Of Gnomes, Religious Freedom, and Pronoun Trouble: Arguing in Jerusalem

My language has tilted, tipped, gone over. I speak English now with Hebrew syntax (I ‘for just a few minutes make a phone call’; I ‘even without planning it walk to a familiar place’). It’s never a conscious thing, the shift to Hebrew-inflected sentences, but it endures long after I leave Israel. I bunch my fingertips at people, tsk to indicate ‘no’. And become a bit of a scrapper. At home I’m not confrontational with strangers, but this is a climate where people yell for unfathomable reasons. I pull my son out of the direct path of an oncoming biker; the man stops his bike just in order to throw his hands at me and yell that he would have stopped in time, so I shouldn’t have diverted my child. Given enough of these interactions, I yell back. A little more time here and I’ll be a street brawler.

(And no wonder Israelis are known as innovators. If one of the biggest barriers to trying something new is fear that people will disapprove, what better incubator than a country where everybody yells at everybody…all the time?)

But to my point: I’ve been re-visiting issues of gender in Israel—issues that were very immediate to me in the 1990s when I worked at the Israel Women’s Network, but have since seemed more distant. A recent discussion with a friend who knows his way around these issues provided a sobering update. Of course Israel has had a female prime minister and a female president of the supreme court, and has been in the forefront regarding women in the military. But the more power the ultra-Orthodox have in Israel, the more they haul women’s rights backward. The extremes are well-known, and though I won’t catalogue them here, they include things like throwing rocks at schoolgirls—orthodox schoolgirls—because their modest dress isn’t deemed sufficiently modest; and telling women they need to sit at the rear of the bus. It took ages to get Israeli courts to declare that the Jerusalem public bus service was forbidden to have specific buses in religious neighborhoods where women had to sit in the back. And apparently on some of these bus lines, people still (illegally) ask women to go to the back. My friend told me about a recent fertility-issues conference–run by a religious institution but nevertheless an important event for anyone working in the field–where women weren’t allowed into the lecture hall, even to sit in the audience. And then of course there’s the removal of ads that feature women’s pictures, because for many ultra-orthodox groups, images of women—regular, non-scantily-clad women–are an abomination. (And yes, it’s clichéd and tiresome of me to rehearse the old familiar hypocrisies—really it’s too easy. But just because I like shooting fish in a barrel… Spied amid a small crowd at the Jerusalem Knights’ Festival this Thursday: two haredi men with beards and long sidelocks, ogling the woman dancer in the skintight feathered suit.)

A prominent Israeli bank came out with a “Happy Independence Day” ad featuring a smiling man and woman holding an Israeli flag. In Jerusalem, though, and in other areas where the ultra-Orthodox drive politics, the bank issued a different version of their ad, featuring a smiling man holding one side of an Israeli flag, the other side of which is held by…a cartoon garden gnome. (Really. Check out the photos on this blog:, and this article in ynet:,7340,L-4068514,00.html )

The kids and I attended the 25th anniversary of Women at the Wall–the group insisting on women’s rights to pray and sing aloud and wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall, despite the ultra-Orthodox ban. In the past, the women showing up for their monthly prayer service have often been harassed. Ultra-orthodox men have thrown chairs and water, and have tried every tactic in the decibels-genre in order to disrupt the praying women. Ultra-orthodox institutions have bused in hundreds of young female students to jam the women’s section and crowd out Women of the Wall. To top it off, the Israeli police have sometimes ended up arresting the praying women (though notably not the men who were harassing them). Now, since some bold moves by some of the women being arrested, the government is doing the right thing and starting to protect the protestors.  ( )

Much has been reported on the 25th anniversary event elsewhere. I can add only the personal: I wanted to be at the kotel because, as I told my daughter, even though I’m not so sure about the God part, I’ll always speak up to defend a woman’s rights to pray / sing / communicate with Him / Her / It…because while I’m agnostic about God, I’m a fanatic about fanatics. (I know. Pity the agnostic parents of the world their tortured explanations.)

It was a good party: seven hundred women singing, lofting tallitot, lofting their voices…a few hundred men supporting us from a pavilion near the women’s section. This time, some of the ultra-orthodox groups that tend to bus in female students refrained from doing so. The kotel rabbi on the men’s side of the wall did his best, praying through his microphone louder than ever in an attempt to drown out the unprecedented group of singing women. But the police—for the first time–cut his microphone. Nobody threw chairs or water, there were no arrests, and all in all, the protests were far more peaceful than is apparently usual. Some ultra-orthodox men and women were blowing whistles to try to drown out the group’s prayers, but they didn’t really have a chance—we were a big crowd.

Because we’re living with a family that’s very active in Women of the Wall, we were in the thick of things: my daughter and I on the women’s side; my son sitting with friends among the male supporters of the praying women. At one point I was standing beside my daughter, who was proudly wearing a kippah someone had give her. A cluster of young ultra-orthodox women gathered to stare at her. They informed me that, because my 11-year-old was wearing a kippah, God was crying.  Settling a reassuring arm around my daughter’s shoulders, I told the women that in fact I was fairly sure God was happy. They said that God was crying. I said that I had it on fairly good authority that God was happy and was, in fact, laughing. They said that God was crying. I said that God was happy that we love each other and take care of each other. They said that God was crying. We were having a great conversation out there, but just as it was getting fun the policewomen came over to break it up.

It’s often struck me that the dangerous point in any crowd conflict is the moment when people stop varying their words. This, to me, is the moment when things can turn truly frightening. So long as people are varying their words, they’re thinking. But the moment a person starts shouting the same line over and over, anything can happen. This is because anger, like all living entities, needs to grow to its natural limits. And when words stall and can’t further amplify people’s furious messages, sometimes violence takes over.

So I always get a bit nervous when people begin to shout the same line repeatedly, verbatim. But this time the interaction was something far more benign: this was street theater. In truth, none of us that morning had the remotest aspiration of changing our adversaries’ minds. I was reminded of Vivian Gornick’s essays about street life in New York, and the element of glorious performance in all public conflicts. Our argument, though adrenaline-generating, was in fact perfunctory—even lazy. Sport rather than true battle.  (And apparently this sport required me to speak as definitively about God’s moods as did my opponents. Possibly there might have been a way to stand up for my daughter that incorporated my agnostic equivocations—”assuming for a moment that God exists and has emotions recognizable to humans, he / she / it is happy”—but if so, I wasn’t quick enough to think of it.) Thinking of this as street theater, of course, made me regret that I’m not the kind of person who takes these things further. If I were, I might have told the women that God was so happy that She was going to hire a mariachi band and bring it to the kotel. Or I might have reversed tactics and done as a friend later suggested–slipping in a ‘God is crying’ of my own, to see how they’d respond. That’s something I’d like to see: the old ‘duck season’ routine at the kotel.

Neither these ultra-orthodox women nor I being so adventurous, however, we stuck to the usual script. And if I could ignore the oh-so-American hammering-heart part of me that still hates conflict, I might even say it was fun. Theological calisthenics on all sides: five or six “God is crying”s and a few “God is laughing”s just to limber up for a day’s work in Jerusalem. And a nice way to let the world know that we cannot, any of us—not even those ultra-orthodox women holding stubbornly to their one repeated sentence—be replaced by garden gnomes.

On the way home from the kotel, I sang my eight-year-old son’s praises. It’s one thing to stand up for your own rights, I told him; it’s another thing to be a hero and stand up for someone else’s. I thanked him for being our hero that day. My son, who generally doesn’t like to wear a kippah, refused to take his off after the event. Kissing him goodnight that evening, I found he’d decided to sleep with it on.

About the Author
Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story, a well as the forthcoming novella I Was Here. Her short fiction has been read on National Public Radio and her essays have appeared in publications such as Poets & Writers, Ploughshares, and The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt. She has been a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Harvard/Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute; has won the John Gardner Fiction Award; and has been a writer-in-residence at Stanford University. She lives outside Boston, and is on the writing faculty of Lesley University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.