The Other Side of the Wall

By | Jan 07, 2015
Joy Ladin Portrait


Praying at the western wall first as a man, then as a woman.

by Joy Ladin

It’s 2002. I still have a family; I’m still a man, and am sure I always will be.  We’re in Israel together, in the middle of a semester in which I’m teaching at Tel Aviv University on a Fulbright.   

Jerusalem is almost empty of tourists. We’re at the height of a vicious cycle of suicide bombings and Israeli army reprisals. No one is in the souk, the Arab market, but the shopkeepers and us, a happy but downscale American family the shopkeepers can tell is unlikely to buy. Our son is eight, lively and curious and running ahead to touch everything he sees. Our daughter is two. She refuses to walk, so when we’re out she’s always in my arms or sitting on my shoulders, talking, laughing, crying. She’s a big two-year-old, and carrying her for miles is exhausting and painful, or would be, if dissociation weren’t still my natural state of being. I’m not aware of being dissociated; it’s just the way I am. I take up space, move, eat, teach but never actually feel that I’m there. The warm squirming weight of my daughter in my arms merges with the blank weight of dissociation, turning my non-existence into a form of love.   

Here and there my wife stops to examine something: earrings, a skirt, a potential gift for friends back home. Shopping for pleasure is her job; mine is worrying that we don’t have the money to buy anything. I want to look at those earrings and scarves, too. But that might give substance to feelings I’m working hard, day and night, to keep at bay.   

The souk seemed deserted, but the moment we step across the line—it’s quite visible—into the reconstructed cardo of the Jewish quarter, we realize how much life was represented by the dispirited Palestinian merchants. The excavated Roman shopping district is eerily empty, as still as the moment before an explosion. My wife and I hesitate, wondering if it’s safe; perhaps this is the moment before an explosion. But our children take the silence as an invitation to make noise. Our son scampers off, darting between marble pillars, and our daughter startles me by demanding to be put down so she can run after her big brother. My arms are aching, but I hate to put her down; without her warmth against me, I’m left with my own emptiness.   

We climb from the cardo into the bright light and sharp angles of the Jewish quarter. I hoist my daughter into my arms again, and we climb through empty, shuttered shops and unvisited museums to a broad stairway that ascends to a stunning view that is one of the most famous in the world: the house- and grave-heaped hills, the great golden and silver mosques shimmering above paradise-blue mosaics, the broad open square, the Wall.

The wall inside me has fallen. When I was last here, I thought I would spend my whole life as a man; now, I can barely remember having lived that way.

The kids ignore our oohs and aahs and play on the steps.  I know this is an extraordinary moment, a high point of my life, but I can’t quite feel I’m here. I wish I could feel what my wife is feeling. The view seems to be filling her, intensifying her sense of the miracle of being alive. That’s what I’m supposed to feel, but the view seems flat and far away, so distant, so impalpable, that I fear I won’t even remember this moment. Already, it isn’t there. We’ve moved on, herding our children past guards and metal detectors into the view we were looking down upon. There, ahead of us, is the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Temple, symbol of unimaginable suffering and inexplicable survival.

And there, at the Wall, is gender.   

As the most sacred space in Judaism, the Wall is under the zealous supervision of Orthodox Jews, which means that, like everything else in Orthodox Judaism, it is divided into a male part and a female part, with a mechitza, a physical divider separating men from women, running down the middle. To approach the Wall, you have to identify with one side or the other. That should be easy.  I never let myself hesitate when I publicly identify myself as a man. I use men’s rooms, and fill in the “M” boxes on forms I sign under penalty of perjury. It shouldn’t be hard to hand my daughter to my wife and make my way with my son to the men’s side of the partition, but as my son and I walk deeper into maleness, I feel sicker and sicker. To approach the sacred, I have to erase what, despite all the repression and resolutions and lies, I have always known I am.

My son and I are inches from the Wall. Twenty feet away, a bar mitzvah is being celebrated, and suddenly I realize that in a few years, my son, too, will become a man.  I try to feel him, to feel this moment. This is the Wailing Wall, and my eyes are overflowing with joy, with pride, with decades of bitterness.

Now we are drifting back, back through the space where boys become men, back to the bright blank secular square where tourists snap pictures without weeping or specifying their gender. My wife and daughter are there, my son’s shoulders under my arm. My family is whole. The wall inside me is intact.

I’m back in Jerusalem. It’s October 2008, the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This is the season for heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul, a penitential examination of where we are in our life’s journey, where we have been, where we are going.  That’s not easy for me.  In the past six years, my family has grown from two to three children, I’ve gone from post-doctoral academic gypsy to tenured professor, from happily married to painfully separated, from comfortable obscurity to the uncomfortable celebrity afforded by page 3 of the New York Post, from living as a man to living as a woman.

Jerusalem has changed, too. In addition to the Wailing Wall and the wall that surrounds the Old City, the Jerusalem skyline now boasts a new wall: the hideous concrete security barrier intended to protect Israelis from Palestinians. It’s working. There have been very few suicide bombings in the past year or two. Unfortunately, the wall cuts through Palestinian territory, slicing villages and families in two and multiplying the maze of checkpoints that Palestinians have to negotiate in order to move through what is putatively “their” territory.   

But the wall inside me has fallen. When I was last here, I thought I would spend my whole life as a man; now, I can barely remember having lived that way. The life that was always someone else’s is mine now. The family that was always mine is also someone else’s. I’m in the Old City on my own, the ghosts of family past clamoring around me, ghost-son running ahead of me in the souk, ghost-daughter melting in my emptied arms.  Aside from the ghosts, I’m unencumbered, a brand-new woman without family, past or obligation.

Merchants smile and call out as I walk by. It’s early, the souk is empty, and the woman I’ve become has a lot more commercial potential than the man I was the last time I was here. Then, I pretended I wanted nothing. Now, I want something, anything, of the femininity that whispers from the scarves and skirts and lacy shawls. I pause in front of a display of lushly colored scarves. I don’t wear scarves, even in the bitterest winter weather, but here I am, staring at scarves as though a scarf were something I’d longed for all my life.   

The moment I pause, the proprietor is there, easing me toward the far richer, lovelier, more expensive scarves inside. Youngish, slim, with large glistening black eyes set in a pale smooth face, he looks like he’s got a very soft heart, the kind of man who can be so moved by the sincere interest of a tourist that he ends up selling precious goods for far less than they are worth. He’s smiling at me, and I’m smiling back, which is not what a hardened bargainer is supposed to do. I should be scowling, muttering about his shoddy, overpriced wares. Instead, I’m trying to make him feel good, telling him how much I admire what he’s showing me, shaking my head sadly when he tells me how much they cost. “What can you afford?” he asks sympathetically. His glistening eyes say that he can’t bear that I leave disappointed.   

They wouldn’t allow me on the men’s side of the mechitza at the Wailing Wall, not in my skirt and blouse and earrings and makeup, but if the women knew what
was under my female presentation, they wouldn’t allow me among them, either. 
I’m not sure what to do.

Now I’m in trouble.  I don’t want to insult him, nor do I want to cut short the play of his lips across his white teeth or of his black eyelashes above his black eyes. “Twenty-five dollars?” I murmur tentatively. Then, recollecting my position in this transaction, I hastily add, “And that’s really more than I can afford.”

“Ah,” he says, shaking his head gently.  He understands the pain I’m experiencing as I gaze at these fabulous scarves I cannot have. “Let me see,” he says, reluctantly shelving his premium merchandise. “Ah!” He lifts a pile of scarves, thinner, but still gorgeous.  Our fingers are very close now, separated only by the soft, sliding screen of woven fabric.  This is it, and we both know it. This is what he will sell me.

“Machine washable,” he says proudly.

“Really?” I mutter, my voice, suddenly hoarse, threatening to slip out of its carefully cultivated feminine register. “Wow.” I’m overwhelmed, not by the scarf but by some ancient emotion that flows at the root of buying and selling, the extraordinary intimacy of strangers exchanging bits of themselves before vanishing back into their separate worlds. In this moment of selling and buying, political differences, religious differences, gender differences, seem to have been transformed into mutual sustenance and satisfaction.

“I think I could sell it to you for 40 dollars,” he says doubtfully.

I want to say “yes,” but it isn’t time for that yet. A “no” or two later, I’m giving him 30 dollars, only three times more than I wanted to spend.   

“Thank you,” he murmurs, reaching toward me. For an instant, we hug, and I’m still loosely holding one of his hands—soft hands, fine hands—as we pull apart.

The Jewish quarter is hot, bright and sparsely populated, just as it was six years ago.  I wend my way past the same shops, the same falafel stands, the same memorials and museums, up the steps to the same extraordinary view of the great mosques, hills, walls and the Wall.  The turquoise dream of the Mosque of Omar hovers above the desolation of graves, half-completed and bulldozed houses, millennia of hopes and broken promises, gold-veined stone, the burnt brown dirt of rage, a world made, as my life has been made, out of death and life, bitterness and beauty.

When I last looked over these hills, I could barely feel.  Now I feel too much.   

According to Jewish tradition, the mount on which the Mosque of Omar is built includes the site at which Abraham, per God’s instruction, bound his son Isaac to an altar of stones and put his knife to his son’s throat. But for once, at least, the human rage for God was arrested; an angel called from the underbrush, telling Abraham to stay his hand. The angel had to call Abraham’s name twice to stop the fatal fall of the knife. Mesmerized by the violence he was about to commit, Abraham wasn’t listening for angels. He had given up on the idea that some other version of God might burst through the Divine death-mask that ordered him to do the unimaginable. If God demanded blood, flames and murder, Abraham, the faithful one, was determined to provide them.

According to both religious traditions, Jews and Muslims are children of Abraham. I certainly am. I sacrificed my true self again and again for over 40 years, and never heard a whisper of an angel telling me to stay my hand.

But that doesn’t mean the angel wasn’t calling.

I walk down the steps, through the security booth, and then I’m there. The Wall is straight ahead.  There’s the mechitza, the little wall dividing the men from the women. Our family isn’t Orthodox, but a mechitza still runs down the middle, dividing and defining us by gender and in my mind, I see them with me once more. I don’t want to leave my son alone on the male side, and neither my wife nor my daughter can imagine welcoming me as a woman on the other, and so to see my children I have to exhume the corpse of the man I was and crawl back inside. I speak in his voice; when my children look at me, I see him reflected in their eyes.    

The mechitza offers no possibility of change, no wiggle room or third choices, just as Abraham saw no third choice between betraying his God or killing his son. But somehow change is happening. The man my children see when they look at me doesn’t resemble the smiling dad in the old photographs, and yet they still embrace him, even as they mourn him. At some level, they know he’s gone, and so at some level, they know that I—the real I, the one who loves and has always loved and will always love them—is there with them. That “I” is beyond gender, a third term, like the voice of the angel calling from the underbrush, the voice that dissolves the unbearable binaries of must and cannot be.

Though no one here knows it, my presence is also transforming the mechitza that separates the Wailing Wall into male and female portions. They wouldn’t allow me on the men’s side, not in my skirt and blouse and earrings and makeup, but if the women knew what was under my female presentation, they wouldn’t allow me among them, either.  I’m not sure what to do. If I’ve learned anything from transition, it’s that my need to be true to myself means that I have an absolute duty to acknowledge and respect the truths of others. For the women just ahead of me, the sacredness of this space depends on the strict distinction between genders. They don’t mean to shame or exclude me; they probably don’t even know that people like me exist. If I move among them, I will be violating their sacred space. If I back away, I will be cutting myself off from my people, and myself.

I pick my way into the throng of worshippers. They are crammed 20 or 30 deep; if I want to get to the Wall, I have a long wait ahead of me. I close my eyes and start to pray.  Now I’m only three layers away; only two. My eyes close again, and tears—the tears I haven’t been able to cry since I arrived in Jerusalem—are pouring down my cheeks. Sobs bubble up from my throat, from my chest, from holes I didn’t know I had.  I panic—how can I be sobbing in a public place? But when I open my eyes I remember. This is the Wailing Wall, the place my people come to cry. I notice another woman sobbing, too; there are sobs behind me, sobs before me, sobs on either side. On the men’s side, they are shouting, singing. On the women’s side, we weep.

And now I’m there, at the Wall itself, though I can’t see it through the flood of tears.  My pain, my loss, pour like tributaries into a river of grief stretching backward and forward through the generations. The sorrow my wife and children are enduring, the sorrow of my constantly breaking heart, merge with the grief that all children of Abraham have suffered, are suffering, will suffer. God, I sob, and now I’m pounding the Wall, save Your children from ourselves. And now I’m sobbing for the One I’m praying to, because I see the mouth of that river of grief, and the ocean into which it empties is God.

Suddenly, I’ve cried myself out. I lift my head and smile at a woman, much older, whose cheeks are also streaming. She smiles back. We have nothing in common but the broken hearts that brought us here. For the moment, that’s the only gender that matters.   

Orthodox Judaism assigns men and women different daily blessings for the miracle of being. Men say, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who has not made me a woman”; women euphemistically accept the short end of the gender stick by saying, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who has made me according to Your will.”  Jewish feminists justly despise this separate-and-unequal system, but women get the better blessing, an affirmation that we are what we should be, what we need to be, that our existence is purposeful, meaningful, a blessing.

You made me, God, I say when I say that blessing. I belong in this world, just the way I am.

I’ve turned my back on the Wall, toward the hot, bright, empty square.  No sorrow now, no rage, no bitterness. Only gratitude for who and what and where I am, calling out to me, like the angel to Abraham: Blessed be You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made me according to Your will. I whispered that blessing to myself for years, echoing a voice I thought I could never follow. Now I say it aloud, and add the blessing—this is part of the daily ritual too—that follows:   

Blessed be You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made me a daughter of freedom.

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