Nobody puts my baby in a corner

A recent blog post in Times of Israel calls women who want equal access at the Kotel plaza, like Women of the Wall, “radicals.” I want to introduce you to one of those so-called radicals. My little girl.

We were having a family lunch in Mamilla, overlooking the walls of the Old City. My then 12 year old daughter said,

“You know, we haven’t been to the Kotel in a long time.”

I sighed. My kids know how I feel about the Kotel. I feel unwelcome, like a girl showing up to a party without an invitation. Like my Jewish bona fides are in question. I choose mostly to steer clear unless attending a simcha or other special event.

But the rest of my family feel differently. And I was not about to deny them their visit because of my personal discomfort. I would go back home with the 3 year old, and the three older kids would go to the Kotel with their father. There was one problem. My eldest daughter was wearing shorts. Long shorts, the only kind she’s allowed to wear. She considered running back home to put on a skirt, but her siblings were not interested in waiting. She hated the idea of having to throw a shmatta around her waist, but at least she was wearing a long tunic top, which covered her up. She decided to go.

Here maybe I should stop and say something about my daughter. We are a lot alike, she and I. But she’s way cooler than I ever was. She is smart, independent, and a true leader. The frustrating things about her are like me, too. She is stubborn, and holds a grudge, and doesn’t like doing things if she can’t do them well. In me this is “quirky.” In her it can be infuriating. Go figure.

She is a Jewish leader as well. She leads davening, reads Torah even when she gets a last minute request, runs kids’ services. When a classmate expressed to her that he had never experienced a “real shabbat,” she invited her whole class for a shabbaton. At our house. (She asked first.) One thing she inherited from me over which I had no control, is that by age 12, she could have passed for an adult.

I was saddled with that burden big time, even more than she. And in the 80’s men felt even more comfortable being, well, men. Despite what they thought, I did not invite, nor did I enjoy their ogling. I didn’t wear provocative clothes, but the looks, and sometimes the jeers, persisted nonetheless. At least most of the time I could count on girls and women leaving me alone. Most of the time.

Once, 12 years old and at a party at a friend’s house, I started to feel sick, and then threw up. In the throws of a full-fledged stomach virus, while I waited for my parents to drive the half hour to come and get me, all I wanted was to curl up and disappear. But one of the other mothers started to taunt me.

“Why are you throwing up?” she asked, “Are you pregnant?” I tried to ignore her, but she repeated it a number of times, giggling with the other parents. I am certain that if I hadn’t looked so much like a grown woman she would never have behaved that way. She couldn’t see past my body to the person I was inside. At the moment when I felt most vulnerable, my insides literally spilling out, all I wanted was someone to give me a blanket, rub my back, and tell me Ima would be there soon. I did not want to be a woman. I wanted to be a little girl.

So my daughter walked to the Kotel, prepared to cover up her sexually alluring 12 year old knees with a piece of blue cloth. Her top would have been de rigueur at any mainstream orthodox shul. But, likely because she looked more like a beautiful woman and less like a pretty young girl, the tsnius police at the entrance to the womens’ section insisted she cover up her top as well.

It was too much. My daughter had given in a whole lot to have her moment davening mincha at that wall. She is accustomed to praying, men and women together, her voice strong and sure. She bowed to their demands. She is accustomed to davening in a minyan, something denied ALL women at the Kotel. She gave in once again. And she is accustomed to her own standard of modesty, one where her body is well covered, where it is not about her sexuality, but about her fashion sense. She was prepared to give in there as well. But that her perfectly modest top was now considered to be licentious, sexually provocative, asking for it, was a bridge too far. Instead of having a special spiritual moment, she came home crying.

My daughter is absolutely not a radical. She is committed to working with institutions from the inside. She has kept every single shabbat of her life, even when her friends were listening to their iPods or texting or going to the movies. She fasts even on the minor fast days when many of her peers “forget.” She shows up at meetings when other kids blow them off because she knows the work has to get done. She is conventional in the best sense of the word.

I wouldn’t walk into a Haredi synagogue and demand that they accept my standards of dress, or prayer, or study. But, I think most Israelis, and most Jews around the world, would agree that the Kotel should not be a Haredi synagogue. Some would argue that the only way to be inclusive is to adapt the standards of the most restrictive Jews, thereby offending none.

I, however, am offended. To Jews in my community, silencing women in this way feels like plain old discrimination. Replace the word “women” with “Asians” or “the disabled” and maybe you can hear it;

_____need to keep silent, their voices are disturbing.
_____need to completely cover up, seeing their flesh bothers us during prayer.
_____cannot even wear tallit or tefillin, they cannot wear OUR clothes, it is disgusting.

Hopefully someday the new platform will blend seamlessly with the mens’ and womens’ sections. Maybe then there will truly be a place for us in that holy space, that symbol of our peoplehood. Where instead of a collection of offensive body parts, we can be seen for who we really are.

The Women of the Wall aren’t radicals, trying to destroy institutions. They want IN. They want to be brought out of the shadows and into the light. They want to stop being put in the corner. They want their Jewish life to mirror what they know in their hearts to be true. That their struggles are not so much for them, but for those young girls who chose a visit to the Kotel over a trip to the mall. Who want to be looked in the eye and not at the knees. Who pray from their heart, which isn’t male or female, but beats strong, and proud, together with Jewish hearts all over the world.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.