When I was a little girl, I was fortunate to be one of the first of my peers to travel to Israel. It was 1965 and the fledgling state was only 17 years old. With no direct flights from Toronto, we flew to New York and caught an El Al flight from there. I was with my father, a”h, and a large contingent of Holocaust survivors – some with their children. I don’t remember the purpose of the visit but as the youngest child in the group, I was assigned the honor of presenting Israel’s president, Zalman Shazar, with flowers at what I imagine was a Holocaust-related ceremony. (I never ended up doing this, as he fell ill and did not attend.)
I was excited at both finally going on my first airplane ride and traveling to Israel, succeeding my sister and twin brother on this special voyage. And as a student at what was then called Associated Hebrew Day Schools, where we learned Ivrit b’Ivrit (what would be called Hebrew immersion today), I had been taught Hebrew language, grammar, literature and history – in addition to limudei kodesh. Thus, I was very curious to see the land I had learned so much about.
Many years have passed since I first set foot in Israel, but I clearly remember feeling a familiarity, a sense of belonging despite never having been there. It was as if I had returned home after being away for a very, very long time. Everything around me should have felt strange and foreign – but it didn’t. I can only guess that every Jewish soul is imprinted with an inerasable memory of Zion.
We spent several weeks in Israel touring quite a bit, but one memory of mine has withstood the attrition of time. I was in the New City of Jerusalem, standing on the roof of a building, looking east toward the Old City, all the while hoping to see the Kotel. That was as close as a Jew could get to the Kotel at the time – a quick glimpse into the horizon. I say “quick” because on another rooftop not so far away I could see what I guessed was a Jordanian soldier, his rifle lifted and pointed in my direction.
Eight years later, as a teenager, I had the zechut of returning to Israel. This time, however, I would not have to stand on a rooftop and take a furtive look into the Old City of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been recaptured years earlier and had become one city, the old merging with the new under Israeli sovereignty. I could enter the gates of the Old City and go to the Kotel.
My father was a Kohen and the thought that I would soon walk where my ancestors walked, that my footsteps would touch the ground that theirs had touched thousands of years before in service to Hashem and klal Yisrael, was overwhelming. Years earlier, as a child at Lod Airport, I felt that I had come home. How much more of a homecoming would I feel at the Kotel?
I had been warned that everyone cries when they go to the Kotel for the first time. And I did. I am not emotional by nature (I’m the one shaking my head in wonder as my teary-eyed friends weep during a melodramatic movie – “hey, it’s not real, it’s only a movie”), and so my reaction took me by surprise. I bawled like a baby. Ironically, in this place called the Wailing Wall because of the rivers of tears that have flowed from the eyes of desperate men, women and children across the millennium as they plead to God in the remnant of His Home for some relief and rescue, my tears were of joy, of reunion, of return.
In subsequent visits I would approach the Kotel both in supplication and prayer, like those davening for a positive outcome to the trials and tribulations that all human beings face during the course of their lifetimes.
But I also go because it has become my haven. Each time I visit I make my way to the very front and embrace the stones, the very stones touched by my ancestors who came before me. I rest my face on the stone and let its smooth coolness soothe me. I close my eyes and a sweet serenity suffuses my entire being like a soft blush. I feel at peace like a drowsy child in a familiar, welcoming bed.
I sense my parents hovering above me, and I relax even more. I feel their love embrace me like a hug and I feel safe. I keep my eyes closed – even though I am convinced that were I to open them, I would see their heavenly countenances above me. The child drifting off to sleep does not need to open her eyes to know her parents are there. She feels their presence and knows that they are close by, watching her, protecting her, loving her. When I arrive in Jerusalem, to the Kotel, I know my parents are waiting.
And I know I am home.