The Women’s Wall
In calling for desegregation of the Kotel, the modern movement is actually reviving 19th-century traditions
Although Durbin did not cite the distinctive “long white robes” mentioned (and drawn) by Bartlett, they do appear in the account of a Friday visit to the Western Wall composed by the Anglican divine George Fisk, who like his countryman Bartlett visited Jerusalem in 1842. In his Pastor’s Memorial of Egypt, the Red Sea … Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, and Other Principal Localities of the Holy Land—a work that was evidently not in the library utilized by Adler when preparing his Memorandum—Rev. Fisk reported that “upon reaching the spot, we found a row of aged Jews sitting in the dust in front of the wall, all of them engaged in reading or reciting certain portions of the Hebrew scriptures.” Among these men, he added, “were several Jewesses, enveloped from head to foot in ample white veils.” In contrast to the men, all of whom remained seated and among whom Fisk saw “no such outward expression of emotion as I had been led to expect,” the women in white “stepped forward to various parts of the ancient wall, kissed them with great fervency of manner, and uttered their petitions in a low whisper.”
The distinctive character of female prayer at the wall was also noted by Fisk’s colleague and contemporary Moses Margoliouth, who like Ridley Haim Herschell was a Polish-born convert from Judaism. In 1844 Margoliouth was ordained an Anglican priest in Liverpool and six years later published his two-volume Pilgrimage to the Land of My Fathers—a copy of which was evidently also absent from the American library used by Adler for researching his Memorandum. Like Herschell’s aforementioned Visit to My Fatherland—to which its title would appear to allude—Margoliouth’s travel account was largely epistolary. In May of 1850 he wrote from Jerusalem to “Her Grace, the Duchess of Manchester” having “at last fixed upon a topic, which I think will interest you.” That topic was Jewish mourning and prayer at the place he called (as we do) “the western wall”—unlike most contemporary Christians who referred to it, as we have seen, as “the Jews’ Place of Wailing.”
Margoliouth informed the duchess that “my poor brethren, whose love for Jerusalem is undying, assemble themselves daily together there, and sit themselves on the ground, and mourn, lament, and bewail Jerusalem’s alienation, and their own degradation.” On Fridays, he noted, “the attendance is very numerous,” adding that William Bartlett had given “a very good picture of the wall, with its mourners,” in his Walks About the City and Environs of Jerusalem. Although Bartlett had mentioned the white-robed women who “walked along the sacred wall, kissing its ancient masonry, and praying through the crevices with every appearance of deep devotion,” Margoliouth felt it necessary to add a thing or two about those early “women of the wall”—which he did with a curious combination of sympathy and irony that reflected his own ambivalence as a convert.
The poor Jewesses express their affection for this, their ancient relic, in a most practical manner; they go along kissing the old stone, and fix themselves to pray at those spots which have small crevices. They entertain the strange idea that their petitions pass through the small holes … thence they would be sure to ascend to heaven, without being intercepted. I have often seen, therefore, Jewesses with their lips close to a split wall, immoveably fixed for some time, and manifest the greatest reluctance to leave their position.
Like his countrymen Bartlett and Fisk before him, Margoliouth stressed that it was only the “Jewesses” who kissed the wall, in contrast to their male coreligionists who sat on the ground and read or recited texts.
Unlike the others, however, Margoliouth spoke not only of mourning and prayer at the wall, but of love and affection—of his brethren’s undying “love for Jerusalem” and of the women who “express their affection for this, their ancient relic.” Of the latter group he also noticed, relatedly, their great “reluctance to leave their position”—perhaps hinting that some of the men had sought to distance them from their intimate embrace of the wall and its crevices. Since 1989 the women of Jerusalem have begun to re-embrace the Western Wall, expressing—as Margoliouth wrote—“affection for this, their ancient relic” with rituals somewhat different from those of their 19th-century forerunners, but with no less devotion. Judge Sobel’s decision reflects the history and traditions of that holy place, knowledge of or regard for which has clearly escaped contemporary zealots who seek to bar women from praying there collectively—or to dictate how they might pray there or what they might wear while doing so.
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From the archive: Daniel Estrin’s 2012 report—which just won a prestigious award—on Jerusalem’s light rail