Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A view from above: Ramparts and crazy humans

Monday morning, Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month in Israel. Adar II because Israel is on the lunar cycle, every few years we have a leap month, thus the "II" for Adar. This is also the month of Purim, which is one of the biggest and most fun holidays/festivals in the Jewish world. I'll tell you more about it as it approaches and I celebrate Israel style, but for now just keep in mind it is nigh.

To celebrate Rosh Chodesh (literally head of the month) Rayna has been participating in a group called Women of the Wall. The Wall refers to the Kotel or Western or Wailing Wall. The most sacred spot we've got. I'm not going to give this issue enough credit here because it's a biggie but I will sum up. Israel is governed by a democracy that is heavily influenced by Orthodox religious peoples. I am not educated enough to explain this in detail but things like the Wall, and funds for religious organizations are controlled by this power bloc. Because of this the rules enforced at the wall follow the orthodoxy. And that includes different rules and separation for men and women. There is a screen wall that divides the plaza directly in front of the Wall into two UNEQUAL areas for men and women. Can you guess who gets the smaller area?

You're right. Sorry ladies, this isn't the future yet.

Because of this GROSS inequality and blatant bigotry and sexism an incredibly peaceful and beautiful group has evolved. They are the Women of the Wall. Every month at Rosh Chodesh they arrive em mass. They have taken the gains achieved thus far, and work within these limits peacefully. This includes entering the Wall area without yarmekules on, so they must be secreted about their persons. Without Talit (the prayer shawl worn by jews during prayer) worn in the traditional way, they must be worn as scarves. And in no way are they to carry or read from a Torah.

None of these limitations are pressed onto the men who come to worship. They may do as they please. And in this most holy place they pray devoutly, intensely, generously teaching others, and for long periods. They cover their heads and shoulders in Talit, they wear head coverings specific to their sect, they wrap teffilin and daven ferociously.

The Women of the Wall enter the women's side and huddle together at the rear of the prayer area, preparing for an outlawed and controversial act: they are about to pray as a group - out loud.

Beautiful voices begin to rise, the light of sanctity shining from their faces as the sun crests the high wall casting the first rays of this new month on this sacred space. Soft peaceful sounds, respectful, elegant, and welcoming.

This act of prayer is met with the most reproachful acts of childish and immature behavior you can imagine in a space that is supposedly the most sacred space to the very actors protesting the Women's peaceful prayer. Spitting, shushing, yelling, and in the past months name calling and aggressive posturing.

I stand on the Men's side of the partition, in the corner closest to the Women. Soldiers line the fence. 3 or 4, but their numbers grow as the Women begin praying. There are soldiers and police on their side too, and at the fence above the prayer area in front of the wall. These women are expected and protected. I wonder if it is for the safety of the women, or as a self limitation for the reactors a la "don't hold me back" when you know you must not act.

The soldiers stand at the fence, and myself and a few other men who are there with and in support of the women act as a buffer between the rest of the men praying and the soldiers.

A crowd of ultra-orthodox gather a few feet away from us, praying to the wall, and casting glances towards the Women as they begin their service in earnest. It is hard to hear the Women at all, in the thrum of activity already happening at the wall just past sunrise. But that becomes too much for these "men" to bear and they begin to retaliate.

I was a bit nervous about how this would go down. I am confident there will be no physical response, but I have heard that the yelling and castigation can become intense. But it never does. The men, in a childish display of impotence decide they must drown out the Women by praying louder and louder, shouting their prayers, and defiling the peacefulness of this sacred space.

I stood there, as the sun shone down on my countenance, warming my body and soul as it should, smiling. The men, protesting this act of beautiful prayer by praying! As boisterously as possible, but in the end, just praying! It was gleeful, and wild, a pulsing call and response of the almightiest devotions to a God without ears. A God who to me hears the prayers not in voice but in your heart. It was an act of a play that has been performed over and over again in the struggles of people, of men and women, of oppressors and oppressed, throughout history. But it was peaceful. A battle of prayers.

A fine gentleman who is the father of one of the Women, and the husband of another, and who is a Rabbi in NY joined us and brought me and Danyl (one of Rayna's classmates fiancé) prayer books. He has an awesome bushy white beard and hair, and eyebrows of a wizard. He helped us find the place in the books the Women's service had reached and we began praying along. More men joined us, significant others of this praying group of women, and more soldiers to keep the peace.

As the service wrapped up the soldiers told us they were going to escort us out of the prayer area to the plaza. And this is the only moment where I felt uncomfortable. I didn't feel like I needed an escort but who am I to argue. We left as peacefully as we arrived, and proceeded to another area at the Temple mount where the Women of the Wall are permitted to read from Torah.

This is a perfect example of something i will never understand. For all the good and beauty that religion brings to the world, how can belief like this that limits one group of the population from participating be right? Hopefully I will have a better understanding of this as my time here continues, and I will be able to cast more light on this issue. Until then, I will continue to do what I do best in these situations. Support, smile, enjoy, and move forward. I hope that my smile and earnest thoughts and prayers of the wall Monday morning were absorbed by the orthodox protestors, and that they will continue to evolve and realize that their position is improved when they participate in improving the positions of others.

Breakfast was an indulgence after that experience. At Marzipan in Mamilla mall, just outside Jaffa gate. I had an almond croissant that had been filled with chocolate.... YES. OMG. So good. I also had a mocha, and half a sandwich. I needed energy because the ladies were departing for school, and Danyl and I were to walk the ramparts.

This post has already gotten too long, so I will have to add more later, including pictures.

All the best to you on this new month.

- with Shalom from Israel


1 comment:

  1. You described a very difficult situation beautifully. It was wonderful to go together and know that you were one of a group of wonderful men who were in support.