Blessing of the Cohanim

By Neil Strassberg

Have you ever felt the presence of the all knowing Universe, or the essence of "I am?" One afternoon on a fall day in Jerusalem, without expectation, this feeling gripped my very being.

I had been in Israel since the beginning of July, brought by a summer fellowship with the Aish Hatorah (Fire of the Torah) organization to study in Jerusalem. The program ended the first week of August, but the need to stay on was compelling. New relationships and new experiences were calling me to remain. This union of Judaism, friendship, and beautiful Jerusalem will remain a hallmark the rest of my days.

My religious background is not unlike that of many young Americans and other Jews of the Diaspora. It was--as I saw it--forced on me until my Bar Mitzvah (similar to confirmation), without explanations that I could relate to. This caused a resentment towards my own religion, and a break from any regular practice since that time. I was experiencing difficulty being around very "Jewish" people.

It was this feeling of aversion to my own roots that compelled me to do something about it, to investigate how things could be. I would embark on a spiritual trek of my own, a pilgrimage of sorts, the Jerusalem Fellowship. Yet, it would be less than honest if I did not admit that, as a photographer, the images of the holy land beckoned me. All this, and emotional connections with answers, were waiting for me in a mystical land.

Before I knew it, the high holidays were upon me. By the time they ended, the heavy, non-stop religious activities of the season weighed me down. It was too much for me to handle, too soon. Feeling disconnected from my roots once again. I was feeling low.

I heard that the blessing of the Cohanim (High Priests) was coming, and it should not be missed. A ceremony in which those of the Cohane tribe bless all others in attendance. To tell the truth, my concern at the time was more with taking photographs than with prayer or the ceremony. After considerable anticipation, the morning came.

Loading up my special photo hip bag with more gear than it could handle and hoping to secure a preferred parking space for my feet and my equipment...I headed down to the Kotel (Wailing Wall) over two hours early. It was a wall to wall crowd already. Such a number gathering to pray was something my eyes had never before seen.

I squished and squirmed my way to the front, shooting frames and burning film all the way. Using two camera bodies for color and black and white, I was alternating lenses like a man obsessed. This "in your face" type of shooting continued for two hours. Many of the men around me were growing weary of my camera jockeying, an imposition on their privacy this holy day. Uncomfortable but continuing, the conflict was building between Jewish Neil, and Neil, the photographer.

It was hot that day...too hot; one of the hottest I ever experienced in my entire life. I later learned that it was no less than one hundred and five degrees! From my previous trips to the Nevada and California deserts, one hundred and fifteen to one hundred and twenty degrees was no stranger to me, but that was in shorts or swimming trunks. Shuel (Temple) was the ordered attire for this day.

Sweating profusely, I anxiously awaited the actual blessing. More and more people gathered and herded to the front up till the last minute. My feet and body frozen between others there to pray and be blessed, too crowded to move. Only able to move my arms, the relentless shooting of pictures continued as the blessing began.

There was an old VW van just outside the prayer area with huge concert speakers set on the roof so all could hear. The amplified voice of the Rabbi was coming from behind me, piercing yet uplifting. Similar to the cinema, it felt as though the chant was coming from above or the wall itself. Thousands upon thousands praying in unison: the sights and sounds were intoxicating. Enveloped by the prayer coming from those tremendous speakers, a strange numbing washed over me. I could feel the sweltering heat no brow dripping with sweat, yet unable to feel clothes soaking through, yet no realization of it.

The only attire of the Cohanim was pure white. During the blessing they had completely covered themselves with their oversized Talit (Prayer shawls), also pure white. Young men, barely men, were blessing those who have been of this earth eighty odd years, swaying with verve. It was a true sight to behold. The emotions were emotions of belonging, comfort, goodness, and being loved. It consumed me. As the few blessed the many, I was movement, no feeling, only love. It was like nothing I have ever experienced. The feeling was close to outer body, spiritual yet surreal. I wonder if praying in the first and second temples invoked a similar experience.

Captured by the presence, I realized tears were streaming down my face. I wept. It was beautiful...more so, than anything I felt or experienced before. Though unaware of it, I had stopped taking photographs a while ago. When I photograph, detachment is a by-product, separated from what is going on by camera and lens. But this day, I could not be detached.

I have no idea how long the ceremony lasted. All sense of time was gone, it had become non-existent, not necessary inside the cocoon.

When it was over, seven to eight rolls of film later, I had shot between two hundred fifty and three hundred photographs.

To know that the surrounding thousands, children and elderly alike had even remotely felt what I had felt, is to me infinitely profound. The Blessing of the Cohanim takes place twice a year during Pesach (Passover) and Sukkot (Torah Giving Holiday). To visit Israel and Jerusalem without taking part in this timeless and other worldly ceremony would be of immeasurable loss.

Unfortunately this experience as part of my first trip to the homeland had a dark shadow looming over it. During my four month stay in Israel there were many bombings and stabbings. It was overpowering and unsettling to encounter the grim hatred between Arabs and Jews first hand. The solemn division among Israeli Jews on religion and politics was equally if not more disturbing. But not this beautiful day, only an overwhelming sense that we are not alone.

As I write this with goose bumps rising, I realize it will forever remain with me...the feeling that I had been touched by the spiritual force of all life. I had been touched by G-d.

© 1997 Neil Strassberg.
All rights reserved.

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All photographs are © 1993-2002 Neil Strassberg, and are subject to copyright laws.


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