The women are the strong ones, truly.
In early spring 2012, my aunt died. Outside of my parents, she was the relative I was closest with. I saw my dad’s family the most, but in my grandparent’s eyes I had stopped growing once I reached twelve; my mom’s side was always busy, and there were so many nieces and nephews that there was never time for individual attention on my end. But my Aunt Linda, who didn’t get married until I was eight years old and thus most of my childhood was spent with her, always found time to hang out with me, even with her crowded nurse’s schedule. I started really coming into my own when her cancer was diagnosed; her illness seemed to flip a switch in her, and for the last year I had with her she was the only adult relative I had who truly treated me like an adult, and who also made specific time to be with me, even when her illness grew worse. When she died I was completely lost, because it felt like I had lost the most important woman in my life.
At this same time, I was taking a class at Susquehanna called “Jewish Philosophy and Ethics.” My family is not Jewish but my parents are Christian, and throughout my childhood they spoke a lot about the Jewish people and their history in relation to the New Testament. For years I was so interested in a heritage and culture I did not belong to, and college seemed like the perfect place to learn about it. I signed up for the class and loved it instantly: my professor was a rabbi who was hilarious, intelligent, and kind, and the way she taught us about the tenants of Judaism, and philosophies about God and God’s role in our lives, and our responsibilities as humans, connected strongly with the beliefs I had developed in the past few years.
When my aunt died and it felt like the bottom had dropped out of my world, it was extremely comforting to return to a class about religion, especially a religion and culture that answered questions I had at the time, about my place in the world, about a purpose for living. Sometime that spring I decided I wanted to go to Israel, and talk to God—it didn’t feel like God was approachable in my daily life in Pennsylvania, but if I studied abroad and traveled to the Kotel, touched that ancient wall, maybe, somehow, the clouds would part and God would appear to me through the clouds and explain what had happened to me that spring and summer (my only grandmother, who I was also extremely close to, passed away that June).
Finally, over Rosh Hashanah break, my chance came! Friends and I planned to visit the Old City! I was ecstatic: it had been over a year since my decision and now I was going to complete the action I had been so desperate to perform 18 months before. We figured out the bus and light rail system, and walked through the Christian quarter into the Jewish quarter. After several stairways, we were there.
And I was speechless. But not for the reason I’d so anticipated—not because I could feel God in that place.
It was because of the women.
I went in knowing that women’s and men’s spots had been separated, but I hadn’t really imagined what that looked like in reality. Here, it meant ten or fifteen men praying on the men’s side, but tons of women on the other. Women crammed shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, speaking many languages and dressed in a variety of ways, observing as many traditions and practices towards that holy site. I waited for a gap to appear and made my move when a woman left; tentatively, I touched the wall.
God did not appear in the sky, or as a Voice in my head.
But there was a woman on my left, murmuring words I didn’t understand. A woman on my right prayed with her iPhone in her hand, against the wall. I watched another woman struggle to press a prayer into an already-crammed crevice; I saw papers dried into the wall, as much a part of it as the stones themselves.
It was watching the women that I had my own religious experience.
I thought about the restrictions Orthodox Judaism has against women. I thought about the restrictions other religions have against women. And I watched these women pray, and I felt very small, and I felt like part of a legacy stretching before and after my own self. I loved these women, in that moment. I loved being a woman, in that moment. I loved that, because of the luck of my birth and chosen gender identity, I was connected, in a small way, to these women who came out in the hot desert sun to worship their God. It made me feel significant.
A few days earlier I had decided that I wanted to do an Independent Study at Rothberg on women’s experiences with the Holocaust: how they retained and reconstructed their gender identity even in the face of adversity—in the face of ghettos, of work and death camps, and of the hardships after liberation. Sitting and watching these women pray reinforced that idea, and my desire to lean everything I could about women and their strength.
Tomorrow I’ll write a more general update post, but I wanted this own recollection to have a place of its own.