I have never been to Israel and never observed Selichot although I am Jewish. In fact, I knew almost nothing about the 40 days of prayer for forgiveness and commitment to do better. And so, it was in ignorance and with some trepidation that I set out to Jerusalem on a virtual tour that would take me to the Western Wall for evening prayer services on that first night. This was not the old-fashioned virtual tour. These are live streamed events with experienced, licensed guides. The amazing technology allows up to 400 people worldwide to join, there is a chat that enables real time questions and comments to be shared and answered and even the capability to take photographs. I have traveled all over the world with this group since the start of the pandemic, and in many ways, it has been life saving for me. An elder orphan with some recently diagnosed serious health issues, I was desperately lonely and isolated until I began my travels.
And so it was that at 11 p.m. (first night prayers are said at midnight) I joined 399 other people from around the globe to meet Itamar Ben David and begin the journey that would change my life.
Perhaps you can imagine my surprise when I found myself crying almost immediately. We had grouped together on a vantage point overlooking the valley and approach to the Wall. I could see the vast expanse of land occupied by three great faiths — Jews, Christians and Muslims — and the domes and outlines of ancient buildings I had only read about. I had not thought about the concept of “genetic memory” since my graduate school days. But how else to explain the flood of emotions that overwhelmed me?
Itamar chose to read us a prayer he had written himself to begin our trek to the Wall. Walking through the centuries old tunnels complete with Roman ruins, seeing Jerusalem with its surprising diversity — soldiers on tour, families, old men, teenagers, babies in strollers — all in different attire and speaking different languages — I experienced something so deep in me, almost ancient. It took my breath away! I knew it was not just the prayers and it was not simply sadness.
Suddenly, there it was — the Wall. The history of my ancestors so alive! We watched the mass of people as they moved around the cobblestone area. Huge screens were set up to accommodate those who could not get close enough. I heard the Rabbi preaching and singing the heart wrenching prayers (he was well known for his fiery speech and terrible singing voice which sounded almost terrifying). I listened to the crowd responding. I watched them sob and sway. It was overwhelming!
And then Itamar did something I will never forget. He removed the piece of paper on which he had written his prayer from his pocket. It was not possible for him to list the 400 people on the tour, so he had written the name of the company on it as the way to represent all of us. He approached the wall slowly and gently placed his hand on it, head bent, standing that way for several minutes. Then, he folded the paper and inserted it into a crevice in the Wall, joining it with the thousands of others that had been placed there over generations and making us part of the hopes and fears of our ancestors.
It seemed like forever, but in just a moment he began walking slowly away from the Wall.
We began our return to the point where we started, listening to the Shofar blowing in the distance.
He gathered us for a conversation about what had just happened and how we felt about it. “Selichot is not just about penitence and the commitment to do better, he explained. In his opinion, it is about the accounting of our own souls and the opportunity to thoughtfully examine who you are and who you want to be – to begin anew.” “Shana Tova”, he said softly. The tour was over.
It was 3AM. I was of course, comfortably seated in my favorite chair in the living room, a candle burning softly, and my cat cuddled next to me. But it felt as if I had traveled thousands of miles. In a very real way, I had.
A virtual tour to a place I had never been, celebrating a ceremony I never knew existed, guided by a man I did not know but had come to admire and respect, had moved me in a way I was only beginning to understand. I did know that it was time for me to take stock of who I was and who I wanted to be. I had made mistakes and taken much for granted. I had not been the friend I wanted to be. I had not practiced self-care. I was fearful of what was coming and tired of pretending to be brave and confident. I lacked faith in myself and the future.
Now, my second journey begins. It is not virtual. It is my intention and my hope that Selichot 2022 finds me moving toward the person I want to be.
I do not expect to be a different woman. I want to be a better woman.
I am 76. I do not know how many years I have left.
It is time to begin.
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.