E.M. Broner

On the last day of the conference, there was a demonstration — one of faithful women — at the Kotel (Western Wall of the Second Temple), for morning services and Thursday Torah reading. A group of 60 to 70 women including such young women as a psychotherapist from Brazil and a statistician from Paris left from the Hyatt, conference headquarters, for the Kotel in buses, carrying with us a Torah that Reform Rabbi Helene Ferris borrowed from Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Ferris, Norma Joseph, an Orthodox scholar from Montreal, and Orthodox Rivka Haut helped to organize this service. We were prepared for this action in a feminist manner by Rabbi Deborah Brin of Toronto, at a meeting where the women spoke of their concerns until a consensus was reached. Orthodox women do not daven (pray) with women rabbis, but this time the women rabbis would be our readers. The non-Orthodox women, on the other hand, agreed to perform the Thursday Torah service halachically (according to Jewish law) so the Orthodox would be comfortable. Those who had vowed not to attend a service where there was segregation, where they were on one side of the mechitza (divider), came as support. So we were a band of women, united, though we were every branch of Judaism, Reconstruction, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and those who were non-practicing.

We surrounded the Torah in a tight group, Conservative Francine Klagsbrun carried the Sefer Torah to the Kotel and from the Kotel. Phyllis Chester helped to undress the Torah; Blu Greenberg, Orthodox, received the first aliyah (Torah reading); Geela Razel Robinson, studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, acted as cantor. Readers were Reform, Orthodox and Reconstructionist. The service was led by Rabbi Brin.

We would have no stars, no leaders, would give no separate interviews but state merely, “We have gone to the Kotel for religious purposes.” We were doing something so radical, returning sacred space to women, that we did not need to overstate it.

At the Kotel, as we sang the song before and after reading from the Torah, the woman court guard came running over screaming, “The Torah belongs to men!” I was on the outer ring of the group and, as she pushed and pummelled us, my back received blows. The woman guard had alerted the men, and we saw them rising from their side, in their black anger, standing on chairs, shaking their fists at us, their faces distorted with rage, their voices bellowing. They cursed, they excommunicated us. What one saw, in that row of faces above the plastic mechitza, was a row of gargoyles, the demonization of opinion in the guise of religion.

On the ride back to the hotel, once we stopped trembling and our anger had subsided, we became terribly proud, even boastful of our courage under fire.

I had prepared a secret ritual of my own. I was scheduled to speak on “Women and Literature — From Jewish American Princess to Priestess.” When I finished this rather sweeping academic recital, I gestured to Geela Razel Robinson to come on-stage. She had concealed a shofar (ram’s horn) in her lap, as I had concealed in my briefcase a yellow plastic strip, used around sites of dangerous road repair. “DANGER!” it said in Hebrew, Arabic and English, “ELECTRIC CABLES IN THE GROUND!” There was something about danger, and languages of opponents in warning, and two peoples clashing about the same ground that encapsulated the whole struggle visually for me. I placed a yarmulke (skull cap) on my head and this plastic stripping as a tallis (prayer shawl) around my neck. And I said, “Razel, blow the shofar. The shofar sounds at the new moon, at holidays, at war and the end of the world. We can decide whether the occasion is celebratory or desperate.” Razel blew a long, lasting, echoing note.

E.M. Broner was writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Center for Cultural Studies and is working on a novel, The Repair Shop, under a National Endowment for the Arts grant.