Volume 4 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1990 | Tishrei, 5751)
The overcrowded bus came to an abrupt halt and I was pressed through its rear doors and onto the road. I stepped slightly to the right to let others pass, and through my thin soled sneakers felt the cool smooth stones of the street. I breathed deeply the balmy evening air, and heard a breeze whispering quiet tunes through sur?rounding narrow, winding streets. The bus noisily drove off, and exhaust fumes mingled with sand and dust, creating a cloud behind it. The cloud wafted past me, and I was taken with a familiar and irresistible feeling of anticipation. Having toured a great deal on buses as a child, I had, from earliest memory, associated the aroma of bus fumes with adventure.
All around me, from every direction, people were approaching the Kotel. They moved as streams and rivers do, all feeding into one central ocean of faces. These faces seemed as diverse as one could imagine: old and young, tourists, students, spectators, observant, non-observant -- all gathered to participate in some way. When the Kotel came clearly within my view, I stopped for a moment, struck by its power. Brightlights were shining on it from every direction, and it seemed to reflect the light. or perhaps emanate its own. in a way which illuminated the sky around it. The large stones seemed golden in color, and the tufts of moss growing here and there between them were thick, healthy, and vibrant green.
I continued walking slowly and paused before the assumed entrance to the sanctuary (assumed since no barrier actually existed). Melancholy discordant melodies rose from the men's section in familiar patterns that made me feel at home. I surveyed the sea of people around me and glanced at my roommate to find that she was doing the same. Being from NewYork, there was always that off ' chance that we would see someone we knew, and somehow that unspoken ?look around? was more a part of our nature than we might admit.
In front of me, women were gathered, some in small groups, and some alone, but all involved in the momentousness of the day. It was Tisha B'Av, and from near and far people had come to mourn the loss of the Bais HaMikdosh, the Holy Temple. Some women were swaying back and forth, to the right and to the left, as they offered prayers. Others stood in silent devotion, heads bent forward, or uplifted toward the heavens. Many closest to the Wall seemed to grasp at its stones as if for strength and a few were sobbing quietly or pressing their lips to the stones as if telling secrets to a lover. The crevices in the wall were packed tightly with crumpled slips of paper containing the wishes, dreams and prayers of their authors.
I spied a young woman maneuvering through the crowd, and finally inching her way up against the Wall. She stood on one of the steps leading to a small room adjacent to the Kotel. Her long, dark hair was held away from her face by two barrettes, and straight bangs fell over her forehead, framing warm brown eyes. She wore a navy blue denim jumper and a red cotton shirt. Though she could have been no more than sixteen, her face seemed set in a serious expression, and she carried herself with great assurance. As I watched, she closed her eyes and touched her lips to her silent stone companion. When her eyes opened, Isaw all at once a certain strength and a certain weakness, or perhaps it was more fear. Her hand moved quickly into her pocket and withdrew a small paper already neatly folded and placed it into a shallow crack in the Wall. She bent her forehead against the stones, muttered a few inaudible words, and passed back into the sea of people.
I was greatly moved by this girl, although I wasn't quite
sure why. I wondered what was on the paper: A wish for her brother's safe
A vision flashed through my mind of the way I had experienced Tisha B'Av several years earlier when I, too, was sixteen. I was filled with perhaps similar, if not identical, dreams and prayers. It was evening. I was sitting on the smooth, hard floor of an atrium located on a hilltop which overlooked the Old City of Jerusalem. I listened closely to the words of Meggilat Eicha as they echoed mournfully through surrounding hills and came to rest finally on the Temple Mount. I remember feeling so deeply connected to the events being recounted that I was moved to silent tears, as I realized the city I now observed had a void in the place where its heart had once beaten. I followed the story by candlelight as did my fellow companions, and the flicker of our small lights seemed to mix with the flickering lights of the city below and the stars in the sky above to create a harmonious, heavenly union. The pain of the loss of the Bais HaMikdosh was strong, but in that universal sea of light, I felt a radiating warmth, and was in some way comforted.
I was brought quickly back to reality by the approach of someone who looked familiar, but whom I couldn't quite place. Finally, it came to me: I knew her from high school; she had been a year ahead of me. She wore a light blue, button down blouse a white collar, a brown skirt whichreached well below her knees, white kneesocks, and graying white sneakers. Shestill wore her thin brown hair in a Dutchboy cut, and appeared to have changed little inthe several years which had passed, withthe exception of her blemish-free skin.Her face seemed quite solemn, but I greetedher cheerfully, and questioned her about how she was spending her time in Israel. Her response was not what I had anticipated.
She seemed to hesitate, and finally blurted out, ?I'm sorry, but this is a very sad day. I can't talk to you...lightly like this. I'm much too upset.?
I was stunned. I knew it was a seriousday, but it had been a long time since I hadallowed myself to be affected bythese things.?I understand,? was all I could thinkto respond and would have left it at that, but this voice from my past seemed to want to continue. She stepped closer to me and looked me in the eyes, until I felt uncomfortable andaverted mine.
?You'vechanged,? she stated in a deep and even voice. ?You're not asreligious as you once were.? She didn'tseem to wait for a reply. ?I'm sorry tosee what has happened to you... you've really lostsomething.? She paused briefly and her face became even more grave. ?I hope you can get it back because you were someone I really admired.? She paused again as if for emphasis. ?I really admired you.? That was all she said, and then she was gone, lost in the crowd.
I stood staring at the ground in disbelief, then quickly scanned the area to catch another glimpse of this aberration, but she was gone without a trace. I quickly turned to my roommate who stood just a few feet away.
?Did you hear what she said to me?? My voice was tense and my face felt flushed.
?What who said??
?That woman I was talking to. Didn't you see her??
?No, I wasn't paying attention. Why? What's wrong? What did she say to you??
Debbie's voice strengthened to the protective and motherly tone Ihad grown to rely on. But what was there to protect me from? I thought for a moment.
?It's... it's nothing,? Imurmured. ?I'll tell you about it later.? I sealed this state?ment with a small smile to make it more believable. ?I'm going to take a little walk around. I'llbe back in a few minutes.?
?Fine,?she said, ?As long as you're okay.?
I smiled weakly and walked away.
I walkedaimlessly through the crowds of people milling about and looked at the Kotel from one angle and another trying to regain that wonderfully fresh feeling of excitement which had accompanied me off the bus such a short time ago, but her words kept entering my mind. ?You're not the same person you were. You've really lost something.?
What had I lost? Should I be looking for it? Who was this acquaintance from my past who could at a glance see changes I did not even recognize or had avoided recognizing until now. I briefly surveyed my clothing. I feltcertain that my dress was appropriately modest. I had on my canvass shoes. Everything on the exterior seemed to check out.
I thought to myself, ?Isn't there some kind of written rule about what is appropriate to say to an acquaintance you haven't seen for several years? Hadn't anyone educated her'?? I felt angry about her criticism and afraid that perhaps she was right: angrier still about not knowing myself well enough to have the answer, and more afraid that maybe I wouldn't be able to get back what I had lost. or worse. that I would not even try and would have to live with the knowledge of my loss and my conscious decision to let it go.
I thought again about the girl I had seen praying against the wall, and about the way I had experienced Tisha B'Av in the past. Yes, there was a time in life when I was a much more spiritual being, when all my actions had the meaning which accompanies sincere religious observance, and closeness to Hashem was something familiar and comforting. How long had it been since I had davened with real kavanah? I couldn't quiet recall. When had this slipped away from me, and when had I closed my eyes to its departure? How many other times in life would witness the departure of those qualities most central to my individuality in deference to academic or career advancements, and not notice their absence, and not have someone so brazen as to point them out?
These questions and others were foremost in my mind as the day of Tisha B'Av progressed. Though I was not able to experience the day with the old feelings I once had. I did take a step in that direction. I decided that instead of spending my entire year in Israel in a university as I had planned, I would split my time between the university and a yeshiva in Jerusalem. At least now I would have the chance to explore my Yiddishkeit and find a place not so void of feeling.
My year was riddled with conflict -- conflict between the university ideas and the yeshiva ideas, the old me and the me I had become. Out of this conflict developed not a compromise, but a willingness to live with certain inconsistencies. I emerged with a realization that although I could not yet fully attain the level of piety I once had had. I would not deny my spirituality and my need to try.
To some extent, I believe I owe a lot to that fleeting acquaintance, and gained a great deal from this experience. I learned to be my own acquaintance: to try from time to time to stand in place of my acquaintance and assess the changes that have taken place and to determine whether they are positive. This may sound easy, but it is really quite difficult to try to look at yourself out of context, and harder still to admit when you're not completely satisfied with what you see. The process can be painful at times as it was that Tisha B'Av night, but without pain, there can be little growth, and without growth little fulfillment.
When I look back on our meeting that night, I sometimes ask, ?Was there really an acquaintance?? Though I have tried and tried, I can't remember her name.
Lisa Stein lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.