There I was, doing something I vowed to never do: hanging over the mechitza (divider between men and women) at the most holiest of Jewish places—the Kotel (Western Wall)—watching my son Amit become a bar mitzvah.
Amit’s “official” bar mitzvah was the Saturday prior, at Congregation Magen Avraham , our lovely Masorti synagogue in Omer, Israel. My family and friends from the States made great efforts to attend. My mother and her husband, my father and his wife, my brother and nephew, my aunt and uncle, and a wonderful family of five we had befriended during our recent three-year stay in California all made their way to Israel for the big event. Many of our overseas guests had overcome numerous challenges in order to attend our simcha, including food poisoning, expensively cancelled and rescheduled flights, two-day excursions from San Francisco to Israel, monetary/business difficulties, and more, making their presence all the more amazing. The service was beautiful and the dinner was in a small, local restaurant in Beersheva’s Old City.
However, Amit and his dad’s family longed for a ceremony at the Kotel as well. My Colombian mother-in-law didn’t say anything, but it was clear that she had her heart set on her beloved grandson having his bar mitzvah in the same place her son did in 1975.
The thought of the Kotel in the stifling heat of August wasn’t of great appeal to me. Since Amit is a rather recent lower leg amputee and walks with a prosthetic, I knew the walk to the Kotel wouldn’t be an easy one, but I also knew Amit’s stubbornness and perseverance would get him there. The real issue came down to the fact that I am very vocal about my egalitarian, feminist Jewish views, and I’m vehemently opposed to the gender divisions at the Kotel.
Nonetheless, I was determined to respect Amit’s dad’s wishes. Understanding and sharing my concern, his dad spoke to the representatives of the Masorti Kotel (Robinson’s Arch) where my older son had his bar mitzvah in 2011. There, women and men are together for the entire ceremony. However, with the relatively short notice, it was apparent that we would not be able to organize an egalitarian Kotel bar mitzvah.
I was in a quandary. I do a lot of preaching about and working for acceptance and respect for the “other’s” opinion; however, when it came to challenging my liberal, feminist, and egalitarian beliefs with respect to my own child, things seemed a bit blurred. My initial reaction was to tell my husband to take my sons and his mother and “do as they wish.” However, that didn’t feel right. Afterwards, I declared that I would join them in Jerusalem but would not be watching a ceremony that so offended my belief system.
In this country where “church” and state are so intertwined, I was overwhelmed by the political connotations of my acquiescence to a system that outright rejects, at worst, and pseudo-tolerates, at best, the belief system that I share with the vast majority of diaspora Jewry, one committed to gender equality regarding religious rituals.
But then, I was there. At that Kotel.
In the unbearable heat of August, my son Amit walked quite a ways from the parking lot to the Kotel using his prosthetic leg. By the middle of the walk, he was clearly uncomfortable, and by the end, he was in pain. Yet, he very much wanted to experience this ceremony.
During his 13 years, despite attempts to achieve maximum inclusion, Amit often missed out on many experiences that were important to him: his second grade’s bike ride for road safety, camping trips, school outings, sports activities, and even just games during school recess.
His own bar mitzvah was not going to be added to that list.
I thought quickly, or rather, I didn’t think. Mother’s instinct prevailed. I jumped up on that mechitza and watched my third son, the son who has experienced so very much during his 13 years, stand and recite the blessings to become a bar mitzvah.