Cityfront: Asking forgiveness

Usually quiet in the early morning hours, the Western Wall plaza begins to fill up for Slihot.

It's way past midnight. The Jewish Quarter is silent and a bit other-worldly. The eerie lighting gives a special hue to the stark stone facades and renovated arches. A few stray cats saunter by. I make my way quickly to the Kotel, where slihot (penitential prayers) are already being recited by a few Sephardi minyanim. The Ashkenazim, who recite slihot from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur, get to sleep in for three weeks longer than Sephardim, who begin slihot at the beginning of Elul. I walk past the boarded kiosks, past the tourist sites, past Yeshivat Hakotel, where even at this time of night some boys are still up, reviewing their lessons. I can just make out the sweet chant of their learning from the beit midrash high above the steps as I descend. Down the 140 steps, past the German Hostel where on Saturday night there are spontaneous guitar concerts, past the couples sitting on the steps oblivious to anyone else, past the platform where you get your first breathtaking view of the Kotel - amazing at any time of the day or night, past Aish Hatorah's slowly progressing restoration work and the barely noted aqueducts that brought water to the Temple Mount from Solomon's Pools 3,000 years ago. At the bottom of the staircase, the guards chat endlessly just to stay awake. They barely check the individual late-night worshipers that pass through the electronic gate. The "carnival" season hasn't begun yet - the week before Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur when thousands of youngsters from high schools and ulpanot from all over the country descend on the Western Wall in the middle of the night in a newly evolved, modern tradition: to bring groups during the Penitence Days to slihot, to recite the midnight prayers, visit religious sites and stay around until Vatikin (the daybreak morning services). In between, the kids disturb the sleep of the Jewish Quarter's residents, buy hundreds of ice cream bars, flirt, gossip, play tag, dream, tour the Jewish Quarter, fall asleep and have an "experience" to talk about back home. But tonight it's still relatively quiet on the brightly lit plaza. About 40 to 50 women are praying or reciting psalms, and three or four minyanim of male worshipers are well along in their slihot services. From time to time the hoarse blast of the shofar is heard, calling on us penitents to do tshuva. The familiar chants of the Sephardi service sound amplified and melodious in the late-hour setting. Some of those at the Wall look up at the huge stones and think, "How many stories could these rocks tell and how many tears have been shed here." The silent facade still warrants the site's previous name and reputation as the Wailing Wall. Every night one finds someone weeping into the note-crammed crevices. My musing makes all my senses more keen. In a quiet moment, the night sounds of the area can be heard above the quiet chanting. From above the Temple Mount you can hear the trucks shifting gears on the Jericho Road under the Mount of Olives, where the dead sleep undisturbed. Sometimes a baby cries in the distance beyond the northern plaza. Occasionally a bride and groom will arrive on the scene with the photographer and family members in tow. Some of the young girls leave the Wall to ask the bride for a blessing. They twitter about her, giggling, asking questions, smiling broadly and longing to be in her shoes. A tourist straight from Ben-Gurion Airport arrives to say his prayers. Sometimes a whole moshav will turn up at this hour, with tots in strollers, teenagers, old people leaning on canes, and their middle-aged children leading them along. There are a number of resident messiahs at all hours and beggars wandering about. They rarely sleep. But most of the people at the Kotel at this time of night are reciting their prayers, kissing the creviced stones, leaning their foreheads against the cool exterior, communicating with their Maker, imploring, writing notes, making personal petitions. They are praying for health, a shidduch, a child or an easy birth, national peace expressed in monotonous, uneventful quiet. Is there anywhere else in the world where the populace raises its voice in supplication, "Just some peace and quiet, O my Lord, just some peace and quiet!"?