping for a spiritual trickle-down effect.

About twenty feet from the Wall, an updated version of "West Side Story" was being played out. A dozen Reform Jews from Miami, all men, sang "Lecha Dodi" defiantly in a circle while Haredim stared and caucused, figuring out what to do with them. One slipped dangerously close to the group, bending over to investigate the Xeroxed prayer booklet, as if examining a lettuce for bugs. The Reform service concluded. Triumphantly, they had reclaimed their piece of the rock.

But this was a shallow victory: there was no singing and celebrating, no holding of hands, only the holding of turf. "Western Wall Story" has become a classic American Western, and Friday evening has become its High Noon.

And when I looked up, the dove was gone.

The Shechina has left the building.

And where has She gone? Why to the Mall, of course, where the people of Israel share a common
language and meet on an equal canvas, bearing first fruits and exchanging them for a sip of coffee and a snippet of intimate conversation. Everyone is there, sharing small talk at Sbarros on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street, or folk dancing at Ben and Jerry's on Tel Aviv's beach front.

If this all reeks of American cultural imperialism, I beg to differ. While the Western Wall has become bad Disney, the Mall has made Burger King a touchstone to the Sacred. A kosher Kentucky Fried Chicken isn't about the Americanization of Israel, it's about the Judaization of Americanism -- at long last Colonel Sanders has discovered our secret recipe for the santification of life. At the new Jerusalem Mall there is equal access from every gate. Priests, Levites, women, the disabled, tourists: all are treated in like manner. A mall with honest shop owners, separate meat and dairy food courts and even a synagogue, is a mall that conveys the best of our value system to the next generation. Amidst the Hebrew Coca Cola bottles and Michael Jordan magazines there is a level of holiness, because they are bringing my children and their Israeli cousins together in a Jewish state speaking a Jewish language.

The Mall, democratic, serendipitous, wide-eyed, infused with Jewish values, just a little bit dirty and a whole lot Israeli; has become a place of pilgrimage and unity for the Jewish people -- just what the Temple's outer courtyard used to be. The Shechina now sits on a nest of astroturf atop the Hard Rock Cafe, weeping no longer, for Her people have returned.

But alas, how lonely sit the ancient stones of the Kotel. I weep for them.

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