This article was originally published in the 3rd Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.
I walked through Jerusalem with a message for the ears of God clutched in my hand. I wrote it twice, first with skipping lines. The empty space looked cavernous, as if I had room to speak but no thoughts important enough to say aloud. Second draft: shrunk the two-sentence message to the smallest portion of page possible. Crammed in their corner, tripping over each other, my thoughts for God looked appropriately crowded and confused. I rolled it up and placed it in my palm.
Today I wore a skirt that hung below my knees. I wore a shirt that covered my shoulders, retied to cover my exposed stomach.
Today I visited the Western Wall, a place I’ve learned about from school and Hebrew school and people and people’s pictures. My friends and my friends’ mothers have been here. My sister and my grandmother have been here too.
Today I saw the ten-foot, green wicker fence that stands flimsily perpendicular to the Western Wall, separating the men from the women. I’d never heard of this green wicker fence, this Second Wall. I hadn’t known it existed.
The tour guide ripped paper as we waited in line at security. “You can write here something if you want and stick it into the cracks in the Wall” the Israelis explained. I disagreed. I thought room in the Wall should be reserved for people who knew before visiting that if they wanted, they could write something. “There is not so much space left in the Wall,” an Israeli said.
Do you know about the Western Wall? You didn’t go to Hebrew school, you went to Quaker school. Your friends and friends’ mothers and sisters and grandmothers have probably never been here.
Only the Western Wall remains from the Time of the Two Temples. The temples housed the Torahs written from the mouth of God. Both Temples were destroyed. The Western Wall did not touch the first or second Temple or the first or second Torah but it also did not fall. Today, for Jews it is the Holiest of Holy places on Earth. A statistically impressive number of people visit the Western Wall each year. They come with prayers written down on pieces of paper, which they place in the cracks of the Wall. The notes are whispers; the cracks are the ears of God.
While the tour guide ripped the paper, I took a picture of myself in the rounded mirror mounted above the dress code sign, positioning the camera to include my reflection and the instructions.
I wanted to capture both what I was wearing and what I was not allowed to be wearing.
You are approaching the holy site of the western wall where the divine presence always rests. Please make sure you are appropriately modestly dressed so as not to cause harm to this holy place or to the feelings of the worshippers.
Sincerely, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.”
The tour guide, with an Israeli accent as thick as her brown curly hair, said to our group, “Yes, this is a very religious place. So there are very religious rules. So the women will go to the right and the men will go to the left and we will meet back here in fifteen minutes, okay?”
The men walked to the left. I went to the right. I waited in line for a place to open up at the Wall. I had time to calculate the percentage of the Wall accessible to women and the percentage of the Wall reserved for men. I had to wait because half of the visitors had access to only a quarter of the Wall.
I had no place to look except at the Wall in front of me. Its cracks were overfilling with notes, some of which fluttered to my feet.
“Israel to Review Curbs on Women’s Prayer at the Western Wall”
New York Times, December 25, 2012
When you went to Jerusalem you were overheated and overcrowded and over the age of 21. When you came home you told me about your trip. You used words like “fun” and “vacation” and “whatever.” You didn’t tell me about the Second Wall.
When I went to Jerusalem I was underdressed and under the weather and under the impression that I no longer believed in God. When I came home I told you about my trip. I used words like “big” and “important” and “meaningful.”
“Debate Over Women’s Prayer at the Western Wall”
New York Times, December 30, 2012
We were born to the same parents, raised in the same home. We were educated in the same schools, taught by the same teachers. If there is no mirror at hand, I look at you to check if I have something stuck between my teeth. You taught me what FEMINISM means. Why didn’t you tell me about inequality at the Western Wall?
“Arrests of 10 Women Praying at Western Wall”
New York Times, February 11, 2013
A TALLIS is a Jewish prayer shawl. A BAT MITZVAH is a rite of passage for Jewish girls, signifying their transformation into Jewish women, which happens in Jewish culture at the arbitrary and non-negotiable age of 13. The word BAT indicates that the individual mitzvah-ing is female. In English, it means DAUGHTER. As is customary, I received my first TALLIS from my father at my BAT MITZVAH when I was 13.
Boys also have their BAR Mitzvahs, at the age of 13. BAR means SON. In Israel, boys read from the Torah for their BAR MITZVAHS. In Israel, girls have parties for their BAT MITZVAHS.
I have a twin brother. Together, we turned 13. Together, we read from the Torah. Together, we received our TALLIT. TALLIT is the plural of TALLIS. B’NAI is the plural for BAR and BAT when the individuals in question are not the same gender.
Yesterday, 10 women were arrested at the Western Wall for “wearing prayer shawls… traditionally used by men.” TRADITIONALLY is a term that confuses me in this context because when I looked up TRADITION in the dictionary, it read “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.” A good example of TRADITION, as defined by the dictionary, is a father bequeathing a TALLIS to his daughter at her BAT MITZVAH. At the Western Wall, however, it isn’t TRADITIONAL, it is OFFENSIVE.
I waited, wearing a cerulean skirt, white button down shirt and bright red scarf hung loosely around my neck, wishing I was wearing a thick black babushka like the orthodox women to my sides. I wanted to feel the black fabric heavy against my face, wrapped twice around my head, once around my neck, smothering my hair, forming blinders at the sides of my eyes. I was willing to sacrifice peripheral vision for the privacy that came with convention.
I didn’t want my tears to be misinterpreted.
There is a strain of argument in Jewish law itself that supports women donning prayer shawls. Several rabbinical authorities have taken this view as early as the 12th and 13th centuries; not all consider this act to be wearing men’s attire.
These women are neither Jewish nihilists in the strict sense nor “crazy American ladies,” as some in the secular Israeli world view them. They have a leg in Jewish law upon which they stand.
Rabbi Ian Silverman, Greenlawn, NY, December 24, 2012
I faced a wall, divided. In two but not in half.
This wall is divided and it is divided unequally.
This city is divided and it is divided unequally.
This world is divided and it is divided unequally.
These divisions are made by man.
The state of Israel does not have a constitution. It has a parliamentary legislature called the KENESSET.
In 1967 the KENNESET passed “The Protection of Holy Places Law” that stated: The Holy Places shall be protected from DESECRATION and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.
“The Regulation for the Protection of Holy Places to the Jews” defined DESECRATION as conducting a religious ceremony contrary to accepted practice, begging, slaughtering or wearing unfit attire.
My tears were not symbolic. They were not a whisper. They were not a prayer. My tears were not crowded on a ripped piece of paper and crammed into a crack in a wall. They were a response to a reality of injustice and inequality and oppression. They had nothing to do with God.
The English language does not have a word for the feeling of being in a place that people you love experienced before you. It also does not have nouns that are gendered. Today I felt the feeling of being in a place where people you love experienced before you. I felt the feminine form of this nonexistent noun
When I developed the pictures from my trip, the mounted dress code was clear and legible; the mirror was visible, barely squeezed into the frame. I was a red, white and blue blur in the bottom left corner.
The cracks on the women’s side of the Western Wall are overflowing with paper. I did not know this until I saw it. I would have added the word “equality” to my note, but there wasn’t any room left for me to write it.
Featured Image Courtesy of Google Images