Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Twenty Years On

Although I wasn’t there when Women of the Wall started twenty years ago, on Rosh Hodesh Kislev in 1988, I was all for it.

Shortly after I made aliyah at the end of 1991, I joined.

A lot has changed since then. Women’s tefilla groups, which encountered a great deal of criticism and opposition when they first began (some still do), have moved into the mainstream. Orthodox congregations known as “partnership minyanim,” in which women lead certain sections of the prayer service, speak before the congregation and receive aliyot to the Torah, have become popular. So I suppose that the idea of a women’s tefilla group at the Western Wall doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore, which is fine with me. But twenty years ago, it was.

Dr. Phyllis Chesler, who wrote such groundbreaking works as Women and Madness and Letters to a Young Feminist—and who speaks out fearlessly against world jihad and antisemitism—recalls WOW’s beginnings twenty years ago and traces our history at Jewcy: The Women of the Wall, Twenty Years On.

And the photo accompanying the article? That’s me facing the camera when we read Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel several years ago—on my birthday, as it turned out. Yes, we read Torah legally at the Western Wall, not once but several times, and nothing happened. Not a peep, not a squeak—or, as I said in Yael Katzir’s documentary about our group, Praying in Her Own Voice, we read Torah at the Kotel and the stones didn’t come crashing down. The only negative consequences, if one can call them so, were that two women approached us afterwards, peacefully, in order to express their disagreement. That was all.

Unfortunately, though, the peace and quiet didn’t last, thanks to an opponent of ours who, several months later, came from her home in a coastal city specifically in order to make trouble. What a pity. We’d had something beautiful there, and she—or whoever sent her—had evidently felt so threatened by it that she, or they, had to destroy it. My account of what happened that day is here.

Well, while I’m on the topic... many times, when people ask me about our monthly prayer services, one of their questions is: “But don’t you get chairs thrown at you?”

The answer is no. Although it happened at first, it doesn’t anymore—and in any case, the old metal chairs were replaced with much lighter and cheaper plastic ones long ago. Our prayer services are just the way I like them: quiet, uneventful and even a little dull (I’m allowed to say that, since I lead most of them!). The only times when there has ever been any “action” at our services have occurred when people came deliberately in order to make trouble. Incidentally, we could always spot the troublemakers in advance, even before we began our services—but that hasn’t happened in a very long time.

The vast majority of the time, WOW’s prayer services garner about as much attention any other women’s tefilla group or, for that matter, as much as the local minyan down the street... which is as it should be.

(Oh, and Phyllis Chesler’s anti-jihadi work? She knows exactly what she’s talking about—she's been there. Go here and read her riveting account about how she escaped from Afghanistan in the 1960s.)

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