Last week in a visit to Jerusalem, I was treated to a rarity: a Purim-like vision of an Israel turned on its head, a place where people of diametrically opposing views chose to live and let live. Accommodation was the order if the day.
In the heart of the Jewish Quarter I stumbled across a unisex bathroom.
Yes, you read correctly, a unisex bathroom, where a secular woman could dwell peacefully in the stall while haredi men peed blissfully and openly into a nearby urinal. And together, the children of Israel, male and female, haredi and secular, Israeli and tourist were able, if not to break bread together, at least wash hands together without incident.
Has the messiah arrived – or has the Jerusalem municipality messed up so badly as to offend everyone equally, denying them all of their privacy and dignity?
Apparently the women’s room was inoperative that day, and who knows for how many other days, but from the undaunted looks of those who went in, the Israeli unisex toilet experience is not so uncommon. The haredi guy at the urinal didn’t flinch even a little bit when a woman passed behind him, nor did she, a secular tourist, whose smirk quickly melted when she saw that the last person to use her stall hadn’t put the seat down.
And why shouldn’t a bathroom in the Jewish people’s home town not feel just like the one at home, where Uncle Joe always fails to put the seat down, Aunt Sadie is prone to indigestion, and the dog routinely chews up the toilet paper. In short, home is all about losing your privacy and dignity; not losing it, really, so much as trading it in for a little humility. A little humility (or even humiliation) is essential to uncovering one’s most basic humanness, which is why the ancient rabbis had no problem cavorting with people very different from themselves in bathhouses. One pot belly is not too different from the next.
The Sages said in the name of Rav: It is forbidden to live in a city that has no bathhouse (Mishna Kiddushin 4:12). And so, now, Jerusalem has become no different from the shvitz at Grossingers for guys or the changing room at Loehmann’s (of blessed memory) for women – except that it’s unisex. Perhaps our task is to rebuild not the ancient temple itself, not “beit” ha-mikdash, but “bath” ha-mikdash, a place where people meet on the most human level, a true holy of holies, a sanctuary complete with a throne.
When you are sharing a bathroom, no need to discuss modesty. There is no back of the bus here. There are no secrets. There are only basic human functions that we all share, and a dilapidated facility that we can all complain about.
And maybe that’s the first step toward a grander national reconciliation.
If we want to make peace together, first we must make pee together. At first flush, this is a pee process that could amount to something.