Today, 200,000 people are marching in solidarity in Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Parade while just a short distance away in Jerusalem, heterosexual couples must separate themselves in order to pray.
When I was a teenager, I toured Israel with my parents. Arriving at the Kotel, my mother pulled her tallit from her bag in a rush of anticipation. “Please,” our tour guide stopped her on the way out of the bus, “don’t wear that. We don’t want to spend your vacation bailing you out of jail.” Not wanting to ruffle any feathers, she bit her lip and folded her precious tallit back into her bag. Assailed at the entrance to the women’s section of the wall by a bug-eyed Haredi man, we were forced to wrap silk fabric around our pants so as to not offend — who, precisely? The men who weren’t supposed to be looking at us, anyway?
Fifteen years later, I once again faced the Kotel, this time alone. My husband, my Israeli better half, parted with me at the gate as we went to pray. In a country that does so much to advocate for gay rights, I was ironically forced to pray without my husband, my beshert, at my side. I felt naked and alone. We did everything else on that trip together. But, at least according to the Haredi, for us to talk to our God together would be out of the question.
I looked around and noticed how small the women’s section felt. How cramped. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a young boy attempting to look through the mechiza only to receive a smack on the head from his elder. Plastic lawn chairs filled our already tight quarters, bunched together as if they were thrown over the mechitza by men who needed more space to pray, to dance, to hold their Torah scrolls with pride. When it came to our prayers, women were relegated to Kotel’s forgotten storage closet.
The current deal being proposed would do nothing to change the status of the women’s section of the Kotel. The Original Women of the Wall who have spent decades being jailed for the right to don prayer shawls, lay tefillin and read Torah would be relegated to the authority of the Haredim. In exchange, Conservative and Reform Jews would be granted egalitarian space at Robinson’s Arch. This would transform a national holy site into a denominational battle ground. At the very moment we need unity we are only presented with more division.
Shmuel Rosner is right: What we face with the Kotel deal is nothing more or less than a civil rights issue that should be addressed as such. Those of us who demand an end to de facto Haredi control over the Kotel must unite beyond the observance divide. We who lay claim to the shared heritage of open communication with God must demand our right to pray at our holy site without discrimination against our sex. Less than 70 km away men and women can march together, loud and proud. Yet, our prayers in our capital must remain separate, silent and shunned. The irony is shameful.
On my desk sits a stereoscope image from the turn of the last century. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, modern and ancient stand together at the Kotel in prayer. The caption reads “The Jews’ Wailing Wall.” “The Jews”. Not “the women” or “the men” but simply all of us, together, claiming one tiny slab of earth on which to pray together. More than 100 years later the city of Jerusalem is finally our own once again. It is time for the Kotel to be ours as well.