Man at the Wall

By Lim Wui Liang

JERUSALEM — In the morning, the Western Wall casts its huge shadow upon those who approach it – as it has been for some 2,000 years.

Men wearing the talit and the tefillin, religious garb worn by Jews, gather in this shade as the sun rises in the east. For them, this is the holiest in Judaism, the only remnant of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. They are joined by a handful of tourists, donning translucent white skullcaps or kipas that are distributed at the entrance.

Together, the men pray with their faces pressed to the cool limestone bricks, or by rocking gently as they read from Torahs placed on wooden tables.. By the end of each year, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism estimates that more than 3 million people would have stood at the Western Wall.

Occasionally, a voice shrill and clear punctuates their collective murmur. It comes from a man sitting among a sea of plastic chairs and wooden tables, outside the shadow of the Wall, and in the warmth of the morning sun.

He moves his fingers slowly across a holy book, as if caressing its words, and sings.

Every few minutes, he stops. His break is well deserved, for Baruch, 57, has been praying since 2 a.m.

And he has been doing so for 20 years.

“It’s over for me in two minutes,” he said. “Twenty years like one day and I get old so quickly.”Baruch, who would not give his last name, strokes the white beard that runs down his chest. When he turns, it brushes the label of his North Face jacket, which he unzipped to expose his belly. His face is tanned and when he laughs, the crow’s feet around his eyes further hint at the long hours out in the elements.

And perhaps, of his past.

Baruch used to work as an odd job laborer, doing construction work for homes where he “fixed everything.” He said that he is married and lives with his family in Jerusalem.

But 20 years ago, his father told him to go to the Western Wall to pray.

“Before he died, he told me, ‘You come here and see what happens to you’,” said Baruch. “And it’s come to me.”

And Baruch has been here everyday since, praying for eight hours each time. He does not work anymore.

“Because too much holy,” he said. “I cannot do nothing, so some people come and give me something.”

A man walks up to Baruch, and after exchanging greetings, passes him a bunch of herbs from a red plastic bag. Baruch thanks him, presses the herbs to his face, and smells them.

“I only need food from the Torah,” he said. “I drink the Torah.”

By 10 a.m., the Wall’s shadow has receded and the plaza is filled with tourists. An armed solider and a Hasidic Jew pray side by side at the Wall, and the tourists raise their cameras. A few of the men press on to their distributed kipas as a breeze picks up, as if fearful of unwittingly committing a religious faux pas. Soon after, a teacher leads a group of Hasidic school boys towards the Wall to pray, and their youthful voices reverberate out into the plaza.

Baruch puts his book into a backpack, walks towards the crowd, and disappears.

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