These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Reason that my Tallit Belongs at the Kotel

Posted on May 13, 2013 by Gabby Goodman

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Reflections on Rosh Hodesh Sivan with Women of the Wall, 5773 – 2013

Throughout the year I have studied here in Jerusalem, I have learned that the Wall has its own identity crisis. It is part of a larger structure that was built and carried, lost, built again and then destroyed, and built again, and built over again and destroyed again. There are more stages in between of deeper and deeper details. The figurative symbol of complete purity, it was more often an embodiment of utter corruption. The man who inspired the design of the particular Wall before which we stand today was a gifted, paranoid maniac, maddened by grief and riches and conflicting loyalties. The Temple itself, and the Wall it became, changed owners and took on ideologies of shocking variance over the centuries. And yet here it still stands, a testament to physical stability, containing all of its tumultuous history behind the serenity of its stones.

On the first Shabbat I was in Jerusalem, I walked with a group of very new friends into the Old City for the first time. I knew nothing about it except that it was the last of the Temple, a remnant of a Judaism from long ago, one with which I had trouble relating, but that it was “supposed to”, maybe, inspire a surge of feeling within me. Perhaps a feeling of closeness to the Divine? Perhaps an intense unification with the Jewish people? Perhaps bafflement or even, perhaps nothing? I was curious, and determined not to judge whatever feeling arose.

I had not, however, expected to feel anything very negative. But when I saw the plaza and learned about the restrictions on women from the people with which I had come, a surge of anger, alien and uncontrollable, dizzied me with its heat. People had taken away my ability to stand before this remnant of my own history. And then I stood in front of this huge mass of stone by myself, and that was really all it was. There was no movement here. For me, there was no joy: this was an empty relic. It had nothing to do with my conception of Judaism because I had been told that I could not take an active part in it.

I was crammed in with swaying, silent women, and I watched them stick rolls of paper in between the stones, some shocking colors – neon post-it notes. Notes to a God of separation and silence that went against any conception of God I had ever had. Their brightness hurt my eyes. The Wall hurt my eyes. The tears hurt my eyes; they were so crowded into my throat I forgot that I was not breathing. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but I thought maybe I would touch the stones. Maybe the touch would be cool, and stop the heat of the anger I could only partially explain. So I ran my finger-tips over the cracks in the wall and tried to control myself. I could hear the men on the other side singing. Out of the corner of my eye, through the mechitza, I saw some of them dancing. I was paralyzed. The notes went up and up the wall, and women strained over one another to put them inside as high as they could reach, crossing straining arms over my head, covering me and striping the Wall with darkness. I kept raising my eyes: I needed to remember that there was a sky above all of this – an expanse that could hold me better in this state than the impenetrable blankness I was facing. And as I tilted my head back I could see it, and then suddenly I could also see what was coming out of the Wall further above me: little shrubby plants, climbing out, bursting out from the cracks, and the birds, finding shelter in their shade. They flitted in and out from the crevices; some were sleeping with their heads tucked under their wings, and some walked along the protruding stones. They twittered and called to one another as they ruffled their feathers about over our heads.

They were making temporary homes in a wall that could provide a resting place and security. I watched them for a long time, every muscle in my body straining from the tenseness with which I held it. For a long time I stared at their delicacy, watched their motion, listened to their voices. For them, this was only a wall, yes, but it did not need to serve anything else but this purpose. It held and cradled and shielded their fluttering motions and finally, I felt a smile starting to spread itself on my mouth because I could see life in the wall – movement and flight and communication, in the safety of an immoveable, steady force.

Months later, after many visits to the Kotel and much learning, my reaction has changed and is far less violent. It changes every time I go, and I never know exactly how I will feel when I stand before the Wall. As I navigate this paradox of stillness and motion, and waver in the confusion that it necessarily causes, I do know one thing: my voice and my tallit have a place before that wall. Together, they illustrate this paradox of rooted history and constant change, in miniature.

When I put on my tallit on in the morning, I cover my head with it as I say the blessing that people have said for generations and generations. The material is slick and shiny white, with 2 thick gold bands of paisley. I picked it out with my mom a few nights before my Bat-Mitzvah. The day of my Bat Mitzvah, my parents draped it over me, and every time I put it on, I think of them. I wore it behind the bimah while I waited for my turn to come up and read the Torah, sitting beside my grandpa who could barely stand and who is now no longer with me. He reached out his hand to take mine, and I had to disentangle my nervous fingers from the tzitzit to grasp his. “Your hands are so cold!” he whispered, and I became less nervous. I think about him too, whenever I wear it, and the rest of my family who were all present on that day. I think of reading at my sister’s Bat Mitzvah, and at my cousins’ Bnei Mitzvoth. I think of all the people I have ever sat beside while wearing it, and sharing it with people who did not have a tallit on a few Shabbats or Yom Kippurs. I think of all the times I have ever been called to the Torah, and used my tzitzit to “kiss in,” as my cantor called it, on letters that countless people have kissed before me. When I wear it, I wrap myself in a blanket of memories. No matter where I might be praying, those memories are of security and consistency. No matter where I go Jewishly, my tallit reminds me of where I have been.

The prayers we say in every service are centuries old. And no one can prove how old the Torah is. The words are fixed but the people who recite them are not. As I learn the words, I fight with them before I can see myself in them and this takes a long, long time. I do not have to like the words, I do not have to accept them, but I do have to challenge myself to articulate why. All I have is my voice to speak the words, and my voice – both inner and outer – to explain to myself and to others why I say them, and what they might mean. The next moment they might, and I might, go on to mean something else entirely, and I will let this happen. There needs to be space for stability, and also for growth and movement within that stability. We must allow their coexistence.

This Wall is a stable structure, but it is witness to the movement of its history, ugly and splendid, bloody and pristine, crowded and lonely. It is a witness to the millions of people – Jewish or otherwise – who have come to it. It is static, but the people who have come to it are not, nor are the ideas they carry.

For a moment on Friday morning, the police closed around me, perhaps misunderstanding my purpose and not realizing that I was part of Women of the Wall. The hissing of thousands of girls in blue and black and jeers of thousands of men in black on the other side enveloped me. I could not move. I looked out toward the Wall that was so far away. There was the green, spilling out of the cracks, peaceful, somehow removed from all of this. On this Friday morning, the birds went crazy. They circled and circled in the space in front of the Wall, changing directions and then coming back together again. It was as if they were trying desperately to regain control of their peace in the cracks and crevices. To me, then and in retrospect even more, they served as a reminder: the Wall embodies both structural security and the inevitability of movement within that structure. It can contain both. But the people screaming around me could not and cannot understand that. Even when I was freed from this tight police circle with Kayla Higgin’s help, surrounded with people I love who want me to be able to sing, I could not. I sensed a hopeless misunderstanding of the purpose and symbolism of the Wall, and it prevented me for the duration of several psalms. My voice broke, again and again as I watched the motion of the birds and the clouds and thought about the plants, growing within the Wall.

I brought my tallit to the Kotel for the first time on Friday. I had been with Women of the Wall on Rosh Hodesh Adar, but had not wanted to risk wearing it. But now, free from the worry of arrest, and overwhelmed by the mobs, all I wanted was to put it on. So I ducked into a thicker part of the Women of the Wall crowd, women and men, and enveloped myself with two layers of protection: my tallit, and people who think I should be allowed to wear it. If only the Wall could be another layer of that protection.

I do not pretend to make a much larger theological or political statement by wearing a tallit – I’m only wrapping myself up, a person constantly changing, with an idea of constancy and protection. Before the Wall, I want the reminder of that combination more than anything else – change happens, sometimes violent and painful, yet at the same time it can be contained. My tallit reminds me that I can change, and I have and I will, but that the web of my history will support me always.

My tallit belongs around my shoulders at the Wall, because the Wall can remind us all of that too. It can remind the Jewish people of where we have come from, and so doing, strengthen our courage to look at where we might be going. It can provide structure and safety, and also openings for growth and motion. It can do both – we just have to figure out where and how we must stand before it in order to recognize that power.