Friday, Sept. 5:
I stood silently on a plastic lawn chair, my shoulders covered with a shawl and ankles hidden by a floor-length skirt. The crowds of women to my right were chanting in Hebrew, dancing in circles and grabbing each other’s hands.
To my immediate left stood a separation barricade that ran perpendicular to the Kotel, or the Western Wall. On the other side of that barricade, Jewish men also chanted and danced and walked around greeting each other with handshakes.
Tonight was the Kabbalat Shabbat, or the welcoming of the Jewish Sabbath, which occurs every Friday at sunset until Saturday dusk. Some displayed pain, others laughed and pranced. Some quietly mumbled their prayers and others were ardently crying.
But I noticed that, while several other women were standing atop the chairs lined along the barricade like me, trying to observe the men’s side, no men did the same.
The men chanting closest to the barricade occasionally glimpsed at the women – including me – but quickly returned their focus to their prayers.
I kept turning my head left and right, trying to digest the two divided areas simultaneously. I understood this is part of the Orthodox Jewish tradition – that prayers be segregated – but it still struck me: these men and women were reciting the same prayers and touching the same Wall, yet they were completely separated and inaccessible by the other gender.
There is a Jewish feminist group in Israel called Women of the Wall, founded in 1988 during the first International Jewish Feminist Conference. It claims to be international and multi-denominational, with members of Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. Its common goal is to promote women’s religious rights at the Wall to pray and sing, read aloud the Torah, which is prohibited on the female side of the barricade, and wear religious items like tallit, tefillin and kippah. Since 2010, members of the group have been arrested, detained or questioned by the police for doing such things.
At the Kabbalat Shabbat on Oct. 24, Women of the Wall made headlines by celebrating a 12-year-old girl’s bat mitzvah at the Wall with a miniature Torah they snuck in.
Many Orthodox Jewish men were displeased, including the Wall’s Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who accused women of deception, according to The New York Times.
This reminded me of a concept I learned in college studying gender studies. The intersections of a woman’s identity come from multiple factors, like her family background, location, socioeconomic status and religious belief and it’s hard to dissociate any one from the others.
The fact that these women happen to be not only Jewish but also living in Israel, and that some were as young as 12 years old, all played a part in the Friday’s bat mitzvah celebration. And undoubtedly, there are many more factors that you and I don’t know about, that impacted their decision to carry out such a bold task.
Until three years ago, some parts of Jerusalem operated Mehadrin buses. These buses, which served the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, population, enforced strict religious gender segregation: men at the front, women at the back. Haredi neighborhoods also practice “modesty patrols,” with signs and explicit attitudes enforcing conservative attire for men and women.
Several people told me throughout the trip that Israel is traditionally a “macho” society, where military heroism is greatly celebrated and men take charge in politics, business and in families, despite the formal and legal equality rights for both sexes.
The World Economic Forum just released its 2014 Global Gender Gap Report Global Gender Gap Report Monday, ranking Israel 65th out of 142 countries on its gender gap index. The report considers various sub-factors of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. Just to provide some context, the U.S. ranks 20th, China 87th and the UK 26th.
Of course, there are varied degrees of women’s status within Israel, depending on location and the religiosity of their background.
Tel Aviv was dichotomous to Jerusalem’s conservative attitudes toward women. Svelte Jewish ladies strutted on the city’s Hilton beach in their bikinis. Our own tour liaison, Vanessa, who is a secular French-Jew getting her Master’s in China Studies at Hebrew University, presented herself as a confident and intelligent woman well-versed in leading groups of professionals and scholars visiting Israel.
There are Reform synagogues where women are free and able to participate in and perform everything. Women like Tzipi Livni, the current Israeli Minister of Justice, serve as an example of female presence in national politics.
But with conservative, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the level of women’s active and visible participation seemed to diminish. A few of us visited King David’s tomb in the Old City one night and serendipitously stumbled upon a group of Hasidic Jews in the middle of a ritual. We could not see the activity itself because large curtains hung from the ceiling, hiding the men on the other side. Women wearing snoods stood on our side of the curtains, getting only a partial view of the celebration.
Around the corner, we saw prayer rooms, which were, again, divided between men and women. The separation was everywhere, embedded in the very culture and religion of the Jewish people in Israel. Every time I recognized yet another gender segregation, I couldn’t help but wonder if these women ever question it or desire to participate alongside their men.
I’m not trying to criticize their religion and attack the sanctity of their religious beliefs and rituals. I understand how the teachings in the Torah and the Talmud are extremely important and play a large role in many Jews’ lifestyles.
But I also acknowledge the bat mitzvah that took place at the Wall last week and Women of the Wall’s motivation behind it. Women are officially recognized as equal Israeli citizens to men and they have just as much religious rights and freedom as men do. It’s understandable that they wanted a special celebration of their own – to advance their religious participation, to be closer to god in their own right, or whatever the reason may be.
And maybe, just maybe, all the other girls and women that stood near me on those chairs that Friday night were internally longing for the same realization.