Following the Beaten Path: Part 1 – Western Wall

“Being a tourist, …” “You as a tourist,” “Many tourists say so” – the label ′tourist′ followed me everywhere when I lived in Israel in 2009-2010. Locals seem to be very economical about words, perhaps since the times when words had to be hammered in a rock to be transmitted to future generations. So, when encountering something strange or unexpected, they usually searched for a word they already knew to define new reality. If a foreigner is not an ethnic migrant (oleh/~ah) or a guest-worker, this person must be a tourist. In the beginning I used to get offended. “If I was a tourist, I would be here for fun! I would not have to report or account to anyone!” Israelis are used to seeing plenty of lobster-skinned, hummus-instagraming temporary visitors around them. Did I look like one? The secretary of my Hebrew school had no doubts. “Are you an olah?” she asked, registering me for a class. I started explaining, “No, I’m a…” “I see, a tourist…” “No, I′m not a tourist, I study here.” “With the Birthright?” “With a student visa.” “OK. A tourist.” My friend N., a PhD by now, once turned up at a Purim party dressed as a tourist – in a stereotypical poorly matched outfit of sneakers, baggy pants, a cap and a T-shirt that read “I <3 Israel.” Towards the end of my first stay I embraced the label, and this year was the first time when I actually went to Israel as a tourist, with almost no business to take care of. Also, this fall my dear friend, writer and public intellectual Yuval Ben-Ami started exploring his native country as a tourist and blogging about it for +972mag.

Reading Yuval′s stories brought back lots of memories about my own visits to the nodes of what Yuval calls the Beaten Path. When I traveled to some of these places, I wrote articles for Lithuanian press, blogged, emailed, and took notes for later. As you probably know, my old dream was to be a travel writer, like Yuval is. Whereas Yuval′s stories from the Beaten Path are political and highly critical (here’s how he describes the purpose of his journey), mine are simply wanderings of an individual who didn′t know what to expect. Still, some of these stories reveal various ruptures, beauty and diversity that is not readily visible to locals′ eyes. After a brief discussion with Yuval, I decided to virtually follow his path with my own stories from these places. I will put together notes that I have from my blog entries, articles, Facebook posts and emails to family and friends.

Unsurprisingly, Yuval starts with his native Jerusalem, specifically, the Western Wall. Below is a collection of my visits to the well-known touristic object – obviously, very different from Yuval′s.

The Western Wall as a touristic signpost

My first visit to Jerusalem took place in late 2009, when my Hebrew school decided to take us on a tour. We got on a bus and were introduced to our Austrian-born guide Moshe, who took up the mission not only to show us the best of touristic Jerusalem, but also to inspire us to be merry about our future in Israel. Ulpan Gordon predominantly teaches ethnic immigrants, and it seems that the guide was not warned about the presence of people who came to Israel in other circumstances. Although the tour started with Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum, the guide invited us to cheer up and not to be sad – the most important, he said, was that ′we′ had a country now, and ′you′ (us, the group) will be starting families and businesses there. When he brought us to the Old Town of Jerusalem, he omitted the history and presence of any other ethnic and religious groups, but I′d meet them on my other trips. After the visit to the Western Wall, I wrote this:

The Western Wall was as I imagined it to be, hordes of people trying to get to it and squeeze a note into every available crack in the wall, not noticing other people′s unsuccessfully wedged notes under their feet. Several women literally sob near the wall, it′s a bit scary. Otherwise, the calm and respectful atmosphere is saturated with good energy.

I was worried about taking pictures. Myself, I felt that I could not relate to the wall at all, but I saw people getting very emotional about it, and I did not want to exploit them or ′steal their souls′ with my camera. This was one of the few photos I took.

Western Wall 2009

The second time I visited the Western Wall was during Passover 2010. I was on the way to Tel Aviv from a short Passover visit to my friend′s family. I decided to spend half a day in Jerusalem, just wandering around on my own. I walked up to the Western Wall again, curious how I would feel the second time, being without a group. I wanted to stay a night as well, but could not find a Couchsurfing host, because those who replied wrote they were away for Passover. In general Couchsurfers in Jerusalem seemed to be very different from the ones in other Israeli cities. They sounded very strict and most were either kosher or vegan. Their profiles included long lists of what the guests should not bring in. When I left Tel Aviv, I still had hope that someone will respond and host me in Jerusalem, so I took a small souvenir from Lithuania as a gift.

As I walked alone in the Old Town, a young man walked up to me and asked if I was a tourist (another one…). I told him I was a tourist in Jerusalem, but I lived in Tel Aviv. He switched to Hebrew, without interrogating me about my identity as many Israelis did, and offered showing various places. I had nothing to do anyway, so I agreed. The young man, named Osama, told me he lived nearby and his birthday was just a few days after. At some point he also mentioned he worked as a tour guide. Oops… “Sorry, but you have to know that I have no money,” I warned him. “It′s OK, we′re friends,” he said. As we explored various objects on and off the Beaten Path in Jerusalem, he told me there was no need to return to Tel Aviv today, as he had a spare room for me. Quite an entrepreneur he was… I told him that it was not feasible, and after some further attempts he asked, “Is it forbidden to you (asur lach)?” I nodded. “Forbidden.” With less enthusiasm, he showed me some other Old Town places and, as we neared the Western Wall, asked me if I could give him some tips. “I told you I had no money,” I said, and handed him the souvenir. “I’ll take this as a birthday present!” he said, kissed my hand and left me there.This time I approached the Western Wall, having seen the city′s Christian and Muslim quarters (I will blog about Christian Jerusalem some time later, and perhaps I′ll also mention how Messianic Jews in the Armenian Quarter tried to convert me). I was determined to reach the Wall through the crowd, just for the sake of it, and, after some people-watching, went back to the shopping streets, bought some freshly ground coffee and walked to the city center. There probably was never a time that I would not experience any adventures in Jerusalem, but somehow, like in dreams, I am never surprised.

I′ve read a lot of news relating to the Western Wall. I’ve read about the struggles of women from certain reformed Jewish sects as they try to get the right to perform their rituals at the wall. I′ve read and listened to academic presentations about the tourism sector′s attempts to prescribe certain ways of presenting Jerusalem′s iconic places. But when I read Yuval′s blog post, it was the first time I heard about the heavy military presence there. To me the Western Wall appeared, both times, as a non-discursive, non-verbal space. I guess things change.

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