Open Eyes at the Western Wall
My parents met at JTS. Both are committed feminists, and passionately observant Jews. As a young child, feminism and Judaism came easily to me; they were so natural that although I went through the motions of Judaism, and always believed in equality between the genders, I wasn’t particularly passionate about either one. I just knew them to be inherent truths in my life.
Almost every year since I was born, I have had the privilege of visiting Israel. When I was twelve years old, on one of my family’s yearly pilgrimages, I approached my parents and mentioned that it had been a while since we had visited the Kotel, the Western Wall. My mother wasn’t particularly eager to go, but my father agreed to take me. Fast forward a few days, and we’re sitting in a café in Mamila, an Americanized outdoor shopping mall just a few short steps outside of the Old City. My dad asked me if I wanted to take that day to visit the Wall, and I was excited until I remembered, practically, what that might mean. I looked down and realized that my outfit was nowhere near “Kotel appropriate” and began to panic. I was wearing shorts—no daisy dukes (my mother would never have approved in the first place), but definitely not bermudas either. I knew and resented the fact that the “Kotel ladies” would make me wrap my legs in a skirt/shmata, but in my naiveté, I accepted it.
Two of my siblings, my father, and I, began our walk to the Kotel. When we approached the plaza, I took my sister’s hand, and my father my brother’s, and we split off to go to our respective security areas. My little sister went through without any issue. I stepped through the metal detector easily, the little green light indicating I was no threat. A man in a security jacket waved my sister and I through, but as I began to walk away, I was called back by a woman I hadn’t noticed. “You can’t wear that!”, she yelled at me in Hebrew. I reluctantly took the shmata out of her hand, and wrapped it around my waist.
I had already started walking towards the wall when I heard it. “Tachzeri lepo yalda!,” she yelled, “Come back here, girl!” My stomach began to churn. What now? She held out another shmata. “Mah?” (“What?”), I asked her, genuinely confused. “At lo yechola lilbosh goofiyah kazot poh!” (“You can’t wear a tank top like that here!”). I would define the shirt I was wearing as cap-sleeved, fully covering everything that I had thought needed covering. This woman clearly didn’t agree. My hands began to tremble as I took the shmata out of hers. I ran over to my father, who had finally made his way through security, with no control over the tears that had begun to stream down my face. Behind me, I could hear the woman yelling, “Put it on! Put it on!” “Abba,” I said anxiously, “We need to leave. Now.” He couldn’t quite make out what was happening through my tears, but gave my siblings a minute or two at the Wall, before quickly ushering us all out.
More than four years have passed, and the recounting of this experience still stings like a fresh wound. One shmata, one knock against my ability to behave as a Jew, and as a young woman, and to represent my people to the world, I might have been able to handle. Two made me feel like a piece of trash, and I couldn’t stomach it.
That woman, who just like me had to stand on the small side of the Kotel mechitza each time she wanted to pray there, who I’m certain was sweating under all her clothing in the hot Israeli summer sun, handed me these shmatas in order to tell me that the way I dressed, the way I was comfortable in any other part of my life was inappropriate in the presence of “good” Jews, and in the presence of god. I was confused; wasn’t I always supposed to be with god?
This interaction shocked me to very core. In handing me that shmata, she was letting me know that being a woman was not going to be easy. Being one who believed in god and feminism would prove to be even more difficult.
My eyes were opened. They were opened to the fact that it is possible to go to the Kotel plaza every day of your life blind to the discomfort felt by hundreds of people who pass through the same gates. My eyes opened and I saw that this place, this religion, were truly crucial aspects of my identity. They were opened to an understanding that although many of us like to believe that problems of gender don’t exist in the twenty-first century, they are all around us. As my eyes opened, I watched the Judaism and the feminism that was instilled in me by my parents become mine.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Fish-Bieler, Hani. "Open Eyes at the Western Wall." 4 October 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 22, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/open-eyes-at-western-wall>.