Gender, Privilege, and Women of the Wall

Becky Silverstein

A year ago I entered the women’s side of the mechitza at the Kotel (Western Wall) and tried to place a prayer written on a small piece of paper into one of the cracks. The prayer asked Gd to create space for me at the wall and in Jewish community generally, as well as for the strength to be active in creating that space for myself and others. Instead of finding itself wedged into a crack among the folded-up prayers of thousands of other Jews, it fell. As I watched it fall, I suddenly felt out of place, aware that I was wearing shorts and polo shirt in a sea of long skirts. I felt like I was invading women’s sacred space. I felt like where I was standing was not a place that I, a genderqueer rabbinical student, belonged. Before my prayer reached the ground, I had run out of the women’s section. Pacing the Kotel Plaza, I recited the line “ashrei yoshvei beitecha (happy are those who dwell in your house)”1 over and over again to try and slow my heart rate. I vowed never to enter another women’s prayer space again. Since then, I have entered the women’s side of a mechitza twice, but not at the Kotel. Nor have I have questioned my decision to stay out of that space – until Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning, I prayed with Women of the Wall.

Women of the Wall is “a group of Israeli women joined by Jewish women from around the world, seek[ing] the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty2.” They gather on the first of each month to celebrate the new month, Rosh Chodesh, a festival day in the Jewish tradition. Tuesday morning, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, about forty women gathered at the back of the women’s section, a few male allies prayed from the men’s section, and a few more directly behind the women in the outer courtyard. The group had their own videographer, a supportive contrast to the group of police who video their services monthly. Additional soldiers stood on the men’s side and in the courtyard in case anything got out of control. On Tuesday, as usual, the group began the morning service, continuing until it was time to read the Torah. At that point, we moved, as usual, to Robinson’s Arch, an egalitarian prayer space away from the main Kotel plaza- highlighting the reality that women are, by law, prohibited from reading Torah at the Kotel.

I prayed as I did last month, behind the women in the Kotel Plaza. I positioned myself not as one of the women, but as an ally. As someone who is female-bodied, this distinction is important. Unlike my male colleagues who prayed next to me, I had access to the women’s section and thus the ability to identify as member of the group fighting for their right to pray as full members of Jewish community. As an ally I had certain privileges — distance from the cameras, distance from those who harassed the Women of the Wall, the ability to see what was happening from various perspectives. It also meant that I couldn’t always follow along with the service and didn’t feel the energy of the group – privileges that I consciously gave up to support the cause. Standing in the Kotel Plaza also afforded me male privilege – as long as I was read by the police as a man I was free to wear my tallit (prayer shawl) and tfillin (phylacteries). As with reading Torah at the Kotel, women in Israel are not allowed to pray at the Wall with tallitot worn in the traditional fashion or with tfillin. Though I declined to wear my tfillin in solidarity, the option was available to me. I chose the possibility of not passing as male, and the fear and insecurity that comes with it, over the emotional stress of praying in the women’s section. I successfully passed during the time we were at the Kotel. As a result the privilege I carried, however fleeting, was real. I am now forced to confront both the fear and insecurity that comes with attempting to pass, as well as the anger and shame that accompany that privilege.

Image

My view of Women of the Wall from the Kotel Plaza.

During the part of the service at the Kotel, I saw a gender non-conforming person attempt to enter the women’s section to join Women of the Wall. They were stopped by the police and asked for identification, presumably to confirm that they were female and thus permitted to enter the women’s section. I began to cry. That moment, one where the a police officer questioned whether this person could be in the women’s section, epitomizes moments of fear in my life. I fear the ever-present questions, the need to justify my presence, the need to justify my gender. I fear the possible violent repercussions when someone decides my appearance does not match the sex on my driver’s license or the sound of my voice. I fear being spit at and dragged out of both the women’s and men’s section. I fear this moment in religious spaces, I fear this moment in bathrooms, I fear this moment walking down a Jerusalem street wearing ‘men’s’ clothing, such as a kippah and tallit katan. I fear this moment when I am first introduced to a new friend or a new group of students.

But as shaken as I was in that moment, it turns out I was not at risk of being questioned. Those really at risk were the women who were wearing their tallitot, on the women’s side. In the end, it was my roommate, a close friend, and another colleague who were questioned, their names, phone numbers and addresses recorded for further investigation. They did nothing other than wear their tallitot as a tallit is traditionally worn. It didn’t matter. As the group moved from the Kotel to Robinson’s Arch, a police officer called them aside. I pushed my way to the front of the group and placed my hand on my roommate’s back just as the policeman was asking for her ID. I had never been more aware of the privilege I wore. The only thing I could do was take off my sunglasses and look straight at the police officers, hoping that one would ask me “at ben o’ bat?” Am I a boy or a girl – a frequent refrain in my experience in Israel this year. They didn’t. I swallowed my privilege with a feeling of shame and a hatred of both a government that passed and enforced unjust laws, and a society deeply entrenched in a rigid gender binary.

My feelings of shame were based on my own choice to separate myself from the women and instead pray as an ally. Should I have chosen to pray in the women’s section? Should I have given up my emotional comfort for the cause? Isn’t that what being an ally means? What would have been gained? Where do I as a genderqueer, female-bodied person fit in the fight for women’s rights? The struggle for the rights of LGTBQ people is intertwined with the fight for women’s rights – both are about freeing us from the traps of gender expectations and roles. Within the larger struggle, I do not know how to engaage with my own fluidity, my own ability to move in different gendered spaces. I am not sure how, or if I always want, to leverage that fluidity.

I carried these questions and my sense of shame with me as I led the community in the concluding segment of the morning’s service. I had been asked by the gender non-conforming person who I had seen earlier. They read me as being female, a fact that I know for sure because of how they addressed me in Hebrew. The privilege I had carried for the first hour and a half was lost and replaced by the privilege of leading this holy community in prayer. Was it was right for me to move from one space of privilege to another? I’m not sure. As someone who had chosen to position myself as an ally, I was reluctant to take on a role that other, male allies, were not permitted to fill. Another friend pushed me forward and I accepted the invitation aware of my privilege and reluctant because of it. Still, leading felt like a tikkun, an act of repair. It allowed me to serve a community I want to support and challenge an oppressive system of gender roles and expectations. One that I am both a part of, and stand apart from.

Tuesday morning challenged many people, for many different reasons. But we shared sadness and anger, as well as the understanding that our collective action is important and necessary if the struggle for women’s rights in Israel is to move forward. I’m not sure that everyone present on Tuesday morning is aware or would agree that our collective action is also necessary for LGBTQ rights. My prayer for the creation of a space for my full identity as a genderqueer Jew may not be completely fulfilled, but on Tuesday morning I felt one step closer. That is how collective liberation works.

1Psalm 84:5

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9 Responses to Gender, Privilege, and Women of the Wall

  1. Jo says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have a lot of thoughts and responses, which I don’t have time to leave now, but I’ll be back. For now, thank you. This is so important.

  2. Thank you for this powerful post.

  3. Thank you Becky. This is so complicated and so heart breaking. I am here for you and with you in this struggle.

  4. Spencer Gill says:

    Becky, I suppose that just because you seem to me to be so well-adjusted and “together” I shouldn’t assume that you don’t have some fairly heavy stuff going on inside. Silly of me … from personal experience I know how much grief you can get for failing to conform 100% so those who “push the envelope” can only get vastly more grief.

  5. Thank-you Becky for writing this. I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself to you, but I hope we will meet again at the Kotel which will, I promise you, become a more tolerant and open place for anyone who wishes to pray. Because G-d doesn’t care which body is under a tallit and which brain is praying. We will work tirelessly and fealessly until the laws of Israel catch up to our standards or morality. As the righteous gentile Aristides de Sousa Mendes said of his heroism during the Holocaust: “I would rather stand with God against man, than with man against God”

  6. Lauren Levy says:

    Becky – you are amazing! Thank you for sharing. It’s amazing to read about the many levels of struggles we are all enduring in this fight for equality. We are all in this together. I know we are headed back to the states soon, but here’s hoping that we can both return to Jerusalem and wear what we want and pray how we want some day soon!!

  7. hi Becky, this is a very powerful piece of writing! i can imagine the fear your talking about, i think, from other areas of life where i’ve felt what is maybe a similar fear. but i never connected that kind of fear to being gay or gender-non-conformist in a place like the kotel. your perspective really shows me a whole layer of reality that i’ve missed in places that i’ve spent a lot of time.

    i understand why “womens’ sacred space” could be painful and frightening for you, but its harder for me to understand the part where it sounds like you feel that its wrong for you to go to those places. how could it be wrong for you to go to any sacred space? sacred space is by definition dedicated to God, not to orthodox clerics and their police forces. God is in charge at the kotel. S/he decides what is holy there and what is an abomination. The rabbinate and the cops are obstacles on the way.

    Torah clearly has to make room for you to reach the kotel. the clerics in charge designed the categories so that there is no natural place for you, on the one hand, and on the other hand, you are truly connected to both the mens’ and the womens’ side. so logic dictates, it seems to me, that you get membership in both. you go where you want with the knowledge that even if you are undercover, God knows who you are and wants you to be there.

    yeshar koach and chag sameach,
    shaiya

  8. Shel says:

    Bravo! (And I mean that, not “brava.”) Cousin, I am with you. I know the odd feeling of support for the women’s side of the wall as it sits next to my feeling of not belonging there as well. I visited Israel for the first time last summer. The place that moved me the most was the Wall. I went there four times in the seven days in J’lem, each time a different story. I was anxious about my clothes — so obviously not feminine — and my kippah, which I hid under a hat… until I wanted to press my forehead against the stone. There were murmurs, but at midnight no one tried to kick me out. Such a strange feeling. And yet, here we are, fighting against the political machinery just by showing up. Strength to you, and to us all.

  9. Sarit says:

    Becky, this is incredibly powerful and I’m so glad that we’ve been a part of each other’s experiences this year. This piece really leaves me thinking about my own relationship as an ally to the gender queer community, and what responsibilities I have as a Jewish leader. Thanks for pushing us.

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