Usually I’m a curmudgeonly person who complains that this or that aspect of every experience (or every issue of this magazine, for that matter) could have been done differently, by which I always mean better. But our daughter Yael’s bat mitzvah, which we marked in Israel this past July, met all my expectations—and hers too, I hope. The celebration included an aliyah near the Wall, an aliyah at Shabbat services in synagogue and a hike through ancient pastures. It’s Part One that I’ll share with you here.
Yael’s 13th birthday (by the Gregorian calendar) fell on Shabbat this year, on the second day of the Hebrew month of Av. In Jerusalem, the valiant Women of the Wall have for seven years been trying to expand the opportunities for women to worship in a full women’s prayer service at the Western Wall. They meet to pray once a month, on Rosh Chodesh. (The first day of the new month, when the moon is new too, was traditionally a women’s holiday because of the links between women’s cycles and the moon.) On Rosh Chodesh the Torah is read, so for Yael an opportunity for a very special celebration the very day before her birthday presented itself. She could have her first aliyah, her first chance to be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, take place in this extraordinary gathering of Women of the Wall.
The Supreme Court in Israel is deciding right now how women will be permitted to worship at this holy site. After emailed queries and phone calls, I learned from the organizers that until the court renders its decision they are prohibited from having a Torah scroll on the women’s side of the Wall. For now, the Women of the Wall gather at the Western Wall, daven shacharit (the morning prayers) and then back away from the Wall to a section of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (a three minute walk) and bring out their Torah scroll. My conversations with Chaia Beckerman, and the other women who have devotedly prompted and led the women’s prayer service each Rosh Chodesh, didn’t prepare me fully for the sweetness of the occasion.
After announcing the protocol, Betsy Cohen-Kallus led the shacharit service in a quiet voice.We sang comfortably—but not at the tops of our lungs, lest we inspire the kind of backlash that had interrupted women’s services at the wall a few years ago. The women included the regulars from Jerusalem—about half a dozen—plus our friends and family (men over on their side) and a group of 8 or 10 women from Haifa who want to start their own women’s prayer service there. One woman had brought her ten year old, knowing that Yael would be called to the Torah, in order that her daughter would see a bat mitzvah, for the first time in a women’s prayer group, “and would want one herself.” Yael, a little uncertain herself about what to expect, was already a role model!
After shacharit we climbed the stairs opposite the Wall to reach a setting of sublime loveliness: the Archaeological Garden, a roofless stone room, bare except for an arched window which looks out over the plaza of the Western Wall. On the floor stand two broad, stone tables, like altars of a sort, one of which is the perfect height to serve as a lectern for reading from an unrolled Torah scroll.
I was nervous for Yael, awed by the spectacularly beautiful setting and the women’s clear voices ringing out freely, now, in the Jerusalem air, and overjoyed to be welcomed so lovingly by the Women of the Wall. Yael was called to the Torah for the first time, I for the umpteenth time, but in the end it was Yael who sang out sweetly and confidently (wearing the prayer shawl that one of the women had draped over her shoulders as she approached the Torah), and I who was stumbling and nervous, barely able to speak the short dvar Torah I’d promised to present.
After Yael’s aliyah the women sang to her, blessed her and our family, danced her around, and wove her into a community of Jewish women.