After finishing up his prayers at the Western Wall on Tuesday, 22-year-old Mendel Leib puckered up and pressed his lips against the cold, ancient limestone, holding contact for three slow seconds as he wrinkled his eyes shut in one last personal plea.
The gesture is customary among spiritually overwhelmed worshipers at the Kotel — the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray — and Leib was far from the only kissing the wall that morning. But given the ferocity of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and the intensifying pleas from health officials to avoid shaking hands, the decision to place one’s mouth on a surface touched by thousands of hands, and mouths, seemed extraordinary.
Asked if he had any second thoughts about the move as he unraveled his phylacteries, the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student shrugged. “They didn’t say anything about it, so I think it’s okay.”
Indeed, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation administering the site has given no directive against kissing or leaning on the Kotel. This is not to say that the organization isn’t complying with Health Ministry guidelines aimed at containing the outbreak. After the government on Thursday updated its ban on gatherings of 100-plus people to include events held in open areas, the foundation issued a statement saying it would divide the large site into separate areas and only allow that many people in each of them.
But as for intimate contact with the wall, worshipers will apparently be allowed to decide for themselves whether it’s a risk they’re willing to take.
Many, it appeared, avoided visiting the Western Wall entirely. It was 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and most morning services had already wrapped up, but the site was still uncharacteristically empty, with barely several hundred people peppering the 10,000-square-meter plaza, which is fit to hold 400,000. Those there that day were largely a mix of ultra-Orthodox regulars, such as Leib, and foreign tourists.
“I admit that it’s a bit less moving than I expected with so few people here, but I’m glad I came,” said Karl from Germany. “I touched the wall, but I didn’t kiss it,” he added laughing.
Behind him in the mixed-gender section of the plaza, the Hemeds crowded together for an extended family photo after celebrating a bar mitzvah at the wall.
The father, Yossi, said some of his coworkers were surprised he had even made the drive from the northern town of Tiberias for the special occasion. “I think some people are making too big a deal out of this. Of course you have to be careful, and we all washed our hands before and after approaching the wall, but we’re not going to stop our lives completely.”
Traveling while German
At the more confined plaza outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a similar attitude was expressed by the handful of tourists determined to check off all the holy sites the Old City of Jerusalem has to offer.
“We’re already here so of course we’re going to visit,” said Sandra, who left Germany before the 14-day retroactive quarantine requirement was imposed by the Israeli government on all arrivals.
She said she touched the Stone of Anointing inside the church, but avoided kissing the red marble slab as is customary among Christian pilgrims to the site of Jesus’s believed crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Sandra wasn’t the only tourist taking precaution due to the viral outbreak. While half a dozen visitors knelt down to touch the Stone of Anointing, only one of them found it necessary to prostrate over it completely and plant a kiss.
Among those who avoided mouth-to-stone contact was an older couple from Indiana visiting Israel with a Christian tour group. “I’ve got lots of Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer,” said the American woman as she pointed at her purse. “We’re being cautious, but we’re not really worried about being here.”
For Sandra, what was more disturbing than the outbreak was the reception she had been receiving from Israelis. “As soon as people recognize you’re German they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh’ and try to walk away.”
“After a while, I’ve just started laughing about it because it’s just ridiculous,” she said, shaking her head and smiling.
Back outside, an Italian-Israeli tour guide waited for his group to finish walking through the church. Asked how he felt the coronavirus was affecting conduct at holy sites, he was visibly upset. “It’s better that you don’t ask me such questions,” he said.
“You all in the media are sparking fear, and its causing me to lose business,” he added angrily before shooing this reporter away.
“He’s got a point. This is livelihood,” said the Indiana woman who asked not to be named. “But I guess everyone is a little on edge these days.”
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