On Friday evenings in Jerusalem, after the sun lies down to rest, the Jewish people close their shops and restaurants in preparation for Shabbat. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, technology and labor cease, and rest and religion commence.
I was brought up in a very secular household, and tradition and rituals like this never played an important role in my life. So when Friday evening arrived on my first visit to Jerusalem, I'd forgotten how sacred the Sabbath is to religious Jews.
We placed our work on pause. My tour group of 25 Americans, eight Israeli soldiers, and one British expatriate formed a circle in the courtyard of an Orthodox community. Our British leader directed us in a hymn, as each of the young girls lit a candle to introduce Shabbat.
For most, this was our first accurate celebration of Shabbat. Although I didn't know the words to the songs and prayers, the soft glow of the candlelight illuminating our circle inspired me to sing along. While we chorused, two young Orthodox boys giggled and played in the courtyard.
At the end of our ritual, everyone walked toward the Western Wall. We paused in front of a synagogue where services had just ended. The great wooden doors burst forth and released a hundred boisterous men. From young to old, men in black yarmulkes with curlicue sideburns, or payot, skipped, linked arms, and sang at the top of their lungs.
Shabbat transformed into a religious bar crawl from synagogue to Western Wall.
We followed along behind the mob. When we reached the cobblestone square facing the holy wall, the crowd resembled a mosh pit for the holiest of concerts. On the far side, men twirled and swung their partners as they followed a conga line to their section of the wall. I joined the women as they swayed and hummed while entering the gate on the right side of the wall.
A golden metal wall draws the line between the male and female sides of the holy structure. With heads, shoulders, and knees covered, the women formed circles for song and prayer. I joined a group of school-age girls in a prayer circle. The energy of the crowd lifted my soul.
At the face of the wall, women sobbed and placed their written prayers in the cracks. I squeezed my paper in with the thousand others clogging the holes. Each woman shuffled backward toward the exit, weaving around others but keeping her eyes fixed on the stones.
At the bellowing echo of a shofar horn, I too skated backward, away from my prayer in the Western Wall.