This year is a Jewish leap year. Because of discrepancies between lunar and solar rotations, during every 19-year cycle, the Hebrew calendar includes seven leap years, each with 13 months instead of 12. The month added is always Adar II, a second month of Adar.
On the 14th day of Adar we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim. Reading the Book of Esther, we rejoice as we remember the Jewish people being saved from the malevolent hands of Haman, who schemed to kill all Jews in the ancient Persian Empire.
In leap years, Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar II. In its anticipation, it’s customary to publicly exclaim at the beginning of the month: “mishenichnas Adar marbim besimcha” – when [the month] of Adar arrives we increase our joy! There’s a catchy melody we sing to those words.
Last Friday was Rosh Chodesh Adar II – the first day of the month of Adar II – and although we were meant to be filled with expectant exuberance, what I experienced early that morning at the Kotel – the Wailing or Western Wall – was distressing.
That morning Women of the Wall (WoW) marked the 30th anniversary of their struggle for a semblance of Jewish pluralism at the Kotel. For three decades now, on the first day of every Hebrew month, this group of heroic multi-denominational women from Israel and around the Jewish world, has been battling for the right to pray together in the women’s section of the Wall – wearing tallitot and kippot and reading collectively from the Torah.
WoW are accused of being provocative for challenging the status quo at the Kotel, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. While this is a contentious matter, they have won legal battles ensuring their right to pray together in the women’s section of the Wall and enjoy support from progressive Jews worldwide.
In January 2016, after years of complex negotiations, WoW, along with the Conservative and Reform movements and others, reached a historic agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. They would stop praying at the women’s section and move their monthly prayers to an egalitarian southern section of the Wall. In return, the government would fund a major refurbishment of that section and would make it as accessible as the existing men’s and women’s sections. More significantly, Netanyahu agreed to establish a public council to oversee the management of that section of the Wall, with representatives of the Reform and Conservatives movements – as well as WoW – being part of that council.
The deal was reached with tacit backroom ultra-Orthodox consent, but soon afterwards it became apparent it was widely opposed by the haredim, threatening the Netanyahu government’s stability. Much to the chagrin of liberal Jews around the world, in June 2016 Netanyahu “froze” implementation of the agreement, resulting in WoW’s return to the women’s section for monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers.
Fast forward to last Friday. Despite the beginning of Adar II, there was little joy at the Kotel that morning, mostly hatred and zealotry. A few hundred WoW activists and their supporters, including a group of Six Day War paratroopers who were part of the force which liberated the Kotel during that war, were met by thousands (the numbers ran between six and 20,000) of mostly young ultra-Orthodox men and women mobilized by their yeshivas or women’s equivalent, or by enormous billboards with pronouncements such as: “Reform Grandfather=Assimilated Father=Non-Jewish (Goy) Grandson.”
Standing in the plaza overlooking the women’s section we were pushed, kicked, cursed, threatened, had things thrown at us and were spat upon. By other Jews. I’ve been there before. The hatred this time was more palpable. People came away shaken.
I felt sadness. Knowing true leadership would have seen the Kotel deal through. That we’re probably in for much the same for the next few years.
Walking towards the Jaffa Gate on my way out of the Old City, I found myself in the midst of a throng of young ultra-Orthodox women. I overheard one telling another she’d come to the Kotel that morning at the behest of her brother. Waiting to hear her say he’d encouraged her to come do battle with WoW, instead I heard her tell her friend he’d told her it would be a good opportunity to find a shidduch – a match.
Finally – some levity – a smile to begin Adar II with.