October 20, 2018

Father and daughter at the Wall: Amid whistles, prayer endures

On July 8, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, attended a Woman of the Wall prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with his 11-year-old daughter, Noa. The Journal asked them to write about the experience, each from their own perspective.

I went to the Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer service at the Kotel. I had been there in February, standing in the men’s section to join the group protecting the women in the back-left section of the women’s section from potential eggs, chairs and slurs coming from Charedi men. I came back this time with my mother and my 11-year-old daughter, Noa. Several things amazed me about this visit on different ends of the emotional spectrum.

All the (legitimate) critique of the police and government aside, they closed off a major one-way artery outside of the Old City to permit busses ferrying Women of the Wall (WOW) participants, traveling in the opposite direction, to drop us off right inside the Dung Gate. That itself is worthy of praise. 

[Read the other side of this story here: “Battle of the heart” by Noa Kligfeld]

Alas, we were outgunned. Or, should I say, out-bussed. Charedi busses brought thousands of yeshiva girls to the Kotel, one hour before we arrived, who completely filled up the women’s side. Credit them for an effective maneuver, though I can see this devolving into a war of alarm clocks rather than a battle of ideas: They arrived at 6 a.m. this time … we’ll get there at 5 a.m. next time! 

The result was that for the first time in nearly 25 years, WOW participants never reached the part of the Kotel designated for prayer. Our service took place in the back-right courtyard, adjacent to the parking lot. And yet there was some sweet lemonade squeezed from those bitter lemons: With nowhere else to go, the men and women there prayed together in a fully egalitarian, mixed-”seating” (“standing”?) minyan. And instead of having to merely conjure it, I got to see the earnestness on my daughter’s face as she attempted kavanna — focus — amid the cacophony of boos and heckles. As I looked around, I saw that many of us had successfully drowned out the intrusions and focused on one thing only: prayer. 

But the sounds and images I will most remember from this Rosh Chodesh Av were those of whistles — shrill, inflammatory, intended as interruptions between the prayers of Jews and the heart of heaven, and yet ultimately impotent. Several Charedi women positioned themselves as close to our minyan as possible. They stood there for over an hour, closed their eyes to our display of idolatry, wrenched up their faces to focus their efforts, and they blew whistles. They blew and they blew. My left ear heard a young American girl read verses from the Torah out of a book, in the absence of a Torah scroll, to celebrate becoming bat mitzvah, as my right ear was assaulted by a whistle that brought me back to 10th-grade phys ed. My left side was embraced by the harmonies of Hallel while my right side tried to ignore the ignorable — the loud shrieks of anger, hatred and suspicion. My left side was davening while my right side was going deaf even as it ached for temporary deafness. I studied one whistler’s face. What motivated her? What neshama (soul) informed all those powerful neshimot (breaths) she blew? Would she ever stop?

And then it hit me — an avalanche of certainty and optimism. An epiphany filtered through a story from my religious education. When I was a student at his Yeshivat Hamivtar, I once asked Rabbi Chaim Brovender, an extraordinary teacher and tzadik who courageously began teaching Talmud to women in the face of threats of excommunication from fellow Orthodox rabbis, whether one could whistle on Shabbat. He looked at me quizzically, and then gave me an answer I will never forget: “I can only answer that question by quoting my grandmother: A yid fiyf nit. A Jew doesn’t whistle. It’s meaningless. A waste of time. Sunday. Wednesday. Shabbes. Why are you whistling? Go do something productive. Go study Torah. A Jew doesn’t whistle.”

But we do pray. And prayer will triumph.

A shrill whistle cannot be maintained. It eventually will lose steam, because ultimately it stands for nothing, for a vacuum, for vacuous hot air. But prayer pierces through boundaries. And the Torah of pluralism, embedded in the very sacred texts both we and the Charedim hold so dear, lives through the undying breaths of those who have embodied it, believe it today and will never stop praying. One can only whistle for so long. But prayer endures.