Monthly Archives: May 2012

This Wall is Mine, Too

In my first blog post of the year, I reflected on my inaugural Rosh Chodesh prayer experience with Women of the Wall and my hopes for identifying with their mission. Moved, proud, and excited, I wrote:

“The point is to make a space for US, not to try to change THEM. It was empowering to reclaim a space that hadn’t felt like mine for a long time, and to pray there the way I know how.” 

View of the Kotel during last month’s calmer Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh Davenning

This morning, I went back to Women of the Wall (my third time this year) and had a very different and disturbing experience:

I arrived at the Kotel (Western Wall) about 15 minutes late, so I went right in to the women’s section, put on my tallit (prayer shawl), and quickly caught up on the service. At least half of the women present were also wearing tallitot. Right as I had gathered my tzitzit (corner fringes) together in preparation for the Shema prayer, a police officer approached me (and a couple of others) asking us to change the way we were wearing our tallitot. Apparently, it is illegal for a woman to wear a tallit at the Kotel, and the way of getting around that is to wear them like scarves. I promptly pulled my tallit down so that it was draped on my body, rather than folded over my shoulders in the customary way. She asked me to further make it look scarf-like, and I, stumbling in Hebrew, told her that I would as soon as this prayer was over, but that with my tzitzit wrapped around my fingers, that would be challenging. Without waiting to hear the end of my explanation, she called over to her fellow officer who was holding a video camera, and said in Hebrew “She doesn’t want to. Film her.” The second I released my tzitzit at the end of the Shema, I pulled the bottom of my tallit up and wore it like a shawl (the way I saw most of the other women wearing theirs), and wore it that way for the duration of the service at the Kotel.

In the moment, I was pretty frustrated: frustrated that the officer had interrupted my davenning (praying) at a crucial moment in the service when I try to have the most focus and intention. Frustrated that I could not articulate myself well to her. Frustrated that in what I thought was a public space, I could not wear my beloved garment (that covered most of my body, by the way) the way that I wanted. Frustrated that my tallit was too big to wear as a scarf and was therefore uncomfortable on my body. Frustrated that the people whom I thought were present to protect our group made me feel like I was the threat.

I pushed through, though, and sang loudly for the rest of the service to help our group of women and allies hear each other over the loud celebratory service happening just on the other side of the mechitza (barrier separating the men’s and women’s sections). We gathered at the end of the Hallel service to head to the archaeological park  at Robinson’s Arch (and extension of the Western Wall), because women are not permitted to read Torah publicly in the Kotel plaza. As we headed through security on the way out, an officer pointed me out, along with fellow JTS student Sarit Horwitz and Ziegler rabbinical student Erica Miller and pulled us aside. We were asked for our passports (none of us had them so we gave our drivers’ licenses), and were asked for our contact information as well. We were then told that we would be contacted for further inquiry and possible legal recourse, though at no point were we told specifically what the problem was. (I found out later that the expectation was that we should never have worn our tallitot as we did. Though we all complied when approached, we were apparently past the warning stage.) Throughout this ordeal, we were surrounded by all of the women and allies present who never stopped singing songs, rubbing our backs, squeezing our shoulders, and letting us know that we were not alone.

I was overwhelmed with emotion. My initial reaction was that of fear. I had complied with the officer’s request, and was certain that my thirty-second delay to finish the Shema had done me in. My half-midwestern blood makes me avoid most confrontations, and I’ve always hated getting in trouble. (My most traumatic childhood memories are of those few times when I was disciplined by teachers.) Additionally, coming from the US, I’ve always seen police officers as people in a helper role. I trust them. Today, police officers made me feel intimidated and unsafe.

My multi-faceted frustration from earlier was magnified by the realization that the Kotel, a supposedly universal Jewish prayer space, did not belong to me. My only positive Kotel prayer experiences this year have been with Women of the Wall, and today, that too was taken away from me.

I was (and continue to be) sad that our Jewish community is so fragmented that there is no space for multiple forms of religious expression, especially in a space that has captured Jewish hearts across denominations as a powerful symbol of Jewish unity.

I was in disbelief that an act of devotion that I perform every morning (on other days made “even worse” by wearing tefillin) was suddenly considered a criminal act.

I was grateful for the love and support I felt and continue to feel, reminding me that my Judaism is legitimate, meaningful, and important.

Now, a few hours later, my fears have abated slightly, but my sadness, frustration, disbelief, and gratitude remain, and these have led me to feel yet another emotion: empowerment. While I regret that this incident had to happen in the first place, I do not regret that it happened to me. And despite my aversion to confrontation, I am now drawn into this fight. I want my voice and my story heard, because the religious welfare of the State of Israel is too important for me to remain silent.

I don’t know what will happen next. I may be called in for further questioning, but have no legal obligation to show up, and do not yet know what I will do. My rabbinical school year in Israel ends in just 2.5 weeks. I worry that this incident might leave a stain on my year, but am hopeful that I can transform it into an opportunity to leave a different kind of mark: a positive, lasting impression on this place that I’ve called my home for 8 months and my homeland for nearly 26 years.

Wish me luck.

For more coverage, check out the following:

Jerusalem Post article

WoW Facebook page (including a video interview with the three of us)

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Standing at Attention

I’ve heard several sirens over the last few weeks, and each made me pause and think:

The first siren I heard was on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Taking a break from Halacha class, I stood at attention with my classmates, outdoors, but surrounded by the walls of the property. I could only imagine the rest of the country doing the same. As the sun hit my face, and the breeze whipped through me, I thought about the reason we stood there. Of the millions of Jews and other people deemed too “different” to remain in society whose time of enjoying the sun and spring breeze was cut far too short. Of the Jews for whom the dream of studying Talmud in Jerusalem was as foreign as the nightmares that they faced in the camps, ghettos, and in hiding. Of how lucky I was, simply to have been born where and when I was. Of my grave responsibility to make these silenced voices heard once again.

The second siren I heard was during the evening of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. I stood at attention in Rabin Square with tens of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds. We gathered because we needed to. We sang somber songs led by popular Israeli artists, heard the poetry of fallen soldiers, and watched video tributes to soldiers killed in battle that spanned decades of war and reflected the variety of religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds of IDF soldiers. There was an overwhelming feeling in the air of a desire for everyone to feel connected, to sit with each other in grief and solidarity. I truly felt like I was in community with each and every person around me that evening.

“Shirim Bakikar” at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv

There were thousands of people there.

The third siren I heard was the next morning. I stood at attention with the students and family members of the Keshet School in Jerusalem, accompanying a teacher of mine whose own children had studied there. The ceremony, or tekes, was planned and presented by the 12th grade students, kids who  did so with the awareness that in just a few months, they too will be soldiers, at risk for having their own stories told in future years. The students sang, danced, told stories, and read reflections with deep respect for the task at hand. I was in awe. That afternoon, I went to Har Herzl, the national military cemetery, and walked around, reading headstones and absorbing the stories of those who lay there. I reflected on Yom Hazikaron in Israel and how it differs from our own Memorial Day in the United States. Instead of barbecues, people gather and sing sad songs of war, loss, and love. Instead of parades, people gather for memorial ceremonies. Instead of shopping sales, people stand still at the graves of those they love and lost.*

At the memorial for victims of terror at Har Herzl

The fourth time I stood at attention, it was for the sounding of a shofar. I was at a Tekes Maavar, a transition ceremony, and this blast marked the moment of leaving behind (at least for now) the grief of remembering, and moving into the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day. Walking outside, I felt like someone had flipped a switch over Israel. All of a sudden, mobs of people crowded the streets, buying hot corn on the cob, cotton candy, and that annoying foam that kids like to spray at everyone. Techno beats pulsed from speakers set up on street corners. A singalong followed by Israeli folk dancing dominated Kikar Safra (Safra Square). There was a feeling of relief, of relaxation in the air, as if the Jewish population was saying: we made it through this tough day, now it’s time to celebrate and make the sacrifices of our loved ones worth it. This carefree feeling carried over into the next day- I spent some time in the park, and saw countless numbers of families and friends just sitting in the shade with a grill, enjoying the day, the weather, and each others’ company. I closed out Yom Haatzmaut with a really nice “al ha’esh” (literally, “on the fire,” how Israelis refer to barbecues) with some friends that evening.

The craziness that was Ben Yehuda Street on Yom Haatzmaut

People enjoying their picnics in the park

The blasts of the sirens serve the same purpose as that of the shofar, both at this time of year, and during the High Holidays. We are forced to pay attention, to stop what we are doing, be reminded of what is important that day, and know that no one is remembering alone.

This time of year is so saturated with sacred time, it’s as if we are in a constant state of acknowledging something special, punctuated with moments of normalcy. We celebrated Pesach, we count the Omer,  we remembered victims of the Holocaust, we celebrated a new month, we remembered fallen soldiers, we celebrated the anniversary of the rebirth of a nation. More recently, we knocked Lag Ba’omer off the list, and are starting to gear up for Shavuot in a couple of weeks. In between, even Shabbat is beginning to feel like a normal day.

Lag Ba’Omer: the day when small children play with large fires totally unsupervised

Now, with less than a month left here, I’m starting to think of each day as sacred in it’s own way, whether the calendar tells me I should or not. It’s been an incredibly rewarding practice, perhaps one that I’ll try to continue when I get home.

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* Below is an additional report on Yom Hazikaron that I sent to Rabbi Nevins to share with my classmates back in New York:
So, I spent yesterday in Tel Aviv, where at least during the day, things seemed pretty normal. Around 6-7pm though, the city seemed to get quiet all of a sudden. Shops started closing, traffic was slowing, and streets were being closed off. I could definitely feel a different tone in the air. I went to Kikar Rabin for “Shirim Bakikar” with Sarit and my roommate Becky. We were there for the siren, standing in silence with tens of thousands of other people who came out to remember the fallen. The tekes involved popular Israeli artists performing many of the somber “radio” songs interspersed with poems and powerful video tributes to individual fallen soldiers. The words to songs were projected on a screen so people could sing along. I was amazed at how fast people seemed to transition: into Yom Hazikaron itself, silencing immediately for the siren, starting up conversation afterwards, and silencing again the second emcee Yair Lapid opened the tekes. There seemed to be an overwhelming feeling of people just wanting to be together, and communal singing facilitated that connectedness.
This morning I went to a school tekes with a teacher of mine from Hartman- it was planned by Kitah Yod Bet, the kids who will for the most part be entering the army next year. They put together a beautiful, poignant program filled with readings, tributes, songs, dance, and visual art. I had the chance to debrief with my teacher afterwards, which was especially meaningful, because this was the school that her kids had attended, so she herself felt very emotionally connected to the experience.
I spent the afternoon at Har Herzl, just reading names on graves and plaques and being a presence. I went to find Matt Eisenfeld’s name at the memorial for victims of terror, and wove through the years and wars, the graves and monuments. There was a definite change in energy as we entered the section of newer graves. It was especially painful to see a couple of graves that were barely a week old and at this point were just mounds of dirt with a sign stuck in them, covered with flowers. One was for Hila Bezaleli, the soldier who was killed last week at the accident on Har Herzl while rehearsing for tonight’s tekes.
Not sure what the transition is going to look like tonight, but I’m definitely feeling in tune with the rest of the country and am looking forward to celebrating and relaxing with everyone.