By Nison Gordon, z’l
Translated by P. Samuels
The following article was originally written in Yiddish by Nison Gordon, z’l, the editor of the Algemeiner Journal, after a visit to Israel on February 15, 1974. It was reprinted on November 25, 2016.
Note: The machkama, which is mentioned in the following article, is a building on the side of the Kotel (Western Wall), basically used for prayer, but sometimes also utilized as a base for patrols. Standing on its roof, one can see the entire length of the Kotel, as well as the Temple Mount.
This Kotel today is different from the Kotel I’ve ever seen. As many times as you rested your head against her stones, as many times as your lips touched the historical breath that steams from her cracks, you still feel a draw to it. As soon as you arrive in Jerusalem, a force pulls you into the Old City, to the streets where the kings and prophets left their footprints, and to the wall which just a mere seven years ago was rescued from the hands of strangers. This happened at a cost of tens of young Jewish lives, whose names are only remembered by their families, and on a plaque which hangs, lit by an eternal flame, in the place for prayer, inside, under the “machkama” building.
It is pouring outside. If the Israeli earth is holy and symbolic for after 120 years, how much more does Israeli rain become a symbol at least as large when one is still alive. You are strolling along Jaffa Street, taking pleasure in the drops of blessed rain which pour on your head, and wash away the galus dust. In Israel, the people are happy that it’s raining, for the rain will help the fields and orchards grow. You also share in their happiness, even though it may interfere with your touring program.
Bus number one, which stops at the Jaffa Gate to pick up passengers on their way to the Kotel, is nowhere near as packed as during the summer months. There are, however, some Jews going to the Kotel, among them one familiar face of a woman from Brooklyn, whose husband now learns in a kollel in Jerusalem.
If Jews from Jerusalem brave this weather to come to the Kotel, they most probably have an urgent reason, which does not allow them to sit at home. Each individual brings his own baggage to the stones of the Kotel, each one with his prayer, each with his own plea.
There isn’t a single human being on the open plaza in front of the Kotel. It’s the first time that I’m at the Kotel without spotting any people there. But one hears voices, loud voices, from the innermost sections of the machkama building. From the women’s wing, you hear the piercing cries of a woman pouring her broken heart out, while from the men’s section you hear the voice of Reb Moshe Eisen, as he is teaching the Gemara lesson which he teaches every day before Minchah. Reb Moshe’s voice is familiar to me, because I hear it whenever I come during the summer to the Kabbalas Shabbos minyan Friday evening. I heard him this past Friday night, too, but with a much smaller crowd than he has during the summer.
There I spot Reb Chanoch Glitzenstein together with another young man, Reb Berel Wallas, in the Lubavitcher tefillin chamber. They wait for someone to come, for whom they can provide the merit of putting on tefillin. Rain or shine, as the Americans say, the tefillin movement is operational. On such a rainy day, there are few non-praying visitors to the Kotel, but if they can convince even one person to don tefillin, they consider it a great merit, especially in today’s era when all Jews need special heavenly mercy.
Inside, deeper in the place of prayer, which was dug parallel to the Kotel, minyanim are davening Minchah, and Reb Zussman just finished saying the entire book of Tehillim (Psalms). He utters a special prayer for the welfare of the Israeli army, for the sick and the wounded. He compiled his own version of a Mi Shebeirach prayer, which he utters very quickly. One can hear the words b’teshuvah shleimah (complete repentance) and Mashiach ben Dovid. He ends his prayer by repeating loudly, three times, the pasuk “Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem” (Bring us back, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as yesteryear).
Suddenly a strange noise was heard outside: some sort of waltz-like music. Yes, this is the muezzin, emitting from the Al Aqsa mosque, calling the Arabs to their afternoon prayers on the Temple Mount.
Apparently, the ultimate redemption is not yet here. How come the Arabs with their muezzin are on the Temple Mount, while Reb Zussman with his Tehillim is on the outside at the Kotel?
It seemed like Reb Moshe Eisen read my thoughts, because he exclaimed, “Yidden, are we going to daven Minchah outside?”
From inside you could see heavy raindrops falling on the cement floor of the Kotel. But Reb Moshe was the first one to go out, and before he even started the Minchah prayers by saying Korbanos or the Ketores, he yelled into the building, “Yidden, the sun is shining at the Kotel!”
Before long, a considerable group of Jews were standing outside, davening Minchah, in the rain, with a long Chazaras HaShatz (the leader repeating the prayer), which drowned out the sound of the muezzin.
What rain? Where’s rain? At the Kotel, the sun shines even when it rains. On the roof of the machkama stood a soldier with a gun, looking down on the people who were praying. In his heart, the soldier probably thought that he is not the only one standing in the rain and getting drenched. Here, more Jews are standing in the rain, beseeching Hashem for salvation for the soldier with the gun.
For Ma’ariv, everyone went back inside, where I counted a total of 16 small aron kodesh (holy arks) and tables on which to read the Torah.
In a corner, with his head in a hole in the stone wall, sat a Jew, bent over a book, holding a candle in his hand. High above him, a small sign proclaimed that this spot is across from the Azarah (courtyard of the Holy Temple). On the other side of this wall, when the Beis HaMikdash was standing, the Azarah was right here.
To the left of that small sign hangs another poster, listing the names of the young men who fell in battle in June 1967 while freeing the Kotel. The first name in the second row is Avner Getz, the son of the rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Yehuda Meyer Getz, who is at the Kotel day and night.
I took another look at the man with the candle, bent over a book. Yes, this is him, Avner’s father, Tunis-born, Sorbonne-educated, who fought on the Syrian front in 1967, until he got the tragic news that his son was killed in the battle for Jerusalem. He has a nice office, with a sign saying “Office of the Rabbi of the Kotel,” but he is seldom found in his office. He always finds what to do outside. He guards the Kotel with his life.
When, a few years ago, he felt that the archaeologists’ digging was disturbing the newly discovered southern section of the Kotel, he picketed and demonstrated until he got them to stop.
Now the rabbi of the Kotel is occupied with uncovering and digging up the northern section of the Kotel, at the indoor praying spot. The door that leads to the newly dug-up cave is locked. Only on chol ha’moed are visitors allowed, because so far the area is still narrow, and there’s a danger of rocks falling from the ceiling or the sides.
Rabbi Getz was friendly enough to allow me to enter the labyrinth. In time, this will extend until the wall which surrounded the Temple Mount going to the Lion’s Gate. It was at this gate that Israeli soldiers broke through the barriers and entered the Old City. Others say that eventually the excavations will reach the tomb of King Tzidkiyahu.
The interior of the labyrinth is like a coalmine, deep underground. Iron poles support the stone ceiling and also support the stones on either side.
You have to walk carefully. The stone walls on either side are cliff-like and pointy. Walking there is difficult because you are surrounded by Jewish history close enough to actually touch.
You reach a sign that proclaims that this spot is across from the ramp leading to the Mizbeiach (altar). A bit further, you reach a sign that explains that you are now standing across from the “Holy of Holies,” the most sacred place in the entire universe, where even the High Priest was only permitted to enter on Yom Kippur.
Another sign points to where, on the Holy Ark, were the Keruvim (cherubs), through which Moshe Rabbeinu, a’h, heard the Heavenly voice.
We are now standing at the end of the cave. Against the wall, there’s a small podium, covered with a cloth on which are embroidered the names of victims of the Holocaust, may Hashem avenge their blood. This cloth was donated by a Jew named M. Schreiber.
Reb Chaim Toper, the usher in uniform who is accompanying me, whispers that at this podium, Rabbi Getz says Tikkun Chatzos (a prayer of lamentation that mourns the destruction of the Temple, said after midnight).
After such an evening, spent in the Jerusalem of old, it is quite difficult to get used to the reality of the present, including news of Kissinger, Sadat, and the difficulties in forming a new coalition, with parties whose names were never heard of by our forefathers.
Outside, it is still pouring. It seems, though, that Reb Moshe Eisen was right when he stated before Minchah that “The sun is shining at the Kotel.”
Personal note from the translator: As I was working on this translation, I remembered a trip that I took to Israel one winter. The entire week, we had rainy weather. My daughter, who was in Israel for the first time, joined me. What we found most fascinating was that every cab driver, every bus driver, even those obviously secular, had the very same comment about the weather. One and all proclaimed the rain a blessing from Hashem. Though some of our sightseeing plans got washed out, we gained a new perspective on how to appreciate Hashem’s bounty.
—-SIDEBAR IS BELOW (please place on same page as part of the article) —-
A Son’s Comments
By Larry Gordon
I vividly recall that winter in 1974 when my father traveled to Israel. What stood out about it is that for probably the only time in what was about 35 years of travel to Israel, he went in the winter instead of the summer, and without my mom, who was always his faithful companion on his world travels.
Of the few-dozen articles of my father—Rabbi Nison Gordon, z’l—that I have had translated and published here, I have to take a moment and tell the reader that this one grabbed my attention and stood out, and I felt compelled to read the excellent translated version several times.
Several things caught me and I found myself rereading certain lines because they struck a particularly deep emotional chord. I was at first stunned by his description of how he feels a magnetic pull to consistently find himself at the Kotel either to daven or just spend time observing the interactions of all kinds of people and this unique holy place.
The thing that struck me about his description of his experience at the Kotel is that I have experienced and continue to experience a similar draw and the same kind of compulsion. Winter days at the Kotel are not that unusual for me, as my father passed away on Chanukah, and I have davened for the amud at the Kotel many times in the cold, sometimes in the pouring rain, as I observed my father’s yahrzeit at this place that he was not just attached to but loved so dearly.
I want to thank Mrs. Samuels (that’s not her real name as she is too modest to want to be identified here) for a beautiful, thoughtful, and meaningful translation and bringing my father’s words to life. I think maybe she is beginning to share my obsession with these words that are so dear to me.
In this essay, I saw in his written words a hint that he was contemplating burial in Eretz Yisrael long before his time came. “It is pouring outside. If the Israeli earth is holy and symbolic for after 120 years, how much more does Israeli rain become a symbol at least as large when one is still alive.”
That line reminded me that a decade or so before he passed away, he said to me that he did not mind living in America but that he did not want to lie in America.
I can read these words again and again—and I just might do that, as the pull toward them is too great to resist.