I’ve been thinking about the Wall. No, not the Pink Floyd album. And not the security barrier that prevents terrorists from infiltrating Israel.
The Kotel. The Western Wall. The Wailing Wall. Whatever you want to call it, the Wall is a symbol not only of Jerusalem but of Judaism to many.
Except when I look at the Wall, I see a place that has been imbued with meaning by people. I see a collection of stones that surely witnessed some of the world’s greatest tragedies and triumphs, but one that remains a collection of stones. I see a place that allocates barely a third of the space to women (and has a million conditions for women to even approach the wall—cue the ultra-Orthodox women policing one’s attire so it’s “modest enough” to pray there). I see a place where history stands still and where feminism—the idea that men and women are meant to enjoy equal rights—is forgotten or, worse, can feel forbidden. I see a place where I don’t feel the spiritual awakening many claim.
My spirituality, my sense of Jewishness and my personal understanding of my people’s history just don’t fit there.
As Jews, we are supposed to feel a strong connection to the Kotel. I’ve been at conferences in Israel that were so packed that no visit was scheduled. And yet my fellow participants made special detours from their itineraries to trek into the heart of the Old City and touch the Kotel—sometimes very late at night because that was the only time available.
Where does that connection come from? Is it from years of being told of the Kotel’s significance? Or is it because there actually is some higher power that is concentrated in the Kotel and I just haven’t felt it?
For me, the connection to my people is clearer when I stroll the streets and parks of Tel Aviv and hike in the fields and hills of the Galilee. I feel that connection when I sit at a café, everyone around me chattering in rapid-fire Hebrew, even if I don’t understand more than every 10th word. I feel it in Jerusalem, too, just not at the Kotel. The connection is clearer at places like Kol HaNeshama, the Progressive synagogue in Baka, where a children’s choir performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during a Friday night service last time I was there.
The Kotel’s staid adherence to centuries-old tradition does not convey the vibrancy of the State of Israel and modern Jews. That vibrancy is clearer in the shuk, especially right before the onset of Shabbat: The scurrying of people trying to finish last-minute shopping for their Friday dinner—whether they’re religious or not; the yells of the merchants calling out steep discounts at the end of the day; the smells of tomatoes and sweet peppers so fresh they probably were ripped off the bush just that morning; the pungent aroma of spices; the delicious odors emanating from Marzipan bakery (the provider of world’s best rugelach).
Leading a Rosh Hashanah celebration in the woods while sitting atop the rocks at Devil's Lake in Wisconsin in September 2009
Of course, the other connection to Jewish peoplehood is right here at home, and one needs not travel to Jerusalem to feel it. When my husband and I gather with friends for Shabbat dinner; when we celebrate Tu B’Shevat—the once obscure Jewish holiday celebrating trees and nature’s bounty—with a haggadah we compiled ourselves; when we read about Exodus and add our own stories of migration; when we honor Rosh Hashanah while camping in the woods, by reading a new take on Unetaneh Tokef and the celebrated Israel writer Yehuda Amichai’s poetry. Those experiences have drawn me ever closer to my already strong pride and love for being Jewish.
Perhaps one day, when the Kotel is more inclusive of all sorts of Jewish traditions; when women can pray and read the Torah on equal footing with men; when there’s a place at the Wall where families can pray together rather than being separated into a women’s and men’s sections, I might reconsider my connection.
For now, however, it remains a collection of stones with lots of stories to tell. Sure, they’ve got the prayers and hopes and dreams of thousands of people. But I feel more comfortable leaving mine elsewhere.