Women at the Western Wall

   Dan Balilty AP Israeli women of the Women of the Wall organization pray just outside the Western Wall, the … Continued


Dan Balilty


Israeli women of the Women of the Wall organization pray just outside the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem’s old city, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. Security guards at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, usually search worshippers for weapons upon entering. But on Dec. 14, they were on the lookout for a seemingly inoffensive possession: Jewish prayer shawls. The shawls are ubiquitous at the holy site, and under Orthodox tradition, are worn only by men. When several dozen women draped in them attempted to enter the area, their multicolored garments were confiscated.

It’s usually quite easy to get lost in the winding, cobbled lanes of Jerusalem’s Old City. But not when you’re headed to the Western Wall on Friday evening, the evening of the Jewish Sabbath.  

Entering from Jaffa Gate, all you need do is follow the stream of religious Jews in black hats, big circular fur hats and kippas hurriedly heading down towards Judaism’s most holy site at the beginning of Judaism’s most holy day.

After you pass security, and stand on the stairs overlooking the majestic Western Wall Plaza, well, it’s simply an amazing sight Friday at sundown:  A sea of religious Jews – thousands, really — praying, swaying, singing and dancing in circles facing the Wall. While the sky, almost always blue around here, goes dark.

Like a lot of things in this part of the world, though, and I mean the entire Middle East when I say that, it’s mostly about the men, which you can’t help but notice when you look closely at the Sabbath scene.

First of all, the men’s worshipping area at the wall is huge compared to the woman’s area. The women seem squished over to the right to me, almost as an afterthought. Then, what you first notice looking down on the white-stoned plaza are the men covered in beautiful flowing white prayer shawls and white kippas, incredible hats, shiny black robes – a striking picture of black-and-white. Whereas the women, some in wigs and headscarves, wear no shawls.  They’re a smaller, drabber group, seen like this from the stairs looking down.  

It’s hard to believe that Jewish women, many from north America, have been arrested here just because they tried to pray at this holy site wearing the fringed prayer shawl that many of the men are wearing tonight. Or reading the Torah, like it seems all the men here are. But then maybe not that surprising, when I think of all the ways the ultra-Orthodox  have put their stamp on Jerusalem – the strict Kosher laws, the blacking out of women in advertising, the big ultra-Orthodox areas where non-residents aren’t that welcome.

Also in the plaza this night though are dozens of young Israeli soldiers, young men and women, all in uniform, also dancing in circles, also celebrating the coming of the Sabbath together. In one circle, a female soldier dances in the middle, and then another takes her place. They’re all laughing and joking together.  These are more the types of Israelis I’ve met since I’ve lived here.

What kind of society does Israel want to be, going forward? That, to me, a complete outsider, seems one of the central questions facing this country today.

And Friday evening at the Western Wall is a good way to see that up close.

Daniela Deane writes from Israel on Life in the Holy Land.

Written by

  • motherof3

    “heading down towards Judaism’s most holy site”

    The reporter is 180 degrees wrong. One does not head down toward Judaism’s holiest site. One heads UP. Judaism’s holiest site is on top of a mountain, namely Temple Mount.

  • motherof3

    She could learn something else too. The plural of “kippa” is not “kippas”. It is “kippot”.

  • Graceful Swallow

    I think the operative words here are “a complete outsider.” While I believe in the equal treatment of men and women, to impose my sense of values and morality on another culture infers that my way is the better way. I have all the information to know what is better. And I know better than the people on the ground.

    It seems in many cases, especially for US women, they are not willing to work with a system but wish to overhaul it regardless of what was working before their encroachment. They seem to dismiss what IS working in the system and choose to focus on what is wrong with it. This systemic approach to social change uses the parts of the whole to create contempt, disgust, and hatred for the whole system.

    In the end, the system is replaced or overhauled such that society is saddled with the social and financial costs of this change rather a degree of change that honors what was before and coexists with the new. It leaves the original authors of such a system feeling alienated and discounted. Here, women do to the authors what they felt was done to them.

    No wonder we find such resistance to demands by disparate groups for equal rights, pay, and access (i.e., blacks, gays, women, white males). The feelings of women that informed their calls for change have now been “transferred” to the parties that had to change their original system. Where does empathy fit into this “drama”?

    The author goes on to make a wide sweeping comment, “What kind of society does Israel want to be, going forward?” Here, she implicitly invokes a moral privilege. I have been to the Western Wall. While the spaces are smaller for women, it does not seem to detract from the exuberance of all present including both men and women. This includes the enlightened women with whom I traveled. They prayed at the wall and found the experience exhilarating.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous