Israel is crammed full of many impressive places to visit. I figured I’d highlight some of my favourites. And the absolute top spot to visit if you are Jewish, of course, is the Temple Mount. There’s a reason I’m calling it that instead of just the Western Wall, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
The Western Wall, which used to be known as the Wailing Wall, is obviously a huge draw for Jews. For centuries, it was all we had left of the Second Temple. It is, for those who don’t know, actually a small portion of the outside wall around the Temple. The first time I visited it was a very emotional experience for me. I started to cry, which is not really the sort of thing I do, and freaked out my poor husband. But for me, actually visiting the Wall really brought it home to me that I really was in Israel, in Jerusalem, a place I’d yearned to visit for such a long time. And the symbolism of that spot is awe-inspiring. The stones are worn away from centuries of human hands and every crack is filled with prayers (there’s a tradition of putting prayers written on small pieces of paper in the cracks of the Wall). It is the focal point of Jewish suffering and hope.
A friend, Debbie (who I met on this trip and who happens to now be the DBI chair) told me that every time she visits the Wall, she has a different experience of it and to not expect to have that emotional reaction every time. Wise advice, because the next time I visited I did have a very different experience, feeling somewhat alienated thanks to the separation of men and women, and to the Orthodox women who police Wall visits – a note here, you must wear a skirt that covers your knees and have your shoulders covered; do not take photographs on Saturday; and when you leave the Wall, do not turn your back on it, but rather back away.
I also felt this way because I discovered there is now so much more to the Temple Mount. For example, you can take a tour of the tunnel that has been excavated along the Wall underneath the Arab Quarter. It is remarkable. You will walk along a Herodian street beside the Wall and see ancient churches and how the city was built up over the rubble of the destruction. I cannot recommend it enough.
But my favourite part of the Temple Mount now is what is called the Southern Wall. There’s an area of fairly recent excavation that exposed the rest of the Western Wall down to the front of the Temple Mount, called the Southern Wall. You need to go into the Davidson Center to see this, but it is well worth it. The huge stones of the wall that the Romans knocked over have been left laying on the street where they were uncovered. You can see the remnants of shop fronts on the left side of the street. (In the picture below, the part of the Western Wall traditionally known as the Wailing Wall is straight ahead, over the top of that wall at the end.)
And around the front are huge steps leading up to the front of the Temple Mount. Seeing this helps you to understand just how enormous and awesome – in the true meaning of the word – the Temple was. (In the photo below, you can see my friend Mike at the top of those steps.)
The part of the Temple that you can reach through the Davidson Center is very popular for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. The traditional Western Wall is also popular, but division of men and women is required, so it isn’t an appealing choice to those who are not Orthodox.
I read from the Torah for the first time there, on the street. More recently, my son became a bar mitzvah right at the Wall itself. It was a remarkable experience. I loved taking photographs of my kids and nephews on the stones knocked down by the Roman invaders (you aren’t actually supposed to climb them, but we didn’t see the signs right away). It felt life-affirming, to have these Jewish kids taking happy photos on the rubble that symbolized the Roman attempt to destroy the Jews 2000 years ago.