Woman of the Wall

Western Wall, Jerusalem.

My heart fluttered the first time I saw the Hebrew/Arabic/English street signs circling the exterior of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. The Negev broke my heart, and Eilat gave me a black eye. But when my bright orange tour bus came over a hill and I got my first glimpses of the streets of Jerusalem, the world seemed to stand still. The white rooftops of the more modern towns stretching off from the Old City seemed to gleam, juxtaposed against the green hills that supposedly held my history. I knew what famous sights I was going to see in this city; I didn’t know how they would make me feel.

My group went to the Kotel (Western Wall) four times during our month-long trip; the first time was at one in the morning, just after the start of Shavuot. The wall is smaller than I thought it would be, but still incredibly daunting. I was initially startled by the many older women murmuring in the streets, eyes closed as they prayed so hurriedly and so desperately.

My friends, as lovely as they are, had frankly been pissing me off all night, and there wasn’t much therapeutic alone time to be found in Jerusalem’s crowds. I finally found a moment of solace as I approached the wall. I stood for some time in the herd of women waiting to get their turn at the stone, occasionally peering over the mechitza to see the male side of the wall. When the time came, I closed my eyes as my palm met the cool limestone.

I have identified as a culturally Jewish atheist for as long as I knew what those words meant when paired together. In other words, I was not expecting to see my life flash before my eyes, or to finally hear the voice of G-d. I didn’t. Instead, I sang the Sh’ma to myself, a prayer special to me not because of its literal translation, but because of the reflective time I take for myself whenever we chant it at my synagogue.

In the middle of my prayer, I heard another woman nearby start singing with me. In a sea of so many people, here was another woman sharing my space, my words, and my experience. I did not hear the voice of G-d, but I realized then what it meant to be Jewish: sharing everything with a complete stranger, just because of common roots that we share.

We went back to the Kotel on the last day of our trip, our only visit in the morning. I’ve always had a desire to wrap Tefillin at sunrise, and when I saw my male friends doing so at the holiest of sites, I immediately wanted in. I asked Miriam, our tour guide, if I could. She asked around in rapid-fire Hebrew, and then told me, with an apologetic smile, that I might get arrested if I tried to wrap tefillin on the women’s side of the wall.

I was shocked. This place, which had become so powerful and important to me on this trip, had suddenly become adulterated. I had found solidarity and comfort while sharing a powerful first experience with a fellow woman, only to have another opportunity taken away from me because of that identity. I was suddenly reminded that ancient traditions include the parts of history that are often convenient to forget. These traditions however, remain a part of the Jewish experience.

Looking back, I think I’m able to reflect more positively. The combined experiences I had at the Kotel gave me a defined sense of my Jewishness, as well as my feminist identity. Unapologetically claiming a space and a tradition as my own, regardless of the subsequent history, empowers my feminine identity. Retaining my identity despite ancient oppressive traditions is more powerful than that oppression, and no mechitza can take that away from me.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Sherman, Kara. "Woman of the Wall ." 30 October 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 20, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/woman-of-wall-0>.