My wife and I returned to Israel late Monday afternoon after a two month stay in the US. It was not an easy trip — two stops, 23 hours, a cancelled leg, lost luggage. But, as always, it felt good to be back.
Friends were visiting from California. So, despite our fatigue, we hit the ground running. Other than vegetating for a few days, what better way to recuperate from the ordeal that is today’s air transportation system than to introduce good friends to some of the fun and beauty of Jerusalem that the standard touring may have skipped over?
Yemin Moshe, drinks on the King David patio, Machane Yehuda, Café Itamar at Moshav Ora, the Israel Museum. A good time.
And one reminder of what it has taken to defend and build this Jewish home in this inhospitable neighborhood: Mt. Herzl. Our friends, and we, were moved as we walked through row after row of the graves of young people who died so that Jews might live freely in their own country.
The poignant finale: an elderly couple walking up to and bending down, readying to light a candle beside a grave stone in which the year 1982, along with a few details, was etched. The thought of that couple making that walk and lighting that candle for 34 long years is one very good way to put the irritations and complaints of daily life in the Jewish homeland in perspective.
It was now Thursday afternoon. I asked our friends, who are members of our Conservative synagogue back in Sacramento, if they would like to join us for a different kind of Israeli experience. The main worship area of the Western Wall, the Kotel, has basically become an Orthodox synagogue controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate. All religious practice at the holiest site in Judaism is controlled by one segment of world Jewry.
Per their practice, men and women must worship separately. Those who disagree with this practice and wish to worship as they believe, i.e., Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, are relegated to a distinct section called the Robinson’s Arch area, the entrance to which is through an archaeological center and not through the entrance to the Kotel.
The message is clear: You are not accepted. Yours is not a legitimate expression of Judaism. Ours is the only authentic Jewish practice. Sending that message is not a mistake. The powers-that-be openly express this belief in their many pronouncements over the issue.
Most Israelis are busy living and dealing with the challenges of daily life, i.e., jobs, carpools, army service, schools, and the like. They may not like the situation, but for them it is one of many issues, and not one that impacts their daily lives. For Diaspora Jews, particularly the Conservative and Reform Jews who represent the majority of North American Jews, the issue is a hot-button one. It goes directly to the heart. Is Israel truly the home of all Jews? Are all Jews accepted as equal in our homeland?
The governing coalition reached a compromise a few months ago. The main area of the Wall would be expanded to include the area used by the non-Orthodox. There would be one entrance where all would enter. The current male and female areas would be retained, but the expanded area would now include a large section for men and women to worship together as. In the meantime, a temporary area for egalitarian worship was set aside. Planning for implementation of the deal, which involves reconstruction, would begin soon.
Hasn’t happened yet. The religious parties in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition have threatened to bring down the government if the deal is implemented. The PM has engaged in discussions ostensibly aimed at hearing the religious parties’ concerns. Representatives of Diaspora Jewry have flown over to meet with the prime minister, forecasting a huge schism in relations should the deal not be implemented. He has assured them that he intends to implement the deal, but he did not assure them that he would not make changes.
On Wednesday some of the opponents of the deal decided to make a statement. Led by the chief rabbi of Jerusalem and the former chief Sephardic rabbi, and accompanied by police, they walked into the temporary egalitarian site, set up a mechitza (a barrier separating the sexes), and proceeded to conduct services. The message was clear: non-Orthodox are not welcome to pray as they believe. We will not allow the deal to be implemented. There is only one way: our way.
The Conservative Movement, along with others, called for a demonstration and mincha prayers for Thursday afternoon in the main plaza area by the Wall. It would not interfere with or intrude on the prayer areas at the Wall.
Given that our friends are interested Conservative Jews, I thought attending the demonstration/prayer would be an educational, unique way to wrap up their visit before heading home. They had had a very positive visit. Why not end it with something unusual?
How naïve could I be? Fortunately, they could not come. There was not enough time to join us at the Wall, pack, and get to the airport.
So, we said our goodbyes. Tired, jet-lagged, but determined to show our support for an equal place for our Judaism in Israel, my wife and I made our way to the plaza beside the Wall.
There were 175, maybe 200 of us. A lot of milling around. As we did our milling around, a group of black hats, mostly young ones, started milling around us. Some of them started singing. We continued to mill. Occasionally a somewhat disheveled religious woman would walk by us and say something about going to Gaza. A woman in our group turned to her and said “My son went to Gaza to protect you.”
After what seemed a long while standing on the hard plaza stones in the heat, our side started singing some songs and doing prayers. With no microphone, it was hard to hear and to know what exactly we were doing. I moved closer and to the left side of our group in order to hear and to feel a part of things. On the left side of our group were a good number of young black hats shouting. There was some pushing and shoving. Lots of police were standing around watching.
An obvious question arises: Why did the police allow the groups to be touching, pushing, shoving? A simple line of barriers spaced a few feet apart would have done the trick. But for reasons known only to the police and perhaps some coalition partners, the groups were allowed to be in direct, unhappy, dangerous contact.
As our group did its prayers and songs, the black hats to the left of us became stronger in numbers and meaner sounding and looking. Epithets were thrown, along with a few shoves. With my limited Hebrew, and in the heat of the moment, I could not figure out what the young “religious” people were yelling, but I am pretty sure it was not “have a nice day.”
A woman on our team grew increasingly upset. My guess is she is a veteran of these encounters. One very aggressive young man screamed something in a very harsh, angry tone. The woman spat at him. I think, or I would like to think, she spat down toward his feet, but I am not sure. In any event, she spat, which was wrong. Very wrong.
Predictably taking the low road in response, the young man spat back, clearly at her face. Standing just a foot from her, I got caught in the line of spit. In my face. In my left eye.
I wiped it away. But I felt dirty. I washed with soap and water when I got home. But I still felt dirty. And sad. As I think about it now, I feel dirty. And sad.
In my younger years (okay, up until just a few years ago), my reaction would have been anger. I might have spat back. I most certainly would have shoved. Now, in my mid-60s, having made aliyah (although with a lot of back and forth to the States), having made the financial sacrifices, missing kids and a grandchild, defending Israel at every turn and in every place, what was my feeling? What still is my feeling?
Overwhelming sadness. And great relief that my friends had to catch their airplane. What a way not to end a trip to Israel.
In the Torah portion this last Shabbat, God asks Moses if Miriam would be shamed if her father spat in her face. The commentary in Etz Hayim explains that “in the ancient Near East, it was thought that spittle possesses magical powers,” but “in the Bible, where this magical background has been uprooted, spitting is simply a matter of causing humiliation.” And, I would add, in 2016, at Judaism’s holiest site, sadness and pain.
Earlier in this last Shabbat’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to tell Aaron how to arrange the lamps, the menorah. The Etz Hayim commentary discusses how, among so many objects in the Tent of Meeting, the menorah has become such an important symbol of Judaism. The commentary says:
“Why does the Torah lay such emphasis on the m’morah (sic) among all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting? “As I shined a light on Israel, making them conspicuous among the nations, let them shine a light on Me” (Num.R. 15-5). God has no visible form. Only when Jews live by the values of the Torah do they embody what God stands for and make God manifest in the world. “For the modern traditional Jew, the doctrine of the election and covenant of Israel offers a purpose for Jewish existence which transcends narrow self-interest. . . . It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel, where we may teach by both personal and collective example what it means to be a covenant people, a light to the nations” (Emet Ve-Emunah)
There wasn’t much of that light shining at the Kotel plaza Thursday afternoon. There was humiliation. And darkness. And sadness. There still is.