Wailing at the Wall
It’s August in Israel. Day three of a two-week visit. My partner is suffering from a hacking summer cold, and we have been up both nights with jet lag and coughing. We have spent the days trekking through the unrelenting Jerusalem heat from our AirBnB, to urgent care, to beit merchachat and back.
Morning tries to come very early. I have pulled two pillows over my head to block out the sun and the coughing.
It’s rosh chodesh.
The Kotel — the Western Wall — is a short taxi ride along Emek Rafayim, and you don’t fly fourteen hours across the Atlantic and Europe, just to lay in bed and miss rosh chodesh Elul at the Kotel. My body clock is so confused that this crazy-early morning could just be a late night. What the hell, let’s get up and do this thing.
My partner, her thirteen-year-old daughter and I blink our way out of the apartment and onto the street to hail a taxi. The sky is brightening, but the sun has not risen. The Jerusalem stone is still cool from the night and the city is mostly sleeping. Our ride to the Kotel is quick, and the driver drops us in the road just above the City of David, at the entrance to the Kotel Plaza.
Our reward for early rising is a morning of energetic and soulful prayer with our fellow Jews. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews. Men and women at the base of Herod’s wall, below the Temple Mount, laying tefillin, praying and dancing. We chant hallel, the collection of psalms praising God, which we sing on every new moon and holiday. We welcome one of the holiest months on the Jewish calendar, the month in which we make cheshbon ha nefesh—an accounting of our souls—to prepare for the personal journey of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The morning of prayer ends with our 13-year old swirling in a sea of women holding the Torah high, dancing in front of the wall.
But I have jumped ahead. It didn’t happen quite that simply.
When we arrive at the entrance to the Kotel plaza, we are divided into two lines and leading to security screening. A men’s line and a women’s line. Lest we mix.
The women’s line is running very slowly. A couple of women pull small suitcases behind them. Perhaps that’s the slowdown.
For some reason there is a young woman with her head and face fully hidden by a scarf standing right next to the woman’s line, blowing a shrill whistle as loudly and continuously as she can, right in the faces of those waiting to get through the checkpoint. Right in the face of my partner and her young daughter, who are now separated from me. The noise, the jet lag, the lack of sleep, the press of the crowd and the growing heat make my head spin.
A young man points a GoPro video camera at the security police, and the they use their commanding voices, telling him to turn it off. He refuses, daring them to touch him, frustrating them. They jostle him, but he keeps filming.
Still the faceless girl blows her infernal whistle at us.
I move through security, well ahead of my family, and wonder how we will re-connect. Then I see that we will not be together. Steel security fence sections have been set out to channel the women to their place: the women’s section, on the right of the high mechitzah that the rabbis of Jerusalem have decreed should split the plaza immediately in front of the Kotel.
The security fencing channels us men left, towards our section. I want to pray with my family, and imagine going right close to the barrier to be near them. Unfortunately, they are being fenced off in a smaller area within the woman’s section, away from any contact. Clearly rosh chodesh calls for special measures.
The temporary barrier has been positioned specifically so that those of us men who want to pray with the women cannot actually see them. If I crane my neck, I can just get a glimpse of women putting on tallit and tefillin, taking out a small Torah and beginning to pray. (I thought the Torah might have come in one of the suitcases, but later we hear that it was brought in under someone’s skirt. There were reports of invasive searches at the women’s security stop.) I see my companions for a moment, but I can’t hear them singing or praying.
There’s too much noise.
In the regular women’s section, women and girls in long skirts, some with their faces fully covered, are standing on chairs yelling at their sisters in the little compound. Blowing whistles and noisemakers to drown out the prayer. Doing their best to obliterate praise of god and words of Torah. Intimidating and disrupting. I hope that my companions feel safe inside the knot of friendly women praying with the contraband Torah.
I join a group of men on the top plaza, overlooking the mele. A rabbi leads us davening, and we sing loudly to support the women. Inevitably, we attract our own group of disrupters. A handful of young boys with practiced, hateful faces come as close to us as they can, shouting down our prayers, blasting us out with whistles and noisemakers. When we try to take photos, they hide their faces and we get a moment of silence, but when we put away our phones they confront us again. We play this game of peek-a-boo for a while.
The sun comes over the Temple Mount, and the heat starts to work on us. It’s hard to stay calm in the face of the provocation, but we work to finish our davening. The first day of Elul becomes a test.
An older man, mentor to the yellers, tells us that we are not welcome. That we should leave them in peace and not violate their wall. That because we don’t daven here every day we have no right to be here, and certainly no right to express our opinions about egalitarianism, pluralism and respect. He is clear: he and his boys neither ask for nor need America’s money. We should keep our money, our women and our opinions to ourselves.
A calmer person—a woman—approaches me on her way to pray, and asks if we can discuss the matter sensibly. “Sure,” I respond. “Well,” she says “this is just not the time for us to be talking about women’s rights at the Wall. Israel has bigger problems. This is a distraction. You should not bring this trouble here.” I can’t agree, and she moves off to pray with the shouting women, though I doubt she will join them them heckling.
When the service below is finished, the women with the contraband Torah—including my family—process onto the upper plaza. Here, men and women are finally allowed to mix, safely away from the Wall. The screamers and whistlers stick with us, but we are now enough voices raised together to feel spirited, joyful and perhaps a bit defiant. A woman dancing with the little Torah hands it to our daughter, our recent bat mitzvah, and she becomes one of the youngest girls to process a Torah at the Kotel.
It is full morning. The crowd thins out, and the screamers disappear. Someone smuggles the Torah away. After all the orchestrated confrontation, we have davened and we have danced, and we have welcomed the new month. We move into the introspective month of Elul.
I leave the Kotel saddened by the teachers who send their children out to scream and whistle and blot out Hallel. Saddened by the love of Torah that generates hatred of Torah.
And I leave the Kotel strengthened by the teachers who send their girls out to pray and dance with Torah at the base of the Temple Mount. Strengthened by the Torah of love and joy and defiance.
Although it was new to me, this scene plays out month after month at the Kotel. For thirty years, every new moon, the Women of the Wall have raised the voices of liberal, egalitarian Judaism at the wall. Every month they have been confronted by haters.
All of this controversy eventually resulted in an “egalitarian prayer space” near the Kotel, at Robinson’s Arch, which we visited later in our trip. I have heard many people say that Robinson’s Arch is “perfectly nice,” and I suppose it is, in a weedy, rambling, archeological way. A series of connected walkways and platforms above the stones. An ancient door in the Wall high above. “Perfectly nice.”
But that’s not the point, is it? Creating a separate, equally nice part of the temple precinct is not the same as accepting the undeniable plurality of views within modern Judaism. It is not the same as accepting religious equity for women. Robinson’s arch is the back of the bus, not a solution. The solution is for all Jews to have equal rights at The Wall and in the state of Israel. For plurality to win the day.
So the show must go on. The whistle under the veil. The Torah under the skirt. Welcome the new moon. Hallelujah.