For me, it always comes back to the Wailing Wall.
They don’t call it that anymore, though. Now it is simply “The Western Wall” of the old Temple — or, in Hebrew, “The Kotel.” I don’t know what that word means. It sounds like a jazzy hotel chain, but I’m sure that’s wrong!
As soon as our flight landed in Israel, we got on our tour bus and headed for Jerusalem, arriving on Friday evening just as the sun was going down. We headed straight for the Wall, the Kotel — a place of dream and legend.
I am not usually superstitious, but I had a long list of people whose health I wanted some help with. I’d written them all on a scrap of paper and twisted it up small enough to fit in whatever crack I could reach. Then, note delivered, I rested my forehead on the stone of the Wailing Wall. It was time to pray for healing for the folks on my list. Except — yikes! I suddenly realized I didn’t know the right prayer.
Then I realized that, actually, I did. It’s contained in a beautiful song written by the late Debbie Friedman, and we sing it every Friday in my congregation, Port Jewish Center.
(This tour was jointly organized by PJC and Temple Judea of Manhasset.)
As I stood there, singing quietly with my forehead still touching the smooth white Jerusalem stone, I thought of my grandpa, my mother’s dad. He had owned a little book of pressed “Flowers of the Holy Land.” The book’s covers were made of wood — olive-tree wood, from the Holy Land.
According to my mother, that book had been given to her father by his father. They had traveled from the Pale of Russia to New York’s Lower East Side — but that book was the closest either of them ever got to their Holy Land. Now here I was! What would they think of me, finally here? Would they be satisfied? Pleased, even?
Or would they be angry? Because I was on the smaller side of a big barrier — the side reserved for women. And here, at the epicenter of my own religion, women have actually been arrested for daring to read from our own sacred scrolls at our most sacred place.
I’ve met Israelis who like to ask, “Why choose to be a minority, in the U.S., when you can come to Israel and be part of a Jewish majority?”
It sounds good — until you read about women being told by ultra-religious men that they must step to the back of a public bus.
Apparently, it disturbs these men to have women sitting near them up front. I always think that these men are entirely free to step to the back themselves if they can’t handle where they’re sitting; but apparently they haven’t thought of that. And with no Constitution in Israel, no Bill of Rights, and no Title IX legislation to even roll back, being a woman in Israel could mean being a second class person at any time.
On top of that, there’s the fact that I choose to belong to Reform Judaism, which is also regarded by some Israelis as inferior.
Israel is a beautiful, amazing, challenging place to visit… but could I really see myself in this picture as anything but a tourist? I didn’t see how.
Then our bus pulled up at Reform Congregation B’Vat Ayin, in Rosh Ha Ayin, an outer suburb of Tel Aviv. And their leader welcomed us with open arms: Rabbi Ayala Miron, a woman! An Iraqi Jewish woman at that, who told us how she went to rabbinical school determined to prove that a minority Mizrahi (the Jews from Arab countries) could be every bit as good a student, and rabbi, as anyone else.
It was a revelation and felt just like coming home. We sang the same songs together, we chanted the same prayers — and then we were invited to Shabbat dinner in congregants’ homes, which felt exactly like being at my own congregation’s Progressive dinner, except for the small detail that this beautiful home had orange and mango trees bearing fruit right in the back yard!
So now I am less sure of everything. Except for this: I feel sure that my grandpa, wherever he is, is simply happy I made it to the Wailing Wall, to wail no more.
Kol B’seder — or All is Well, as they say when they are happy in Israel.