It’s usually quite easy to get lost in the winding, cobbled lanes of Jerusalem’s Old City. But not when you’re headed to the Western Wall on Friday evening, the evening of the Jewish Sabbath.
Entering from Jaffa Gate, all you need do is follow the stream of religious Jews in black hats, big circular fur hats and kippas hurriedly heading down towards Judaism’s most holy site at the beginning of Judaism’s most holy day.
After you pass security, and stand on the stairs overlooking the majestic Western Wall Plaza, well, it’s simply an amazing sight Friday at sundown: A sea of religious Jews – thousands, really -- praying, swaying, singing and dancing in circles facing the Wall. While the sky, almost always blue around here, goes dark.
Like a lot of things in this part of the world, though, and I mean the entire Middle East when I say that, it’s mostly about the men, which you can’t help but notice when you look closely at the Sabbath scene.
First of all, the men’s worshipping area at the wall is huge compared to the woman’s area. The women seem squished over to the right to me, almost as an afterthought. Then, what you first notice looking down on the white-stoned plaza are the men covered in beautiful flowing white prayer shawls and white kippas, incredible hats, shiny black robes – a striking picture of black-and-white. Whereas the women, some in wigs and headscarves, wear no shawls. They’re a smaller, drabber group, seen like this from the stairs looking down.
It’s hard to believe that Jewish women, many from north America, have been arrested here just because they tried to pray at this holy site wearing the fringed prayer shawl that many of the men are wearing tonight. Or reading the Torah, like it seems all the men here are. But then maybe not that surprising, when I think of all the ways the ultra-Orthodox have put their stamp on Jerusalem – the strict Kosher laws, the blacking out of women in advertising, the big ultra-Orthodox areas where non-residents aren’t that welcome.
Also in the plaza this night though are dozens of young Israeli soldiers, young men and women, all in uniform, also dancing in circles, also celebrating the coming of the Sabbath together. In one circle, a female soldier dances in the middle, and then another takes her place. They’re all laughing and joking together. These are more the types of Israelis I’ve met since I’ve lived here.
What kind of society does Israel want to be, going forward? That, to me, a complete outsider, seems one of the central questions facing this country today.
And Friday evening at the Western Wall is a good way to see that up close.
Daniela Deane writes from Israel on Life in the Holy Land.