JERUSALEM – “Are your tefillin plastic?” they said, gathering around in a horde of black and white to poke, and prod, and laugh.
“Do you wear tefillin on Shabbat? Of course, you do!” the older Haredi Jews yelled in Hebrew. “Reform are not real Jews, you break all the Torah.”
“You should do teshuva,” the black-hatted, tallit-wearing, grey-bearded American bursting with self-righteousness told me, speaking over the mass of pre-pubescent ultra-Orthodox boys milling about. “It’s a shame that you’re here with these people. You’re like terrorists.”
“We’re terrorists?” I asked him. “You’re like terrorists!” he replied. Destroying Judaism and Torah.
Deep in the Jewish state, across a contested colored line, in the narrow alleys and packed walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, is the Kotel and its plaza. Tourists come here all year round, of different faiths and ages, from the Birthright groups poking holy stone for the first time to innocent backpackers taking pictures on their grand world tours.
Every start of the new Jewish month, Women of the Wall come to pray in the women’s section of the Kotel, protesting the religious status quo that has them harassed for wanting to pray as the men do.
And setting aside my vaguely conflicted feelings regarding the clash of religious rights for Orthodox and Liberal Jews, there I was. Why? Like I told the security guard who asked if I had come for Women of the Wall, “I’m just here to take pictures.”
Not entirely true. The Conservative Yeshiva prays every Wednesday at the Egalitarian Plaza of the Kotel, and it just so happened that the new Jewish month was celebrated on Wednesday. So the women went to pray with WoW, and the men stood behind the women’s section to pray in support while being yelled at and harassed about their fake, plastic tefillin.
“Look, these tefillin are from the 80s,” I told the crowd that had gathered around me. “I don’t know what they’re made of,” I said, genuinely confused about why they were saying these things, and using the lack of knowledge about my tefillin as humorous ammo. Deciding to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, I couldn’t help but try and explain the 80s to this mass of ultra-Orthodox pre-teen boys poking at me, tugging at my kippah, and getting handsy with my camera.
“Guns and Roses? AC/DC? It’s good stuff, I’m telling you, you gotta check it out!” I yelled at them, laughing at their confusion while they tried to quiz me on my Jewishness. Fortunately or unfortunately, they tried to do so in Hebrew, and my Hebrew is…nu, not so good.
So they yelled at me in Hebrew and English, and I yelled at them in English and Russian. “You’re crazy!” they said, incredulous and surprised at the fact that I kept laughing and joking with them as they were trying to discredit my presence. “I AM crazy!” I laughed maniacally, pointing at them and continuing in a horrid Israeli accent. “No, YOU’RE crazy!”
We went back and forth like this for a very long time.
The mob of kids, bolstered by mouthy adults, were very confused and excited by the entertainment. At a certain point, a much older (and wider) Haredi gentleman came up to me to yell in Hebrew that “the Reform Kotel is in Tel Aviv,” a rallying cry of those against Women of the Wall and associated liberal-leaning Jews (there is very little conception of Reform or Conservative in the American sense). Getting carried away by the chant and situation, I locked arms with this gentleman and, laughing, began to chant with him.
The crowd saw a Reform Jew, wrapped in tefillin and tallit, wearing a large knit kippah and a simple black camera, dancing and bellowing “the Reform Kotel is in Tel Aviv.” It didn’t matter much that I see myself more as an, um, Conservative Jew. “Reformi,” they yelled.
Later, some of these same kids angrily tried manhandling my camera and pushing me down the stairs near a bus that had come for some members of Women of the Wall. A security guard, and one very relaxed settler-looking guy, held them back while I escaped.
A year ago, when I had accidentally run into Women of the Wall, the same crowd of the same kids, and the same American self-righteous ultra-Orthodox Jew, and the same older (and wider) Haredi gentleman, had been there to harass participants. They are no more than 40 punks and older men who like to yell.
I found this amusing on the long walk I took back to central Jerusalem from the Old City. Through the humor, I felt increasingly bitter that I had experienced a group of entitled assholes. Where else will one find Jews who deliberately harass other Jews, tug kippahs off of people’s heads, and rifle through camera bags while grabbing at a thing that doesn’t belong to them? Because the Torah told them they were better than the rest of us? And this was mostly kids.
What grand citizens of the Jewish nation they will grow up to be, spitting on the descendants of Holocaust survivors and those who retained their Jewishness through the oppression of the Soviet Union. A self-centered reflection, but in spirit, I am not alone in this.
Because of the social pressure around Israel, I feel the need to say that this is by no means an indictment of Israel. But…it is a curious occurrence, no? In the Jewish state, largely built and bled for by secular Jews, this happens at the Kotel. Every time the lunar cycle renews and a new Jewish month arrives.
And this was just what the men go through. The women? They fight the real fight.