The world is truly upside down – a sure sign that Mashiach’s coming is right around the corner. Incredibly, as The Jewish Press reported yesterday, the highly respected Rabbi Yisrael Ariel was banned from the Temple Mount for setting it above his highest joy – the holiest and most cherished site in the Jewish world – just like a Jew is supposed to. Some terrible crime, isn’t it?
Since Israel Book Month is still with us, with special discount sales in all of the bookstores, and since I wrote about this very topic in my novel, The Discman and the Guru, I’m posting an excerpt from the book. It’s wonderful reading, especially for our young people, certainly more meaningful and Jewish than Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code, or the vampire stories that seem to be so popular today. And it certainly beats smoking marijuana and watching Internet porn.
For those who accuse me of promoting my books for mercenary reasons, the claim is totally unfounded, mainly because my natural audience is Jews, and the majority simply doesn’t appreciate the importance of real Jewish literature. And if someone does order it, I give the money to charity, so don’t worry about making me rich.
The Discman and the Guru tells the humorous story of Sam Singer, a sensitive teenager from a wealthy, assimilated LA family, who can’t relate to the crass material world around him. Setting off on his own, he journeys around the world to find God and discover true spirituality. After disappointed escapades in London, Paris, Rome, India, and Mecca, he arrives in Jerusalem, where he is arrested several times for trying to pray on the Temple Mount. Warned by Israeli police that he will be thrown out of the country if he tries once again, he undauntedly sets off at night to scale the towering southern wall of the Mount in secret. But a climbing mishap occurs, and he is left dangling in mid air, high up on the wall, when an Arab street-cleaner spots him, and spreads the alarm that a settler is trying to blow up the Temple Mount mosque, which of course, triggers violent Arab riots and an international uproar.
Here’s an excerpt from the novel, narrated by Sam himself, about his very first day in Jerusalem. It’s a little long, so print it out and save it for oneg Shabbat. By the way, Rabbi Ariel’s whole family has read the book, and, unfortunately, they can vouch for its accuracy.
I told the driver to take me to the Wailing Wall. I didn’t know why. I had heard that the Wall was a spiritual place. Whenever somebody had visited Israel, people always asked, “Did you get to the Wall?” “How was the Wall?” For some reason, my father had a picture of the Wall in his office, even though he had never been to Israel. He had given some money to some yeshiva in Jerusalem and received the framed picture as a gift. Probably because of that picture, when I saw the Wall, I felt I had been there before. There is no other way that I can explain it. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know what the Wall was. Obviously, it had been a part of a building. What kind of building, I didn’t know. Probably, a palace, I thought.
The soldier at the security gate looked through my backpack and asked if I were carrying a gun.
A gun? What a strange question. I had never held a gun in my life.
“No, sir,” I answered respectfully, impressed at meeting a real Israeli soldier.
He motioned me forward with a flick of his hand. I’m not kidding when I say that everything turned into slow motion. As if in a dream, I approached the Wailing Wall plaza. Even though it was three in the morning, there were people milling around; old women in long skirts and kerchiefs, and Orthodox Jews in black coats and hats. The Wall was illuminated with a shimmering light which seemed to glow from within. The massive stones seemed to vibrate as if filled with a life of their own. Men prayed at one side of a barrier, and women on the other.
“I’ve been here before,” I said to myself.
I couldn’t shake the feeling. Looking at the giant stones of the Wall, I felt awestruck. I felt overwhelmed. I felt a sensation which I had never experienced in India, nor in Mecca, nor in Rome. I felt a holiness in the air, as if it were something tangible that I could reach out and touch. Staring up at the Wall, I felt an overpowering presence all around me. Suddenly, I knew. This was the place. Behind this Wall. This was where G-d was hiding.
I walked across the plaza, pulled by a magnetic force. An old woman, a beggar, thrust out a hand. I reached into my pocket and handed her a bill. She thanked me profusely, blessing me, holding out her hand for some more.
Without stopping, I headed straight for the Wall. The closer I got, the more I felt something pulling me forward. Another beggar held out a hand, but this time, I passed him right by. Like a space capsule docking with its mother station in space, I rushed forward to touch the great chiseled blocks of the Wall. Little paper notes were crumpled up and stuffed into cracks between stones. As my fingers embraced a boulder, a shudder swept me like a wave. A current, as real shock therapy, charged through every pore in my body. Like a heart, the stone seemed to beat. I felt a pulse, as if the Wall were alive. It felt like my hands were connected to sockets of spiritual energy. Call it a miracle, or whatever you want, but the trembling I always had in my hands disappeared. The tremor that the anti-depressants had caused simply vanished. I was healed.
A sob seized my chest. I pressed my forehead against the soothing Wall. Tears streamed down my cheeks.
“Please G-d, heal my head,” I prayed. “Purify my brain of all of the poisons.”
It is hard to describe, but I was seized by a mixture of sorrow and joy. Sorrow for the past, and joy for the present. More than anything, I felt enveloped by an ocean of love. A love I had never experienced. Tears poured from my eyes. My fingers gripped the cracks in the stones, unwilling to let go. No one disturbed me. No one came over to tell me to stop. No one told me that I was insane. Other people stood facing the Wall, praying as fervently as I was. There was a soldier in uniform, a man in a wheelchair, a dark-skinned Jew with side locks and a beret.
Suddenly, an old man with a beard and black hat came shuffling over, barking out something in Yiddish and pointing excitedly to my head. Instinctively, my hands shot up to my uncovered scalp. Quickly, I zipped open my backpack and pulled out a baseball cap. Satisfied, the man nodded his head. Behind him, at the end of the Wall, I noticed an archway with a golden light shining inside. Curious, I walked forward, still in a trance from the other-worldliness of the place. I entered what looked like a cave. The ceiling was arched in a vault. Yellow spotlights bathed the cavern in a moon-like glow. To my surprise, the Wall continued, stretching the length of the chamber. A few Hasidic figures stood leaning forward, motioning with their hands, as if arguing with the stones. The massive boulders looked melted, as if they were made out of wax, as if they had withstood a fire of incredible fury. Large wooden arks and bookcases filled with prayer books and large Hebrew texts spanned the tunnel-like enclosure. At the end of the chamber, an old, white-bearded Jew sat on the ground by the Wall. He was dressed in a long prayer gown which looked incredibly like the prayer gown hanging in my closet back home. Sobs shook the old man’s broken, bent-over frame. With a mournful, weeping voice, he wailed out a prayer from the depths of his soul.
I thought of my grandfather. Watching him, my whole body trembled. Dropping my back pack, I sat on a chair by the Wall. Suddenly, I was back in my closet. I felt the same feeling. I smelled the same smell. For the first time since my childhood, I felt the presence of G-d all around me.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. No one noticed. No one cared. I cried along with the rabbi. Tears of wandering. Tears of exile. Tears of pain. Tears of being so lonely and lost for so many years. I didn’t know a soul in Jerusalem, but I sensed I was home. Sitting next to the old rabbi, I sensed I belonged. I sensed the G-d of my forefathers was near.
Without knowing it, I drifted into a deep soothing sleep. I didn’t notice the old rabbi leave. I didn’t even notice when someone placed a small booklet of prayers in my lap. I awoke to a loud chanting. “Yehay shmay rabbah….”
What looked like a convention of rabbis had gathered to pray a short distance away. I had never seen so many Hasidim in one place in my life. They all wore phylacteries and had prayer shawls draped over their heads. In the tunnel, I couldn’t tell if it were night or day. In my lap was a booklet with a picture of a crown on the cover. Inside, the Hebrew prayers were spelled out in English – something called the Tikun Clalli. As I stood up, a man hurried over, holding out a pair of tefillin. With his beard and black hat, he looked like a rabbi too. I shook my head no. But the man was insistent. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“It’s good. It’s good,” he said in an English that was as broken as his teeth. “One minute. That’s all. Say ‘Shema Yisrael.’”
“Why not?” I thought. I had no other appointments to keep. When in Jerusalem do what the Jerusalemites do. I had tried crazier things in India and Mecca. Why not join the crowd in a place that felt like home?
Happily, the man strapped the small black box over my bicep and set another small box on my head. He pronounced the Hebrew blessings slowly, so that I could repeat them. Then he handed me a prayer book and pointed where to read. But I had long ago forgotten the little Hebrew I had learned as a boy.
“No problem, no problem,” the man said, still flashing his two missing teeth. “You know Shema?”
I shook my head no.
“Say, ‘Shema… Yisrael…. Hashem… Elokanu… Hashem… Echad.’”
I repeated the words after my patient instructor. The truth is, as I said it, the prayer came back to me from deep in my memory. When I finished, the man unwound the black strap from my arm. An impression of tracks remained in my flesh as if an Israeli tank had run over me.
“Last night, there was a rabbi here praying,” I said, pointing to the far corner where the old man had sat.
“Nu?” the man responded.
“You know him?” I asked.
“Everyone knows him. Rabbi Dov Ber HaCohen. He’s the Tzaddik of the Kotel.”
“Why was he crying?”
“Oh,” the tefillin man said. “Don’t you know? He cries for the Beit HaMikdash.”
“The what?” I asked.
The man gave me a strange look. His hands waved in front of him, as if he were trying to pluck something out of the air.
“The Temple,” he said with a smile, happy to have remembered the word.
“What Temple?” I asked.
“The Beit HaMikdash,” the man repeated, pointing toward the other side of the Wall.
“There’s a Temple on the other side of the Wall?” I guessed, trying to decipher his clues.
“Not now,” the man said, waving a hand to indicate a long time ago.
Suddenly, I somehow remembered that the Wall was part of an ancient Jewish Temple. But I still didn’t understand why the old man had been so broken up. If the Sinai Temple where I had been bar-mitzvahed in Los Angeles had been destroyed, I would have been happy, not sad.
“Go to yeshiva,” the man said with a smile. “Learn.”
Returning the tefillin to their sack, he walked off looking for another customer for his wares. I reached down and lifted my backpack over a shoulder. Strangely, even though I had only slept for an hour or two, I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t feel hungry either. Outside the tunnel, daylight was beginning to shine in the sky. Groups of Jews prayed around tables set up in front of the Wall. I found a stone bench at the back of the plaza and sat down to watch. Birds, disturbed from their sleep by the prayers, flew in darting circles over the heads of the worshippers. There were Jews with black hats, and Jews with knitted kippahs. There were Jews with dark, golden faces, the color of earth, and Jews who spoke Hebrew with American accents. Across a partition, women huddled by the Wall, offering their silent supplications. An aura of reverence surrounded the place. Men carried Torah scrolls out from the tunnel. People hurried to kiss them. Curious, I stepped up to a table to watch as a scroll was opened and read. I knew this was my heritage, my religion, my past, but I couldn’t understand a word they were chanting. I didn’t know how to read Hebrew. I didn’t even know how to pray. My mother was Jewish. My father was Jewish. My grandfather had been religious. In pictures, he was always wearing a hat. But he had died when I was a child. My father changed his name from Cohen to Singer and worked on the Sabbath to advance his business. So me and my brother had grown up without knowing a thing.
To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to think. I mean, Christians were religious. Moslems were religious. The Hindus had their own brand of religion, too. I had learned in my travels that they were all based on lies – maybe Judaism was too. Who said that rabbis had any better answers than bishops and monks? If someone wore a hat and grew a long beard, did that make him closer to G-d?
Returning to the stone ledge, I sat in a lotus position with my back to the low wall. Out of habit, I began to breathe deeply. Without even thinking about it, the mantra in my mind switched from “OM” to “SHAL-OM.”
Startled, I opened my eyes. A blaze of brilliant sunlight shone off of the Wall. Blinded, I squinted up at a figure. An hour had passed in a wink. Once again, I had dozed off to sleep.
“Are you an American?” the voice said.
I looked up into the face of a rabbi.
“That’s right,” I answered.
“Visiting the country?”
“Where are you from?”
“Lots of pollution there.”
“Yes, there is,” I agreed.
“If there is physical pollution, that’s a sign that there is spiritual pollution as well. Everything in the physical world has a spiritual base,” the rabbi explained.
I nodded my head. It made sense. After all, Hollywood wasn’t the most moral city on earth.
“Would you like to learn a little Torah in yeshiva?” the rabbi asked with a smile.
“I don’t think so,” I answered, wary of ashrams and teachers.
“Yeshiva?” I thought to myself. What a dumb idea. I’d more likely go on a trip to the moon. No one I knew had ever learned in a yeshiva. Sure, I liked the vibes of the Wall, but I couldn’t picture myself looking like these pious Jews. The beard and the hat and the ritual fringes that hung down from their trousers were the antithesis of Hollywood cool. Not that I paid much attention to looks. But having been raised in a world of chic fashion, I couldn’t imagine myself with side locks and a baggy black suit.
“Take my card,” the rabbi said. “If you change your mind, you can call me day or night.”
Smiling, he handed me his business card. Just then, his cell phone rang.
“Excuse me,” he said, walking off. “Have a nice trip.”
I glanced at the card and stuffed it into my pocket, along with the booklet of prayers I had found. Grabbing my backpack, I stood up, figuring I’d better get something to eat. Not knowing exactly where to go, I headed back toward the street, near where the taxi had left me. Up the hill, opposite the Wall, modern buildings were squeezed in between ruins from the past. Pausing at a water fountain for a drink, I ease dropped as an Israeli guide explained the sights to a group of baseball-capped tourists. “Florida Baptist Mission” was inscribed on the back of their T-shirts.
“The ancient Jewish Temple was burnt down by the Romans in the year 70 A.D,” the guide said in an Oxford-sounding English. “The Western Wall that you see here in front of you is the only remnant still standing. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Jewish tradition. The Dome of the Rock Shrine which you see in the background was built over the razed debris of the Temple in the seventh century by a follower of Mohammed, the Caliph, Omar, who conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines. Israel captured the Temple Mount from the Jordanians in the Six-Day-War, and allowed the Moslems to continue to pray there. Though the Jewish Temple has been destroyed for nearly two-thousand years, devout Jews throughout the ages have prayed for its rebuilding three times a day. Wherever Jews are in the world, they pray toward the direction of the Temple. For the Moslems, the site marks the place where their prophet Mohammed is supposed to have ascended to heaven on a fabled winged horse. However, when they pray, they face away from the Temple Mount toward Mecca, their holy city.”
I listened in fascination. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the Temple. I knew nothing about Jerusalem. In fact, I knew nothing about the history of the Jews. In school, I had studied ancient history, but there had hardly been a mention of Israel. Christ had lived in Bethlehem – that’s about all that I knew.
The group’s pastor stepped beside the guide and called out in a rich southern baritone, as if he were delivering his best Sunday sermon.
“Friends, listen here,” he said, enthusiastically waving a Bible in the air to get their attention. “We are going up this holy mountain to see this awesome site, and remember, ladies and gentleman, brothers and sisters, this is not just the Temple Mount where Jesus overturned the moneychanger’s tables; this is not just the place where King Solomon was granted great wisdom; this is not just the place where King David composed many of his inspiring Psalms; this is not just the place where Abraham sacrificed Isaac; this place, ladies and gentlemen, in the words of the Scripture, Genesis 28:17, and Isaiah 2:2, right here in this book; this hallowed place is none other than the House of the L-rd. The House of the L-rd, brothers and sisters. The House of the L-rd.”
That’s all that I had to hear. Listening to the pastor’s inspiring words, I trembled. Everyone cheered. I slipped into line as the guide led the group up the narrow incline leading to a gate in the Wall. With my baseball cap, I looked just like one of the Baptists. A Black woman started singing a song, and the others joined in.
“Oh when the saints,
Oh when the saints,
Oh when the saints go marching in,
We will long to be in their number,
When the saints go marching in.”
Two Israeli soldiers sat at a security station, guarding the entrance to the Mount. They hardly looked up from their newspapers as the guide led his troops toward the archway. But when my turn came to enter the small passageway, a soldier sitting by the entrance stuck out a boot in my path.
“Atah itam?” he asked in Hebrew.
“Sorry?” I said, not understanding.
“Are you with them?”
The soldier gave me a look.
“Do you have a passport?”
“Sure,” I said. I slid open a zipper on my backpack and took out my passport. The soldier glanced at the picture.
“Take your hat off please.”
I obeyed orders. The soldier looked surprised to see my completely bald head.
“Backpack,” the soldier’s partner said, reaching out a hand. I swung the lightweight bag off my shoulders. There wasn’t much in it save for a pair of pajamas, some underwear and socks, and a few slacks and shirts. I had never gotten my video camera back from the Swarmi.
“Israeli I.D?” the first soldier asked.
“I don’t have one,” I said.
The last few Baptists were making their way through the archway. The soldier nodded and glanced down at my feet. I looked down at the leather sandals that I had purchased in India.
“Is something the matter?” I asked.
“No. Everything’s fine. You can go in, but you’ll have to leave your bag here.”
The other soldier stuffed my bag under a table.
“They probably make spot checks,” I thought to myself, wondering why I had been singled out from the others. Maybe it was because I was the only one in the group who wasn’t wearing a T-shirt. Quickly, I hurried to catch up to the tour. Passing through the archway, I came to a cobblestone courtyard. Suddenly, it happened again. Everything turned into slow motion, as if I had entered a different world. A grove of tall trees blocked a clear view of the Mount, but even without being able to see it, I felt something unreal. A small stone building stood in the middle of the walkway where the group of tourists had gathered. The guide was pointing to an Islamic Museum which stood in front of the el Aksa Mosque.
Though I was in earshot, I didn’t hear the guide’s speech. I couldn’t. A dizziness had overwhelmed me the moment I had stepped foot on the Mount. For a moment I swooned, as if I would faint. Then, like a wind, the dizziness passed and an indescribable lucidness filled up my brain. It was a sensation ten times more powerful than the holiness I had felt at the Wall. It was more powerful than any drug they had fed me. In a flash, all of my confusion and uncertainty vanished. My past disappeared. It was as if a hand had placed an oxygen mask over my nostrils, filling me up with a burst of pure air. In a moment, all of the discs were erased. All of the websites, and modems, and therapies, and TV programs all vanished. There was only Sam Singer and G-d.
There was no doubt in my mind. No question. This was the place I’d been looking for. This was the place I belonged.
The group of Baptists strolled along the archways of the massive sixteenth-century mosque. A bunch of Japanese tourists wearing floppy, red tennis hats stood under a colonnade, listening to a Japanese guide explain about the history of the site. My feet moved over the cobblestones, but my head was in the clouds. Like my out-of-body trips in India, my soul seemed to soar into the sky. It was as if a helicopter had whisked me up and away for an aerial tour of the Mount. Even though the grove of trees still blocked my view of the golden domed shrine at the top of the mountain, I saw the whole plaza spread out before me sparkling with light.
I squinted up at the crystal blue sky. The sunlight was blinding. A trail of wispy clouds rose like a staircase toward heaven. Exhilarated by the celestial feeling, I started to sing. I wanted to pray, but I didn’t know what to say, so I started to sing instead. I raised my hands to the sky like the Baptists and sang out with all my heart.
“Oh when the saints,
Oh when the saints,
Oh when the saints go marching in….”
The old Negro ballad was the only thing that came to my mind. The words were unimportant. It was the feeling that mattered. And the only way I could express my great joy was to sing.
In my rapture, I didn’t notice the sound of the whistles. I didn’t see the Wakf guards running my way. All I knew was that one minute I was singing and then BAM, someone hit me from the side and smashed me to the ground. With an “OOFF,” I crashed to the pavement. Luckily, my arm cushioned the blow. Arab shouts filled the air. Angrily, I pushed my tackler away and scrambled to my feet. Two Wakf guards came running. One barked into a walkie talkie. The other blew on his whistle. In the distance, Israeli policemen came charging my way. I didn’t know what was happening, but I didn’t want to stick around to find out. Without waiting for an explanation, I bolted. I ran past the mosque into an open courtyard. The Wakf guards cried out and pursued. One tripped on a cobblestone. His walkie talkie flew out of his hand and went sliding like a hockey puck over the plaza. Whistles shrieked. People shouted. Blue-uniformed policemen charged forward, holding their firearms in front of their chests. Behind them, green-uniformed soldiers appeared on the Mount.
I had never been a great athlete, but I always could run. Adrenalin pumped through my veins like it never had in my life. For all I knew, the policemen were coming to kill me. What for? Why me? What had I done? I burst through the grove of trees and came out on a wide cobblestoned path. Now I could see clearly the octagon shrine which sat in the center of the Temple Mount. Its great golden dome sparkled like a small sun. But I didn’t have time to take in the scene. The cops were hot on my tail. Arabs dressed in long white gowns stopped to watch the chase. As I sprinted along a straightaway, I caught a glimpse of the Baptists who were also watching the action. Suddenly, up ahead, two Israeli soldiers appeared. Like an Olympic hurdler, I leaped over a hedge and headed away from the shrine toward the far wall at the other side of the compound. One of the Israelis caught a boot in the hedge and rolled head over heels into a ditch. The other soldier bounded over the terrain like a gazelle. I could hear him pounding the turf behind me.
“Atzor!” he yelled. “Atzor!”
My lungs screamed out for air. My heart thundered. Up ahead, a towering wall cut off any chance of escape. Nor could I see any gate. Before I could cut back in another direction, I was smashed once again from behind. This time the butt of a rifle jabbed into my back. I went down with a groan. The soldier pinned me to the hard rocky ground. He twisted my arm behind my back and pulled until I hollered in pain.
“Al tazooz!” the soldier commanded.
“I’m an American,” I gasped.
“Shtok!” the policeman yelled.
Other boots raced up. Policemen huffed and puffed out of breath. The guy that turned out to be a Druse soldier hauled me to my feet.
“Atah mishoogah?” he shouted. “Ma atah oseh?”
I knew what the word “mishoogah” meant. That’s what my parents had called me when I had prayed to G-d in my closet.
Another policeman with a khaki uniform and a bushy mustache fastened a pair of handcuffs over my wrists.
“Are you sure he’s a Jew?” he asked the others.
The soldier who had tackled me shook his head dumbly and shrugged.
“I’m a Jew, of course,” I volunteered, certain that here, in Israel, my religion would be to my favor.
“Then you are coming with us,” the cop said in an authoritative manner.
“What did I do?” I demanded to know.
“You’re under arrest.”
“For praying on the Temple Mount. For resisting arrest. For endangering public safety.”
It seemed like a lot of charges to me. It sounded like I was in serious trouble.
“I didn’t pray,” I protested. “I was singing, that’s all.”
“Tell it to the judge,” the arresting officer answered.
The Wakf guards backed away when the Israeli policemen took over, but in truth, it was hard for me to tell who was who.
Defiantly, I stood up for my rights.
“This is a holy place, isn’t it?” I asked.
“So what’s the matter with praying?” I wanted to know.
“Don’t play the innocent,” the commanding officer said gruffly, giving me a shove. His moustache seemed to twitch as if he were getting excited.
“Watch out,” I said, really peeved. “I’m an American. I know my rights. You don’t have any jurisdiction over me.”
“We’ll see about that,” the Israeli answered.
“Other people are praying,” I protested. “Go arrest them too.”
“They aren’t Jews. They can do what they want.”
“What?” I asked, not comprehending.
“HaYorum hazeh, hoo amiti?” one of the policemen asked.
“Ma petome,” the commander answered.
“A Jew isn’t allowed to pray here?” I asked, bewildered.
“Boker tov,” the Druse soldier quipped.
What was he talking about, I wondered? “Boker tov” meant good morning. That much Hebrew I knew.
“Hoo b’emet lo yodaya,” another policeman observed.
“That’s right, kid,” the commander answered. “A Jew can’t pray on the Temple Mount.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “If a Jew can’t pray, why is it called the Temple Mount? What else are you supposed to do in a temple but pray?”
“That’s the law.”
“I don’t believe it. It can’t be. What about freedom of speech? What about freedom of religion? Israel is a democracy, isn’t it?”
“This isn’t America,” the cop answered. “If you want to pray, go there.”
I stared at the policemen around me. They all looked perfectly serious. None of them smiled. None of them grinned. The handcuffs were serious too. They cut into my wrists when I moved. A crowd of Arabs started shouting and pointing toward the exit, yelling for us to get out. Not far away, the Japanese and Baptists had gathered, curious to see how the fracas would end.
If I had learned one thing in America, it was that a man was free to stand up for his rights.
“You mean to tell me that a Jew isn’t allowed to pray at the site of the Temple?” I asked in genuine disbelief.
Before answering, the officer’s eyes made a sweep of the Mount, as if to see what the gathering Arabs were doing. “That’s correct,” he said.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” I blurted out.
“Let’s go,” the Israeli ordered, tired of the small talk.
I shook my head no. “I’m not leaving. You don’t have any rights over me.”
“That’s it. Grab him,” the commander angrily ordered.
Before I knew it, I was lifted into the air. Two policemen held my legs, and two held my arms. Roughly, they carried me across the plaza.
“Let me go! Let me go! You can’t do this to me! I’m an American!” I yelled.
Sensing a cause of free speech, the Baptists escorted me toward the exit, as if they were marching in a rousing Dixie parade.
“Oh when the saints,
Oh when the saints,
Oh when them saints go marching in.
We will long to be in their number,
When the saints go marching in.”
The Americans applauded me as the soldiers whisked me off of the Temple Mount, back through the passage to the Jewish side of the Wall. They dragged me down the ramp and dumped me near a sign stating that all visitors should respect the sanctity of the site. Another soldier threw me my backpack. Bruised and battered, I lay sprawled out on the ground. A Temple Mount cop slid a key in the handcuffs and my aching wrists were freed. Laughing, the soldiers and policemen headed back up the walkway to their posts.
“The hell with them,” I thought, muttering a rare curse.
Indignantly, I headed back up the mountain. Who did they think they were? They couldn’t act that way to me. I was an American. Not only that, my father was an intimate friend of the President. One phone call from me and the hotshot Israeli commander would be out on the street looking for work!
The soldier at the gateway frowned when he saw me coming. The commander paused and turned back. I strode forward as if no one were there. Bracing myself, I walked straight for the archway.
“Arrest him,” the commander ordered. “Maybe he’ll cool off after a few days in jail.”
Once again, I found myself in the air. The two Israeli guards lifted me up off my feet.
“I’m an American!” I shouted, “I know my rights! The President of the United States is going to hear about this!”
My feet pedaled in the air as if I were on a bicycle. The soldiers hustled me back down the incline and shlepped me across the plaza toward a police van. After a shove and a kick in my butt, I was locked inside the rear coop of the vehicle. A hand threw my backpack inside. All of my screams didn’t help. When the vehicle swerved in a sharp circle, I went sprawling onto my back. After a short, bouncy ride, the van stopped, and policemen hauled me out of the wagon. As far as I could tell, I was still inside the Old City’s walls. Before I could look around, the cops dragged me into a building that looked like a crusader fortress. Treating me like a criminal, they confiscated my passport and shoved me into a small windowless room.
“Sit here for a while,” a cop said, closing the door.
Agitated, I paced back and forth in the cubicle. The room reminded me of the lock-up rooms in mental wards, only there the walls were padded. When no one came in to interrogate me, I sat down on the small bench to wait. But after a few minutes, I was back on my feet, pacing.
“IN G-D WE TRUST,” I said out loud. “Difficulty at the beginning works complete success. Furthering through perseverance.”
I thought about Boaz and wondered what his reaction had been to the note which I had left in his Tel Aviv flat. I thought about my father and how he would react if he knew that his son were in a Jerusalem jail. To calm down, I sat on the floor, crossed my legs and started to breathe deeply in a Kundilini pose. But before I could slip into a meditation, the door opened and the police officer who had arrested me on the Temple Mount appeared with a tall, aging police officer who looked like the actor, Mel Gibson.
“Nu?” he said, as if bored.
“Praying on the Temple Mount, resisting arrest, and endangering public safety,” the Temple Mount commander reported.
The police-station detective glanced over at me with an experienced gaze.
“I wasn’t praying and I didn’t resist anything,” I said. “I was minding my own business.”
Mel Gibson nodded with the same tired expression that the famous Jewish actor was known for. I couldn’t get over the resemblance.
“What were you doing?” he asked.
“I was singing,” I answered.
“Shtuyot!” the Border Police commander retorted. “He was praying with his hands in the air.”
“I was singing,” I insisted.
“What were you singing?” Mel queried.
“When the Saints Go Marching In,” I answered. “You can ask the Baptist tourists from Florida. They were singing it too. With all due respect, the policeman here wasn’t anywhere near me.”
Mel looked over to the Temple Mount commander. “Did you hear the kid praying?”
“I didn’t,” the cop admitted, “But I got a call from the Wakf guards saying that someone was praying with his arms in the air.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know if singing is illegal,” the precinct detective responded. “I’ll have to check it out.”
“When we ordered him to halt,” the cop said, “he took off like a gazelle.”
“Is that correct?” Mel asked, turning back to me.
“I didn’t know what they were saying. Sure I ran. They were charging at me with guns.”
“That’s a natural reaction,” Mel admitted. “He’s a tourist. I think you over-reacted, Aharoni.”
“He refused to leave the Mount when I commanded him to,” the commander named Aharoni insisted. Once again, his moustache twitched nervously.
“Why should I have left?” I challenged. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Mel Gibson nodded. “B’seder,” he said. “I get the picture. If you don’t mind, Mr. Singer, we’ll run a check on your passport. You wait here, and I’ll come back soon.”
Once again, the door closed and I was left alone. Funny, I thought. The whole time that the police were interrogating me, my hands hadn’t shaken. Usually, in tense situations, my childhood tremor got worse. I didn’t know if it was because of touching the Wall, or because I felt more sure of myself now that I was in the land of the Jews. Whatever the reason, the tremor was gone.
When it became clear that the police were in no hurry to release me, I sat back down on the floor and folded my legs into a lotus position to meditate. Across the way, a pink nose and a pair of whiskers stuck out from a hole by the floor.
“Great,” I muttered. A rat. The Israelis really knew how to make a guy feel at home. Not taking any chances, I unlocked my legs and sat up on the bench, a safe distance away from the floor. Though the interrogating room wasn’t a particularly relaxing environment for achieving a state of serenity, I had learned at the ashram to put physical discomforts out of my mind. Soon, the walls of the police station melted away, and I was back on the Temple Mount, flying around above the towering dome. When the door opened, I awoke from my flight. The detective who looked like Mel Gibson stood in the doorway, holding my passport in hand.
“Have a nice rest?” the officer asked.
“Five stars,” I answered, wryly.
“Your passport’s all clear.”
“What were you expecting to find?”
“With the situation the way it is in Israel, we can’t be too careful. The Temple Mount is a sensitive spot. Just stay away from it and enjoy your tour of the country.”
I stood up from the bench. The rat had disappeared back into its hole.
“This is your first trip to the country, am I right?” the detective asked, forcing his lips into something that was supposed to look like a smile.
Mel Gibson’s Israeli double flicked through my passport.
“England, France, Italy, India, Saudi Arabia – that’s a lot of traveling for a kid. We had to make sure you weren’t a terrorist.”
“Unfortunately, Israel attracts them.”
“What convinced you that I’m not?” I asked.
“I didn’t say you weren’t,” the detective answered. “This time, we’re giving you the benefit of the doubt.”
“Great, thanks a lot,” I said.
I had been labeled a lot of things in my life, but never a terrorist.
Mel handed me my passport. With a small wave, the detective sauntered away down the corridor. My backpack lay on the floor in the lobby of the station. Grabbing it, I stepped outside onto the cobblestone street. Directly opposite me, an old Ottoman tower rose up over a stone moat that belonged to Crusader times. Across the way, there was a youth hostel, a restaurant, and a post office. The Old City courtyard was crowded with tourists, merchants and Arab schoolchildren. Israeli soldiers with green uniforms and rifles patrolled the street, surrounded by donkeys and priests. Jewish mothers pushed baby carriages through the jam up of cars and taxis. I stopped a black-hatted Jew who was rushing to get through the mob.
“Which way to the Wailing Wall?” I asked.
“Follow me,” the man answered. “I’m on my way to Mincha.”
I thought he said Munich. I didn’t know what he meant. Munich in Israel, I thought? Nonetheless, I followed after him. I had traveled around the world to find G-d, and now that I had, I wasn’t going to lie down like a possum and roll over. Tough Israeli soldiers or not, they didn’t scare me. I knew my rights. America had been founded on religious freedom. Hadn’t anyone in Israel heard of Plymouth Rock? The bold pioneers of America had been willing to take on the whole British navy to uphold their beliefs. No government in the world had the authority to ban prayer or to tell a man how to worship his Maker. In America, a Christian could pray in a temple, and a Jew could pray in a church. If Arabs could pray on the Temple Mount, then so could a Jew. Anything else was discrimination, as plain and simple as that.
“How can it be that in Israel, in the middle of Jerusalem, at the site of the ancient Temple, in the very spot where the House of G-d had stood, that a Jew wasn’t allowed to pray?”
It didn’t make sense. It was racist, undemocratic, completely absurd.
I followed the Orthodox Jew down a narrow, stone stairway into an Arab casbah. Shops lined both sides of the walkway. Merchants in caftans sat on wicker stools, calling out “Hallo, hallo,” to tourists as they passed. There were carved animals for sale, carpets, beads, postcards, drums, sheepskin coats, Christian souvenirs, water pipes, kefiahs, T-shirts, and bulging sacks filled with aromatic spices, coffees, and nuts. A Bedouin woman wearing a veil passed by balancing a tray of sweet pastries on top of her head. A Coptic priest walked along conversing with an Ethiopian prelate who was dressed up in a black skullcap and frock. I felt like I was back in Mecca. A barefooted Arab boy coaxed a donkey up an alley by swatting its rump with a twig.
The smell of barbecued lamb sizzling on a rotisserie reminded me how hungry I was.
“Later,” I thought, hurrying to keep up with the rushing, Madhatter Jew.
“I’m late, I’m late, I’m late for an important date,” his steps seemed to say.
Leaving the crowded market, the Hasid turned to the right, hurried past a security checkpost guarded by Israeli soldiers and raced down a wide flight of stairs to the open plaza in front of the Wall. “Two paths diverged in a snowy wood,” I thought, remembering the famous Robert Frost poem as I parted ways with my escort. Stubbornly, I headed back toward the rampway leading to the Temple Mount gate. The same two soldiers were on duty.
“You again?” one said.
“That’s right,” I answered with a determined look on my face.
I tried to appear calm, but my stomach felt jittery. Though I knew I was morally right, I had never been a big hero. And the Israelis looked tough.
“What do you want?” the second soldier asked, gruffly.
“To go inside like everyone else.”
“To take pictures,” I said, holding up the panoramic Kodak I had bought at the airport in Mecca.
The Israelis didn’t seem convinced. One of them picked up his walkie-talkie and had a quick conversation in Hebrew. After receiving his orders, he told me that I could proceed on inside.
“Leave your bag here,” he ordered.
“And no praying,” the other soldier reminded.
One point for me, I thought, walking into the archway. In the distance, Arabs were kneeling on the ground, praying in front of the el Aksa mosque, their heads bowed toward Mecca, their rumps facing the site of the Temple, as if they were desecrating it. Two Wakf guards stood at attention, waiting to accompany me on my walk. Hurrying to join them were Aharoni, the mustached, Temple Mount commander, the Druse Border policeman, and two khakied soldiers.
Once again, I felt my knees weaken. Whether because of the crowd of policemen or the spiritual high of the Mount, I started to swoon. In a way, I felt like I was out of my league, a little lost kid who had wandered out onto the playing field at Yankee Stadium during the World Series. What was I doing making trouble for the Israeli police? What craziness had lodged in my head?
“You were warned to stay away from here,” Aharoni said.
“IN G-D WE TRUST,” was my answer.
“Don’t play games with me,” Aharoni threatened.
“I’m not breaking any law,” I replied.
“We’ll see about that,” the Israeli answered. This time his moustache and right eye simultaneously twitched.
“I HAVE A DREAM!” I heard Martin Luther King call out in my ears.
“LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS,” the Declaration of Independence decreed.
“FOURSCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO, OUR FATHERS BROUGHT FORTH ON THIS CONTINENT A NEW NATION, CONCEIVED IN LIBERTY AND DEDICATED TO THE PROPOSITION THAT ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL,” Abraham Lincoln had declared to the Gettysburg crowd in his famous address.
The words spewed out of my mouth. I had memorized them in grade school. The Israeli policemen and Wakf guards listened to every word, trying to understand what the hell I was saying.
“He’s praying,” someone said.
“No he’s not,” another answered.
“All men are created equal,” I passionately repeated, quoting the immortal words of America’s fourteenth President, the emancipator of the slaves.
“He’s out of his mind,” the Druse observed.
When I moved on, the crowd moved with me. Everyone was staring at me, watching my lips. Between the cypress trees, I could see the golden dome and the great octagon shrine with its shining Persian tiles. Arabs began to congregate to see what was going on.
“Let’s go, Singer,” the commander said. “Take a picture and get out of here before I have a riot on my hands.”
I held up the camera and took a snapshot of the Temple Mount commander. Then I took a picture of the Druse and of the crowd of Wakf police.
“Okay, wise guy, let’s go,” Aharoni ordered.
I glanced at the angry commander. Arabs were converging from all directions. Everyone was staring at me. This was it. This was the moment. I didn’t know why, but I sensed it. History had brought me to this time and this place.
“Move it, Singer, out of here,” the nervous voice said.
I no longer saw them. I was in a world all my own. A feeling swept over me that I couldn’t control.
“Singer!” the cop yelled.
Yes, I was a singer. Hadn’t my grandfather been a cantor in shul?
“Singer!” the cop warned as I opened my mouth.
Singer, that’s right. That was the name that my father had chosen from all the names in the world when he decided to stop being a Cohen. That was the name he made famous all over the globe.
“Singer!” I heard the police commander yell, so I started to sing.
“Oh when the saints,
Oh when them saints,
Oh when the saints come marching in….”
“You’re endangering the safety of the public,” the commander roared, grabbing me by the collar.
I pulled away, but the furious commander held fast to my shirt. With a grunt, he shoved me down to the ground. My camera went sliding over the cobblestones. Once again, I was lifted into the air. “Let me go,” I screamed. In a run, four policemen carried me out from the Temple Mount.
“Wait!” Aharoni yelled.
The huffing policemen set me back on my feet in the archway.
“I never want to see you back here again,” the commander warned, shoving me forcefully against the stone wall. My head flung back and crashed into a rock. For a moment, the earth flipped upside down. I saw bursts of light like fireworks. When Aharoni stepped forward to grab me again, I threw out an arm in defense. It wasn’t a punch, but a straight-arm, as if to keep an opposing tackler away. The bone at the bottom of my hand caught the oncoming policeman square in the nose. I was no Mike Tyson, but the blow startled the Israeli. Stunned, he let out a groan and crashed down to the ground. For a moment, everyone froze. I was as startled as everyone else.
“Oy vay,” I thought.
I had knocked out an Israeli policeman!Tzvi Fishman
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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