It was a classic Jewish American joke. So profound and on the money that even giving away the punch line at the beginning didn’t diminish from the humor of it. Molly Goldberg, that pioneer of Jewish humor on television in the 1950’s was able to start a skit with the punch line and make it even funnier by taking the joke backwards.
“Harry, you tell the joke, you know – the one of ‘don’t let me catch you praying’. She proceeded to nudge her hapless husband by taking the joke one step at a time backwards, until she finally got the whole joke from finish to start. In abridged version, the joke goes like this:
“A man comes to synagogue on Yom Kippur to call the doctor about his sick child. “Do you have a ticket?” asks the usher at the door.
“No I don’t. I just need to speak to Doctor Schwartz.”
“Sorry, I can’t let you in without a ticket”
“But you don’t understand – my child is sick and I may need to take him to the hospital. This is a matter of life and death!”
The usher finally relents – “Okay, I’ll let you in. But don’t let me catch you praying!”
Fast forward fifty years. I’m praying at the Western Wall on the morning before Rosh Hashana. There are thousands of Jews praying there who have risen in the middle of the night and come from all parts of the country to pray at the remnants of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Because of the exceptionally large crowds today, I park on the far side of the Old City near Damascus Gate, where I know there will be parking. That means walking about ten minutes through the alleyways of the Arab quarter of the Old City to get to the Western Wall plaza. This is especially daunting, because this year the day before Rosh Hashanna coincides with the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims come by the tens, if not hundreds of thousands to pray on the Temple Mount.
It’s not yet 4:00am, but Arab stores are already open to cater to the throngs that will soon be coming. There are even some Arab women shopping already for holiday dresses. When it’s time for me to return to my car three hours later, the throngs are already arriving. Even though I am very identifiable as the only Jew amongst the Arab crowds, I am not afraid. These are mostly families and older people who are dressed in their holiday finest Kefiyas, and silk dresses. They are on their way to pray, and don’t take any interest in me. I am impressed with the crowd, and a bit jealous. Here are these Muslims assembling by the throngs to pray on the site where our Temple once stood, and where we once gathered there to pray on holidays such as Rosh Hashanna.
But it’s not so much that I mind that they are gathering to pray on the Temple Mount. I wish that we could learn to get along better. That we wouldn’t be constantly at war with each other. That we could even find a way to pray together, “for My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all the peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)
But I am brought back to the last time I visited the Temple Mount. In order to get permission to enter, we had to be part of a specially organized group with a police escort. But more than that, an escort from the Muslim Wakf. The police are there to make sure there isn’t any trouble. What is the main concern? The Wakf is there to prevent at Jews from praying on the Temple Mount. If caught, he could get arrested for “offending the Muslim sensibilities”. With attitudes like this, we are still a very long way away from being able to get along and live in peace. All of the politicians in the world will not be able to make peace here unless these attitudes change.
Just don’t let me catch you praying!