Before our trip, I had quickly read about, but not dwelled on, the arrest of Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, in October, allegedly for singing the Shema out loud at the wall and for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). For a woman to wear a tallit while praying at the wall is against current law: in 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin (phylacteries) or tallitim at the Wall, or reading from the Torah at the Wall. I was shocked to read of Hoffman’s arrest, but her act of wearing a tallit didn’t resonate with me, as I have never worn one, despite attending Conservative shuls my entire life and being bat mitzvahed.
Our 10-day tour was filled with many potentially spiritual moments, moments in which I could possibly feel connected to the past generations of Jews that lived in Jerusalem and walked the same ancient stones thousands of years ago: we prayed as a community at the Robinson Arch, the only place by the Wall where conservative Jews are allowed to pray men and women together, where I had the opportunity to have an aliyah and kiss the Torah. We walked the subterranean layers of the City of David. We welcomed the coming Shabbat together in a small square plaza overlooking the wall. As night came, the sun actually became a round orange melting orb, suspended over the Dome of the Rock and wall, glowing like an incandescent ball of gold.
Yet the most moving moment I had was just a short time later that same Shabbat night when I walked into the women’s section of the Kotel with my two daughters. Men and women were streaming towards the Wall that night. I couldn’t see what was going on in the men’s section, where my son and husband were headed, but I could hear a collective singing coming from their side. As I entered the women’s side, I saw women of all ages dancing in wide circles, singing Shalom Aleichem, David Melech, and other songs of celebration. For a moment I stood watching them; then, deciding this wasn’t the time to merely watch, I took my daughters’ hands and, gesturing to the young girls in the circle, girls about the ages of my daughters, from 4 to 10, we joined their circle.
We spun around, holding hands with these girls who I did not know, a little circle of us dancing round and round and singing in Hebrew as a larger circle of women danced around us. As we danced, I looked at all the beautiful girls and women around me, all joyously clapping, dancing, and smiling at us–a feeling I have never had of being surrounded by a crowd of women all accepting me, celebrating with me. I didn’t know these other girls and women, but that was part of the wonder of the moment, that I didn’t know anything about these women but I could feel our shared Jewish connection; it was like we were all one family of women, all welcoming the Sabbath together and sharing our joy together, so happy to be at the Wall, this holiest of holy places, spinning round and round and singing our loudest. And there were circles of other women near us all dancing and singing their own songs, including Israeli women soldiers in their olive green uniforms, all celebrating together.
Almost a week later, on a Thursday night, I went with my husband to meet a cousin of his whom he had not seen in many years at a Mexican restaurant off Emek Refaim. His aunt and uncle have seven children, all Orthodox, six of whom have made aliyah. This was the second youngest daughter, and her husband, both in their 30s. The topic of women wearing tallit at the Wall came up and the husband said something about how the women who are fighting for the right to wear tallit are only doing so to be a “provocation.” I said to him that these women have better things to do in their lives than show up at the Kotel with tallitim merely to be a provocation–that they feel in their heart and soul that they have the kavanah, the intention and desire to pray at this holiest of holy places, but he scoffed at that. He said he knew a few of these women and that therefore he could conclude that they are all doing it only to provoke, not to pray.
He gave the example of how, when he visited the Tower of London, he was asked to take off his kippah and instead of doing that, he decided not to enter the Tower, how one must respect the laws of the place one is visiting or not go. His point was that women should not wear tallit or not go to the Wall. I was arguing that the law governing the Kotel should change, so for him to argue that one must respect the law of the place because it’s the law was frustratingly circular. He also said that to allow Conservative conversions would be like allowing someone to become Jewish by stamping their nose with a purple dot, equally ridiculous.
Underlying his words was a sense that I, a Conservative Jew, was merely a tourist at the Kotel just like he was a tourist at the Tower of London, that I had no special claim to visit the Wall. Indeed, he was making it sound like I was tourist to Judaism, not here to stay. He said as much to me–that Conservative Jews and Reform Jews are “secular,” not religious, and that the “Kotel is an Orthodox temple,” and therefore Orthodox law prevailed: women cannot wear tallitot in an Orthodox synagogue so they cannot wear tallitot at the Kotel, that to do otherwise is disrespectful to Orthodox Jews, to whom the Kotel belongs. I had never heard this before–that the Kotel is an Orthodox synagogue. Did that mean that the Wall didn’t belong to me? I had always felt that the Kotel was the most holy place for all Jews, that this was a place we all shared, that we all felt connected to in the diaspora, a reminder of our shared origin.
I left that dinner literally shaking. I had never before experienced my Judaism being questioned, and by a fellow Jew, no less. For a moment as I walked down busy Emek Refaim, a street that prior to this dinner I had fantasized about living on, I felt that I, an observant Conservative Jew, wasn’t Jewish enough to ever live in Israel or call it my homeland. With tears in my eyes, I looked around me at all the men and boys wearing tzitzit and for a moment I felt, Israel was not my country. That’s not a feeling that I had expected to feel in Israel, not to mention that I am a Jew whose secular Jewish grandparents made aliyah from South Africa in 1950 to toil the land on a Moshav and make possible the existence of Israel so that this man could make aliyah from America with his family 30 years ago.
And then I realized that this was just one individual, although representative of the mindset of many Israeli Orthodox. Why should this man have a hold on how I connect to Israel? Why should the Orthodox Rabbinate get to decide whether women can wear a prayer shawl to pray to God at the Wall? Israel is a young country, and surely change must be coming. I forced myself to hold onto that miraculous moment, the carefree vision of myself dancing with my daughters and the nameless Jewish women at the Kotel that past Friday night, holding hands with girls we did not know from countries around the world, surrounded by smiling women of all denominations, joyously and loudly celebrating our Judaism and welcoming the Sabbath.
Read Mayim Bialik’s feelings on Women of the Wall here.