"Look at all the people who come down the steps each day to the Kotel. Why do you think they come here? Because they are happy? Look at us. Homelessim”
Would they charge per word? Or just per line? She types Dear G-d.
Delete. Delete. The cursor moves backward, blink-blink-blink, erase, erase.
Who used dear anymore, outside of high school letter-writing assignments?
What did that mean, anyway? Dear Higher Power. Dear Question Mark. Dear Mystery. Dear Loving but Rather Well Hidden Father?
Just the Question.
And for ten dollars — she clicks on the credit card box, fills in the three-digit-code in the Google pop-up — and her message is on its way to the Western Wall.
All year, Mikhail bows his face and shoulders toward the ground. Sweep, sweep, gather. Sweep, sweep, gather. In Jerusalem, the garbage is all about liquid. The tops of beer bottles. Coke cans, crushed at the waist. Neviot water bottles that crackle and implode even as you swallow. In the summer, iced coffee cups, straws still sticking out the top. In the winter, hot cups with the black-and-red slogan.
Twice a year, before Succos and Pesach, Mikhail’s head does not bow to the floor, but tips upward. Toward the blue, pale at first, growing opaque with heat, rippling into purple at the day’s close. Upward toward the Western Wall. The garbage is not about liquid, now. It is about prayer.
Mikhail bends down and picks up the paper from the ground. Twice a year, before Pesach and Succos, he is joined by a cadre of volunteers to clean the Wall, extracting tiny papers from between the stones, making space for more. It is hard work. His arms ache from the unaccustomed stretching. Most of the notes simply fall away when he sweeps over the stones with a broom, but some cling to the crevices. Two years ago, they brought him a long stick with a pincer on the end, for the stubborn prayers. He still hasn’t mastered the timing: when to open the pincers, and then, what is the right second to close it over the note. Most times, the papers end up raining down on him, so he must bend and gather them up from where they litter the bright, hot stones of the Plaza.
Now, he clasps his hands together behind his back and lifts them slightly, so his back arches. It helps the ache for a moment or two. The pincer-stick is hard on him. He prefers the broom. It is a special broom, used twice a year, kept in a little plastic shed on his porch. He uses it only for the Wall. It feels right, somehow.
“Hinei. Kach.” One of the Wall women thrusts a cup of water into his hand.
“Hot today,” she says, nodding, as if that will cause him to take more care.
He drinks, gratefully. “Yes.”
Some years, they clean the Wall in September, when the evening coolness can be detected at four. This year, it is August still. The heat forms a haze around anything that moves so you find yourself blinking and trying to focus and then blinking again. Sweat trickles down his back.
“Maybe rest a while?”
He snorts. “You think you are my mother?”
She shrugs. “And why not?”
“My mother has been in a Russian grave more than twenty years.”
“There are all kinds of mothers.”
He dips his head at the truth. His Anna is — was — one of those. This time in the afternoon, she would stand at the front door, handing out cool slices of watermelon to the neighborhood children. He used to grumble about hauling those green monsters from the shuk. Now he misses it.
He points to the Wall, to the half-filled burlap bag. “I still have a long way to finish.”
“So you will come back tomorrow. Tell them that this was a good season for prayer. There are more kvittlach than usual. You need a day more.”
But he does not rest. There is something about this job that makes him want to finish it already. When the Wall is cleared and the bags are full, they are brought to the Mount of Olives. He and the volunteers and the rabbi of the Wall look on as they are covered in clods of earth. From stone to soil. From paper to dust. From ink to earth.
Once, he had asked the rabbi, Is that it? The end of the prayers? Or can they still reach G-d from the grave?
The rabbi had gripped Mikhail’s arm in a way that told him that maybe he was talking to himself.
G-d is above time, the rabbi had said. He does not need a six-month deadline to take care of each set of notes. And He does not even need to see the notes, not really.
Enough the act of writing.
Enough the act of wanting to write.
Enough the feeling that grows slowly in the heart.
The seed of feeling.
The shadow that precedes the seed.
Mikhail puts down his broom. If that is, indeed, enough — his hands pass over his face, so all is shadow — then what of Anna?
One of the papers falls to the floor. Instead of sweeping it into the large white burlap sack that waits for all of the prayers, he picks it up and opens it: an A4 piece of paper with a computer-printed message.
Where Are You?
He stares until his eyes blur, hand wavering in the air, paper trembling. He blinks. He is almost ready to place it in the bag — or maybe he should simply push it back into the Wall. There are always a few prayers that cling to their hiding places. He looks down at it once more, closes his eyes to the sun’s glare, thinks of a cool chunk of watermelon, of Anna, with her slight shoulders and green eyes, reaching over a thicket of waving arms to hand a pink slice to a little boy who has been shouldered to the edge of the crowd.
Where Are You?
He swallows. He folds the paper carefully and pushes it into his pocket.
Later that afternoon, he takes his place at Anna’s bedside. Jovita, the Filipina aide, fluffs up Anna’s pillow before she leaves. She will be gone for two hours, buying the falafel she favors and FaceTiming her children in the Philippines, before she settles Anna to bed. They have moved Anna’s bed into their small salon so that she can enjoy the light from their small porch, and the houseplants and the small watercolor of a fishing village that reminds her of a childhood holiday by the Black Sea.
It is his favorite time of day: The sun is setting, signaling an end to the day and its aching muscles and heart. As the day fades, Anna usually has a little more energy. She can be propped up on the pillows and is peaceful when he opens a book to read aloud to her. He used to read stories: Russian fairy tales, stories from the Talmud. Once, he tried a play by Gorky, adjusting his voice for each character. But she has asked him to read from a book of Psalms. The Hebrew is still like pebbles on his tongue, so he reads the Russian translation. Chapter 61. Hear my cry, O G-d. Listen to my prayer.
She nods. Continue.
Her eyes are like the craters of the moon.
We are all here, praying to You, he thinks, feeling his pocket with its question.
Verse 3. From the ends of the earth I call to You.
The lump of prayer. He should have put it into the bag to bury it.
It is not too late. Either in the bag, or back in the Wall. Why did he take it?
Anna’s eyes flutter closed. Through her thin skin he can see tiny strands of blue blood vessels. He takes the note from his pocket and places it carefully in the book of Psalms. Chapter 61. It will be safe there. He will remember it. He closes the book, kisses it gently, and straightens the blanket on his wife. Then he goes into the kitchen to open a can of sardines and spread it over a chunk of dark bread and wait for Jovita to return to sit next to Anna.
The ambulance did not switch off the siren. Whoowoowoowoowoo. It is hard to think. Jovita sweeps an arm over the bedside table, pulling five little bottles of pills into an open bag. She grabs the pillow and a spare blanket. Jovita hesitates, then picks up the prayer book that Mr. Mikhail reads from each night. No time. No time.
Jovita secures the bag closed and slings it over her shoulder. The siren continues to wail. She rubs her bare arms. The noise. It makes her skin feel strange.
One last look around the room and then Jovita sprints out the front door. The back doors of the ambulance are open; the EMT bends over Anna. Please. G-d in Heaven. Good, sweet G-d Who watches over His children. Let her be fine. She finds herself whispering the phrase she hears all over: B’ezrat Hashem.
Mr. Mikhail is in the front. Jovita hesitates a moment and then steps up into the back of the ambulance. The EMT is busy setting up a drip. She strokes Anna’s hand. Maybe it will calm her. B’ezrat Hashem.
At the hospital, they push her through the corridor. Jovita runs alongside, clutching the bag. Mr. Mikhail is behind, she hopes he finds the way. He can always ask.
They put her into a cubicle and close the curtains. Jovita finds a plastic chair in the hallway. A man with a fur hat and silk coat, even in the heat, murmurs something as he rocks back and forth. A woman with a crying baby. The cleaner — dark skin, white work shirt — and earbuds in his ears. Older people, many. All kinds of walkers and wheelchairs. She calls Anna’s walker the Cadillac. Where are their aides?
She straightens up. The plastic chair digs into her back. Of course there are few aides here. It is Saturday. Shabbat. Her friends have time off on Saturdays. They rent an apartment, just for weekends, twelve mattresses on the floor in a big room and a kitchen, to make something other than chicken and ketzitzot. Sometimes she goes to visit.
Many of them complain a lot. Sometimes she tells them: We are the lucky ones. This is Israel, it is better here than in Hong Kong. The people are hardworking, they are good to their families. But her friends still complain, until they begin with the karaoke, and then Jovita takes the mic and closes her eyes and pretends she sings to her children.
Bag still dangling from her arm, Jovita takes her phone from her pocket. It is almost time for the children to call. Daybreak, for Jovita, does not start at sunrise. It is when she sees Juan and Josie squinting at the screen, faces too close, jostling against each other. Now, she holds her phone in her palm, waiting.
Mr. Mikhail does not like her to use her cell phone on Saturday. But now, in the hospital, all she is doing is waiting. Hoping.
She looks up suddenly. Mr. Mikhail.
His eyes. There is a crumple in his forehead. And his eyes.
She stands up. Puts the phone in her back pocket.
He shakes his head.
“Are you fine, Mr. Mikhail? Do you need a drink?”
Her own heart is going bang-bang-bang. It is hot in the hospital. They should have better air-conditioning.
Surely it is not so bad.
She does not know what to ask.
“It is time for prayer,” he says.
She nods. The book of Psalms is in her bag. She reaches inside, feels with her fingers, brings out a bottle of water. She hands it to him and he drinks. Now her fingers touch the cloth cover of the book of Psalms. He takes it, sits down, opens the book and holds it to his face. Rock, rock, rock, he goes, back and forth.
A folded paper falls. It lands on the floor.
She bends down and picks it up.
Thick paper. Good paper. Someone spent good money on this paper. She lifts it up to her face. She needs glasses.
Mr. Mikhail prays. Somewhere inside, the doctors work on Anna. Sweet Anna. Grumpy sometimes, but good.
Her children should be calling now.
Her phone is on vibrate. She will feel it, but Mr. Mikhail will not hear it if they call.
She opens the paper and lifts it close to her left eye, her good eye.
Where Are You?
She slumps down onto the chair. Something inside churns and twists. Juan and Josie, they know where she is. She is in the money-tree orchard. She is at the place where she sends home dollars each month. Two years, she told Enrique, her husband, before she left. Then she did not know that two years just pays off the cost of the paperwork. Most people stay for five years. Seven. Eight.
Her family has dollars. Western Union has business. Josie and Juan have an education.
Where Are You?
Far. Far away.
She feels the tears on her cheeks and does not stop them, even when they fall onto the paper. She looks once more at Mr. Mikhail, his dry lips mouthing words, forehead creased in concentration. She hears the phone vibrate in her pocket, but does not answer. It would not be respectful. It would not be right. It stops, and then starts again. Soon her children will go out for the day. By the time they return, she will be back on duty and then it will be night, and she will not see them. Is it this which hurts her? Or is it Anna? Or is it the shoulders of Mr. Mikhail, too thin for all the pain?
She looks at the paper and slips it into her pocket. It is just an old, forgotten paper, after all.
It looks like a piece of paper, but there might be money folded inside.
Sometimes, Sara has noticed, women pay for their bread and milk and a can of tuna and three oranges and they forget one thing on the counter. They do this a lot when there is a baby crying, or a toddler who tries to run away.
So it is kedai to hang around in the evening, when women come in with their tired children, for there is often food left on the counter and the owner looks away when Sara reaches for it and slips it into her bag.
The woman — a thin Filipina, a little sad — just reached into her pocket and brought out a little zippered purse along with the folded paper, which she puts down on the counter while she counts out the coins. She gathers her food carefully: two plain yogurts, oatmeal, four cucumbers, and two apples. There will be nothing left behind when she leaves, her flip-flops slap-slapping on the floor. But when Sara looks back at the counter, she sees that there is something, after all. She darts forward and closes her fingers over it.
Outside, she walks quickly through the narrow streets until she finds her favorite wall, a good height and in the shade.
She opens the paper and pulls a face. Words in English. Printed. No twenty-shekel note folded inside.
She likes paper, generally. Especially receipts. To see what other people spend money on. Forty-two shekels on breakfast. Coffee. Orange juice. A bagel. Two sunny-side up eggs.
The waste of it all brings up a laugh, maybe a bitter one, all the way from her belly. Coffee you can get by the Kotel, just after the neitz minyan. For free. Fresh orange juice. There’s an orange tree in a courtyard off Rechov Chabad. Three months a year, she has fresh orange juice that hasn’t been touched by a machine either. She plucks an orange from a branch, bangs it hard on the stone wall to release the juice. Then she pierces the skin with her teeth — they’re still strong — and sucks. Sweet and acidic. Good. As for the sunny-side up eggs, she never cared for eggs. Ha ha, there is sun here in plenty. Free like the coffee, but unlike the coffee, it can be had all day long.
She turns the paper over. Blank. Just the three words on the other side.
Sara shuffles back to her post, near the top of the stairs that lead from the Kotel to the Rova. On the way, she finds Maurice. He sits on the bench at the top. Maurice is the professor of the beggars. She shoves the paper into his hand. “Mah katuv?”
He lowers his glasses. “Where. Are. You.”
She stands, blankly.
She holds out her hand for the paper. A scrap of paper — a good one like this — can be folded into eighths and wedged up against her top gum when it throbs. It can be folded into a swan, angled body, long neck, delicate head.
He holds the paper between his fingers. His nails are dirty. A pity. She cannot put it against her gums now. It will be a bird. He replaces his glasses and squints up at her. He gestures, as if it will cost him to say a word.
“Eifoh Atah. At. Wh-ere-are-you.”
She shrugs her shoulders. “Here. In Jerusalem.”
He closes his eyes. “Thoreau. Toro. What is the use of a house if one does not have a tolerable planet to put it on?” He translates. “…kochav lechet bilti nisbal…”
She blinks. “Bilti nisbal?” Intolerable.
He gives her a knowing nod. “Of course, intolerable. Look at all the people who come down the steps each day to the Kotel. Why do you think they come here? Because they are happy? Look at us. Homelessim.”
She tries to understand him. “So you think it is good we do not have a home, for this whole world is bilti nisbal?”
Sara runs her fingers over the ridged stone of the wall. She jabs her fingers at each printed word. Where. Are. You.
“Here is my answer: I sit on the stairs of the Old City, grabbing for a few coins. But this is not far from where I grew up.”
A group of yeshivah boys walks past. Maurice rattles his metal can. The group continues. One boy, straggling at the edge of the group, his face red from the heat, reaches into his pocket and brings out a coin. She does not blame the others for not stopping. The young ones only have credit cards.
As a young girl, she would stand before a wooden table her father would set up for her every morning, in an alleyway not so different from here. She would lay out carrots, not like the ones from the makolet: real carrots, with green hair and a little white whisker at the end, and here and there a little dirt. Good dirt. Black and fresh. To remind you it was a vegetable you were eating, not something that, who knows, the Chinese factories had dreamed up and printed. Potatoes in brown string nets. Fresh parsley, tied in bunches. Beets, a good purple.
Sara stood there all day, and each time someone bought something she arranged the vegetables again. Each time the sun moved overhead, she rearranged them again, so that the red beetroot would catch the sun’s light and glow purple and persuade someone to buy it.
She would go up to imahot on the street, put her hand on their arms to get their attention and say, buy vegetables for your children, keep their teeth whole and their legs strong. They had believed her, they had come to her and by the end of each day, the little wooden box was filled with coins and most of the vegetables were gone.
Then, she would gather up the remainder and trudge over to Rav Wallach’s hospital. Usually, it was cooler by then. She would stand by the door of the kitchen and haggle with the cook, who wanted to buy things cheap.
“Why do you want to steal from me?” she would ask.
“Why do you want to deny good vegetables to people who are sick and dying?” the cook would fire back.
Eventually, they would both give in just a bit, and Sara would hand over a box of vegetables, and the cook would drop a handful of coins into her wooden box.
And then Sara would return home.
Sara clutches the paper and glares at Maurice.
What does he know about an intolerable planet, anyway? Spoiled child, he grew up in France. His mother even took him to that painting place, the Louvre.
While she… she would hand her mother the wooden box, and her mother would greedily spill it out onto the table. Sara would spread her arms around the table edge, so nothing would spin off the edge onto the floor and possibly be lost.
Let there be enough money, she would think, as her mother silently counted, long fingers moving the coins from the left of the table to the right. For once, let there be enough money that you will not shriek at Abba and Abba will not look at us both and twist his lips into a sneer and say, what is coming to you is coming to you and you deserve not to have. Magi’ah lachem.
“Hakol b’seder?” Maurice asks.
She nods, but memories have cold fingers that tickle at her neck. She deserves not to have. And here is the proof: She does not even have vegetables to sell, not for years.
She holds out her hand for the paper. This, maybe, she can have. Just a paper with a question, but it will be hers. There is something in it that is the opposite of not having. Perhaps it is the large piece of paper, the whiteness of it all that surrounds the black words. So much space. For three words, a tiny scrap would have been enough. It is a luxury, this paper.
She turns to Maurice. “If we are here, it is not because G-d in heaven does not have enough.”
“How do you know? Maybe He gave all the goodness away already and there was only a scrap left for us?”
She clicks her tongue on the roof of her mouth and shakes her head. That is what my father would have done, she thinks; take a handful of coins, while we looked on, and buy a bottle of arak, while the rest of us needed bread and shoes and there was no money to send the boys even to learn a trade, for every apprentice needs to give a few coins to the sandal maker at the end of the week.
“We are beggars. The homeless in an intolerable world.”
She shakes her head. “This is our corner.” It smells of cats and cigarettes and is loud with people’s footsteps, but just a few steps and a tip of the head and she sees a golden dome. And then she knows that for all that G-d has in this planet, good or bad, He doesn’t have a home, either.
She looks down at the paper.
Where Are You?
They’re like flies, Shevy thinks, as she enters the women’s section of the Plaza and sees the beggar ladies gather around the women walking in and out. One offers red strings, another Tikkun Haklali, another shakes a cup of coins. Most just stretch out their hands. She dreads it each time.
She mentally edits out the rest of the sentence — on a piece of rotten meat. Yirmi would say that they are holy beggars, but she has become adept at editing out what he says, as well as her own words.
She wraps her arms around herself and shakes her head. No, no, no. No, I cannot give. No, I do not want to say the Psalms that will bring Mashiach. Why not? Isn’t that what we need? Lions and lambs and swords and ploughshares and an end to that voice in her head that needs to analyze and criticize and the only happiness it garners is a fleeting feeling of superiority?
One of the ladies — dark skin, thin, back slightly bent with age — is more persistent. She follows her around, and then Shevy glances up at her, looks her in the eye. Her eyes are dark. There is something in them that jolts Shevy — middle-class, white, American privilege meets… what? Life? Something more than her manufactured suffering?
Why not? Stretch, Shevy. Streeeetch. Don’t you expect, want, daven for some rachmanus from HaKadosh Baruch Hu? Or at least, something?
Shevy opens her pocketbook, reaches inside for a few coins and drops them into the woman’s hand. She counts them with her eyes before she thanks her. She looks up at Shevy’s face. She probably sees the hardness there. It’s impossible to hide.
The place is crowded. The woman stands beside her, and Shevy takes a step forward toward the Kosel. She hesitates. Again to open a siddur. Again to face that great hollow inside. Why? Why does she come here, again and again, when there are no words?
The woman is sticking to her like a limpet. Why are you here? Shevy wants to ask. Instead, she lets the second thought, the one she doesn’t want to ask, into the air. Maybe it is the ache inside making her reckless. “What do you do when there are no words?” she asks.
The woman shrugs. “Efshar lichtov petek.” You could write a note.
“I don’t have paper.”
She looks at Shevy and rocks gently from foot to foot, as if she is weighing something. Then she reaches into her own pocket and brings out a piece of paper, which she hands to her.
“You can have it.”
Shevy opens her mouth to thank her but she has disappeared into the crowd.
The paper is slightly crumpled, a little torn on the corner. One side is blank, on the other is printed the words, Where Are You?
Shevy stands still and closes her eyes. Where are you?
Sudden tears gather.
She did not need to find the words, after all. They were handed to her.
She folds up the paper and inches her way to the front of the crowd. There, she pushes the paper deep into a crevice in the Wall.
At night, the screen hurts her eyes. She dims it, but the glow still makes her blink. Usually, she does not send replies to the people who pay for her to print their prayers and place them in the Kosel. The entire process is blessedly impersonal. It’s just an alert in her Inbox, telling her that a message is waiting on the website. She prints out the prayers, trying to avert her eyes as she removes the page from the printer, to afford the sender a modicum of privacy. Then she folds the papers into eighths and places them in the straw basket to be taken to the Kosel in the morning. The senders receive an automatic confirmation that their prayers were received and will be passed on.
Tonight, though, something makes her bring her fingers to the keyboard.
This is to confirm that your written prayer has been placed in a crevice in the Western Wall.
Thousands of people like you write down their hopes, prayers, dreams and — she hovers over the keyboard — their sense of…
Confusion? Betrayal? Loss? Anger? Grief? Shame? Longing. Longing is the right word.
Interesting how close the word is to belonging.
An avalanche of letters, of yearning and yes, sorrow, find their way to the Kosel each year. Thousands of written prayers are pushed between the cracks. We turn to He Who holds our pain and weeps along with us. And so it is that even in our pain — especially in our pain — we are all together.
She looks at the words for a long time. Her eyes blur. The screen. The sorrow.
She thinks back to this sender’s prayer. Where are you?
She swallows and, suddenly cold, wraps a blanket around herself. Where, indeed.
She clicks Send.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
Oops! We could not locate your form.