June 16, 2019

Woman at The Wall

Erev Shabbat brings a beautiful chaos to the Kotel, a swaying sea of souls, singing, screaming, offering up their spirits, just to be a speck beneath a tower of history.

I had never visited the Kotel on Shabbat before, but last week I found myself eagerly entreating the tznius lady policing modest dress near the back of the plaza to loan me a sheath so I could enter the sacred space in Jerusalem that has also been the center of so much strife for modern Jewish women. 

Next to me was a raven-haired Israeli editor from The Jerusalem Post, who had been trailing the group I was traveling with — 47 or so “storytellers,” mostly from the U.S., ranging from Michelle Obama’s speechwriter to a screenwriter for Seth Rogen. We were touring Israel as part of a leadership development program sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. 

A bit defiantly, the Post editor tried to persuade me not to wear the sheath, which, for her, symbolizes secular acquiescence to the religious right. But my dress really was too short, and I wanted to focus on the Wall, not disapproving stares.  

So I pulled the coverup around my waist and headed for the entrance with the Post editor at my side, until I took a wrong turn and wound up at a blocked partition. I swung around and gave my Wall companion a puzzled look.

“Shows how many times I’ve been here,” she muttered with a bit of disdain. 

Suddenly it occurred to me that this Israeli Jew had no clue how to enter the women’s section. She lives and works in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew, the ancient language of her people, but she was a total stranger — an alien even — at Judaism’s holiest site. A shade of sadness softened my Sabbath joy.

“This place belongs to you as much as any other Jew,” I told her. 

“I know,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a place that makes me so uncomfortable.”

As the central gathering site of Jewish religious life, we have seen how constantly the Wall is the vortex for opposing visions as to how it should function: Who should pray there, how they should pray, where they should pray, what they should wear while they pray and so on. Even though it exists as the spiritual center for all Jews, it is in reality largely dominated by the Orthodox and falls under the jurisdiction not of the democratic Israeli government, but of Israel’s religious establishment. 

Women in particular — represented by the Women of the Wall movement — have for years protested the traditional limits on their participation dictated by the chief rabbinate, which forbids women to read Torah at the Wall and a variety of other rites available to men. The Wall does not function as an exemplar of democracy and liberalism; it is a place of tradition, a physical vestige of the past where modern ways and ideas are absent, even irrelevant. 

But being at the Wall last Shabbat convinced me that from afar people have a rigid imagination of what really goes on there. We’ve heard about the struggles of the Women of the Wall and how they’ve been excoriated and spat at and even physically assaulted. We’ve heard about some very bad behavior that expresses the opposite of what is holy, and desecrates the sanctity of a place where God is thought to dwell. 

We hear much less about the ways the culture of the Wall has already shifted in the direction of progress.

I admit I was a little bit shocked (and delighted) when the first thing I heard upon entering the women’s section was the Arabic word Salaam. A group of young women on a Birthright trip were singing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” a popular song in Hebrew and Arabic that has become a clarion call for peace — and a plea to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Farther up, I passed a group of young Modern Orthodox Americans who were davening Kabbalat Shabbat so loudly they put a new spin on Kol Isha, “a woman’s voice,” which in religious circles prohibits men from hearing one. As I moved closer to the Wall itself, I encountered women of every stripe, sect and color – young and old; religious and secular; Israeli, American, Yemenite, Moroccan, French and Spanish; many dressed in their finery, some not; Sabbath brides sparkling like the jewels that adorned their hands and necks; women rocking their new babies in strollers; heads of hair wrapped in patterned cloth, other hair flowing freely. Here was a world of women trembling together in prayer. 

When I finished my own prayer, I decided to move toward the mechitzah for a moment and spy on the men. Instead of an impossible barricade, there was a platform running the length of the divide, which women could step upon to peer into the men’s section. I literally ducked for fear of a man seeing my face until I realized the woman next to me was having an entire conversation over the mechitzah with someone on the other side. I had never seen such a thing! I thought women were supposed to be invisible! And yet, here they were, leaning across, waving and staring and talking to men as if they were at the back of an L.A. synagogue during the Amidah.

That’s when it dawned on me exactly what the Kotel is: one big crazy synagogue where every Jew from everywhere is an automatic member, where everyone talks to everyone, where there really is no decorum, where Jews gather from all corners of the world, break the rules, talk to each other, talk to God — and it’s a beautiful thing.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.