Monday, January 30, 2012

I stood by

Personal Statement, application to the summer Tikvah program, spring of 2011

     I stood by.
     My Jewish sisters gathered at the Western Wall, and I stood by.
Stood by and watched as they sang their prayers on Rosh Chodesh Av, praising God and defying the shouts they provoked. I had written about these women, described and extolled their fight, their desire to be unmarked, undivided, uninhibited in speaking to God as they wished, where they wished. I believed in their mission, was personally distraught over the crowdedness of the women’s side of the mechitza, over the restrictions I felt upon my chanting, my expression, my being. I supported their call for religious freedom. I had come to see them, to maybe add my voice to theirs. But I found, that day, that I could not stand with them.
     I was uncomfortable, afraid, agitated. Prayers were protests; what was meant for God was directed instead against detractors. The Torah became something to possess, to display. Hallel became a freedom march, a production for video cameras. Judaism became a battleground on the first day of the month dedicated to remembering the dangers of turning against each other. I did not come for battle. I came for worship. And so I stood by, watched as others fought my battle for me. But I am ashamed to say there was another reason I stood by.
     I did not respect them. I did not respect myself.
     These women were united in their struggle but somehow I saw them as motley, mismatched. Many were not Israeli. Many were not Orthodox. I did not believe that others would consider their claims or their methods traditional, within the bounds of the system. I did not want to be on camera with them; I did not want other Jews seeing me with them; I did not want to associate with these women, to have my face next to theirs. I shied away from allying with the subversive, the rag-tag, the eternally outside voices of change.
     I wanted to be normative.
    All of the labels that I had managed to accrue over the years – female, pacifist, bisexual, idealist, tallit-donner, kippah-wearer, storyteller, song singer – all of these liberal, freeing things boxed me in, made me a ‘type,’ made me feel I needed to prove myself in order to be respected. I might be egalitarian, but I better not play guitar on Shabbat. I might consider laying tefillin, but I better do so in my own bedroom. I might lead Neilah, but I better not make a fuss if a man is always chosen to lead Kiddush in my own home. I might feel the call to learn and counsel and teach and, gosh knows, even prophesy, but I better not become a Rabbi. I could not be a hippie, I could not be loud, I could not be joyful, I could not be defiant. I could not cut my hair. I could not be one of ‘those women.’ I needed to make myself generic, not cause a stir, not isolate myself. Of course, even in my most restricted moments, I was far from being a conformist. But I did not always broadcast the ways in which I did not quite fit in.
     Only in that way would I be taken seriously. Only by operating within law and custom, only by dressing smartly, behaving modestly, studying sources earnestly, would I encourage others to respect me. 
     Only then, I reasoned, would my views ‘count.’
     I reflect on that day, and I remember another time, a very different time, the first time I met with the Wall, about six months earlier. I had thought of wearing a skirt. Instead I approached the Wall as myself, in jeans and hiking boots. I walked closer, looked up, considered the division between light stone and dark sky, walked closer, closer. This is me, I declared. And I brought my ancestors with me, all of those who had not been privileged to reach the spot themselves. They did not mind my jeans, my boots. They did not mind my queerness, my silliness, my feminism, my doubts. They also did not care about my observance of Shabbat, my resolve not to show cleavage during services, my refusal to listen to music for three weeks out of the year. All that mattered was that I was finally bringing them to the Wall. I was their descendant, their passionate, devoted, intelligent, proud, questioning, fiery girl-child. 
     I think back on this earlier meeting between God, the Wall, my ancestors, and me, and I am suddenly tired of the struggle to be seen as authentic, to ally myself with those who are seen as authentic. I do not know what to make of my own dismissal of my kin that day in July. In my fear of ostracizing myself, I had ostracized them. 
     There are many ways in which I need to grow, many things I need to learn, many decisions I need to make. But I now know that I already have a place among those who matter. Maybe it is with the Women of the Wall. Maybe it is not. 
     But I will not stand by again. 
     I will simply stand.

No comments: