THERE WAS this Israeli man who from time to time put a slip of paper in the cracks between the stones of the Western Wall, asking God for favors -- as Jews have been doing for centuries. They believe that the gates of heaven are located directly above the Wall, making it easy for their missives to arrive quickly.
The man always wondered what all the other petitioners were requesting from the Almighty. One night his curiosity got the better of him. In the wee hours of the morning he stole to the Wall, extracted all the pieces of paper and checked them. All of them were stamped "Request Denied."
This joke is typical for the attitude of a great many Israelis towards the edifice that every few months or so sets off a political and religious pandemonium.
NOW IT is happening again. A group of feminist Jewish women (mostly of American origin, of course) insists on praying at the Wall clad in praying shawls (talith) and wearing phylacteries (tefillin). They are physically attacked by the orthodox, the police have to restrain them, the Knesset and the courts intervene.
Why? According to Jewish religious law, women are not allowed to wear praying shawls, and certainly not phylacteries, which orthodox men put on their brow and forearm. They are not allowed to mingle with men at the holiest place of Judaism.
The part of the Wall set aside for prayer is about 60 meters long -- 12 meters are reserved for women, separated by a low divide.
It seems that most religions are obsessed with sex. They assume that if a religious male sees a woman, whatever her age and looks, he is aroused and cannot think about anything else. So, logically, women must be hidden away.
The "Women of the Wall," many of whom are not religious at all, want to break the taboo by provocation. So there you are.
TWO YEARS before the birth of Israel, I went to look at the Western Wall for the first time. It was a moving experience.
To get to the place, you had to pass through a maze of narrow Arab alleys. In the end you found yourself in a narrow enclave, about three meters wide. To your left was the Wall -- an awe-inspiring monumental structure, consisting of huge rocks. To see the top you had to lean back and look towards heaven.
On your other side was a much lower wall, behind which the ancient, poverty stricken Mugrabi (Maghribi, Moroccan) Quarter was lodged.
Very few people know -- or care to know -- that this enclosure did not come into being by accident. In 1516 Jerusalem was conquered by the rising world power, the Ottoman Empire, which was at the time one of the most modern and progressive states. Soon after, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent built the -- well, magnificent -- wall of Jerusalem, as it stands today, a hugely expensive work which testifies to the immense devotion of the Ottoman Turks to this remote town in their realm. Suleiman's chief architect was Sinan, who also designed the Damascus Gate, which many people (including myself) consider the most beautiful structure in the entire country.
The benevolent Sultan instructed Sinan to set aside a special place of worship for the Jews in the town, so the architect created this enclosure at the Western Wall (not to be confused with the city wall). To make the wall more towering, he lowered the floor of the alley and put up the parallel low wall cutting it off from the surroundings. (Anyone interested in this history would be well advised to read the book "Jerusalem" by Karen Armstrong, a British ex-nun and historian.)
Legend has it that when the city wall, with all its 34 towers and seven gates, was finished in 1541, the Sultan was so overcome by its beauty that he had the architect killed. He did not want him to build anything else to compete with it.
UNTIL THEN, the Western Wall was not the main praying place for Jews.
Pilgrims from all over the world came to Jerusalem and prayed at the top of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount. But this holy place had become unsafe, because while the preceding Mamluk Empire was crumbling, roaming Bedouins had been robbing the pilgrims. Also, for the local Jews, who lived side by side with the Muslims in the town, the Western Wall was much nearer to their homes. So the holy place on the Mount of Olives was abandoned. Today, a luxury hotel stands there.