Jane Eisner’s special report, A Day at the Kotel, will run in three parts, starting yesterday and continuing tomorrow. 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.
Now, the sun is high in the sky and boys are celebrating their bar mitzvahs — as their mothers watch.
Throughout the day at the Western Wall, I witness the poignant sight of women in various styles of dress, ranging from long skirts to blue jeans, from spiky heels to flats, standing on flimsy plastic chairs to be able to peer over the tall mechitzah separating them from the bar mitzvah ceremony next door. Mothers cannot touch their sons. Nor can they get near a Torah.
Meanwhile, on the men’s side (so I’m told) there are several bar mitzvahs going on at once, sometimes under a white umbrella to shade against the broiling sun. The fence separating the two sections is tightly woven and difficult to penetrate. Now there’s also a five-foot-high permanent screen at the back, and I confess that peering into the men’s side through that screen feels as if I am snooping on a secretive world where little boys are allowed, but I am not.
The alternative area available for egalitarian prayer, adjacent to the women’s section, is a crowded archaeological site known as Robinson’s Arch, where at certain times, a family can arrange a bar or bat mitzvah on a small platform amid the ruins. This is where a proposal hammered out by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, would create an egalitarian prayer space equal to the existing plaza and open to all. The plan was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but only the supremely optimistic believe that there is the political will to make it happen.
Hoffman says that 95% of Israeli girls have not had a bat mitzvah with Jewish content. I haven’t independently checked that number, but based on what I see during my day at the Kotel, it sounds about right.
Why are some stones holier than others? After all, what we call the Kotel — the Herodian stones touched and revered by so many pious Jews over the centuries — is only a remnant of the massive retaining wall that once surrounded the ancient Temple. Why make such a fuss over this particular part?
I ponder this point at midday, when the crowds are thick and varied, with noticeably more out-of-towners than the regulars who, like savvy commuters, try to come early to beat the heat and the rush.
After the Israeli paratroopers broke through the Jordanian lines and reclaimed the Western Wall during the Six Day War in 1967, a fateful decision was made to turn administration of the site over to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. Even so, the mechitzah separating men and women was only a knee-high wooden structure, and the sections were equal in size, about 30 meters each. But that mechitzah kept on growing taller and moving south. Now, says Hoffman, the men have 48 meters, the women 12. The partition, it seems, only moves in one direction.
The indignity continues when you consider why the men have claimed that part of the Kotel for themselves: It is thought to be closest to where the Holy of Holies, which is considered the most revered spot in the ancient Temple. So some stones are holier than others, I suppose.
Ironically, there is a little-known part of the Wall that is closer still to the Holy of Holies. And it has no mechitzah. To get there you walk through the Muslim Quarter, past a lively market, almost reach the Iron Gate entrance to the Temple Mount and turn at the sign that says “HaKotel HaKatan” in Hebrew and Arabic with the English translation, “Small Wailing Wall.” Dip through a tiny archway, and there is the familiar limestone, the crevices lined with scribbled notes of prayer, the tufts of bushes pushing through here and there.
But it is quiet. I can stand wherever I want. There is no one to police how I am dressed.
It doesn’t feel like a synagogue, just a holy place to be.
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.