Julia Glassman blogs as The Girl Detective at Modern Mitzvot. Jay Michaelson responds below.

I’ve attended an Orthodox service exactly once in my life, and I’ll never do it again.

It was Yom Kippur during my year in France, when I was working as an au pair for a Parisian Jewish family. They’d wanted someone a little more Jewish – someone who spoke Hebrew, someone who wasn’t secular – but I turned up the charm during our phone interview and they deemed me worthy to fold their laundry and make dinner for their kids. During my first few weeks there, they busily schooled me on the particulars of Orthodox life, reminding me to use the flowered plates and the fridge in the hallway for meat, gently chiding me when I absentmindedly flipped switches on Shabbat. They kept inviting me to go to service with them, and I kept demurring – after all, I was in Europe! I had to see the Louvre and Notre Dame! I had to visit my college pal in Scotland! I didn’t have time for synagogues.

Except I did kind of want to go. I was still working through what it meant to be a Jew, and even though I leaned toward atheism, I knew it was essential to at least familiarize myself with Judaism. I was descended from Hasidim, after all. So when they asked me if I wanted to attend the Yom Kippur service with them, I agreed.

I’d known about the separation of the sexes in Orthodox life, but I’d always imagined it as two equal groups side by side. When I arrived at the synagogue, I was stunned to find the central men’s section, the opaque curtain, the folding chairs haphazardly strewn around the periphery of the room. I couldn’t believe it when the service started and the women around me contented themselves with staring at the fabric and silently mouthing along with the prayers. The service lasted four hours, and during that time I could only guess at what the actual activities looked like. The message I got was clear: women had no place in holiness. Scripture might state that women are merely not required to participate in worship, but in reality, what I experience is that, women are often actively – and aggressively – barred from it.

Two months after I got home from Paris, I went on a Birthright trip and faced the same message when I visited the Kotel. For those of you who have never been, let me give you a woman’s-eye view. When you pass through the metal detectors at the back of the plaza, the temple mount is partially obscured by tourists, soldiers, fences, and Israeli flags; if you’re merely following your guide like I was, it actually takes a second or two to realize what exactly you’re looking at. The wall looks shockingly normal – it’s not a thousand feet high or glowing with divine light. Much like the Mona Lisa, though, the size quickly becomes part of the experience: see how little significance has to do with grandeur? The wall is a wall, but it’s not just a wall, and you realize that that’s part of what makes it sublime. It’s only when you approach it that you begin to notice the gender divide: black hats and coats taking up the vast majority of the space, with a small knot of scarves and shawls off to the right. Is it just a coincidence? One of the crowd’s normal shifts and permutations? No, you realize – each area is fenced off. And soldiers are guarding the entrances.


I was glad we weren’t there on a Saturday; otherwise, I might have never gotten up close, the women’s section was so tiny. Unless I was mistaken, women make up about half the population of Israel, same as any country. Why exactly did men need so much more space? Were women expected to be tending house? Does manliness suffer from claustrophobia? And if it was really my birthright to be here, why was I shoved off to the side?

After the group reconvened, I found out about the tunnel system, which was, we were told, accessible only from the men’s side. (Note: during my research for this essay I read that both men and women are allowed to enter the tunnels. Have they changed the policy? Was I there during a temporary closure? Was it all a stupid mistake?) I, and the other women, gathered around as one of the guys showed us the pictures he’d taken of deep caverns and corridors. “I can’t believe this place is so sexist,” he said with a brief, forlorn shake of the head. “That totally sucks, you know?” We agreed: it totally sucked. Then we got lunch.

Why were we all so blasé about such blatant injustice? Partly it was because Israel wasn’t our country (despite the Birthright program’s assurances), and we knew that once we got on the plane back to Los Angeles, we could leave the problem to Israelis. But there was more to it than that. Those of us who were truly bothered could sense that the men didn’t plan on worrying about it. We knew we’d annoy them if we nagged. So we – I – kept silent.

But the effects stayed with me. I’d never before felt the shame and the anger and the helplessness of state-sanctioned discrimination. It’s humiliating to be told you can’t do something because you – your being, your personhood – are flawed and impure. It’s humiliating to have to rely on a man to show you what you’re missing. That day at the Kotel, I thought of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, the fight for gay marriage. I was standing in a country that was supposedly an egalitarian democracy, but I’d felt the sting of official second-class citizenship.

That was my Kotel experience.

Sure, I felt some of the holiness and pride that everyone talks about. I even teared up a little as I touched those giant stones. But what sticks with me isn’t the awe; –what sticks is the feeling of exclusion, of alienation, and of punishment. The message I received at the Kotel was the same as the message I received at the Orthodox synagogue: “woman” and “Jew” – and, taken to its logical extreme, “woman” and “human” – are mutually exclusive categories.

And this is my culture? This is my wall and my birthright? How? How can I possibly feel at home here, when the other half has the power to shut me out?

***

Last month in the Forward, Jay Michaelson wrestled with the effects of politics on a Jew’s relationship to the Kotel. How political does the personal have to be? Michaelson writes,

It’s obvious why many contemporary Jews don’t miss the Temple, with its animal sacrifices and priestly hierarchies. But let’s face it, Jews like me don’t like the kotel either. Expats living in Israel see it as a tourist trap; rationalists find the adoration of a physical object un-Jewish, even idolatrous; mystics see it as a distraction (isn’t God supposed to be everywhere?); secularists see it as the object of irrational devotion, and liberals see it as sexist and Haredi-centric. So, as a liberal, expatriate intellectual scholar-mystic myself, I shouldn’t like the kotel, let alone love it.

But I do, and I want to reclaim it as my own.

On the surface, the essay is a noble endeavor. Obviously I see the Kotel – or, rather, the policies and prejudices that have been built up around it – as sexist. And as a secular liberal, I couldn’t help but think of the absurdity of crying over an object, and the Palestinians being restricted from, or denied access to, the Dome of the Rock. And it’s true: we tell ourselves we shouldn’t get caught up in it, but we do. Something in our brains turns on. Michaelson describes the Kotel as “an energy center, a vortex of holiness,” and whether that energy comes from spirituality or psychology or even biology, we feel it despite ourselves.

But his introspection left me troubled. “I know the Kotel excludes,” he writes:

and I am not blind either to the sexism of the mechitza or to the politics of that other Israeli wall that’s visible off in the distance. I stand with Women of the Wall, and sometimes wear my rainbow yarmulke when I go there to daven….

So, I do understand the critiques. But I’m not willing to let either conservatives or liberals steal my people’s most sacred space from me. If progressives let the fundamentalists capture all the spiritual treasures of our tradition, we’ll be left with nothing but the dregs. And we’ll continue to lose the demographic battle, because we’ll be left with less to inspire us. Progressive Jews are like that Hasid in the famous story — unaware of the great treasure that’s lying right in his home. Only it’s not that we’re unaware of it; we’re suspicious of it.

But maybe the kotel could become a model for Jewish religiosity in general. It’s got a questionable pedigree, it means different things to different people and it means particularly odious things to some people. Just like much of Judaism. But it is a treasure nonetheless, if we dare to embrace it — ambivalence in tow, but not necessarily in front.

Michaelson seems to be talking to Jews who have decided to reject the Kotel altogether – to abandon it to the fundamentalists and find meaning elsewhere. And that discussion is certainly necessary. But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who want to love the Kotel, but are barred from doing so?

Perhaps the ambivalence and suspicion he describes is more than just politics; perhaps it’s solidarity. Because what good does it do those who are oppressed to revel in an experience you know they can’t have? How exactly do I embrace the Wall when I know I’m not wanted there? How do I let go of my bitterness and shame when the men to the left of me constantly enforce it – and how can men ever rouse themselves to really confront injustice when their primary concern is their own experience?

It’s not enough to simply stand with those who are oppressed. To really fight injustice, you have to let it enter you as deeply as that holy energy. It can’t hover at the periphery of your vision, like the women risking arrest by praying out loud, slipping out of view as you daven. You have to feel their anger and frustration and pain so vividly that you can’t embrace your own experience. Unless you feel everyone’s injustice as keenly as they do – unless your sacred space is stolen, just like mine has been – then you’ll never be an effective ally.

***

Privilege is a funny thing.

I remember a birthday party I went to when I was nine years old. The birthday girl, who had earned the nickname “Weirdo” through her penchant for wearing her jacket on her head and screeching like a monkey, had invited every girl in our class, and to my surprise – I was her best friend at the time – many of them actually came. We were playing in her backyard when someone noticed that she had disappeared.

We only stopped playing for a few moments. “She’s probably in her room crying,” one of the popular girls said. Everyone laughed and resumed what they were doing. I hesitated – after all, I was her best friend! I had to go to her! I had to shut this down until she was okay! I tried to get a few girls’ attention, but they’d have none of it. I quickly realized how much easier it was to go along with everyone else; my friend would probably be fine, and, well, I was having fun…I’d comfort her later, I decided. It’d be easier to comfort her later. Yes, she’d be fine.

And I did. And she said she was fine. And she continued to succumb to depression with no one to help her through it.

It’s easy to tell myself that I was just a kid, but I’m still all too familiar with the comfort of inaction. I hear about prejudice and injustice and I do nothing. I read news stories and blog posts and action alerts and I feel numb. Maybe I donate some money; maybe I go and shout at a rally. But I feel like if I let every bad thing in the world get to me, I’ll go crazy, so I shut most of it out. It’s so much easier to put in my fair share of effort and then go back to my own life – to raise my voice in protest and then stop there, regardless of whether I’ve made a difference. We all share this problem, and it’s not okay.

Is it really a matter of daring to embrace the Kotel – along with Judaism and Jewishness and everything that implies?

Or should we focus on making sure everyone feels free to embrace it?

As with any injustice, many of us don’t have a choice.

***

A Response from Jay Michaelson:

Julia’s experience at the kotel resonates with that of many of my female-identified friends, and the points raised in her essay are well-taken. Really, I don’t disagree with any of it. I’d just like to make
two points.

First, we should remember and respect the fact that for many traditional women, sex-segregation provides the experience they want. I refuse to be so condescending as to say that all of these women are lost in false consciousness or delusion. Some women find their access to holiness enabled, rather than blocked, by these forms — even though to us they obviously privilege men.

Second, even many progressive and feminist women have different kotel experiences from Julia’s. No one I know simply ignores the segregation, or the unequal size of the two spaces. But many do hold both the holiness and the injustice. They don’t feel blocked (they tell me) — only conflicted and ambivalent, which is how I feel too.

So, for those who love the kotel but experience themselves as blocked from it, I would say: don’t let yourself be blocked. Don’t accept or acquiesce or rationalize or justify, but do recognize that your inner spiritual experience is your own, and no one can take it away from you. That’s the blessing and the curse of spirituality: it can coexist with oppression.