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Wail of a Time

Cries of antipathy and prayer collide at the Western Wall

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I’ve been screamed at before. Protests at abortion clinics leap to mind; I’ve held signs, silently, as the more vocal among the anti-abortion activists howled and shouted the rosary, the volume of their clamor matching the depth of their conviction.

But I’d never been screamed at like this before. And this time, I was the one trying to pray.

It was early morning—the sun muted, but already hot—at the Wailing Wall, or Kotel as it’s known in Hebrew. I had jumped at the chance to join some of David’s female colleagues at a prayer service there. Though I’d been to Jerusalem before, it still felt more like David’s city than mine: He had more friends there, more history, a deeper connection. But this was an only-in-Jerusalem chance to do something I would not have done if it were not for him; it was something I could do only by and for myself. It was a perfect marriage of, well, us: meditative and combative, prayer and protest.

This particular service was the monthly gathering put together by Women of the Wall (WOW), an interdenominational group that has fought since 1988 in courts and in situ to allow women to pray as a group at the Kotel, wearing tallitot, and handling, being called to, and reading from Torah. All those things constitute a colossal violation of the way some Orthodox interpret halacha, Jewish law. Officially, only individual (liturgical or personal) prayer by women is permitted at the Wall, and then, of course, only on the women’s significantly smaller side. (Egalitarian groups are now—with some limitations—permitted to conduct services at the outlying Robinson’s Arch.)

We’d first gotten our bearings in a brief preparatory service in the nearby ruins of the Hurva Synagogue. And then we wrapped ourselves in prayer shawls, hoisted the Torah, and started walking, shoulder to shoulder, toward the women’s side of the wall. I felt a fizzy surge of defiance, of “Look at me, Mom!” pride. Years earlier, my mother, whose feminism I’d had the good sense not to rebel against, had shown me the feminist documentary Half the Kingdom, which featured women reading Torah at this sacred site in 1988. Attempting to, anyway; men hurled invective—and chairs—from the other side. This visible, visceral, tangible display of misogyny had made me cry tears both angry and inspired.

So that morning I was prepared, at least, for the reaction of the men on the plaza in front of the wall, their heads turning toward us, one by one, faster and faster, their eyebrows flying high, their mouths forming perfect Os of anger.

But being warned and being prepared are two different things. And what I was not ready for at all was the reaction of the women among whom we had come to pray. (Was this part not in the movie? I just don’t remember.) As we tried to make our way down the narrow passage toward the women’s side of the wall, they—and their children—closed a swirling circle around us, blocking our way, drowning our voices with their own, screaming into our ears and eyes, shaking fists at the sky.

I tried to stare at my siddur, blur my peripheral vision, and concentrate on the words of the opening psalms. But there was no way. All I could do was mouth them, and still I lost my place. The women surrounding us hissed, they spat; I shook. In a rumble with Operation Rescue—who, recall, are protesting what they consider murder—these women would win. At some point before we completed the service, our group members nodded to each other in silent agreement that yes, it was time to retreat.

In the presence of those women, I have to admit, I felt less defiant. Deflated. Maybe even a little chastened. With the men, it was easy to feel “us” vs. “them.” With the women, it was “us” vs. “us.” I felt as if I’d committed an act of intimate trespass.

Yet I was not trespassing. Not on that day, or any other day when I, a liberal Jew, go to experience the wall. On one level, I realize that it is just that: a wall. A structure of immense archeological, historical, and symbolic significance, but not of magical wish-granting powers. Even so, when I am there, I get all goopy and moved and superstitious. Even though I don’t believe in wish-list prayer, I believe that any entreaties—including, pretty please, Barack Obama—we write and tuck into a nook will at least land in the inbox of a higher power. I tear up when I think of the famous photo of Israeli soldiers reaching the wall for the first time in 1967; I tear up when I think of my mother, in tears herself on her first post-1967 visit to Jerusalem, touching the wall with one hand and holding mine in the other.

But when I’m at the wall, I am also made to feel—at best—like a visitor, like someone poking her head into a beautiful old church while Mass is taking place. We own this place, say those who make the rules there; you tourists, we tolerate. Mostly. This past summer, when I went to take Bess—l’dor va’dor—to touch those stones, and to pray for the health of her then-microscopic sibling, I was reprimanded by a roaming modesty cop for removing my shoulder-covering sweater, even though I was way up near the exit. I do not mind covering up, in principle, in any place of worship; I would anyway. I do mind being told to do so. Our wall, our rules. Us here, you there, praying only one way.

Of course, just about any liberal American Jew’s feelings about just about anything in Israel are mixed. So, yes: I resent that my—and, I imagine, many other liberal Jews’—experience of the wall needs to be mediated through someone else’s. For me, a glimpse of the mechitza inspires rage even as a glimpse of the stones inspires awe; when I see the wall, I have equally strong urges to drop to my knees and to bare my breasts. Why should this wall belong to one particular group of Jews any more than it belongs to those soldiers, to David’s congregants, to my daughter?

But as I left the wall this most recent time, grousing about the sweater incident—it was 95 degrees, for God’s sake!—I started thinking about how I’d explain it to Bess if she were old enough to understand. Tempting as it is to be ornery, I knew that a gentler, accepting-of-difference approach would probably be a more wholesome way to go. Which brought me, in a conversation with David over fresh-squeezed juice, to the concept of clal yisrael—the community of Israel as a whole. In that spirit, here is the homework I’m giving myself: to consider that everyone who finds meaning in the wall, no matter the “rules,” are my brothers and (yes) sisters. It’s not as hokey as it sounds. After all, that’s precisely why my encounters at the wall rankled far deeper and longer than any clinic protest. You know, it’s always worse when it’s family.

And that’s exactly where, by the very same token, I must work to find a place of peace. Contrary though it sounds, it is possible, and maybe necessary, to both protest unjust divisions and avoid perpetuating them. My prayers may not be halachically correct to all, but they are as authentic as any. And that, for me, is enough. Because the wall belongs to all of us. And that is why, with or without tallit and Torah, I will keep going back.

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Wail of a Time

Cries of antipathy and prayer collide at the Western Wall

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