| Calligraphy |

Poor Man’s Song

And here I was. The start of a new journey, the kind that searched for answers that didn’t exist but that you had to seek out, anyway

Song of Ascents, from my depths I called out to You.

Listen to my voice; may Your ears be attentive to the sound of my pleas…

I yearn for my G-d, among those longing for the dawn,

those longing for the dawn.

[Tehillim 130]

  

I’m generally not the superstitious type, but it’s never a good omen when the first thing you feel when reaching the Kosel, after a five-year hiatus, is pigeon droppings raining onto your arm.

Gross.

I wiped it off as best and as piously as I could, but honestly, I was a bit disheartened. Day One. Well.

Thirty-nine more to go.

  

“There’s this rock, deep within the hills of Teveria,” Baily had announced two days ago, as we pulled up alongside Terminal 4 at JFK, “supposedly there for thousands of years, the rain eroded what looks like the letter shin – I saw the picture, it’s true — and my cousin’s niece davened there and got engaged two months later. I’ll send you the GPS coordinates. And I heard about a girl who circled the shtender of some rebbe in Ramallah, seven times, or maybe it was Ramle, got engaged a week later—”

“His shtender?”

“He’s not dead yet.”

“Which rebbe?”

“Who cares? The point is, it worked. I’ll text you all this info later. You gave me your Israeli number, right? Woo-hoo! Chevy, I have a really good feeling about this trip. I’m so excited! I’m getting the first phone call! I’m going to start shopping for vort shoes already!”

“Totally,” I’d said, flashing her a smile, as she’d popped the trunk and I’d gone to retrieve my luggage.

  

Yes, I was going for the forty-days business; not so much for marriage, actually, though I’d planned to keep that in mind, too. And of course that’s what everyone assumed, anyway. But what really prompted the trip was other stuff I was dealing with. I’d recently been dealt some complicated life cards, and I needed a break to recharge my emotional and spiritual batteries.

My flight was a one-way ticket, too. I planned to come back eventually, but wasn’t sure when. Living in my Detroit hometown without anyone else near my age was certainly not an option, and “in town,” where I’d been renting an apartment the past few years, was losing its appeal. I was off for the summer from my Board of Education position anyway, so I’d applied for a leave of absence for the first half of the academic year to make this fling possible.

And here I was. The start of a new journey, the kind that searched for answers that didn’t exist but that you had to seek out, anyway.

The flight was uneventful and I quickly settled into my apartment in Ezras Torah. My father’s great-aunt had maintained a place there and I’d been able to arrange a two-month stay, though I’d found out last-minute that I’d be having a roommate, a girl in her low twenties who somehow knew my cousin, Penina. I unpacked and grabbed a quick shower to wipe down the airplane cooties. Then I fought back the waves of tiredness threatening to overtake me and trekked to Geula to change money and shop for some food basics, especially important since Gila would be arriving later that day.

I’d spoken to Nefesh b’Nefesh before I’d booked my ticket, figuring out how to transfer my degrees. I’d worked as a school psychologist for years, then more recently completed a second degree in clinical psychology. I hadn’t yet worked in the field, but two graduate degrees opened up several job options to explore. Michal, a friend I’d met in the clinical psychology program who’d moved to Israel after finishing her degree, had been a great resource, emailing job opportunities from the American list serv.

So. Lots of stuff on my to-do list for this summer’s trip to the Holy Land.

I lifted the iced coffee I’d picked up on the way back from Geula. “L'chayim,” I said out loud, to the empty apartment, and took a sip.

A knock sounded just then — Gila, I guess — and I went to open the door.

“Um, hi! You’re Chevi?”

The girl facing me was young, freckled, and pretty — “going through a hard time,” Penina had told me. She smiled earnestly, the two enormous suitcases behind her visually overpowering her small frame. Gila, as Penina explained, ended up on a last-minute flight to Israel and needed a place to stay.

I helped shlep in her luggage.

“I’m going to run now,” I told her apologetically, after giving her a fast tour of the apartment. I needed to get to the Kosel for Minchah and shkiah was in a little over an hour. “You can use my shower stuff or anything in the bathroom, there’s a stash of bakery rolls in the freezer, toaster on the counter, and yogurt and fruit in the fridge.”

I rushed out, leaving Gila to work out the rest on her own.

Day One.

 

  

A prayer of Dovid.

G-d, incline Your ear, answer me….

On the day of my distress I call upon You –

for You will answer me.

[Tehillim 86]

Day Two was Shacharis. I arrived at the Kosel, settled gingerly in an area that seemed pigeon-free, davened, and then opened my Tehillim. Six months ago, a friend had split up Tehillim between twelve girls, and I was still saying my part, perakim 86 through 102, the familiar words more poignant now as I prayed the words of Dovid in his homeland. Tefillah l’Dovid. Dovid, who went to battle his enemies with the knowledge of his victory, that Hashem would answer his tefillos.

I wondered what that felt like, to have that kind of victory, to feel that kind of confidence.

I finished the next few perakim and headed to the bus stop to catch an Egged to Yirmiyahu, where I’d arranged to meet Michal for breakfast. Michal was waiting outside Waffle Bar when I arrived.

“They have this breakfast special, enough for two for sure,” Michal said, after we exchanged hellos. “Unless you want an actual waffle? I need real food.”

“Sounds fine.” We settled at one of the tables. The couple sitting at the table next to us — a young man and a girl with a diamond ring, no head covering — glanced over and turned back in animated conversation, gathering up their leftovers into a neat pile in the center of the table. Engaged. Sweet.

“When are you going back?”

“I don’t know.” The couple headed out of the restaurant, the girl flipping her hair behind her as she passed our table. “One-way ticket.” I cocked an eyebrow, waiting for the onslaught.

Her jaw dropped. “Oh, wow! You’re gonna love it here! It’s about time you ditched Brooklyn! I’m so excited! Even dating here, it’s so much—”

“I know what it’s like.” The waitress stopped by and we halted the conversation as Michal placed the order. “Figured I’d take a break, reassess where I want to go with my job or whatever. My life. I’m doing the forty days thing,” I added. “Will keep Shimmy in mind. How old is he now?” Her son had been born with a cardiac condition, undergoing open-heart surgery after birth, and I knew she’d spent time with her husband researching pediatric cardiologists in Israel for follow-up before making the decision to move here.

“Fourteen months. Thanks.”

We’d kept in touch pretty consistently even after her move to Israel. As the waitress brought our order, I updated Michal on the more recent events of my life, regaling her with my pigeon experience and with Baily’s segulah-hunting stories. Michal had never met her.

“Gosh. There’s legit tefillah, there’s apikorsus, and then there’s just plain stupidity.” Michal shook her head. “The forty days, that’s actually brought down in a few places. The Arizal refers to it, i think. But where is this girl coming from? Here, I’ll make a segulah.” She grabbed a Waffle Bar napkin from the table next to us, ripped off a piece, scribbled the letter shin on it and crumpled it into a ball. She removed her necklace – it was a locket – and stuffed the napkin inside. “Ta-da! Napkins from engaged couples! With the letter shin! Wear it around your neck for seven days—”

“Should we ask the waitress to bring back their leftovers?”

“No, no, the bliyos of the napkin are enough.” Michal hung the locket around my neck.

“Whatever.”

I headed to Ulpan after breakfast, realizing halfway there that I was still wearing Michal’s locket. With a napkin full of what looked like goat cheese smeared inside. Yuck.

I’d return it later.

  

The road up Rechov Ohr Ha’Chaim toward the Jewish Quarter is a killer, especially in Israeli midafternoon heat, but I had a zero-patience policy for Jerusalem buses. The next scheduled bus was in twenty minutes, so after completing a Minchah on Day Eight, I started walking back. So far, each day I’d made it for either a Shacharis or Minchah and kept busy the rest of the day with daily walks, shiurim, an early-morning swim in the Shmuel Hanavi pool Michal had told me about, a twice-weekly Ulpan class, a volunteer tutoring position at a kiruv seminar, and a job hunt that involved mostly perusing and responding to the daily onslaught of emails from Michal’s list-serv and an occasional interview. Gila kept to herself for the most part.

Baily called as I passed through Jaffa Gate.

“The Kosel! Amazing! Wish I was there!” Baily inhaled dramatically. “Avirah d’arah, so fabulous!”

I told her about my Day One pigeon droppings.

“Aw, but that doesn’t mean anything! Wait, no, it means this: Hashem was telling you, Chevi, meine kindt, I made sure it missed your hair, ha-ha. See? All in your perspective.”

“Whatever.”

“I heard this crazy story. Girl goes to Kosel, gets pigeoned, went to the sheirutim to wash her shirt and guess who she meets?”

“Her husband, obviously.” I crossed the intersection and rounded the curve toward Shivtei Yisrael.

“Close! She meets a shadchan! They talk! She’s engaged five weeks later!”

“Baily,” I said, “my arm is scrubbed, showered, and clean. My shirt is washed, hung dry, and folded. That train has passed.”

“Hmmm. Hey, I heard about this—”

My knees hurt. “Can I just, like, daven?”

“That too! I just got a WhatsApp from this lady, her name is Chana something-or-other, about the importance of brachos, she was sharing her personal experience, she had extreme kavanah at malbish arumim, and it was right before the Neiman Marcus Friends and Family Sale and she landed these absolutely crazy metziahs, shelo k’derech ha’teva, she said. A Kate Spade wedge for sixty-five dollars, every time she wears them, she says, she feels so connected to Hashem, and I forwarded it to ten people so there’s a special…”

I told her about Michal’s shidduch locket, and we chatted until I got home twenty-five minutes later. I trudged up the steps to my apartment, sweaty and tired, hoping Gila had left on the air conditioning.

“Gosh, it’s brutal outside!” I announced, throwing the door open. “It’s—ooff, sorry.” I stopped abruptly. Gila was examining herself in the only full-length mirror we had, which for some reason was mounted on the back of the front door. She jumped back to avoid an attack as I crashed through. “I didn’t know you had plans. Anywhere special?” Belatedly, I noticed her dress and smart-looking heels and connected the dots. Oops.

“Um, no,” she said. “I just have — like you said. Plans.” She sidled around me, purposely avoiding my gaze. “Uh, do you mind? I’m kind of in a rush.”

I grinned, letting her pass.

Twenty minutes later, she called my cell. “Chevi,” she whispered urgently. “Can you call me back, my phone plan is terrible and I already used a zillion minutes—”

“Calling you,” I told her, hanging up and redialing. She picked up.

“I need a favor. Like, fast. Are you online?”

“Give me a sec.” I grabbed my laptop to log in.

“Go into my email – I’ll tell you the username and password…”

I listened as she whispered her instructions over the phone. “In. Next?”

“Do a search of the name Hinda Schwartzkopf — don’t read the messages,” she added hastily.

I obliged. “Yup, a bunch of emails.” Re: profile, read the first subject line. Mom asking for pic? read the second. I skimmed the rest and suppressed a giggle; Mrs. Schwartzkopf was apparently one of those who wrote the entirety of her message in subject lines.

She exhaled. “Okay. Don’t make any commentary. Do you promise?”

Fwd: Fwd: great guy in NY for 1day stopover, can go out 2:17 p.m or 6:23 p.m., r u avlbl??

“You have,” I told her solemnly, “my word.”

“There is an email,” she said, breathing heavily, “in which she tells me the name of a specific – ah – person. The subject line is—” she coughed — “ah, READY FOR TAKEOFF. All caps. There may be an exclamation point at the end. Do you mind telling me his name?”

I cracked up.

“No commentary!”

“I’m a telepathist. In my crystal ball, I see you in – hmm, let’s see – seems like a hotel lobby. Many, many young men around. Is that a high, ornate ceiling I see? Aha! The Waldorf?”

“No commentary. What’s his name?”

I found the email. “Yakov Schwartz!” I announced triumphantly. “Break a leg, kiddo. And he should be coming to you, you know. As long as you remember your own name, you should be okay.”

I headed out to Geula when she hung up, spirits high, phone handy in case she needed me again.

She returned two hours later. “No commentary,” she repeated crossly, even before I opened my mouth, slamming the door and kicking off her shoes.

“Careful with that mirror, it’s the only one we got,” I said automatically. “And he would’ve come up to you. You would’ve been okay anyway, you know. Unless you kept forgetting to check his name and ended up married. Husband, husband!” I called, changing my voice to a high pitch. “Dinner is ready, mister!”

She sank miserably onto one of the kitchen stools and put her head in her hands.

“How was?”

She shook her head wordlessly. “How was what?” she said finally.

“First time dating in the Holy Land?”

She glared at me. “Who said anything about a date? I was at the Kosel.”

“It’s like a hazing,” I told her wisely, ignoring her denial. “Congratulations. You passed.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She got up and headed toward her room. “I need to change.”

“Yoo-hoo, can you take out the garbage, sir?” I called after her.

She ignored me.

“Next time, you can wear my special shidduch locket,” I continued dramatically. I should have stopped there — why was I harassing a twenty-year-old dating for the first time in Israel? — but I was enjoying this. I pointed to my neck. I’d called Michal to return it but she’d told me to keep it for now — it was a Geula trinket — until we met up again.

She narrowed her eyes. “Shidduch locket?”

“The last person who wore it got engaged after two weeks,” I intoned solemnly. I laughed at her expression of incredulity and told her about Waffle Bar.

“Oh. I thought you were serious for a second. Goat cheese? Gross.” She wrinkled her nose.

  

I found Gila in front of my closet two days later, perusing my wardrobe.

“I have nothing to wear,” she said, by way of explanation.

“You’re going out again? Same Schwartz guy?”

She shrugged. “You have a one-track mind, seriously.”

“It walks like a duck,” I said. I pulled out a black pullover and a Swarovski crystal-studded belt and tossed it in her direction. “It talks like a duck, it smells like a duck. I think this’ll fit. You have a light skirt to go with it? Black is boring. Quack, quack.”

Gila rolled her eyes and disappeared with the stash, reappearing a few minutes later, pairing the sweater and belt with a simple white skirt. “What do you think?”

I nodded, reached for my jewelry bag and pulled out a mother-of-pearl pendant. “You can borrow it. For tonight.”

“Thanks.” She fastened the clasp. “Is this the shidduch locket?”

“Nope, it’s real. Don’t lose it.”

“Thanks. Hey, can I also borrow one of your Hashgachah pratis stories?”

My eyebrows lifted. “Is this your first time dating, period?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I’m twenty-one. I’ve been out with loads of guys. Dozens. A hundred, even.” She centered the pendant. “Who said anything about a date, anyway?”

“Sure, let me tell you about the time I missed my flight,” I said agreeably. “And was saved from a lion.” If she could lie, so could I. “And when I ran down a terrorist group with my sister-in-law’s Doona. Sit down, get comfortable…”

  

A prayer by Moshe.

Before the mountains came into being, before You created the earth and the world

for ever and ever You are Almighty G-d.…

Let Your work be revealed to Your servants, and Your splendor be upon their children.

[Tehillim 90]

Day Twenty was neitz, at the Kosel.

I caught the Number Three bus a little after 5 a.m. Closing my eyes for some shut-eye, I leaned back in the seat and allowed my mind to wander through the events of the past weeks.

Gila was dating, still officially keeping it under wraps despite the fact that there was no wrap; you just can’t hide certain things from a roommate. She’d been borrowing an accessory or article of clothing almost every day, calling last night to borrow my pendant again. I’d had two recent job interviews, one in a clinic for disadvantaged youths and another in an American-based school, and was waiting to hear back from both. There were the Ulpan classes and my daily trips to the Kosel; I was halfway through.

Shacharis was beautiful.

After davening, I took out my Tehillim and concentrated on the words, my daily section. Tefillah l’Dovid, incline Your ear, answer me. The next few perakim. Tefillah l’Moshe.

I felt a nudge at my side.

“Efshar la’zuz l’yemin?” I looked up. The girl who whispered to me in amateur Hebrew looked about nineteen. “Um, can you please move? So my friends can squeeze in for a quick photo?” Apparently she’d figured out I was American, too. She gestured to two other girls behind her.

I shrugged, closed my Tehillim, and moved to the side. “You want me to take the pic for you guys?” I asked. The moment was over, anyway.

“Amazing, thanks!” She flashed a smile and handed me her phone, and the threesome clustered around to pose.

“Smiling, or the open-siddur davening pose?” the dark-haired ponytail asked.

“Just smile,” I responded automatically, even though it wasn’t really me she was asking.

  

“So,” Gila said, later that day. She was slouched against the wall, deliberately casual, but her hair looked freshly blown and she was wearing heels. “Do you know how to get to the Jerusalem Gardens? Can I just take the train there?” Wait. Was that my top she was wearing?

I smiled. “Got plans again tonight?”

She twirled a finger through her hair. “No! Just curious.”

“I think the City Hall stop. I’m pretty sure.”

“And when you get off, like, where do you go? Like, theoretically?”

“There’s a street to the right called — no, wait, maybe take Rechov—”

“Never mind. I’ll ask someone when I get off.”

“Are you kidding? You can’t get off the rakevet dressed like that and stop strangers to ask them where the Jerusalem Gardens is! You may as well be announcing, SHALOM, YESH LI DATE ACHSHAV—”

“Did I say anything about a date?” she interrupted. “Seriously.”

I rolled my eyes again. “Okay, give me a minute, I’ll check it on Google Maps.”

“You’re the best. Also, can I borrow your necklace again?”

“Sure.” I retrieved the pendant from my drawer and tossed it in her direction.

Gila shook her head. “No, the locket.”

I started laughing. “That was a joke! Wait—” Comprehension dawned. “You wore it already? That’s what you’d borrowed last time?”

“You never know,” she explained, looking a bit sheepish. “It can’t hurt to—”

“Gila!” I didn’t know whether to be aghast or amused. “Michal made that up! It has shakshuka and goat cheese leftovers and somebody’s germs on it!”

“I don’t really believe it,” she said defensively. “It’s just — whatever. Can I borrow it or not?”

I rolled my eyes. “Knock yourself out. You can leave a donation by the door.”

“Very funny. Thanks.”

She left five minutes later with my locket around her neck and detailed Google Map instructions.

“Quackety-quack,” I called after her.

  

The days moved onward.

Day Thirty was interrupted by a Chinese tour group videoing each other pretend-praying out loud. Thirty-one, the heat of an August Minchah. Thirty-two, another neitz. Thirty-three, Shacharis almost missed because of Women of the Wall protests . Thirty-four, Minchah with graduating soldiers of the Israeli Army. Thirty-five — I’d almost missed that one because another interview ran late — a Minchah caught just in time before shkiah. Thirty-six, Minchah followed by a Birthright group dancing in a circle behind me for Kabalas Shabbos. Thirty-seven, Minchah Shabbos late afternoon, this time swarms of people joining me along my walk, taking a crowded bus home after the zeman. Thirty-eight, the start of the seminary year and the visible bump in Kosel traffic. Thirty-nine, a Shacharis with the ululating of a Sephardic bar mitzvah in the background.

And Day Forty.

  

The sun broke through the window shades on the fortieth day and I stretched, basking in the kiss of the early-morning sunrise, the promise of a beautiful day. My fortieth day.

Gila crashed through the door.

“I CAN’T FIND MY SHOES!”

I opened one eye blearily, then the other. “Good morning. Why you up so early?”

“I have plans! Did you see my black shoes? The sling-backs?”

“Nope, sorry.” I tossed the covers to the side, swung my legs over the side of the bed, and rose. “Plans, aha. Quack, quack!”

Gila turned to me, eyes blazing.

“I can’t find my shoes,” she screeched, “and my hair is disgusting in Israel and I haven’t slept more than two hours each night—” I jumped back — “plus I have no clothes and I don’t know how to hail taxis and I can’t go on plans every single day, and stop quacking already! It’s driving me crazy!”

I recognized a shidduch meltdown when I saw one.

“Okay, okay, I totally get it. Um, so you’re going out again today? I’m not quacking,” I added hastily, “just helping.”

She nodded.

“Same guy?”

She nodded again.

“So… it’s getting serious?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know.” She paused. “My parents are landing in a few hours.”

“Um, that would be yes.”

“Chevi. I don’t know. This is crazy.” She paused. “And I really don’t have anything to wear. I wasn’t expecting this to happen….”

“When you say this,” I said slowly, “do you mean, this? Or do you mean, like — ” I widened my eyes — “THIS?”

She widened her eyes back. “THIS.”

I slipped my feet into Crocs. “What time?”

“He’s picking me up at one, my parents are landing at two and we’re meeting together later in the evening.”

“So you need to be ready at one? A quarter to one, you don’t want to rush.”

She nodded.

“When did you last wear them? Your shoes?”

And my fortieth day started.

  

The morning flew by.

I blow-dried Gila’s hair straight, then used her curling iron to make beautiful soft waves; I let her use my Israeli-brand hair products so her hair came out great despite the hard water. I ran to the corner pharmacy to buy hairspray so the style would hold in the summer humidity. Then her makeup. I sat Gila in the kitchen chair, tools spread out over the counter, and spent forty-five minutes primping and playing with colors until she looked gorgeous. We did find her shoes, inside one of the kitchen cabinets. Go figure. This is your brain on shidduchim.

We moved onto my closet next to find something she hadn’t yet worn.

I ended up davening Shacharis at home, while Gila was showering; it would have been impossible to go to the Kosel without cutting it way too close with Gila’s preparations.

I’d go for Minchah.

  

I was on edge the rest of the afternoon, unable to concentrate on Ulpan, somehow managing to get through class. I was too fidgety to actually do anything, waiting for Gila’s phone call, so I kept busy cleaning the apartment for Shabbos despite the fact that it was Tuesday.

Gila called, finally, early evening. “Hey,” she said. “You were right. It’s a duck.”

We both started shrieking.

“L’chayim is in his house, in Romema,” she said breathlessly, after we settled down. “Texting you the address. You better come now! Um,” she added, “thanks for this morning. I was going a little batty.”

“Happy to be of assistance.” I raised my voice a few pitches. “Do you mind raising the thermostat, dude? The apartment is freezing.”

“Yakov Schwartz,” she said, giggling.

  

Gila looked adorable, pink-cheeked and bubbly as she pointed out her chassan from across the room and introduced me to her parents.

It was half past five by the time I sought her out again to give a good-bye-mazel-tov hug, and I rushed outside to find the bus stop. Over two hours to shkiah, and the bus ride was around thirty minutes.

Day 40. Here we come now, for real.

And Gila was engaged. I almost laughed out loud, lost in my thoughts as the bus came – it was late, naturally, but still left me with more than enough time – and I swiped my Rav Kav, finding a seat in the back. Twenty-five minutes later, the driver stopped the bus at Shaar Ha’ Ashpos, and I alighted with the remaining passengers.

6:35 p.m.

One hour left to shkiah – more than enough time for Minchah and Tehillim – and I felt a sense of giddiness at the completion of my forty days as I let my feet carry me towards the Kosel entrance.

A group of people, a mixture of tourists and chareidim and an Ethiopian tour group, blocked the area in front, and a confused murmur spread throughout the group.

“Mah koreh?”

“Cleaning inside,” one of the policemen told us succinctly, his leg perched behind him. I watched him take a swig from a water bottle and wipe sweat off his forehead, as I processed his words.

“How long?” I asked stupidly, and he shrugged, shaking his head.

“Od sha’ah, sha’ataim.” A second mishtarah officer, smoking a cigarette — were you even allowed, on duty? — looked up. “We do not know, for certain. Usually, they do not close, when they clean the Kotel before the chag, they can do part by part with no blocking off the entire space, but some problem, they want to clear the area.”

He exhaled, cigarette smoke rising and dissipating in the air, and any hope I’d held onto shriveled up and dissolved along with it.

Two hours.

It was 6:37 p.m, on my fortieth day.

And the Kosel was closed.

  

When I was six years old, I was chasing after my older brother and his friends, trying to join their game of tag. Shlomo had run into a backyard shed and I was hot on his tail. And then the door slammed shut on my fingers, the agony in my fingers so intense, it hit me like a glass of ice water thrown into my chest cavity somewhere, and I could barely breathe from the pain, even with the finger splints and roller gauze and ice, as they brought me to the ER where I’d gone for an x-ray and had two fingers set. I still couldn’t bend my left pinkie fully.

I don’t know why I’m remembering that now, but I was, and I closed my eyes and let that agony stab me again, and again, and again.

The Kosel was closed.

Frozen in place for what seemed like hours, oblivious to the frustrated grumbles around me, I watched as the light of my fortieth day inexorably melted into the shadows of dusk, and then dim, black night.

I left Israel the next morning. I’d called my travel agent as soon as I was back in my apartment and made up some cockamamie story for Gila, who was in la-la land anyway. I had zero intention of ever coming back.

  

A prayer of the destitute…

Hide not Your face from me…. Answer me on the day I call to You.

For my days have vanished with the smoke… a lengthening shadow…

[Tehillim 102]

I spent an uneventful Rosh Hashanah in my usual spot in the shul I’d been attending since my move to New York. Baily had called to try to convince me to join a startup women’s minyan in Uman; some rebbetzin from Portland was arranging it for single girls, incredible experience, very reasonably priced. I declined. She called later to invite me to a pre-Yom Kippur shiur given by said rebbetzin, entitled Secrets from Me’achorei HaPargod: Why You’re Still Single, For Real This Time.

“Back from Uman so soon?” I asked.

“Didn’t work out, but listen,” she said excitedly, “this lady is legit, she had a near-death-experience, she described it exactly the way they have reports online, this long white tunnel, and she said a malach told her—”

I hung up.

“I’m not saying there’s no validity to it,” Michal said later, when I told her about Baily. “Who knows, right? But it’s just — I don’t know.” She paused. “So wait, what did the malach—”

I hung up on her, too, long distance and all.

Chevi, meine kindt. Right.

Yom Kippur was — Yom Kippur. We’ll leave it at that.

Baily stopped by the next evening, as I was packing for my flight back home for Succos. “A bunch of us are going to Lancaster, first two days of Chol Hamoed!” she announced, before I had a chance to say hello. “Amish county, a few days of R and R. Also, somebody had the idea — James Buchanan is buried there, maybe we’ll go visit, he was the only president to get married in the White House, maybe that means—”

“That was Grover Cleveland,” I interrupted. “Buchanan was the only bachelor. Besides, I’m going to Detroit for Succos. Have fun, though.”

“Oh,” she said. Her eyes widened. “Bachelor? Oh, right. Eeeek! Change of plans!”

“Sorry.”

“Anyway.” Baily looked at me. “Your shidduch locket. Can I, like, borrow it?”

My jaw dropped. “From Waffle Bar?” I never did get to return it to Michal. “Baily, please.”

“It can’t hurt to—”

“Suit yourself.” I didn’t have patience to argue right now. “Give me a sec.” I went to my room, closing the door behind me, and retrieved the locket from my drawer.

The locket was starting to creep me out. Not the trinket itself; that was just stupidity, like Michal had said. But the fact that Gila, and now Baily, both wanted to wear it. Where does stupidity end and apikorsus start? The line was starting to blur.

I pried open the locket, removed the Waffle Bar napkin, and closed the locket again. I crumpled up the napkin and tossed it into the wastebasket.

“Here you go.” I reappeared in the kitchen and handed the now-empty locket over. “So excited, I get the first phone call, going to buy myself vort shoes already, etcetera.”

“Very funny.” Baily fastened it around her neck, kissed it, and threw me a grin. “Do you have leftover tzimmes from Rosh Hashanah, by the way? my friend Avigail, she did something on a rooftop last year—”

I waved her off and reached for my Yom Kippur machzor to exchange for my Succos one. Absently, I opened the pages again, fingers riffling through, halting at Ne’ilah.

P’sach lanu sha’ar. The cantorial intonation seemed to emanate from the bold print facing me, voice slow, pleading, mournful, rising over the quiet murmur of a congregation grasping to kindle the last dancing embers of the holiest night of the year. One last call for tefillos, before Heaven’s Gates are shut.

P’sach lanu sha’ar. Be’ais ne’ilas sha’ar. Ki panah yom.

Open up, for us, a Gate. At the moment of the locking of Your Gates.

I closed my eyes, and an image of a Wall floated in, barricaded with armed officers; and a sun, setting gently over the horizon.

Because the day is passing onward.

My pinkie finger itched.

I opened my eyes, closed the machzor and stuffed it on the shelf. My Tehillim was next to it, a cobweb linking it to the wall.

My throat tightened, and I gently brushed the cobweb away with a tissue. Then I slowly reached for the sefer and flipped the pages until I reached my section. I hadn’t recited those words since my time in Israel. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in it; I was just tired. I don’t know.

Tefillah l’Dovid. Dovid, who emerged victorious from almost every battle he encountered. He davened, he went to war, he won.

What was it like, to have that kind of track record with tefillah?

My lips started reciting the words, flowing into the by-now-familiar pattern, and I continued with the next perakim.

Tefillah l’Moshe.

Va’eschanan, Moshe’s claim to Tefillah, prayed 515 times without an answer, despite his close relationship. Until finally, he did get the response, but not what he’d hoped for. Stop praying. Stop asking Me. You’re not entering the land; but you can see it.

Even that was an answer, an acknowledgment that G-d was listening, at least.

I continued the next few segments, my mind floating in a sea of thoughts. Tefillah l’Dovid. Tefillah l’Moshe.

I turned to the last perek, my memory forming the words even before I saw them, and I stilled.

Tefillah l’Ani.

Tefillah l’Ani. The prayer of the pauper. The prayer of the person who gets nothing in return.

I knew this tefillah.

My eyes traveled across the pages.

Answer my prayers, let my cries reach You.

Do not hide Your face from me on the day of my sorrow.

For my days have vanished with the smoke…

Something inside me started to crack as images floated in, memories of that hopeful summer. The feel of the stones, the hardness, the cool touch despite the summer heat, the routine circling of that curve when entering the Old City through Jaffa towards St. James street— oh G-d.

Smitten like grass and withered is my heart…

My G-d, do not remove me in the midst of my days!…

I am like the bird of the wilderness; like the owl of the wasteland have I become.

In haste I fled; I was like a bird, alone—

I started to cry.

Memories so beautiful, so painful, swirled around me in a thick haze. The comfort of feeling cheek against stone. The ethereal atmosphere at vasikin, the whisper of sunlight hinting over sky at that exact moment in time when noise died down to a collective murmur of an almost unified Shemoneh Esreh as night lifted to day; standing in afternoon heat with sweat trickling down my back, the later crowds in the evening when merciful coolness laid its blanket over the city. Thirty-nine days. Thirty-nine prayers, and the last one – I tried to block that memory but the images kept coming in, the policeman, the group of disgruntled tourists, the sun setting over the horizon…

For my days have vanished with the smoke…

Dovid HaMelech sang to this Tefillah, too. To the prayers we still struggled with because the words tasted like sawdust and were too hard to utter yet again. And again. And again.

I whispered the ancient words, tasting the agony of his poetry, the salt of my tears, my voice raspy as I echoed his against the stillness of an empty room.

Somewhere in this crazy world, Gila was wearing a diamond ring on her finger and telling the story of a locket with goat cheese inside. Somewhere, I knew with absolute certainty, Baily was Googling where Grover Cleveland was buried. Somewhere, a gaggle of seminary girls donated for yeshuos with one hand, while taking pictures of davening at the Kosel with the other, can you please move, and people said, the world said, oh, look, that’s so beautiful.

Tefillah l’ani. Not his failure, but his tefillah. And he kept singing.

This is beauty.

I once heard, I forgot where, that the soul is always in a constant state of prayer but covered with a wall, and as my heart met the depth of these words, that wall came crashing down.

  

Years ago, a teacher in seminary told us this: You don’t look at the kallah the moment right after the chuppah. You don’t look at the face of a kallah after she surrounds her chassan seven times and like Jericho, a wall comes crashing down.

  

He turned to the prayer of the devastated one,

and He has not despised their supplication…

Let this be recorded for the generation to come.

[ibid]

Three years later

I told Eli the story on our flight to Israel, the first getaway we took as a couple, slipped in last-minute when my 21-year-old sister-in-law offered to babysit our twins for ten days. When we landed, we dumped our luggage in our rental apartment on Shmuel Hanavi, took the Number Three bus to the Kosel, and I completed my fortieth day with my husband waiting for me on the other side.

I cried, hard.

I didn’t speak as we left the Kosel plaza, until he hailed a taxi and started talking to the driver in rapid-fire Hebrew, and I was able to catch a few words.

“Har Hazeisim?” I said, a bit skittish. “Um, hello, there are Arabs there? Where are we going?”

“It’s still early, no one’s out. I called in a livuy when you were in the apartment, they’re armed. Don’t worry.”

After a few minutes, the taxi stopped and we both climbed out. Behind us, two policemen exited their vehicle, and the three of us followed Eli as he navigated his way to one of the graves. There was no marking on it.

I looked at Eli questioningly.

“Those tefillos,” he told me. “The cleanup. This is where they’re buried.”

A slight breeze tickled my forehead and then settled into the quiet, the stillness of a graveyard and the silent call of prayers offered up months or years or maybe centuries ago. A restless cycle of tears and requests; yesterday’s prayers, prayed and answered, or prayed and quietly buried. A request for rain, the earliest words uttered in this world spoken from Man to his Creator in a conversation that never ended. Almighty G-d, refah nah lah, Leah’s reddened eyes, Keli, keli, why have you abandoned me, give me a child or I am dead; tears meant still to be shed, prayers meant still to be prayed, channeling through each generation through different people, different circumstances.

My body was trembling.

My husband gestured to an area further down. “I’ll wait there.” I nodded. Then I crouched down and touched my hand to the ground, the tremulousness of my fingers slowly releasing to the graininess of sand and stone and the tickle of grass, and I closed my eyes.

Tefillah l’Ani. How many of the papers buried here turned out, so agonizingly, as those types of prayers? How many of these tears and requests and hopes and dreams were still suspended mid-air, cradled in Heaven’s embrace, not yet ready to be spiraled back down to This World; or maybe released but in a form we couldn’t yet recognize, and maybe never would?

What do you daven, really, when your heart converges with soil soaked with tears of still-so-much heartbreak?

My eyes were still closed.

She’tasim dimosaynu b’nodcha, lihiyos.

Lihiyos. Preserved for the future. Or lihiyos, to make something actualize from them, dear G-d, and there were hot tears spilling over my face now, because I emerged victorious from one tefillah l’Dovid — two, really — but had my personal tefillah l’Ani still suspended mid-air, among so many other collective tefillos desperately coaxing their way into our reality. But maybe from a higher vantage point the two tefillos are the same, assonance and dissonance of one continuous melody, only our limited perception down here separating them so painfully. Ani b’daas, Eli had told me earlier, showing me a ma’amar describing those tefillos that way. And it’s not our job to understand, but just to keep singing; to keep offering up a melody both heartbreaking and beautiful, through Heaven’s Gates that are sometimes open, sometimes closed; and to let that song slip quietly through one Gate that is never, ever barricaded against the broken hearts of His children.

The tears flowed again, this time with no questions, no expectations, no requests. Lihiyos; to just be.

I heard Eli’s footsteps behind me, saw him reach down and gently place a rock on the unmarked ground, and I dried my eyes and my husband and I walked down the stone steps, together, into the morning sunlight. 

(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 830)

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