As the wagon approached the Jewish Quarter of the city inside the Damascus Gate, starving Jews in tattered garments ran forward to meet it. Men, women, and children, with gaunt, yellow faces and emaciated frames, clambered around the emergency shipment of food. Officials of the Jewish community pushed their way to the wagon, shoving the poor masses away. Tevye was aghast. The proud remnant of Jerusalem had been turned into paupers. The guardians of the Holy City, who labored day and night over the Torah, had been compelled to go begging. Women lay swooning in the street. Children wandered through the alleyways in sackcloth. Dogs prowled through the deserted market like foxes, looking for morsels of food.
Nonetheless, standing in Jerusalem, Tevye experienced an incredible sensation of awe. The milkman reached up to make sure that his cap was planted securely on his head, just as he would have done if he were entering a king’s palace. The windmill built by Moses Montefiore stood like a sentry, guarding the city. The ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where the resurrection of the dead would begin, shone with an unearthly white light on Jerusalem’s eastern hillside. Outside the towering Damascus Gate, locals engaged in commerce with formally dressed Europeans who looked out of place in the timeworn setting. A Turkish policeman ordered Tevye to disembark from the wagon and proceed into the walled city on foot. A Jew who reminded Tevye of the little Eliahu said he would guard their wagon and possessions for a meager ten kopeks. Tevye walked on, mystically pulled into the labyrinth of alleys, as if his feet had a will of their own, as if he had passed in this direction before. Merchants called out to him to stop and examine their wares. Water carriers approached at every corner, offering drinks from the inflated animal skins on their backs. Suddenly, Jews were everywhere. Most were pious, with long beards, sidelocks, and black coats and hats, the color of mourning which Jews had worn for centuries to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem. Other Jews, with dark Mediterranean complexions, wore long white robes and round furry hats. Nachman had said that the Jews of Jerusalem were scholars who devoted themselves to learning and prayer. They weren’t in Jerusalem because of Theodore Herzl, or the writings of Echad HaAm. Their forefathers had lived in the holy city for centuries. They were its protectors and keepers.
With long anxious steps, Tevye proceeded along the narrowing foot paths into a shadowy Arab casbah. When he emerged from an archway, it was as if he were back in the shtetl, surrounded by Jews of all kinds. There were Jewish shops and Jewish smells, and doorways that had mezuzahs cemented into the walls. Cats walked confidently through the alleyways as if they had the right of way. Tevye noticed a donkey-drawn cart inscribed with bold, Hebrew-lettering, spelling CHALAV. The cart belonged to the Jerusalem milkman. On any other occasion, Tevye would have greeted the man and stopped to exchange a few words of professional gossip, but now he was on a mission. He felt a force like a magnet pulling him toward the Wall.
The Wall. The Kotel. That was how it was known to Jews all over the world. The Western Wall of the ancient Temple courtyard. The Wailing Wall, where Jews had poured out their tears for nearly two-thousand years. Tevye hurried through a maze of tiny alleys, around buildings and shacks, and there it was, suddenly towering over his head. The Kotel. The dream of a lifetime, pulsating with a holiness you could reach out and touch. Its massive stones had withstood every siege and assault, every battering-ram and fire, every attempt by the nations of the world to erase every last trace of the city’s Jewish history. Goose-bumps broke out all over Tevye’s flesh. In this world of earthly existence, standing at the Kotel was the closest a man could ever come to God.
Turkish soldiers stood at the entrance to the alley leading to the Kotel. They stopped Tevye and demanded to see his papers. He stood obediently waiting, controlling the anger he felt toward the arrogant heathens who behaved with such self importance. They were the trespassers, not he. They were the ones who should be showing their papers. Palestine was his homeland, not theirs.