“New Jersey,” I say. Behind us is the Western Wall. It is a cold and rainy day and the Wall is mostly bare and empty of anyone besides my Birthright group. Soggy paper prayers collect in tangled piles at the base of the Wall.
“New Jersey!” he says, his smile growing underneath his scraggly black beard. “Cherry Hill?”
“Close to it.”
“Do you go to Chabad?”
“What is the rabbi’s name?”
“Yitzak… Yitzak K—”
“Ahhh!” he says, looping the black leather around my wrist and then two fingers. “Little Yitzak!” He does not look at me as he says this. Only my arm.
The moment reminds me of when I was being interviewed by El Al security in Newark. A woman with a small frame and a shock of curly black hair asked me to which denomination I belonged. I had answered that I did not really identify myself with any. Her next question, monotone and rehearsed, was, “Are you a Bar Mitzvah?”
“Yes. At a reform synagogue.”
“Temple Emmanuel. In Cherry Hill.”
“Ahhh! Yes. Of course.” She made a few quick Hebrew marks on a form and continued asking me questions.
At first, I found the questions amusing. Did she actually know of Temple Emmanuel? Why was I being asked which denomination I came from? As she kept asking, I felt more uncomfortable. Why did she need to know? Was I not allowed on the plane if I wasn’t a Bar Mitzvah? What if her report of my denomination contradicted what I had said? No, I’m sorry, we have you down as conservative…didn’t you also go to Beth Shalom—? Sorry, tickets are only available for denominational Jews… Where do you live? Where are you from? To whom do you belong—
“Chabad and… where else? Somewhere in Cherry Hill, right?” The Lubavitcher tugged tight the phylacteries and pulled them hard around my ears.
Who wants to know?
When I fist met Yitzak, I was struck by how young he was and how he pronounced with such fervor and authority that when you slept at night, your weary soul ascends to heaven and there, God gives it a divine charge and sends it back to your body. While he says this, Yitzak’s thumb rotates in a counter-clockwise circle across the glass face of his wrist-watch. He points to the Hebrew letters in his small yellowed sidur and asks me to read the words.
“This is Modeh Ani,” he says, “the prayer to thank God for returning your soul to your body.” He says a line, “Modeh ani—” and I repeat, “Modeh Ani.”
When Yitzak’s son wanders into the room and stops humming and looks up at me with his big brown eyes, Yitzak says, “Say hello to Yosaf. Say hello to Yosaf, Leybl,” and hunches down to scoop his son up into his arms.
When Yitzak asks me what I think of the Gaza pull-out at the end of the summer, we are sitting in the dark. There is very little furniture in his living room, just a brown couch, a brown chair, scattered PlaySkool toys, and a picture of Rabbi Schneerson. When I say that I think it is a good thing the Israelis pulled out of Gaza, he cuts me off, and tells me that Scripture forbids Jews to return land. I try to say that somebody needed to do something to move towards peace, but he changes the subject, apologizing that he cannot bring me food. It is, after all, “a fast day. Today was the day the Temple of was destroyed.”
The sun is shining through the half-drawn Venetian blinds. Yitzak sits down and asks me, “Would you like to do tefillen?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
I have never done tefillen before. “I do not feel comfortable.”
“You do not feel comfortable?” His thumb moves counter-clockwise across the face of his silver wristwatch and he seems embarrassed, unsure of what to say next. I want to reassure him, to direct his attention elsewhere, to say, in a low voice with a practiced lilt, like Yitzak does when reciting Hebrew, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
The Lubavitcher takes the prayer sheet from me and gives it the next in line. He removes the phylacteries and they leave red creases in my forearm. “Okay. You are good to go pray now,” he says and begins wrapping another American’s arm.
At the wall, I am unsure of what kind of prayer to leave. Around me men, some in jeans and pullovers, others in long black Hasidim clothing, run their hands along the wall and tuck notes into creases. I wonder what they say.
I tear a page out of my notebook and quickly write, “Peace.” I fold it and fit it into the Wall. But, feeling, odd, or simplistic, I unfit it, unfold it, and add, “Shalom.” As it rains, the ink begins to smear, so I brush it on my pant leg where the letters run. I folded the page, once, twice, and tucked it back in the Wall.
Above, cypress trees sway in the wind and rain. The Dome of the Rock crouches opposite from an Israeli checkpoint on this side of the Wall. Off in the distance, I can see the Mount of Olives, and then farther, the other wall, constructed of gray concrete, wrapped in barbed wire, creeping towards the heart of Jerusalem