Saturday, November 21, 2009

Here is a wall at which to weep, Part I: The Kotel

8th grade: On my first trip to Israel, with my grandparents' synagogue, we visited the Kotel on Shabbat. I started to write a note to stick in between the stones, and a security guard came over and told me to stop writing.
11th grade: When I was in Israel for a semester in high school on EIE (Eisendrath International Exchange), we went to the Kotel for our first Shabbat in Israel. I wore a kippah, even though my classmates and teacher told me it wasn't a good idea. I looked through the bookshelves in the women's section for a prayerbook that was "mine," and another woman handed me an Artscroll siddur.

On subsequent trips to the Kotel - the Western Wall, the remains of the 2nd Temple closest to its holiest spot, the Holy of Holies - I felt bored, squished, frustrated, and unspiritual (for an example, read my post after being at the Kotel in September.) For years I had heard of the prayer group Women of the Wall, a women's group that prays on the women's side of the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the Hebrew month). They have a long and contentious history, with Supreme Court battles, discrimination, and harassment, but I was excited to finally have the opportunity to join them in prayer and pray at the Kotel in a way that felt authentic to who am I as a Jew.

This past Wednesday, Rosh Hodesh Kislev, I woke up early and shared cabs with some other students from Pardes to the Kotel, where we joined with Women of the Wall and a group of women from Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in NYC. My friends and fellow students Lauren and Evelyn led services. For the first time ever, I wore a tallit at the Kotel. I was scared; I had heard many stories about rocks, heckling from men and women who were offended by what they saw as a desecration of their holy site, even physical assaults, but I felt safe surrounded by this community of women. Singing Hallel, songs of praise, out loud at the Kotel was incredibly powerful. One line in particular resonated with me: לא המתים יהללו יה, ולא כל ירדי דומה, ואנחנו נברך יה מעתה ועד עולם. הללויה The dead will not praise Yah, nor can those who go down into silence. But WE shall praise Yah, now and forever. Halleluyah! (Psalm 115: 17-18) I felt like I was really, genuinely praying at the Kotel, for the first time in a very long time.

At this point in the service, the group (according to the veteran members) is usually receiving taunts, yells, thrown rocks, and anger from those at the Kotel who believe that this type of prayer - women praying together, out loud, with tallitot and kippot - is a desecration to Judaism and the holiness of the Kotel. But except for one woman who motioned "shh!" as she left the women's section, there had been no reaction from the others around us. The group decided to read Torah at the Kotel, instead of relocating elsewhere like they usually do.

We rolled the Torah to the reading for Rosh Hodesh, and then rolled it back up and started the Torah service, led by a young Israeli medical student, Nofrat Frenkel. At this point, the commotion started. Men came over and asked Nofrat why she was wearing a tallit, and demanded that she put the Torah away and that we leave. To which Nofrat responded, "Because it's a mitzvah, where is yours?" The police came over and started to lead Nofrat away, still holding the sefer Torah and wearing her tallit. The image of a uniformed police officer pulling away a person wearing a tallit and holding a Torah was awful, and reminded me of stories of the Former Soviet Union, of Jews arrested for practicing their religion publicly. Anat Hoffman, the chair of Women of the Wall and the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, called for all of us women, about 40, to follow the Torah wherever it went.

Nofrat and Anat standing up to the men who insisted we leave the Kotel

And so we followed Nofrat and the Torah, to a police station next to the Kotel. We stood outside where she was detained and sang. Dozens of women, young and old, Israeli, American, British, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox...We sang eitz hayyim hi la'machazikim bah (it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it), pitchu li sha'arei tzedek avovam ode yah, zeh hasha'ar l'Adonai tzadikot yavo'u bo (open for me the gates of righteousness and I will enter to praise God, this is the gate of God, the righteous will enter in it). We learned later that Nofrat could hear our singing.

Anat asked us to decide if we would stay and follow the Torah wherever it went that day. I had no question in my mind about whether or not I would miss class to stay. I was there, and not leaving. At some point that morning, I had become a part of this community, rather than just a visitor. We learned that Nofrat was no longer simply detained, but had been arrested, for wearing a tallit - the first time in Israel's history this had happened. The police moved Nofrat to the police compound by Jaffa Gate, and we followed. It was incredible to watch Anat throughout all of this, keeping the group together while simultaneously mobilizing a media response and finding a criminal lawyer.
The group of Pardes students, both while we were waiting and singing, and in the hours that followed, talked about whether we were using prayer as a means to achieve a political end. Yes, I was absolutely there to pray, to pray with a community of women in a place that Judaism has attached a great deal of value to. But I was also there because I believe that the Kotel is holy to all Jews, not only the ultra-Orthodox who control it, and because I believe that all Jews should be able to pray there in a way that is authentic to them, and Women of the Wall is striving to bring that about. Saul Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals that the real question is not "Does the End justify the Means?" but "Does this particular end justify this particular means?" Prayer is the tool, prayer is also the goal.

And then Nofrat came out...still wearing her tallit, still holding the sefer Torah. We sang more, joyfully now, and surrounded her. She is still facing criminal charges, and there are concerns that a criminal record will harm her future career prospects as a doctor.

Throughout the course of the morning and the hours that followed, I was scared, angry, nauseus, sad, proud, and pretty much every other emotion possible. But it was an incredibly powerful experience, with an amazing group of women. It felt so RIGHT to be there.

To read some of the news coverage about it:


  1. So proud of you and the rest of Women of the Wall. Thank you, from the rest of us who weren't there.

  2. oh my goodness Miriam, amazingly written. horrifying and inspiring all at once, and important in ways that that will revereberate for years to come.

  3. Miriam,

    you inspire me. What an interesting, powerful experience. Working everyday to organize religious people towards acting powerful in public political life, your experience challenges me to think about how prayer can be deeply political.


  4. Wow, that is incredible. Thanks so much for writing this. Can't wait to hear more of your reflections.. and hear them in person eventually!

  5. Amazing story, thank you for sharing.

  6. Thanks for pushing the envelope for Jews everywhere! So proud :-)

  7. n the Bible it is said that one should insert a blue thread into each corner of the silk tallit. This particular blue is known as Techailis and can only be obtained from an animal known as the Chilazon.