Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Elul with Women of the Wall (edited: see italicized section)

I watched the sun rise over the Dead Sea this morning, then S. and I headed off in her car to the Wall to wait for the group to arrive. We were both nervous--she persuaded me not to bring my purse in case I lost it in a melee. We got there about 6:20 and parked, while buses passed us all filled with Haredi men and women.  As we left S.'s car, groups of girls passed us--long black skirts, bags with, presumably siddurim and maybe water.  They were chattering to each other, looking excited and purposeful.  I wore a shirt with 3/4 length sleeves and Grandma Ruth's flowing black skirt--so I could have sort of fit in--but my attitude wouldn't have cut it.  We followed the crowd of girls through security and into the plaza.  At 6:25, the women's section was completely full.  Women milled around chatting and waiting for something to happen.  Nothing. No one who looked remotely like a Jewish feminist. And more and more of Haredim arrived.  It was very strange to watch them gather--an exercise in collective effervescence (look it up) if I ever saw one.  It was strange to think about this enormous gathering in response to the much smaller one that would take place later--the hardening of an ideology. I'm also sure that, while most of them went from interest, excitement, and the genuine belief that they were standing up for their vision of Judaism, I suspect there would be social consequences for not attending--it's a closed community; people notice.  And--depending on where attending ranks in the community--absences would be noted.
About 6:50, we saw an Orthodox man (dressed in a brown suit, so perhaps not ultra-Orthodox) buttonhole a young couple (brother and sister, as it turned out) who were clearly waiting for the WoW service. First, he insisted that the young man put on a kippah.  Then he explained gender roles to the young woman who wore a T-shirt with one of the Hebrew phrases used to replace the line in the morning blessings "who has not made me a woman." (There are two replacements: one is "who has made me in God's image;" the other is "who has made me according to God's will." Both can be said either men or women. Another option, taken by the Orthodox, has been to reinterpret the gender roles, emphasizing that the reason for the "has not made me a woman" is because women's nature is so much better than man's nature.  Given the wording of the blessing, this general response is...problematic in this specific case, but in general has been a fairly effective way to rebut egalitarian Judaism.) The couple listened politely without trying to respond and, having said his piece, the man left.  And we immediately attached ourselves to them. And waited some more.
One group of teen-age boys--very long payess, hats, satin coats, smoking (at a very young age)--stood by and listened with that look that teen-age boys have that says "I'm really still a kid, but I want to be tough--give me a reason to be tough." It was incongruous to see it on faces framed by hats and payess, but I noticed--these were the kind of kids that could start trouble (although neither they nor anyone else did).
Eventually--a bit after 7:00, someone pointed out that they were just outside the gates.  They had brought a Torah, but could not bring it inside--the Rabbi who administers the Wall will neither allow a "non-Wall" Torah to be brought in, nor loan one to the women.  No surprise there. As they debated the point, S. and I joined the group.  And just as we got there, it began to move, with us right near the front.
We walked to the back of the plaza--as far from the Wall as possible and behind a double row of barricades, with police patrolling the "no man's land." Women donned tallits, some put on tefillin. They asked the men to stand back and the service began.
It was a fairly traditional service with a lot of singing and enthusiasm. The women surrounding me largely knew the prayers; the service leaders led with strong voices and much kavannah (feeling).  We were not able to read from Torah, but four women, including a Bat Mitzvah and the mother of a Bar Mitzvah, read the text from the Siddur. Praying out loud with a large group of women facing east as the sun rose over the Kotel, as I wore my grandmother's skirt and felt her with me--because she would have been with me if that had ever been possible--for the first time, I felt the Wall was holy space for me, as well as for the Haredim.  If I lived here, I would come back again and again--
And yet..
The Haredim outside began to blow whistles. Initially it was a bit distracting, but really much less than I would have imagined.  I--and the other women there--actually were praying. And when I pray, I don't much care what's happening around me (as long as the community I'm with is praying too). So the whistles became a buzz much like the buzz of insects on summer day.  I don't mean this to be rude--I also felt for the Haredim.  I do understand that challenges to ritual are just hard--ritual really does embody deep values and threats to ritual and authority challenge community.  So I was surprised to find that I bore them no particular ill will.  Although I was not sorry when they grew silent as they grew tired and their voices grew hoarse.
When S. and I left her house, the other guest wished us well for our "protest." I corrected her, saying it was a service.  But here's the thing: she wasn't entirely wrong.  And, in many ways, I found the Orthodox buzz much less distracting than men, particularly photographers, pushing through the praying women.  I saw women taking pictures of their friends at key moments. Sorry, but you can't both be in the moment and noticing how cool it is to be in the moment. (Look ma--see me pray!) So, yes, I did feel that it was more of a protest and show than I would have liked.
I would have liked the same boundaries around respectful behavior that are set in shul. Photographs do not trump prayer.  Ever. And if this is supposed to be a women-only service, see that those boundaries are observed. I'm egalitarian in practice, so I have no personal stake in this, but if you insist--loudly--that you are conducting a women's minyan, and then allow men to wander in and out, that sends a very mixed message, calling the seriousness, if not the integrity, of the group into question.  To be clear, most of the people who attended are were serious, but actions (in the aggregate, not only by the leaders) are how that seriousness is demonstrated.
Edit: One more thing--and I'm adding this later (on August 9): I really wish that the baalot Tekiah had been able to sound their shofarot more clearly, tunefully, and (above all) correctly.  When shevarim and teruah are confused (and they were), it's embarrassing and provides ammunition for those that would discredit WoW.  More importantly, hearing the shofar is a mitzvah--those who enable that mitzvah should be well-prepared. And, as the mother of a baalat Tekiah, I can tell the difference between well-prepared and not!
I don't really want to conclude with the negative--it leaves the wrong impression.  Despite the Haredim on the one hand and the photographers on the other, the experience was a remarkable way to begin the month of Elul.  And one more incident: as S. and I made our way to the exit, a Haredi woman came up to the barrier, pulled out a whistle and blew a long blast.  Then she smiled a genuine smile and waved pleasantly.  Which makes me wonder how much this event divides and how much it unites.  One way or another, it's increased the prominence of Rosh Hodesh--the women's holiday--and, whether Haredi or Reform--that can't be bad.

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