Jane Eisner’s special report, A Day at the Kotel, will run in three parts, starting today and continuing tomorrow and Wednesday. Each piece focuses on a different time of day at the Western Wall, and the implications for the battle over the future of Judaism’s holiest site.
The shops are still shuttered as I walk from Jaffa Gate through the Old City early one Thursday morning, their carpets, T-shirts, trinkets, carrot juice and jewelry hidden behind metal grates until they open for business and the tourists arrive. As I pass through security at the entrance to the Western Wall and step onto the sun-drenched plaza, the chanting of morning prayers breaks the quiet. It’s men’s voices, of course.
The Kotel appears clean and open this time of day, but noise and foot traffic are increasing by the minute. Tourists are beginning to congregate. Men in full Haredi dress rush to their section to pray. A flock of black swifts erupts in flight overhead.
I am here to observe. Though I have been to this holy site more times than I can count, this visit has a journalistic, not a personal, purpose — to gain a deeper understanding of the rhythms and challenges of this contentious place simply by watching what happens here through the course of an ordinary day.
The experience leaves me in awe of the way public ceremony and private expression coexist at a national site that is public by statute but effectively run as a private, Haredi synagogue. It makes me wonder why we decide one set of stones, and not another, is prized and holy. And it makes me realize that women at the Wall are even more marginalized than I had thought.
I had help with this project, from my husband. I had to enlist him to obtain a fuller picture of what was going on, since most of the plaza is off limits to the likes of me.
Anat Hoffman, the firebrand leader of Women of the Wall, wryly notes that there have been 100,000 bar mitzvahs at the Kotel and not one bat mitzvah.
This doesn’t surprise me. On Thursday, June 20, there is a steady stream of bar mitzvahs, starting as early as 7:30 in the morning.
That’s when I spy the Pollak family from Kansas City, Mo. — Arnold Pollak is a cardiologist who happily noted the unusual spelling of his last name with a cheery “ak is ok!” His youngest son, Michael, is the bar mitzvah boy. “We wanted to do something special for him,” Pollak explains.
Since the Pollaks belong to an Orthodox synagogue at home, they are comfortable with the restrictions placed on this ceremony — from the prayer sections separated by gender to the expectation that women and girls will cover their shoulders and dress modestly. At the Kotel, that is the only option.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.