It was Shavuot 1985. I had finished college and had come to Israel the year before, where I was in the flush of religious epiphany. Everything was new, exciting and, as I gushed to family and friends back home, true – my opinions still untarnished by politics, the wisdom that comes when you’ve got more than 23 years of experience and, god forbid, nuance.
In the midst of a profound roots discovery, which was rapidly displacing my secular upbringing, I imbibed everything Orthodox, the blacker the better. Shavuot – the holiday which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and which begins this this year on Tuesday night, then, was the pinnacle of my wide-eyed rapture. And the scene at the Western Wall was its most sublime, with tens of thousands of Jerusalemites getting up in the middle of the night (if they slept at all) to walk and dance and sing through the streets order to arrive at the Wall as the sun rose to pray the morning service.
Although I couldn’t think of anything more glorious than Shavuot in Jerusalem. I nevertheless left Israel a few years later to go back to the U.S., in order to continue my education. My wife and I got married, our first two kids were born and I launched a career. But I couldn’t get Israel out of my system and, to summarize seven years of deliberation in one sentence: we shocked everyone by actually making good on our threats to do the whole aliyah thing.
When the next Shavuot rolled around, there was no question as to where I’d be. Instead of joining the sea of black hats in the men’s section, though, I decided to pray with the more modern Orthodox congregation I was then a member of that was meeting in the Western Wall plaza area, behind the women’s section. Sexes were segregated, no women were reading from the Torah, there were no women in men’s tallitot and no one was wearing Tefillin (it was the holiday after all), but we were in general proximity without a mehitza.
This did not go over well with the men in black.
The next part will be familiar to anyone who read the news this past Friday when the Women of the Wall group came to celebrate Rosh Hodesh at the Wall. As we tried to soak in the spirituality of the holiday, our group was met by a similar mob screaming epithets and throwing things – plastic bottles of water, chairs, garbage. I was horrified. I was frum, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. We weren’t the reformim that the supposedly modest men (and some women) were calling us. And this wasn’t the Women of the Wall. Police separated the two groups, there was jostling, someone tossed a plastic diaper filled with poop. I wish I was exaggerating here, I really do.
When I walked home from the Wall that Shavuot, I felt changed. The whole kumbaya we’re-all-one-big-Jewish-family message I’d so faithfully adhered to all those years in the Diaspora had been shattered. The Western Wall belonged to someone else and I was not welcome.
I went back the next year and even the year after, but the scene remained the same until eventually the Robinson’s Arch area was opened to egalitarian and more modern forms of prayer without the fear of fecal stoning. I went a couple of times, but it always seemed to defeat the purpose. We’re all supposed to be together, I felt. Robinson’s Arch was nice, but it was like being invited to a wedding then seated in the overflow room with the teenagers and weird cousins.
The truth is, I haven’t been back to the Western Wall for Shavuot since.
It’s taken many years, but it seems that finally the rest of Israel has finally woken up to the hijacking of Judaism’s purportedly most holy site. After the repeated arrests of members of the Women of the Wall group in recent months, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky was tasked with coming up with a proposal that would keep everyone clean.
I won’t go into the full details of his plan – it’s been covered extensively in the Times of Israel and other Israeli news sites – but essentially it aims to join the Robinson’s Arch area with the main Western Wall area, so that you enter both from the same place and then split off into men’s, women’s and a much expanded modern/egalitarian area. It doesn’t change what’s been the status quo for the past decade plus, but it creates spatial parity. I think it’s pretty smart.
It might never get off the ground, of course. Despite Sharansky’s claim that it can be built and implemented in 10 months, it would require physical changes that will quickly turn into an international incident of “Judaizing” Jerusalem. It would require touching the Mughrabi Bridge, which has already been made a cause célèbre for Israel bashing throughout the anti-Zionist world. Israeli archaeologists aren’t too pleased either, since elevating the Robinson’s Arch area to be on the same level (physically if not spiritually) as the rest of the Western Wall plaza could potentially pave over priceless future finds. And the Women of the Wall are not an egalitarian group, they point out, so why shunt them away from the main women’s section?
But it has to be done. The delegitimization of Jews by Jews must be stopped and Sharansky’s proposal is a small but important step in the right direction.
For many reasons – and not just Shavuot – I’ve long since discovered that there is much more gray than black and white in the kind of Judaism I practice, and I no longer pine away for contact with the hypothetical stones of a distant deity. But for those who still do – and for my 23-year-old self, brimming with an enthusiasm crying out to be nurtured not squashed – perhaps next year (this year seems already too late), Shavuot at the Western Wall will embody togetherness not torment, unity and not underwear that should never have seen the early light of dawn.