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Spring 1999, Volume 16.3

Essay

 

Brenda Miller photo of Brenda Miller.

Next Year in Jerusalem


Brenda Miller is a doctoral candidate in English/Creative Writing at the University of Utah. Her collection of essays,
A Thousand Buddhas, recently won first place in the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition. She received a Pushcart Prize for an essay which originally appeared in The Georgia Review, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, Northern Lights, Yoga Journal and Seattle Magazine. She is the nonfiction editor of Quarterly West.

 

Why is this night different from all other nights?

At Passover every year, I dipped the greens in salt water to remind me of my ancestors' tears, and I chewed on parsley to remind me life is bitter, and I raised my glass of grape juice and hollered "Next year in Jerusalem!," clinking my glass hard against my cousin Murray's. At Passover, no matter how much I've grown, I remain a clumsy girl in chiffon dress and opaque tights, sitting at the children's table, my stomach growling as my little brother asks a question. His voice is halting but already proud of the story for which he's responsible. I look at him with envy while I suck grape juice off my fingers. Why tonight do we eat only Matzoh?

My cousin Murray, a small man but imposing in his navy blue suit and graying beard, refers us to our texts, the hagaddah which tells us the answers to these questions, but I've stopped listening. We dip our pinkies in red wine and fingerprint the ten plagues onto the rim of our plates. What are they? Locusts swarming the fields, hail made of fire, days of total darkness, rivers turning to blood. Ho hum. I eye the roast egg, the haroses, the matzoh on the Seder plate. It's always dark in my cousin's house; what light there is seems reflected off the gold-foil inlay on the Passover dishes. My cousins smell of Brut and horseradish. I eye the roasted shank of a lamb, its blood the mark of the Chosen Ones. I watch Elijah's cup. I wait for the touch of the prophet's lips.

Why tonight do we eat bitter herbs?

The Seder goes on and on; the voices around me rinsed of meaning or sense. I chew on matzoh and haroses, imagining slaves' hands slapping mortar between the bricks, the heavy poles biting into their shoulders as they draw cartloads full of the stuff to the pyramids. Someone is talking about the Red Sea, and I think of Yul Brynner chasing the Hebrews in his chariot, leather straps around his biceps, his bare chest glistening. I think of Charlton Heston at the edge of a cliff, the frightened Hebrews clustered around his robes. The walls of the sea part, and the Chosen Ones gallop through, wild-eyed in fear and wonderment.

Why tonight do we dip them twice in salt water?

As I grew older, my grape juice changed to Manishevitz wine, and I murmured the prayers dutifully with the rest of my family. When I was 12, my parents gave me a choice: I could spend another year in Hebrew School and get bat-mitzvahed, or quit Hebrew school right away. Our school was a stuffy classroom annexed to the synagogue, with tiny desks and battered chalkboards. For three hours each Saturday, I sat in that room and chanted the Hebrew alphabet, recited Hebrew phrases such as "Mother is making the bread," and heard the tired stories of Abraham and Isaac, Noah and his nameless wife, Moses and the golden calf.

Of course, I chose to quit the place, my freedom those mornings as miraculous to me as that of the slaves in the Sinai. But my brothers, being boys, underwent the coming-of-age ritual, and they received bags of gelt, gift certificates, trips to New York. They held the Torah cradled in their arms, paraded it through the aisles of the synagogue while we kissed our fingers to touch the velvet mantle.

After my cousin's wife died, the Passover meal was moved to my parents' small dining nook. The light here was brighter than in Murray's house, reflecting off the flowered wallpaper, and my mother stood for almost the entire duration of the meal, shuttling casseroles of food back and forth. After my brothers were officially men, the Passover Seder grew shorter and shorter—the four questions reduced to one, the matzoh on the table lying almost untouched as we snuck into the kitchen for bread and butter. From Hebrew school I had a detailed picture of the old Jerusalem in mind: the stone walls, the arched gateways, Biblical light streaming into rooms where wondrous and miraculous things happened. I imagined black-suited scholars hurrying toward the yeshiva, though I'd only seen such men from a distance, during my family's occasional visits back to the sooty neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens.

I left home and forgot about Passover most years, until the care package arrived from my mother: an orange box of egg matzoh, a sleeve of dry mandelbrot, a can of macaroons so sweet they made my teeth ache. I'd forgotten, I thought, those words spoken so many times during my childhood.

Next Year in Jerusalem!

The clink of the wine glasses. The open door for Elijah. The afikomen in its white cloth hidden somewhere behind the Encyclopedia Brittanica. We watched Yentl and Fiddler on the Roof, the tinny klezmer music a soundtrack to our lives as Jews in America.

My family came from Russia on my father's side; my mother's people are Romanian. My great-grandparents emigrated to New York in the late nineteenth century, but in the family stories it's never been clear to me if they were escaping persecution as Jews. I have no picture of them, no rudimentary memory of their passage to America, no sense of their life as Jews in the ghettos of New York. My mother and father left Brooklyn shortly after they were married, and when I was born they moved across the country to Los Angeles. My brothers and I grew up Jewish, but Jewish in an American middle-class way—putting on our roof a blue-and-white star of David in a neighborhood covered in Christmas lights, shopping in the Manishevitz section of the supermarket for Passover and Hanukkah, dutifully going to synagogue until it was okay not to anymore. I was Jewish, reared comfortably in a community with several Jewish congregations, but I was not an "ethnic Jew"—I don't recall eating Russian food, or even looking on a map to see where we came from. It wasn't until last year that I even heard a word—"Minsk"— which placed our family in a specific geography.

In fact, until I was a teenager, I thought my paternal grandfather had fled Nazi Germany, sanitizing his German name from Mueller to Miller at Ellis Island. I told this story to everyone, believing it completely, sure I had gotten this family legend directly from the source. I found out this story was false only when my mother overheard me repeating it to a friend when I was sixteen years old.

Only as an adult, well into my thirties, do I begin to hear the true stories: My great-grandmother Bessie, mysteriously abandoned by the man who gave us a family surname which obfuscates our history as Jews. He was an Englishman, a gentile and a painter. Some say he died of lead poisoning from licking the tips of his brushes, but this story is all conjecture. This man left on a train when my grandfather was four years old: my grandfather remembers the tracks, and the act of waving goodbye to a receding train that bore his father away. But that's all we hear of him: the man becomes a non-presence, a disembodied name that permeates the family for generations to come. My great-grandmother Bessie sold newspapers and flowers on a street corner in Brooklyn and never spoke of her absent husband again.

When I was born, my parents named me after Bessie: she and I are linked through our Hebrew names, Basha, through the hard breath of consonants; not, as I childishly wished, through terror and flight, through the assimilation of Jews into a safe haven called America.

No one in my family had ever been to Israel. No one, except my grandfather, really wanted to go. We had reached our own Promised Land: the warm, enclosed cul-de-sacs of the San Fernando Valley, where we lived in our tract house with a Doughboy swimming pool in a spacious backyard. We lived among minor television stars (the "Jack" from the children's show "Jack in the Box"; the girl who teased Tony the Tiger on the Frosted Flakes commercial). We ate cheeseburgers from McDonald's, and brought home heavy boxes of chocolate-chip Danish from the kosher bakery.

I traveled to Europe when I was 18 years old, tramping through England, France, Germany and Italy for three months; when I returned home, my grandfather asked me about my travels. His eyes gleamed as I told him stories about drinking espresso on the Left Bank of the River Seine, and eating peaches big as grapefruit on the coast of Italy. Finally he said, "And Israel? Tell me about Israel." He sat back and folded his hands expectantly across his chest.

I told him I hadn't gone. His smile vanished. He sat forward and dismissed me by focusing his watery gaze on the far wall of the living room; there, a Shalom! mosaic faced the main entry, and a mezuzah nestled in the doorframe.

"How could she be so close," my grandfather murmured, "and not visit the land of our people?"

To get to Israel, I could have flown from Naples to Athens, perhaps ferried to Crete and then on to Tel Aviv, a distance of about 2,000 miles: hardly what a reasonable person would define as "close." But I bit back my automatic protests; even then, I knew the physical distance between Italy and Israel was not the issue. The point was that a good Jewish girl would have bypassed Europe altogether, avoided the topography of the holocaust and found her way to the Promised Land unimpeded.

Why tonight do we eat bitter herbs?

On July 2, 1994, I crossed the River Jordan into the West Bank. I crossed in a Jordanian bus full of Palestinians with American passports. My boyfriend, Keith, and I had our names written in Arabic on a permission slip from the Jordanian department of the Interior. The river was a muddy trickle, and I twisted my head as we crossed, thinking I had missed something.

At the time, I did not think of myself as acting out a quest narrative archetypal for a Jewish woman. I did not recall the book of Exodus, recounted every year at Passover, my brother asking the four questions, the ten plagues, the angel of death, the parting of the red sea just a 100 miles to the south. I was afraid, as my ancestors must have been, but I was afraid of bombs and gunfire, not of Yul Brynner in his gaudy chariot. I was worried about the length of my dress, and the Syrian and Jordanian visas in my passport. Arafat had just visited Jericho for the first time in 27 years, and the right-wing Jews in Jerusalem responded by breaking all the windows of the Arab-owned shops outside Damascus Gate.

Wild reeds grew thick in the mud of the River Jordan's littered banks. Though I was a non-religious Jew, I had still expected to feel something crossing into the Promised Land. I had expected some twinge of recognition or arrival. Even more so because all through Syria and Jordan I'd been traveling on false papers: on my visa application I'd presented myself as a married Christian woman, a teacher of English. Keith had bought me a fake wedding band made of brass.

My rayon dress stuck to my sweaty thighs as the Israeli soldier boarded the bus. His hair was slicked back with glossy mousse, and his khaki shirt hung open to his navel. He smelled of Irish Spring. On his chest, a golden star of David swayed between his dog tags. "Passports!" he shouted, his voice cracking like an adolescent's.

I held mine out to him. He flipped through it, stopping on the page with the thick Syrian stamps. He looked at me, holding my passport just out of reach.

"How was Syria?" he asked.

I wasn't sure how he wanted me to respond. Did he know I was Jewish? Did he expect a denunciation of the Arab countries, a declaration of fealty to Israel? Was he just making small talk? I glanced back at Keith, but he was pretending to be deep in conversation with an Australian man. The Palestinian woman next to me looked the other way. "Syria was great," I finally said.

He flipped my passport back into my lap and continued down the aisle of the bus; his rifle swung out as he turned, butting against my shoulder, leaving a tiny bruise.

I suppose he had a right to his contempt. In 1967, I had paraded through the schoolyard with my Jewish friends during the six-day war; I was eight years old, and we cheered Israel, our fists raised playfully in the air. Even so young, we knew the face of Syria, the sinister countenance of the all Arab countries: the dark beard, the fanatic gleam in the eye, the dagger in the teeth. Syria was the enemy—of Israel, of the United States, of the Jews. I confused the Syrians with the Nazis, all of them in uniform, with dogs, rounding up Jews as a preface to execution. When I heard the word "Syria"—with its sibilant "s," its insinuating lilt—I saw only three things: sand, barbed wire, and blood.

I was wrong, of course. In Aleppo, Syria, the streets are lined with stalls selling green soap stacked like bricks, mounds of cardamom in open bins, amber jars of rose water and orange blossom oil. We drift by vendors selling schwarma, with lamb roasting on giant spits. Men lounge in the doorways of their shops, sipping tea, or they sit backwards on straight-back chairs, rocking to the rhythm of the crowd. They wave and call to us, "Where from?"

We answer, hesitantly at first, "America," and the men cry, "Welcome!" They leap up to offer a chair, a spare tire, a piece of cardboard. "Please sit!"

We pass a baklava shop, and the proprietor, wearing a white tunic splashed with flour, frantically waves us in. No one in the shop speaks English, but we communicate with grins and a smattering of French. They give us sweet pastry and fried eggplant and Cokes. The owner's three young daughters pop inside, swirling around each other in pretty flowered dresses, their black hair bobbed short. They stop when they see us, eyes wary, but after conferring with their father they come to us and kiss our cheeks. Their lips are weightless as butterfly wings, and their eyes regard me solemnly as I take each of their hands in mine.

It's a Friday, the holy day for the Muslims, and Keith and I follow the crowd, drawn by the staticky call of the muezzin. The women are dressed in their formal Friday attire—blinding white scarves edged with lace, jet- black robes, black gloves, not an inch of skin showing. Heat waves rise off the broken gray asphalt, a surface that turns to smooth marble as we approach the Grand Mosque.

When we step into the courtyard, an old man angrily motions us into an antechamber. He plops a heavy black robe over my shoulders, slaps up the hood on my head, demands money from Keith, and shoves us out again. The black hood cuts off my peripheral vision, so I wander across the vast courtyard in a cocoon, my vision reduced to the patterns of white and gray tiles laid out at my feet, squares within squares, leading to the central mosque. Our feet are bare, and the courtyard tiles hot, so we hurry out of the sun and into the inner sanctuary.

Inside, thick Persian carpets blanket the floor in a tidy mosaic, greens flowing into reds into browns and maroon. Men and women crowd up against a grated window; they wipe the grate with their palms, then brush themselves from head to toe, kiss their fingers, rock back and forth in prayer. We inch inside the crowd and spy something the shape of a head, draped with a blue cloth. Prayers thrum all around us.

"Welcome." We turn, and a heavyset man with graying hair and a white mustache looms over us, smiling. He shakes our hands. "From where are you?" he asks. America, we tell him. His name is Mehmet; he is an official in the post office, in charge of international communication. We ask him about the scene at the pulpit.

"It is the head of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist," he says. "A great prophet. Come, sit down."

Mehmet introduces us to his wife, a round-faced young woman carrying a curly-haired toddler. She smiles at us, but says nothing as we follow them outside, to a raised colonnade surrounding the courtyard. A commotion erupts by the eastern gate, and we see a wooden casket bobbing high above a crowd rushing toward the inner sanctum. Men in western dress lead the mob, running back and forth across the perimeter. The mourners and the casket disappear inside.

The minaret's loudspeaker emits the soft buzzing which prefaces an imminent call to prayer. From across the courtyard, the slight and bent figure of the gatekeeper rushes toward us.

"Can we stay?" Keith asks Mehmet.

"Yes, of course. You are my guests."

The old man reaches us, furious. His face bobs in front of mine; I can see his thin lips, the yellowed teeth, the gray whiskers poking from his chin. Keith says nothing, just looks at him calmly while Mehmet speaks to him in a low growling murmur. But the old man continues to shout. Mehmet shakes his head returning to us.

"You may stay, but she," he says, pointing to me, "must go sit with the women."

Of course I will go; I don't want to offend. The gatekeeper waits, his arms folded, until he sees me stand up. Then he scurries away. By the center of the square a woman pushes her son toward him; he leans down, takes the child by the chin, and appears to gently blow into his mouth. He tugs on the child's ears, pats him on the head. Another woman comes forward, pushing another child, and the ritual is repeated. Perhaps he is a priest, a holy man, I think. Perhaps I am cursed for being here: as a woman, as a westerner, as a Jew.

I meander along the edge of the courtyard, the wool cloak scratching my arms and the back of my neck, the desert light glaring off the gray tiles. As long as I'm with Keith I'm cloaked in western privilege, but as I walk toward the women's section, I feel this privilege shearing off, bit by bit. With Keith I'm a tourist, an object of curiosity. But alone I am an unknown woman, possibly a prostitute, an unclean object, profane.

But, I think, we're all women after all, we have something to connect us. I pull the robe close around me, and carefully smiling I lift my head to gaze around the courtyard. But only suspicious female faces regard me from behind the pillars.

Mehmet's wife hurries toward me; she takes me by the hand and leads me to the women's section, a colonnade at the rear of the courtyard, in the shade. She bustles me to her mat, amid hundreds of mats laid out side by side in a patchwork all down the platform. Most of the women sit cross-legged on the ground, leaning toward each other and talking, white, green, or black scarves knotted tightly across their throats. They go silent and stare at me as I bumble by in my heavy cloak, my arms folded across my abdomen. When I sit, one of the women scoots away, mumbling "Haram!"

I am to hear this word over and over in the next hour. Haram, with an admonitory weight on the second syllable. I later learn this word means "forbidden," but at the time I know only that the women begin to cluster around me, tugging the elbow-length sleeves of the cloak down to cover my wrists, pushing at stray hairs that wisp from my scarf, pulling the flap of the robe over my bare ankle. I come to understand: I am forbidden. I should be ashamed, they tell me, and I am, but they seem unforgiving. Their hands touch me all over, patting me into place; under these hands I feel like a very small child, or a doll made of rough clay.

I want to leave but know I'm bound by etiquette and law. And I know I'm experiencing only a fraction of what these women endure all their lives: numerous hands pressing them into a posture of shame, submission, invisibility. If my family had been orthodox Jews, I would have been molded the same way, shunted away from the men, bundled into a scarf, taught to keep my gaze fixed on the ground. The shame of being a woman, the dangerous sorcery of what is concealed: I would have learned these things had I been a devout follower of my own religion.

At varying intervals the women stand to pray, bowing from the waist, hands on knees, then kneeling on the mat, head to the ground, arms outstretched, then up again, over and over. I look down the row and see hundreds of women praying, their robes layered at the hips, drifting from them a scent of olive soap and laundered cotton. Mehmet's wife, with a wave of her hand and a lift of her eyebrows, asks me to pray with her. But I shrug and shake my head. "I don't know how to pray," I say in English, surprised to hear a little catch in my voice. Afwan. Excuse me. Will it be more sacrilegious to mimic the movements of prayer, or to sit in a posture of respectful silence? Sweat runs down my neck. Some of the women finish early, rushing through the movements, and again they inch closer, touching me, pushing my hair back under the hood. Haram, they mutter, Haram.

On another cue, unheard, the women stand again. The muezzin is silent, and I see the men meander in and out of the courtyard, some fanning themselves as they recline near the door of the shrine. I stand up and see, far across the courtyard, Keith in animated discussion with Mehmet; they are not praying. What are they discussing? Politics? Family? Food? I yearn to be with them, to be exempt again from the rules of women, away from these women's hands. I look for the gatekeeper; he's nowhere in sight. But Mehmet's wife pulls me back from the edge. She again motions for me to pray.

So I do. I bend, place my hands on my knees, and try to feel something, anything resembling a prayer. I follow Mehmet's wife, moving my hands, my head, my lips. But I don't know how to pray, even in my own religion, my own language. I don't remember praying in the synagogue, just mumbling along beside my mother and father, tired and hot and hungry, smelling the stale odors of mothballs and Emeraude, prune Danish and Folger's coffee. I remember sitting miserably in Hebrew School while the teacher mispronounced my Hebrew name over and over, calling me Batya, though my name is Basha Leah. I liked Basha Leah. I created a persona for her, an amalgam of Bible stories from Miriam to Ruth. Basha Leah drank from a sacred well. Basha Leah danced for the children. Basha Leah was cool and elegant, with wise eyes and a compassionate heart.

So, as Basha Leah, I follow Mehmet's wife—I straighten up, rock a little back on my heels, then sink to my knees and press my forehead to the ground. Here I can see nothing; the hood of my cloak shrouds me, blots out any light. I am Basha Leah, facing Mecca, my arms outstretched, my head bowed in an attitude of respect and devotion. Millions of Muslims face Mecca at this moment, sending the force of their worship in this direction, their prayers rolling like water over the slope of my Jewish back. As Basha Leah I try to take on those prayers; I want to absorb them through the many layers of my skin and transform them into prayers of my own.

I don't know how long I stay like this—face down, my back a shell, my eyes shut tight. But soon I hear the rustle and swish of robes, children querying their mothers for food. I sit back up. The women seemed to have forgotten me as they gather up their mats and yell for the children who chase each other among the pillars. A young man circulates through the women's section, selling bread from a stick. Mehmet's wife sits placidly next to me, her hands intertwined in her lap, smiling. I follow her gaze and see the amoeba of mourners, bearing the casket high above their heads, spilling out the sanctuary doors.

I want to tell Mehmet's wife I am Jewish. I also want to explain that I was never bat-mitzvahed; I was a Jewish girl, I want to say, but I don't feel like a Jewish woman. I want to tell her about the Passover dinners in Cousin Murray's dining room; I want to tell her a story she will understand. I intuit that she might raise her eyebrows, but she wouldn't grow angry; she wouldn't transform into a different person before my eyes. I think she would smile and say something kind to me in a language I don't understand.

But I remain silent, and in silence we wait until Mehmet comes to fetch us away.

Next Year in Jerusalem!

Keith and I pass through the gate into the old city of Jerusalem, inching our way through the crowded bazaar. There are dried apricots and peaches, huge bins of garbanzo beans, stacks of green soap, chunks of lamb smoking on spits. Boys careen down the steep alleyways with laden carts, braking by crushing their heels against a dangling rubber tire.

Then we step over a threshold to the Jewish quarter.

The air clears; the crowd thins; spotless windows frame gold-chunk bracelets, silver amulets, hand-painted silk. The walls are a golden-hued sandstone; tract lighting glows from the ceiling. A gaggle of teenage girls swarms by us, followed by an escort, a man with a revolver bulging in his pocket. I see a woman browsing in a jewelry store; she's wearing a flowered print dress, sandals, and an automatic rifle casually slung over her shoulder. Once I start seeing the guns, they're everywhere: A cluster of machine guns leaning against a shop window; a pistol in the back waistband of the man frying falafel in the deli; a tourist posing with a machine gun in front of a synagogue.

As if following a trail by memory, or instinct, we're drawn to a terrace overlooking the Wailing Wall. When I was a child in Hebrew school, they showed us pictures of this wall, black-and-white newspaper photos of Hasidic men davening, women crying, bar-mitzvah boys hugging the Torah. My teachers spoke of the worshippers leaning so close to the stone they kissed it. The photos must have been snapped from exactly this angle: the Dome of the Rock rising in the background, and in the foreground the ruined gray wall, with its rough-cut stones and moss growing from between the cracks. And, flush to the wall, the swaying line of worshippers. As a child I understood none of the details; I only knew that something had happened, something painful, and I thought this was the place a Jew came when he was sad and needed to cry.

When my family held their wine glasses aloft and pledged Next Year in Jerusalem!, they had this exact place in mind. The men saw themselves in tallis and yarmulkes, joining Jews from around the world in a steady chant. The women imagined rejoining their mothers and grandmothers in song. Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall were identical.

Keith and I pass through a police checkpoint and hurry down the steps into the courtyard. As if by instinct, I glance up at the rim of the wall for snipers. Two police vans glide into the enclosure; a cadre of soldiers clatters down the steps, but no one seems alarmed. We blend into the crowd of tourists swarming toward the wall. On one side are the men, the dark mass of Hasidic Jews on the far left, rocking rhythmically; on the other side the women mill in muted dresses and scarves. A few people sit in dull gray folding chairs, but most are packed shoulder to shoulder along the wall.

What am I supposed to do, now that I'm here in the land of my grandfather's imagination? Keith leans down and whispers in my ear. "We'll meet up in a bit." He wanders to the men's side, and I see a gatekeeper drop a cardboard yarmulke onto his head.

A woman approaches me as I enter the women's area. "Are you Jewish?" she says. Her face is neutral. "Yes," I say, "I'm Jewish." There is a moment of freedom as I say this, a sense that I am truly myself again at last. I feel like shouting it: Yes! I'm Jewish! But the woman continues her interrogation, unconvinced. "Is your mother Jewish?" she asks, her gaze roaming across my forehead, my nose, my mouth. "Yes, my mother is Jewish," I meekly reply. She smiles approvingly and hands me a slip of paper.

Then I see them—the prayers rolled up and stuck into cracks, falling in drifts at the foot of the wall. Again, I feel as though I have been here before, seen these bits of paper blowing across the ground, these tiny discolored scrolls of petition and grief. To my left, I hear the sing-song voices of the men, murmuring, and above that the occasional throaty calls of the black-hatted men roostering back and forth, their foreheads knocking the wall. The Hebrew sounds familiar as English, though I have no idea what it means. I want to pray, but I don't know how, so I watch the women on my side: their palms flat on the wall, their heads bent, their lips moving in mumbled devotion.

The Wailing Wall is an ear to God, and that is why so many come to touch it, to press their lips against the mossy rocks. I watch the women reading sotto voce from their prayer books, or sometimes with no voice at all, just moving their lips and rocking back and forth on their heels. Eventually I get close enough to touch a tentative finger to the stone. This one brick is wider than my arms spread side-to-side; the surface buckles and curves. This was a stone laid down by King Herod's men, before the birth of Christ. It feels cool and comforting, and I would keep my hand there longer, but I back off quickly to allow a small woman in a gray scarf to take her desperate place at the wall.

From the men's section I hear one of the Hasids, his prayer warbling high above the muted voices, and one of the women next to me, her hands covering her eyes, cries out in response. I back away, as I see the other women have done, keeping the wall in sight as if suspicious or afraid. I've said no prayer, not even to myself; I've written no plea to the shekinah who resides within the stones.

But even as I shuffle in humiliation away from the wall, I know on my last day in Jerusalem I'll feel compelled to revisit the courtyard alone. I'll take my place, leaning forward to touch my forehead against the wall. I might hold both palms flat against the rock, and I'll smell moss and dust and the stone that still moulders beneath the earth. I'll smell the breath of millions of women before me. I'll smell the skin of the woman next to me, her lips moving, her eyes tightly closed. Prayer has an odor of devotion and righteousness, but here it's also the smell of milk and mothballs, scarves folded in a drawer, and seltzer for the grandchildren in big glass bottles next to the fridge. It's the sound of children fidgeting at the table as they listen to the stories over and over, chewing on matzoh and haroses. It's the sound of my mother dishing up the brisket, the roast chicken. I'll smell my grandmother, the powder behind her ears, and I'll hear my grandfather mumbling his prayer on the other side, a voice perilously close to song.

I don't know if I'll write anything down, commit my voice to a parchment scroll and leave it forever in one of the empty cracks. But I'll know how to pray. I'll turn my head slightly and press my ear to listen against the stone. Brenda Miller is a doctoral candidate in English/Creative Writing at the University of Utah. Her collection of essays, A Thousand Buddhas, recently won first place in the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition. She received a Pushcart Prize for an essay which originally appeared in The Georgia Review, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, Northern Lights, Yoga Journal and Seattle Magazine. She is the nonfiction editor of Quarterly West.

 

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