Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Free Jerusalem

I was leading a group of 15 women from around the world on a Women’s Spirituality mission when the news broke: an Israeli woman had been arrested at the Kotel for wearing a tallit. The group was astonished, having just spent a lovely afternoon a few days before touring the Old City and putting their personal notes into the Wall’s crevices. Like most of my tours, this was a sophisticated group; they weren’t “just tourists” who think the haredim are exotic, interesting “specimens” of Jews. They got the politics. They got the tension. They got the history. They understood why I don’t take my groups walking through Meah Shearim, under the watchful eyes of the huge sign demanding exacting standards of modest dress from all women who enter, past virulently anti-Zionist signs (like “All Jews hate Zionists”), through narrow alleyways reminiscent of 18th century Poland where we “seculars” can take pictures of “quaint” religious children. They got that “Jews ‘R Us” as much as “Jews ‘R Them.” I hope that after an intense week in Israel, they got that they are responsible for the Jewish future as much as the haredim are.

We debated: after all, the Kotel has been designated as an Orthodox synagogue rather than as a historical site (this after a 20 year battle from Women of the Wall to be able to read from a Torah on the women’s side) and those who enter an Orthodox site should abide by the rules of that community. On the other hand, since when is the Kotel a synagogue? It was disingenious from the start to designate it as such only after the Women of the Wall lodged their case, and to then give it to an Orthodox monopoly which now includes a men-only walking area in the formerly mixed back plaza. On the third hand, why should the women who want to pray together quietly as a group be forced to move to a non-public space? On the fourth hand why should a small group of women be allowed to disturb the status quo and the peace of the Kotel every month? On the fifth hand why is a woman wearing a tallit so disturbing, considering she is not obligated to wear one but neither is there a halachic commandment AGAINST her wearing one. On the sixth hand we are supposed to love all Jews and to remember the Second Temple was destroyed by the hate of one Jew to another. On the seventh hand how do we disagree with those (on either “side”) we think are so utterly wrong that it may one day destroy the Judaism we believe in...on the eighth hand, we simply need to be octopi to have enough hands for this discussion.

The woman arrested on November 18th was Nofrat Frenkel, a 28 year-old Israeli medical student and committed Conservative Jew. Born into an Orthodox Zionist family, she identifies herself as “religious.” She is one of the most spiritual, faithful Jews you will ever meet. The press treated the arrest as little more than a “human interest” story but in Jerusalem it represented the straw that broke the camel’s back after months of violent haredi demonstrations against both the downtown public parking lot and the Intel factory being open on Shabbat. Those demonstrations included stone-throwing, rioting, fires being set, reporters being attacked, dirty diapers being dumped on police, and vandalism. In shuls and stores, on buses and in bars people were talking about religious coercion and the right of each person to their own Jewish expression. Law-abiding citizens began asking why those who break the law are not punished. Religious and secular Jews both started asking why they were being silent in the face of Frenkel’s arrest and the growing fanaticism that is taking hold of formerly tolerant and pluralistic neighborhoods. People started talking about “Kiryat Yovel” as a symbol of religious coercion. Kiryat Yovel is a university neighborhood, open and pluralistic, with lots of modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, completely secular, Arabs, searching college kids. A few months ago a group of 300 haredi families sought to buy and/or build apartment buildings open only to members of their community and to turn the field which was slated to be for an arts centre into a haredi kindergarten. Frenkel’s arrest and the growing tension in Kiryat Yovel made people feel that it was time to “do something.”

So my family and I took part in a quickly-organized protest rally convened by a consortium of groups under the banner “Free Jerusalem” on the last Saturday night of November in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem press reported that a few hundred “secular Jerusalemites” marched. In truth it was close to 2500 people of all ages, with many, many kipot and tzitzit, skirts and hair-covering scarves. The Conservative and Reform movements were there in full form. Secular? If by that you mean those who do not wear or live in black-and-white. The speeches emphasized the willingness of the protesters to dialogue with the haredim, and their desire for a peaceful and united city, but their unwillingness to let Jerusalem devolve into a fundamentalist city with its own brand of morality police, run by those who do not recognize the rights of all citizens of that city. Speakers from the Knesset held kowtowing politicians responsible for placating and turning a blind eye to violent, disruptive, and even illegal haredi acts and the growing haredi coercion in all levels of local and national politics. Frenkel spoke eloquently of her simple desire to “serve The Creator in joy” as a woman. We sang “Jerusalem of Gold” and then, most powerfully, we were asked to sing Hatikva— ‘lihiyot am chofshi- to be a free people in our own land, in Eretz Yisrael and in Jerusalem’— to reaffirm that our protest was a Zionist act of love for the Jewish State of Israel. People openly wept, and I felt within the crowd a fierce dedication to both Israel and to its heart, Jerusalem. The Israeli who had marched next to me saying “I’ve had it, I’m moving to Tel Aviv” turned to me at the end and said, “Now I know I can’t leave but have to become active in the movement for a free Jerusalem. I want my Jerusalem back.”

After the peaceful protest ended, 2500 people went up the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street, looking for felafel and making their way home. We were met by three dancing Hasidic men with huge yellow flags that said “Mashiach” on them; they had been trying valiantly to drown out the protest by singing to a recording of “Mashiach, Mashiach” as loud as possible into hand-held microphones. We tried to talk with them; they sang louder. We formed a circle and started dancing to the music; they turned off the music and moved away. I kept thinking of all the Jews who have pretty much abandoned Judaism while sending money to haredim so “they will be Jewish for us.” I kept thinking of the approaching festival of Hanukkah and its insistence on “dispelling the darkness.” In Jerusalem, a thriving new generation is trying to rekindle the light, by redefining who the they will be in the years ahead. I wish them success— for Jerusalem’s sake.

The sign says, “We are liberating the Western Wall a second time.” (The first time was, of course, after the 1967 war when the city was united and the Wall was “liberated” from Jordanian control.)


  1. I'm enjoying your posts-I feel like I'm there and seeing it through your eyes.

  2. This Wall microphones

    is an interesting perspective. Thanks a lot for sharing this useful information and look forward to see more from you.

  3. Just found your blog through Israel Religious Action Ctr-thanks so much for being there, for being part of the action. I miss you guys so much and am looking forward to traveling to Jerusalem of Gold(stein).
    Love and Hugs to the Whole family,

  4. Grow Up! Show some wisdom. This is the way it is.