Sar­it Yishai-Levi is the author of four non-fic­tion books and the best­selling nov­el The Beau­ty Queen of Jerusalem. Sar­it is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

My name is Sar­it Yishai-Levi, and I am an eighth-gen­er­a­tion Jerusalemite. It isn’t often that you come across an eighth-gen­er­a­tion Israeli Jew. Most of today’s Israeli Jews either immi­grat­ed after 1948, when the state was estab­lished, or are the descen­dants of those immi­grants. In 1950, when the Law of Return was enact­ed, mak­ing Israel the home­land for Jews every­where, Israel’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion was only about 800,000 souls, and most of them too were immi­grants or the chil­dren of immigrants.

My roots are plant­ed in Jerusalem, where I was born, where my par­ents were born, and where my grand­fa­ther and grand­moth­er were born. So, while many of my friends have to trav­el to for­eign lands to trace their ances­try, all I have to do is get into my car and hit Route 1, which con­nects my home in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A short dri­ve, about an hour, takes me to the place where the cra­dle of my fam­i­ly is and has been for gen­er­a­tions. I am grate­ful for this priv­i­lege, as I know that not every­one enjoys it. The absolute cer­tain­ty of know­ing who you are, of hav­ing indu­bitable roots, cul­ture, and val­ues as an indi­vid­ual and as a nation, is a gift, one that I trea­sure with my heart. 

I have nev­er ques­tioned my iden­ti­ty as an Israeli, and cer­tain­ly not as a Jew. I came into this world an Israeli and a Jew. I grew up with­out doubts, and with­out con­fu­sion. But there was one par­tic­u­lar time that I first felt Jew­ish with all of my body and soul.

As a young girl born with the state, in a divid­ed Jerusalem, I had always lived with the knowl­edge that there, on the oth­er side of the Old City walls, beyond the dan­ger­ous area that it was for­bid­den to approach, behind the secu­ri­ty bar­ri­er and the Jor­dan­ian army’s posts, stood the mys­te­ri­ous West­ern Wall of the Tem­ple Mount, the Kotel. There, my par­ents said, you could speak to God.

That there was a place where you could speak to God and write him let­ters flamed my imag­i­na­tion. In bed at night, I wrote God innu­mer­able let­ters in my head, dream­ing of the day I would stand before the West­ern Wall and deposit my wish­es between its stones for God to receive and answer.

My par­ents told me that before their wed­ding, they vis­it­ed the Kotel and asked God to give them a good life and healthy chil­dren. My grand­moth­er told me she used to go to the Kotel and hide her tears between its stones, as well as her prayers for recov­ery from ill­ness and for good match­es for her daugh­ters. My grand­fa­ther told me he would go to the Kotel almost every day, to pray to God and ask for a good liveli­hood and good health for his loved ones.

On Shab­bat, our fam­i­ly would take walks near the bor­der and try to see the West­ern Wall. The place where we could per­haps get the best glimpse was the Notre Dame monastery, on the bor­der between our West Jerusalem and their East Jerusalem. We would climb up onto the roof, lean over the stone para­pet, and strain our eyes, even use binoc­u­lars that father brought with him, hop­ing for a view of the Kotel. But we didn’t man­age to see it. It was sur­round­ed by the Old City of Jerusalem, with its own walls and its dif­fer­ent quar­ters, and we couldn’t see it, and it remained an ide­al and a dream.

Right after the end of the Six Day War, in 1967, when I was still a sol­dier, I received an evening off and hur­ried home to Jerusalem from my dis­tant base with only one thought in my mind: to see the Kotel. I shall nev­er for­get that occa­sion, when the whole fam­i­ly set out, my father in his police officer’s uni­form, my moth­er in her best dress, my lit­tle broth­ers dressed like bar-mitz­vah boys, and me in my sergeant’s uni­form — heart pound­ing and excit­ed, about to lay eyes for the first time on the West­ern Wall.

We passed through a gap in the tall, con­crete secu­ri­ty bar­ri­er that had once sep­a­rat­ed us from the Old City and which we had been pro­hib­it­ed from approach­ing to avoid being shot at by the Jor­dan­ian sol­diers. Now we could safe­ly walk through it, and we entered the Old City through the Jaf­fa Gate and head­ed for the West­ern Wall. Moth­er and Father knew the way by heart from the pre-1948 days, and they were as eager as lit­tle chil­dren. On the way, Moth­er showed us the Eng­lish school she attend­ed oppo­site David’s Tow­er, and Father point­ed out the Mis­gav Ladach hos­pi­tal where he was born. We walked through the nar­row alleys and down a steep stair­case and at last we arrived. Before us stood the West­ern Wall, in all its glo­ry, mas­sive and high, exact­ly as I’d imag­ined it’d be.

We stepped up our pace and were almost run­ning by the time we touched it. Father and Moth­er kissed the stones tear­ful­ly, and we did the same. With a trem­bling hand I caressed the immense blocks of stone, and as I had dreamed since I could remem­ber, I placed the note that I had pre­pared into a crack between the blocks. In it, I thanked God for return­ing the Kotel to us, and I asked Him for peace with our neigh­bors, after the bloody war. This wish has not yet come true, but I know that my note is lying on God’s desk and wait­ing its turn.

Sar­it Yishai-Levi is an Eng­lish-speak­ing jour­nal­ist and author liv­ing in Israel. She has been a cor­re­spon­dent for Israeli news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and has host­ed Hebrew TV and radio pro­grams in Los Ange­les, and authored four non­fic­tion books as well as The Beau­ty Queen of Jerusalem, an inter­na­tion­al bestseller.

Relat­ed Content:

Sar­it Yishai-Levi is a renowned Israeli jour­nal­ist and author. In 2016 she pub­lished her first book, The Beau­ty Queen of Jerusalem. It imme­di­ate­ly became a best­seller and gar­nered crit­i­cal acclaim. The book sold more than three hun­dred thou­sand copies in Israel, was trans­lat­ed into ten lan­guages, and was adapt­ed into a TV series that won the Israeli TV award for best dra­ma series. It also won the Pub­lish­ers Association’s Gold, Plat­inum, and Dia­mond prizes; the Steimatzky Prize for best­selling book of the year in Israel; and the WIZO France Prize for best book trans­lat­ed into French.

Yishai-Levi’s sec­ond book, The Woman Beyond the Sea, was pub­lished in 2019. It won the Pub­lish­ers Association’s Gold and Plat­inum prizes and was adapt­ed for tele­vi­sion by Netflix.

Yishai-Levi was born in Jerusalem to a Sephardic fam­i­ly that has lived in the city for eight gen­er­a­tions. She’s been liv­ing with her fam­i­ly in Tel Aviv since 1970.