Yes, that is what happened to me today.
Today, I took my first trip outside of Tel Aviv since making aliyah and went to Jerusalem. I decided to go to the Kotel, known in English as the “Western Wall” or the “Wailing Wall”. It’s the last remaining wall of the Second Temple built in Jerusalem for the purposes of Jewish worship. Basically, it’s the most sacred site on the planet for Jews.
It’s been at least 12 years since I was at the Wall and I was very excited to go back. My anticipation was building as I made my way through the markets of the Old City. This was the place my ancestors came from, the site that informs all Jewish spirituality. Even today’s Jewish rituals and prayers are modeled after the Temple rituals. The cruelty of the Roman Empire that destroyed the Temple couldn’t defeat our faith.
As I thought these powerful thoughts and felt these deep emotions, I came upon a sign that said “Alabama, the heart of Dixie”. I had to re-read the sign a good two or three times before I realized yes, I was staring at a trilingual sign that said “Alabama” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. I felt like I was in some dystopian novel. On what planet is there a University of Alabama store in the middle of the holiest city on earth?
Sure enough, it was an entire store dedicated to the University of Alabama owned by Arabs. I met the kids running the store, who were sweet. I spoke with them in Arabic and it turns out one of the kids’ dads studied at University of Alabama and became a huge fan. I asked who exactly comes to their store, given the small number of Alabamans in Jerusalem, and they said lots of people came by. I have to give them props for marketing because it obviously drew me in!
They had mugs and signs that said “Roll Tide” in Hebrew and Arabic. For especially my Israeli friends who don’t understand this, watch this video. Alabaman fans are particularly fanatical (about their team) and unabashedly southern, so even as an American it was a total curiosity to see a Palestinian store dedicated to probably the most Republican place in the country.
And there it was. I had a great conversation with the kids and their uncle- they’re very funny and friendly. And then I walked to the Western Wall.
When I got to the wall, I tried praying once and it was pretty good but didn’t feel super powerful. It ended up being a warm up.
I chatted with some German tourists and then went back for round two. I grabbed a tallit from some Chabad guys (I was smart enough to tell them from the get-go that I didn’t want to lay tefillin, but of course they tried anyways, and of course I said “no thank you” and did what I wanted).
I then headed back to myself and enshrouded myself in the tallit, giving me a sense of privacy and direct connection to God and my inner spirit. It was like my own personal synagogue. I now started to open up. I noticed a kid next to me. He was probably in high school. I had talked to his group earlier- they were Reform students from the U.K., from the same Jewish movement I belong to. It felt powerful for us to pray next to each other given the Israeli government’s recent rejection of Reform prayer spaces at the Western Wall.
After a few moments, he stood there by myself and just started crying. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And one of the most sincere.
As I peered through the hole in my tallit at him and heard him wailing, I started to well up with emotion and sob. I thought of all my ancestors who walked this land. That their hands built this Temple and this very city. That it’s because of the sacrifices of millions upon millions of Jews who were butchered mercilessly for over 2,000 years by Babylonians and Greeks and Romans and Catholics and Klansmen and Spaniards and Portuguese and Germans and Poles and Russians and Protestants and Arabs and Muslims and on and on and on. They laid down their lives for me. Most of them could only dream and pray for the day when they would be able to return to our homeland and pray at our holiest site. And I carry their prayers in my heart.
When I decided to make aliyah, some of my friends asked me questions like “do you know anyone there?” and “have you ever been there?”. Yes I do and yes I have. If you’re a very active Jew, you almost certainly know people in Israel and you’ve visited. Totally innocent questions, but ones you might typically ask someone moving somewhere far and exotic like Vietnam or Zimbabwe.
Israel may be Zimbabwe for you, but it is not for me. Even though before making aliyah I had only been here twice, it is not a strange and foreign place. While there are for sure cultural differences that I continue to learn about, this is not a colony. This is not a destination. This is not a stint abroad.
This is my homeland. It is the source of my religious beliefs and my cultural heritage. It is my people whose traditions gave rise to both Christianity and Islam many generations later. Its stones cry out with the tears and laughter of my forefathers and foremothers.
It is a place that belongs to me as a right that my people have fought long and hard for. The right to pray at our ancient holy sites free of violence or discrimination. As recently as 1967, I could not have prayed at the Western Wall because Jordanian troops wouldn’t allow it.
The point is this: I am a Zionist because I believe I am not “moving to a new place” but rather because I am returning to the place I come from. A place that has room for me to pray in peace at the Western Wall, for my Christians friends to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and for my Muslim friends to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque. And even to own an Alabaman t-shirt shop.
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