My alarm clock rang at 3am. Time to head to the Kotel for the crack of dawn vatikin minyan. My friend had told me that every Rosh Chodesh, two yeshivas come together to form one big minyan. She promised me lots of singing and ruchaniyut, or spirituality. I was hesitant to agree to go; I’d have to wake up so early, and worried I’d be too tired to focus. What if I wasn’t “feeling” the spirituality? I’d have missed out on precious minutes of sleep, which I could never seem to get enough of. My friend reassured me that it was worth going. So that morning, I rolled out of bed at 3 in the morning, grabbed a sweatshirt and shuffled downstairs to wait for my friend.
It was dark and chilly as we passed through the Jewish quarter and security. There were only a handful of other ladies praying in the women’s section. We stood in the back, close to the mechitza, so we could hear the minyan on the men’s side as loudly as possible. As I mumbled my way through the praying, I wondered when we’d start praying aloud. My bed, kilometers away, was calling my name. I shot my friend a questioning look. She put her hand up in a gesture that said, “hold your horses” and went back to praying, head bent over siddur, shuckling. Sure enough, the singing started at Hallel. Finally! This is what I had woken up so early for! At this point, the sky had brightened and it was warming up. About halfway through the Hallel, the minyan disappeared. I had been in my own world, focused on the words in the siddur, when I snapped back to reality. Where did the men go? Why did the singing stop? I saw looks of confusion on the faces of women around me. Along with many other women, I attempted to peek over the men’s side to see what was happening.
The minyan was indeed gone, replaced by Israeli soldiers putting up barriers a couple feet away from the mechitza. I asked an older lady next to me why they were putting up the blockade. It was so that the haredi men wouldn’t throw chairs over the mechitza at the women. I was horrified. Why would men throw chairs at us? I thought to myself. And then, seconds later, chaos erupted. Charging through the entrance of the women’s side were the Women of the Wall. Made up of a surprisingly large group of women, the women were all clad in decorated tallitot. They were surrounded by a swarm of media. Cameramen and reporters pushed their way to the center of the group, trying to get a good shot of the women, a good quote for their newspaper. Aside from the men standing in the women’s section, there were haredi women who went over screaming. Were the shouts directed at the media or the women? I couldn’t quite tell, though there clearly was a standoff between one religious woman and a member of the Women of the Wall. Both were screaming, yet no one was listening. It was quite a spectacle—two women, screaming at each other, with no intention of listening to what the other was saying. And of course, there were plenty of cameras there to capture it all.
Momentarily peeling my eyes away from the swarm of people, I glanced around at the other women who were praying. With the exception of the few people who were the closest to the Kotel, with their hands grasping onto the wall, their heads bent over their siddurim, the majority of the women had ceased to pray and were staring at the scene as well. Talk about rubbernecking! Most of the women had disgusted looks on their faces, whispering to each other. I could only imagine what they were saying. My friend who brought me to the Kotel came over to tell me the minyan had moved to the back. Due to the barrier, they were forced to relocate, and we would have to exit the women’s section to hear them. So we left, with many other ladies, and stood outside the men’s section in the plaza. Craning our ears to hear the minyan over the loud voices of the haredi men who were trying to drown out the voices of the Women of the Wall, we had trouble following the hazan. My praying experience was ruined. My friend and I left before the service was completely over, because we had had enough of the drama.
Walking back, I found that I was angry with these women. It surprised me. Was I one of these religious women who just wanted to get rid of this group? I grew up in an environment where respect for other’s opinions, religions and traditions trumped everything else. Although I might not necessarily agree with the objective of these women, to wear tallitot, read from the Torah and pray aloud, I wasn’t flabbergasted, as others were. These women were trying to bring a type of Reform movement to the Kotel–though it seems to be outrageous in Israel, it’s nothing new to America. It was the manner in which they conducted themselves that disturbed me.
The Women of the Wall had deliberately caused brouhaha. It was all for show. Once they came into the women’s section flanked by cameramen and reporters, some of the women spoke to the reporters, while the rest of the women sang Hallel in a chorus. They sounded beautiful praying together as a group. But they were singing so loudly that no one else could focus on their own prayers. Even more so, religious men were trying to block out the sound of their voices, since halachically men are prohibited from listening to women sing. I can’t speak for the intentions of the women, but it seemed that they were singing to prove a point to those at the Kotel, rather than praying to God. I left while they were still protesting because I found their actions disrespectful to both the holy nature of the Kotel and to the people who were trying to focus on their prayers.
My friend had promised me a memorable praying experience. And she was right, it was memorable. But ultimately for a very different reason.