By Emily Shapiro Katz
Yesterday morning, Rosh Hodesh Adar II, was my third time joining Women of the Wall at the Kotel. Ironically, on the day we celebrated the beginning of the most joyous of the Hebrew months, I had my saddest experience with the group.
My first time davening with Women of the Wall was Rosh Hodesh Shevat, and there was no noticeable interference or opposition to our prayer service. I was struck by how innocuous the whole event seemed, thinking to myself “this is what the big to-do is all about?! A group of women davening, leining, and giving divrei torah?!” It reminded me of my years in all-girls Orthodox midrashot when we would regularly learn and sing together. At Robinson’s Arch, I was touched by seeing the number of women who received the “honors” of an aliyah, hagbah, and gelilah for the first time.
When I arrived at the Kotel the next month for Rosh Hodesh Adar I, I already felt like a veteran who knew what to expect and what to do. I was surprised and impressed by the number of women who came out in the rain at seven in the morning. One woman visiting from the US said to me, “it’s crazy that what I do every week in my synagogue is considered an act of civil disobedience here in Israel.” After Hallel, Anat decided to start a round of dancing at the Kotel and every woman joined the circle without hesitation. It was a glorious moment in which nobody seemed to doubt or question the “appropriateness” of our actions.
Yes, there were some minor disturbances during these months. Women were stopped by the guards for having tallitot in their bags and the police shushed us when our voices got too loud. But, for the most part, I felt relaxed and positive. I certainly did not feel the tension and animosity that I had read and heard about. I began to doubt whether anyone had actually ever really cursed at Women of the Wall or if it was just some kind of urban myth. I couldn’t really believe that one Jew would call another Jew “nazi” or “idol worshipper,” especially not at the Kotel, especially not during prayer. It turned out that I was naïve and wrong.
Yesterday morning, I heard and saw it for myself. I felt the tension almost immediately. First, one women passed our group shaking her head in disdain. Then, another woman spat in our direction. Yet another woman yelled “chazir [pig]” and another yelled “yimach shemam [may their name be erased].”
Right next to our group stood a charedi-looking woman reading from a book of Psalms. I naively thought to myself, “that’s so nice, she probably just saw a group of women davening and so she is just davening near us.” How wrong I was. When I got closer, I realized that she was repeating the same verse over and over again: “Shefoch chamatcha al hagoyim asher lo yedaocha [Pour out Your wrath upon the nations who do not know You].” She said the words “al hagoyim” loudly and fervently as she looked up from her book and gestured in our direction.
I couldn’t concentrate. I was shaken. I didn’t know what to do. Should I say something? Should I tell someone? Should I yell back? Should I try to reason with them? Should I try to explain?
I did nothing but try to continue praying.
I had also read and heard about disturbances from the men’s section but had never experienced any myself. This morning, no men cursed or threw chairs at us. But, in some way I would have preferred that to what did happen. A group of men gathered near our service, intentionally screaming their prayers in an attempt to drown out our singing of Hallel. They were so aggressive that the police on the men’s side had to guard the men who had come in support of Women of the Wall. In the months past, I had heard loud singing coming from the men’s section. At times, it was even disruptive to our own singing. But, it was clear from the tone that it had nothing to do with our presence; they were merely davening with joy and passion. Yesterday the tone was angry, malicious, and oppositional. Although they were outwardly praying to God, it was clear that they were really cursing us. To me, it felt more painful and offensive than throwing a chair. It was an abuse of tefillah, a hateful corruption of holy words.
Then, after Hallel, Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, grasped the hands of two other women to begin a round of joyous dancing, apropos of Adar. Immediately, “our” policeman shut her down. I heard him say “it is assur [forbidden] for women to dance at the Kotel.” What? Just last month, we danced at the Kotel – no problem! Now, one month later, it is suddenly “assur?” There is and has never been such a law, ruling, or custom. It seemed like we had reached a whole new level of absurdity. Later, Anat quoted from Sefer Shemot[the book of Exodus], “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.” There could not be a better precedent.
After the services, I was interviewed by a doctoral student for her thesis. When I said that I felt the men had used prayer in an impure fashion, she asked “isn’t that exactly what your opponents accuse you of – of having ulterior motives while praying?” After three months of praying with Women of the Wall, I felt confident to answer this challenge. I have now met for myself the women who come to the Kotel at seven in the morning from Jerusalem, Rehovot, Beer Sheva, Chicago, Melbourne, and Johannesburg. These women come to pray in a community of women, at the Kotel, to God. Is our presence at the Kotel a political act? Yes, but only because of the rules that have been created to prevent us from doing so. The prayers of the women who join Women of the Wall are not spiteful or hateful. They are sweet and joyous. And, they are – even after 22 years – hopeful. Hopeful that one day equality, cooperation, and acceptance will prevail in Israel and in Jerusalem.