‘Why do they get to have all the fun?” “Aren’t we people too?” These were some of the questions from Sofi, my friend’s 10-year-old daughter, during her first Friday night at the Kotel. She stood on a bench alongside the divider between the men’s and women’s sections and, through the narrow cut-outs, peered at the numerous prayer groups and small circles of dancing men.
We were in Israel in April to celebrate my youngest son’s bar mitzvah, having planned our trip to coincide with the week marking Israel’s 70th year of independence. I had hired a guard to chaperone our group from the hotel before Shabbat, and left enough time to arrive before the yeshiva boys dressed in their white shirts, or, if we were lucky, a group of uniformed soldiers, danced into the Western Wall plaza.
I had mixed feelings about bringing my group there to witness the arrival of Shabbat in Jerusalem. On the one hand, spending Friday evening at the Kotel ought to be a memorable experience, as one is about to enter the holiest day of the week in, arguably, one of the holiest places in the world. On previous visits I felt buoyed by the excitement. Hearing visitors sing prayers in Hebrew accented by their native languages felt like a collective welcoming of the day of rest.
On the other hand, during this most recent trip I was struggling with my spiritual connection to the Kotel. Months before, I realized my bond with the holy place had changed. Nonetheless, I put this singular event on our bar mitzvah itinerary selfishly hoping that a positive Shabbat eve experience would rekindle my affections.
My relationship with the Kotel began during my high school teen tour when I observed, “It’s just a bunch of rocks.” My comment sounded flippant and was a source of endless teasing by my peers, but my intention was not to be callous. Rather, I meant to state my amazement that these rocks, having survived a violent and turbulent history of more than 2,000 years, remains a wellspring of religious devotion.
Fast-forward several years later when I returned to Israel for my junior year of college at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During that time in my life I relished the accessibility of the Kotel. I loved hopping into a cab at random hours — especially late at night — for what I considered my private communion with God. The quiet of an empty Kotel plaza at night soothed me.
And so the Kotel remained for me for many years: the place where I would rest my forehead against the bumpy stones, close my eyes and ask for God’s good graces; where I was teary-eyed watching my mom’s first visit to the Wall with her oldest grandson; where I’d beam with pride watching three generations of my family — fathers, sons and grandsons — pray.
Until this past fall when, for the first time, I viewed the Western Wall through a lens clouded by the orchestrations of the Chief Rabbinate. We were in Israel for a bar mitzvah and a symbolic wedding. I say symbolic because the legal ceremony took place in a courthouse in Illinois, beyond the reach of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate’s jurisdiction.
My nephew and his bride — American olim — were protesting the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religious practices and defying the rabbis who require proof of Jewish lineage, demand couples take specific courses on family purity and more. The young Jerusalemite couple made a beautiful Jewish wedding in Jaffa, officiated by the groom’s brother-in-law, who happened to be an Orthodox rabbi; however, this religious ceremony is not recognized by the Jewish state.
It saddened me that a young couple, so devoted to Israel and to their faith, preferred to marry outside of the country, and when I came to the Kotel the morning after the wedding for my friend’s bar mitzvah celebration, I carried this baggage with me.
With new clarity I saw the discrepancy of the space allotted for men and for women as the men’s prayer space is noticeably larger than the women’s. As a newbie Torah reader, I felt anger for being prohibited from conducting a ritual I value, one that allows me to celebrate my heritage and publicly express my devotion to God.
I felt my irrelevance intensify when a downpour forced the service indoors to protect the delicate Torah scrolls. I’d never been to the indoor Kotel space, which for the women meant cramming into a packed balcony with a one-way mirror obstructing the view from the men’s section. Women angled toward the front of the balcony to catch a glimpse of their young family members layning from multiple Torah scrolls set up on tables below. They listened through headsets linked to a mic worn by their bar mitzvah boy, but it was difficult to hear and there were not enough headsets to accommodate every guest. My status as an observer, rather than an active participant, was sealed.
Don’t get me wrong: It was a joyous celebration and one of the highlights of our November trip. Yet I didn’t touch the stones nor did I regret my missed opportunity.
Now back to April, with Sofi’s observations on my mind, we returned to the Kotel on the subsequent Tuesday evening for the state ceremony marking the start of Yom HaZikaron, the day honoring Israel’s fallen soldiers. The prayer space was emptied and in the plaza was a speaker’s podium, memorial flame guarded by four soldiers, and a flag flying at half-mast.
We stood in silence during the 8 p.m. siren marking the start of the national day of mourning, and carefully listened to the words of President Reuven Rivlin and other dignitaries trying to comfort a grieving nation.
The backdrop — my “bunch of rocks” — was not lost on me. I considered the symbolism of military ceremonies at the Kotel and the powerful image of strength, longevity and endurance born from the last remaining wall that surrounded our holy temple.
In my Israel, Judaism and history are intertwined and it’s difficult for me to separate one from the other. I remain awestruck by the site of the Western Wall — there’s an inherent energy to the site, something I ascribe to the duality of being the heart of the Jewish people while remaining a hotbed for political and religious tensions. I hope to always feel excitement when I walk down the stairs from the Jewish Quarter and the Kotel, with its tufts of greenery, pops into view. But I’ve come to understand that my awe comes not from feeling the Divine’s presence, but from a deep appreciation for the historic significance of the Western Wall. For it is in my Zionism that I find God.
Shira Vickar Fox is managing editor of The Jewish Week’s sister publication, the New Jersey Jewish News.