Beggars at the Kotel

We need the beggars, and to give to them, here more than at any other site.

beggers at kotel 88 (photo credit: )
beggers at kotel 88
(photo credit: )
This morning marked the first weekday in three decades that I wasn't confronted by beggars when approaching the Western Wall. After a long history of complaints from tourists and residents, a front-page article in the Friday (November 9) Jerusalem Post reported, "Praying, Yes - but Begging, No," - beggars have at last been banned from Judaism's holiest site. So their absence today didn't come as a complete surprise. But it felt a little odd, even vaguely disorienting, to descend from the bus, make my way across the Kotel Plaza, then turn right onto the walkway down toward the Wall - all without being accosted by those supplicant eyes and outstretched hands. Gone were Malka and Tzipora, Shoshana and Ilana, and all the others, whose names I never knew. Apparently, somewhere along the line, I'd gotten used to them. The persistent annoyance of their presence had become an integral feature of my Western Wall experience, perhaps as much as the huge, eternal stones themselves. And annoyance it often was. Except for violence and outright acts of aggression (which in 30 years I myself never witnessed; perhaps behavior of that sort occurred over on the men's side) I can attest to the basic accuracy of most everything else reported in the Post. The guilt-inducing comments and the disappointed gaze, the requests for more, the ubiquitous red strings. Most irritating of all: the less than gentle, insistent tapping on one's shoulder in the midst of prayer- surely the ultimate intrusion on a person's privacy. ONE BEGGAR in particular earned a certain notoriety by virtue of her rude insatiability. Give her a shekel and she'd want five. Five and she'd implore you for ten. Ten? You were in for a scolding. "Ze lo yafe! I just got out of the hospital! An operation! Look! Here's my scar!" A visitor to Israel once told me how he'd given this individual NIS 20 and she had reprimanded him for not giving dollars! On one occasion when I decided impulsively to court her favor, I gave her five shekels, which she said was not enough. "Beseder! Give it back to me then!" I retorted, snatching it from her hand. That crass interaction upset my equanimity and discombobulated me to such an extent throughout my morning prayers, that I determinedly ignored her from then on, passing her by with averted eyes - which was equally discombobulating. She had me over a barrel. It was additionally unnerving to learn sometime later that several respected rabbis in the Jewish Quarter had pooled funds and raised money on this woman's behalf. That's how she paid for the operation. DISTURBING people's equanimity at the Wall seemed sometimes to be those beggars' stock in trade. At one point a few years ago, I even stopped going to the Kotel because of them. More precisely, I got so sick and tired of the daily tug-of-war in my conscience that I decided to daven at home. After all, what was my charitable obligation here? Ten shekels a days adds up. Who wants to be greeted by those beseeching eyes day in day out, bright at 6 a.m.? Who can face one's own ambivalence about giving first thing in the morning? IN MY living room, the peace and quiet was lovely. But one day, after about a month, I found myself in a depression over this or that issue in life, and missed the Wall. How silly to deprive myself of my birthright. Please, I asked God, solve this problem for me. The next morning, I returned. All the regulars were at their posts. "Where have you been?" one of the old ones exclaimed. "We were worried about you!" With each coin's placement upon an open palm, I distinctly noticed the spot of simple yellow happiness that bloomed like a small sunburst in my dark heart. Walking down toward the Wall, I happened to catch sight of one the younger ones from afar, just as her outstretched hand fell to her side. She didn't see me; she was looking at the backs of two teenage girls as they walked on by. "They're pretending not to see me," she said with a wryly knowing smile when I paused to say hello. "They feel disgusted by my need. But then they want God to turn His eyes toward them!" How had something so obvious eluded me for so long? It wasn't really anything in particular that they did, these women, but rather the hidden emotions they aroused, that rankled. For what do all of us become at the Wall? We need the beggars, and to give to them - more so here than at any other site. The writer's most recent books include A Gift Passed Along, Wish I Were Here, (Artscroll) and The Mother in Our Lives Targum/Feldheim.