a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Gender, Privilege and The Kotel (Western Wall)

Posted on: May 23, 2012

As you may have heard a few women were detained at the Kotel (Western Wall) this week.  They were praying in tallit, a prayer shawl some deem as male-only attire.

When I was leaving Israel going through the “normal” shuffling of my items with the folks as Passport control an agent pulled my tallit bag from my suitcase.  She asked what it was and I told said, “Tal-it” underlining the embroidered Hebrew letters as I sounded it out.  Her eyebrow went up and after some clarification that I could not speak Hebrew, and therefore understand the conversations being had around me, I explained to her that in U.S Conservative and Reform synagogues you regularly see women in tallit.  Despite this fact, it never came out of my bag while I was in Israel.

I’m honored to share a blog post from my online turned real-life friend, rabbinical student Becky Silverstein.  Becky and I began chatting online over a year ago and met last November in Israel.  Becky is currently studying in Israel and joined us for the majority of our trip.  Through her openness and willingness to share we learned about what gender and gender perception is like in Israel.  I am eternally grateful for her transparency and her teaching.

This was originally posted on Queer Interfaith Community

A year ago I entered the women’s side of the mechitza at the Kotel (Western Wall) and tried to place a prayer written on a small piece of paper into one of the cracks. The prayer asked Gd to create space for me at the wall and in Jewish community generally, as well as for the strength to be active in creating that space for myself and others. Instead of finding itself wedged into a crack among the folded-up prayers of thousands of other Jews, it fell. As I watched it fall, I suddenly felt out of place, aware that I was wearing shorts and polo shirt in a sea of long skirts. I felt like I was invading women’s sacred space. I felt like where I was standing was not a place that I, a genderqueer rabbinical student, belonged. Before my prayer reached the ground, I had run out of the women’s section. Pacing the Kotel Plaza, I recited the line “ashrei yoshvei beitecha (happy are those who dwell in your house)”1 over and over again to try and slow my heart rate. I vowed never to enter another women’s prayer space again. Since then, I have entered the women’s side of a mechitza twice, but not at the Kotel. Nor have I have questioned my decision to stay out of that space – until Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning, I prayed with Women of the Wall.

Women of the Wall is “a group of Israeli women joined by Jewish women from around the world, seek[ing] the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty2.” They gather on the first of each month to celebrate the new month, Rosh Chodesh, a festival day in the Jewish tradition. Tuesday morning, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, about forty women gathered at the back of the women’s section, a few male allies prayed from the men’s section, and a few more directly behind the women in the outer courtyard. The group had their own videographer, a supportive contrast to the group of police who video their services monthly. Additional soldiers stood on the men’s side and in the courtyard in case anything got out of control. On Tuesday, as usual, the group began the morning service, continuing until it was time to read the Torah. At that point, we moved, as usual, to Robinson’s Arch, an egalitarian prayer space away from the main Kotel plaza- highlighting the reality that women are, by law, prohibited from reading Torah at the Kotel.

I prayed as I did last month, behind the women in the Kotel Plaza. I positioned myself not as one of the women, but as an ally. As someone who is female-bodied, this distinction is important. Unlike my male colleagues who prayed next to me, I had access to the women’s section and thus the ability to identify as member of the group fighting for their right to pray as full members of Jewish community. As an ally I had certain privileges — distance from the cameras, distance from those who harassed the Women of the Wall, the ability to see what was happening from various perspectives. It also meant that I couldn’t always follow along with the service and didn’t feel the energy of the group – privileges that I consciously gave up to support the cause. Standing in the Kotel Plaza also afforded me male privilege – as long as I was read by the police as a man I was free to wear my tallit (prayer shawl) and tfillin (phylacteries). As with reading Torah at the Kotel, women in Israel are not allowed to pray at the Wall with tallitot worn in the traditional fashion or with tfillin. Though I declined to wear my tfillin in solidarity, the option was available to me. I chose the possibility of not passing as male, and the fear and insecurity that comes with it, over the emotional stress of praying in the women’s section. I successfully passed during the time we were at the Kotel. As a result the privilege I carried, however fleeting, was real. I am now forced to confront both the fear and insecurity that comes with attempting to pass, as well as the anger and shame that accompany that privilege.

During the part of the service at the Kotel, I saw a gender non-conforming person attempt to enter the women’s section to join Women of the Wall. They were stopped by the police and asked for identification, presumably to confirm that they were female and thus permitted to enter the women’s section. I began to cry. That moment, one where the a police officer questioned whether this person could be in the women’s section, epitomizes moments of fear in my life. I fear the ever-present questions, the need to justify my presence, the need to justify my gender. I fear the possible violent repercussions when someone decides my appearance does not match the sex on my driver’s license or the sound of my voice. I fear being spit at and dragged out of both the women’s and men’s section. I fear this moment in religious spaces, I fear this moment in bathrooms, I fear this moment walking down a Jerusalem street wearing ‘men’s’ clothing, such as a kippah and tallit katan. I fear this moment when I am first introduced to a new friend or a new group of students.

But as shaken as I was in that moment, it turns out I was not at risk of being questioned. Those really at risk were the women who were wearing their tallitot, on the women’s side. In the end, it was my roommate, a close friend, and another colleague who were questioned, their names, phone numbers and addresses recorded for further investigation. They did nothing other than wear their tallitot as a tallit is traditionally worn. It didn’t matter. As the group moved from the Kotel to Robinson’s Arch, a police officer called them aside. I pushed my way to the front of the group and placed my hand on my roommate’s back just as the policeman was asking for her ID. I had never been more aware of the privilege I wore. The only thing I could do was take off my sunglasses and look straight at the police officers, hoping that one would ask me “at ben o’ bat?” Am I a boy or a girl – a frequent refrain in my experience in Israel this year. They didn’t. I swallowed my privilege with a feeling of shame and a hatred of both a government that passed and enforced unjust laws, and a society deeply entrenched in a rigid gender binary.

My feelings of shame were based on my own choice to separate myself from the women and instead pray as an ally. Should I have chosen to pray in the women’s section? Should I have given up my emotional comfort for the cause? Isn’t that what being an ally means? What would have been gained? Where do I as a genderqueer, female-bodied person fit in the fight for women’s rights? The struggle for the rights of LGTBQ people is intertwined with the fight for women’s rights – both are about freeing us from the traps of gender expectations and roles. Within the larger struggle, I do not know how to engaage with my own fluidity, my own ability to move in different gendered spaces. I am not sure how, or if I always want, to leverage that fluidity.

I carried these questions and my sense of shame with me as I led the community in the concluding segment of the morning’s service. I had been asked by the gender non-conforming person who I had seen earlier. They read me as being female, a fact that I know for sure because of how they addressed me in Hebrew. The privilege I had carried for the first hour and a half was lost and replaced by the privilege of leading this holy community in prayer. Was it was right for me to move from one space of privilege to another? I’m not sure. As someone who had chosen to position myself as an ally, I was reluctant to take on a role that other, male allies, were not permitted to fill. Another friend pushed me forward and I accepted the invitation aware of my privilege and reluctant because of it. Still, leading felt like a tikkun, an act of repair. It allowed me to serve a community I want to support and challenge an oppressive system of gender roles and expectations. One that I am both a part of, and stand apart from.

Tuesday morning challenged many people, for many different reasons. But we shared sadness and anger, as well as the understanding that our collective action is important and necessary if the struggle for women’s rights in Israel is to move forward. I’m not sure that everyone present on Tuesday morning is aware or would agree that our collective action is also necessary for LGBTQ rights. My prayer for the creation of a space for my full identity as a genderqueer Jew may not be completely fulfilled, but on Tuesday morning I felt one step closer. That is how collective liberation works.

1Psalm 84:5

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