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The Kotel and the Wall

Going to the Kotel is always a focal point of any Jewish trip to Israel. After all, many of them reason, how can you not feel spiritually connected to Israel and to Judaism when you’re at its most holy site, watching men and women break down in tears as they touch it?

As a Jew, visiting the Kotel filled me with a sense of peace and contentment. I wrote down my prayer on a scrap of paper, coiled it up into a roll, and found a crevice for it. I managed to locate a spot of wall to call my own and put my hands up against it, feeling the beautiful chilly stone against my palms. Around me, women wept, closed their eyes in rapturous prayer, and davened silently. Someone was handing out red string bracelets; I accepted one and tied it around my left wrist.

As a woman, and a feminist one, though, I could not completely let go and surrender to the significance of the Wall. It’s impossible to walk up to the Kotel and not notice the other wall – the one which divides men from women. Like most mechitzas, it places emphasis and preference on the men’s side, which is at least twice the size of the women’s side. Because of the belief in kol isha – that the voice of a woman distracts men from their spiritual obligations – the women’s side is somber, while the men’s side has music, singing, and audible prayer.

When I choose which synagogue I’d like to attend, I am fortunate enough as a Brooklynite to have a multitude to choose from – ones where men and women sit together, ones where men and women sit on opposite sides of a mechitza, ones where men sit downstairs and women sit upstairs, etc. But there’s only one Kotel, and agreeing to go there means I don’t have the choice of which side I’d like to pray on or whether I’d like to use my voice when I do so. My desire to have a religious experience had to temporarily trump my desire to make Judaism a religion with equality for the genders, and I was reluctantly willing to play by the established rules in order to have a piece of the wall to touch.

Just before leaving for Israel, I reread some of my favorite Jewish books in order to get into the proper travel mindset. One of them was Ms. cofounder Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s Jewish feminist memoir, Deborah, Golda, and Me. In it, she praises and expresses her solidarity with The Women of the Wall, a group of dedicated feminist activists who refuse to accept the gender restrictions placed on the Wall and people who want to worship there. Considering that a woman reading Torah aloud at the Kotel – or daring to wear tefillin, a kippa, or other "men’s garments" – can land her in prison, their actions are all the more inspiring. That day, I chose to have a feminist heart but a Jewish brain, deciding that getting to pray at this place was more important than making a political stand. I don’t know if I made the right decision, but considering it might be another five years until I’m able to take another trip to Jerusalem, I think it was easier to temporarily ignore my misgivings about gender politics at the Wall. Until then, I’ll continue to write and think and wrestle with my thoughts about the Kotel and gender separation, and if I decide it’s not right to go back to the Wall again I can at least send my prayers to the Kotel on Twitter. (No, I am not making that up.) Maybe I’ll be able to find an uneasy peace with the Kotel when someone else is putting the prayers there in my stead.

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