A Tale of Two T-Shirts / Lesley Sachs

As a girl, my morning routine began by staring in the mirror with dread, sulking as I straightened my school uniform’s collar. The uniform taunted me with its neutrality, its sameness. I wanted to “wear my heart on my sleeve,” to express my own style and personality.

From a runway gown to a graphic t-shirt, fashion choices speak for us before we speak out loud. Here in Israel, I observe daily the array of colorful cotton tees with messages featuring youth movements, social causes and English phrases. Just as Israelis do not shy away from adding their “two shekels” on any issue, they also do not hesitate to wear their opinions “on their sleeves.” So it is no surprise to encounter an assortment of bold statement-shirts amidst the crowd even at the Western Wall.

On Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, Hebrew Union College student and Women of the Wall board member Dana Sharon did not have to say a word. Her bright smile and empowering t-shirt communicated almost as powerfully as her melodious prayer. “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah,” the four matriarchs represented proudly in thick black font. Dana came to pray.

Greeting us in the women’s section were clusters of hundreds of girls and women, presumably to pray as well. This is a prayer site, after all.

However, it was not long into our service that the attacks began; vitriol, sprays of water, shrieking, whistling and aggressive pushing were directed at us, disrupting our songs and blessings. And still, these loud, overt gestures — while disturbing — were not the most upsetting element of the opposers’ actions.

What stung the most was communicated nonverbally, via t-shirt. “He who approaches to kill you, kill him first.” The rabbinic injunction regarding self-defense in wartime is not a statement I ever expected to see on a t-shirt, let alone one worn by a young schoolgirl at the Western Wall. I reread the blue font to confirm I had indeed read correctly; sure enough, there was a group of girls in these and other offensive t-shirts. They came to protest, to intimidate.

What WOW is facing is not merely a handful of extreme naysayers. What greets us monthly are organized attacks against our right to pray freely — as Jews, as women, and as Jewish women.

This past Rosh Hodesh, Tammuz Women of the Wall held our services on both days instead of our usual practice to daven together only on the second day. Where as the first day, when we were not expected was low key quiet with no obstruction, Thursday, Day 2, was mayhem. Overnight, the same site was palpably transformed, virtually unrecognizable in tenor from one day to the next.

The difference was the presence of organized opposition, with masses of religious schoolchildren brought as a “field trip” to protest women at prayer. Bearing hateful banners and sporting t-shirts whose slogans scream as their wearers try to silence our melodies, they shove their way into our group and glare at us with disdain.

Because we have come to pray.

Each time we face the Western Wall as a group of proud, strong, vocal Jewish women, we bring with us the spiritual legacies of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, emboldened by their fierce tenacity and resilience. We come to pray, and we let the words of tefillah speak for us, in our trademark style.

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