Sunday, August 30, 2009

Post by Morgan: Another View of the Kotel

I had not been sure that I wanted to go to the Kotel. Gender-segregated spaces are things that I avoid like the plague. On the other hand, it’s an important site, and I’m pretty certain that for a pair of Jews to go to J’lem and NOT see the Kotel constitutes “doing it wrong”.

It had been a grueling day in many respects. We had, at my insistence, paid a second visit to Yad Vashem, and then had ended up paying way too much for the cab ride home. I was physically tired and emotionally exhausted, badly in need of catharsis for the roiling feelings left me by the day’s events. Rich had suggested earlier that we go to the Kotel in the evening, when it would be cooler and the shops mostly closed. I wasn’t sure though, after Yad Vashem, that I wanted to visit the remnant of the Temple, the site of another of our great disasters, on the same day.

I don’t know how we started discussing coffee, but the mention of it shook me out of my blah-ness, and we agreed to get coffee at Cafe Hillel and then head to the Kotel. I had read somewhere that women pretty much have to wear a skirt when visiting the Kotel, so I dressed accordingly, and in doing so learned an interesting lesson about how things work in Jerusalem: an ankle-length black skirt will get you tons of space on the sidewalk. It was Rich who first pointed it out to me: “People are giving us a wide berth” he said--and it was true. Usually all you get is enough space to squeeze by each other--no one really steps exaggeratedly out of someone else’s way like they do in MN. But we were getting plenty of passing room that night.

The walk down to the old city was pleasant, and there were places where I wished I could have lingered over beautiful vistas or beautiful architecture. It was a cool but muggy evening--one of those where you can be chilled and sweaty at pretty much the same time. Part of the time we were walking on a road where you shared the space with cars--sometimes with the benefit of metal or concrete posts protecting the pedestrian area and sometimes not. We only had to fend off one guy who really wanted to sell us stuff.

There are separate entrances to the plaza for men and women. This is something that Rich had warned me about. When we arrived, there were a lot more women than men waiting. I was somewhat uncomfortable as I broke away from him to join the women’s line. He and I are seldom apart. The men’s line moved quickly. The women’s line crawled. Bags were being opened, and of course everyone in the women’s line had a purse or something that needed inspected. Suddenly the men’s line was completely empty, everybody had gone through. After a few seconds, the bunch of women immediately behind me charged the men’s entrance. More women who had just arrived joined them. My line still wasn’t moving, so I said “lamah lo?” and joined the other line. The last woman in line and I exchanged giggles. This was pretty much the last thing I had expected to happen.

From the security checkpoint it’s just a little walk to the plaza, but nevertheless, the space seemed to open up really suddenly, and there was the Kotel right in front of me. It was, honestly, a smaller space than I had expected it to be, and the ancient wall itself seemed to be hemmed in by the stuff around it. But the thing that struck me most on seeing it in person was the same thing that always strikes me in photographs: those plants. Those big, humongous plants that grow in the spaces of the wall. They really are huge. I think some of them are longer than a person is tall.

I took some photographs, and then stood there for a while just looking through the metal screen that tops the wall that separates the plaza from the area in front of the Kotel. I could see where the mechitzah was, and for a long time I stood right there, right on the border between the men’s and women’s sections, just watching. I couldn’t help noticing that the women’s side is much smaller than the men’s, and it made me angry. The whole thing made me both angry and sad--very, very sad. Here, in that wall that divides the prayer area in two, is a tangible articulation of how far we have not come in bringing justice to the world, how far we have yet to go, how impossible it is that my own eyes will live to see justice here or anywhere else. The heartbreak that I found at the Kotel was not the heartbreak that I had been expecting: it’s hard to feel the national loss that the Temple’s destruction must have been when the plaza is crawling with live Jews, when this site is so obviously ours again. I contemplated a couple of times just swallowing my objections and going down to the women’s side, to daven or to just touch the stone, but I couldn’t do it. Every time I thought about it, my stomach turned over, and I realized at last that I would be happier, and have more respect for myself, if I did not make this particular compromise. Instead, I took out my sketchbook and did several sketches of the site, focusing on the things that delighted me most: those beautiful huge plants.

At some point, Rich had sat down in a chair behind me--there are plastic chairs available all over the place, in case one needs to sit down. When I been standing long enough that my feet started to hurt, he gave me his seat and went to get another chair for himself. I realized that I had ended up sitting right behind the men’s section. Rich pulled up a chair and sat beside me but a little way away. I had an inkling of what he was doing before he said anything. He had positioned himself just behind the women’s section. No one cared of course; we were still on the plaza, separated from the segregated area by a wall that I had to stand on tiptoes to really see over, and plenty of other people were observing what was going on on the opposite gender’s side. We took out Paths of Faith and davened Ma’ariv from it. It was a symbolic protest of course, meaningful, perhaps, only to us. But nevertheless there was a certain power in having found a way to pray together as a couple, here in this place where we were so vehemently NOT supposed to do so. It was a cool, peaceful night, relatively quiet despite the number of people there. It was satisfying to be able to pray. As we reached the end of the service, there was no question but that we would say Kaddish for those of our people who were killed in the Shoah. Here, in the peace of the cool night, in the ancient words of the Kaddish Yatom and its familiar rhythms, I found the catharsis that I had needed since our visit to Yad Vashem earlier that day. I experienced once again the power of Jewish ritual to heal the soul, and experienced also the powerful truth that ours is a religion where what you do matters. I had been unsettled by a welter of emotion all day because of a need to do something--a need to do what there was for me, as a Jew, to do in order to honor the memory of those whom we all have lost.

I left the Kotel feeling both at peace and uplifted. I had found a way to pray there, and to do it in my own way, without making any compromises.


Saoirse said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. I went without a skirt (just wearing pants with my bff). They didn't make a big deal about that as long as we were on the right side.
I hate gender separation in any situation except restrooms.
Keep up the good work.

Miami Al said...

I had a VERY similar reaction to the Kotel, but for different reasons.

The separation doesn't bother me, only the 100 feet from the wall or so is separated, and people use it to pray. The rest of the "area" is integrated, and like the rest of Israel, resembles a flea market. :) The majority of Israeli Jews pray in gender separated environments, so some respect for the locals would be appreciated, even if you don't share their religious views.

That said, the Kotel made me feel very embarrassed as a Jew. As you said, it's surrounded by Jews, so you don't feel the "destruction." You look around you, seeing all sorts of Jews going their to pray, you see weapon carrying IDF soldiers, etc.

Then you look up from the plaza and see a Muslim Shrine and feel very small, like they own the place and we are just there as temporary interlopers.

The Reform Baal Teshuvah said...


When I was there by myself, the Al Aqsa Mosque emitted its call to prayer as I was leaving.

I personally have very mixed feelings about the mosque. On the one hand I have the impulse to say "get that mosque off my Temple," but on the other hand, I think that if the mosque were to go away the resulting Schisms in Judaism over how to deal with the site's availability would make current divisions over kashrut, egalitarianism, and conversion look like child's play.