The Silvermans Take on Religion (and Police) in Jerusalem
Rabbi Susan Silverman and her daughter Hallel have a one-on-one conversation about why they protested in Jerusalem, knowing they might scuffle with police
I. THE DAY BEFORE
Hallel: You were supposed to leave the next morning for Janice’s 70th birthday (her step-mom). I was in high school and so tired of hearing about the harassment of my friends who were praying with Women of the Wall and not doing something about it. So I came home from school that day and announced I was going.
Susan: And I thought, “Oh my.” I knew I had to go with you. Abba (Hebrew word for father) also had a strong sense that it would be an intense experience. He would have gone but agreed I should be right there with you on the women’s side of the Wall. I got online and changed my flight to the following night. My stomach was in knots. I hadn’t been to a Women of the Wall prayer event for many years. In fact, not since I was the age you are now!
Hallel: But you were there at the beginning, in the late ‘80s. People always ask me now if you were one of the founders of Women of the Wall.
Susan: Oh God, not at all! I did attend the first prayer gatherings of WoW, but I was still very American and couldn’t even grasp intellectually that sectarian preferences could be codified into civil law. That was so deeply undemocratic. And as a Jew and rabbi-in-training I couldn’t grasp how this could be acceptable Jewishly. What happened to our Sinaitic covenant?
We read that at Sinai, Kol ha’am ro’im et hakolot. “All the people saw the sounds…” (Exodus 20:15)
We saw voices! That means that we experienced God’s word in a way we can't really describe. That each person's understanding was unique. But Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall, wants us to be clones of one another.
Hallel: Little did you know you were about to become deeply involved again. But I think Abba knew! He was raring for us to go, and join us as an ally, watching from the Plaza, behind the fence and overlooking the women’s section.
Susan: With the other men who were not threatened by women.
Hallel: Exactly. I think he was more excited than we were.
Hallel: It was so exhilarating when we sat on the floor of our living room and Abba practiced with us. We linked our arms together, supporting each other as we lowered ourselves to the floor; that would slow our removal by police for our crime of wearing Jewish ceremonial attire.
Susan: Abba was excited to bring his lifelong activist skills to the moment. Ever since his childhood he had been honing them. As a kid living with his mom and brother in an urban commune, he was taught civil disobedience.
When he was eight years old Grandma Devora brought him and Uncle Adam (Abba’s mom and brother), who must have been six at the time, to a church basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a civil disobedience training with the “Clamshell Alliance.” 
There he learned how to protect himself from police dogs by linking arms in a circle, facing inward, limbs unavailable to growling mouths. This was for protests against nuclear power plants. But it was a method he used again and again over the years.
Hallel: For Soviet Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry and Jonathan Pollard’s release, right?
Susan: Among others, yes.
Hallel: It was so exhilarating when we sat on the floor of our living room and Abba practiced with us. We linked our arms together, supporting each other as we lowered ourselves to the floor; that would slow our removal by police for our “crime” of wearing Jewish ceremonial attire. But I don’t think we really thought we would actually need these methods a few hours later.
Susan: Abba and I tried to make Torah stories the metaphors and path markings of your life, starting with your first Shabbat blessing at five days old and the circumcision ceremony at eight days old for your brothers. And, I hope, we made those ceremonial acts inextricable from a covenant with God to recreate toward a better world. We also hoped that you would understand the mitzvot we practiced, from Shabbat to kashrut, as building blocks for a more just and compassionate society.
It was during Purim, in the month of Adar, I was reading a children’s Book of Esther to you. When I read that Vashti refused to dance for Ahashverosh, you burst out with utter excitement...
Hallel: “Like Rosa Parks!”
Susan: You were so fucking cute.
Susan: I did attend the first prayer gatherings of WoW, but I was still very American and couldn't even grasp intellectually that sectarian preferences could be codified into civil law. That was so deeply undemocratic.
II. THE BOOK OF ESTHER TRANSPOSED ONTO CONTEMPORARY ISRAEL
Hallel: The Book of Esther meant, for me, what I imagine it meant for Esther: We would not let our people be destroyed, which means we would oppose every act that could lead to our diminishment as Jews. Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, maintains protection of what he calls the status quo (although in the arc of Jewish history it is but a drop of time). He ensures that his narrow interpretation of Judaism is legally enforced upon all who enter the Plaza.
Editor’s Interjection: Susan and Hallel introduce a powerful metaphor in the next part of their exchange. It derives from the biblical story of Queen Esther, read in synagogue on the holiday of Purim. Esther, a Jewish woman, was chosen by Persian King Ahashverosh to be his wife. Unaware that she was Jewish, the King was convinced by his trusted advisor, Haman, to approve an order to kill all Jews in his kingdom. He was motivated by jealousy, particularly for a Jewish man named Mordechai, who happened to be Esther’s cousin. Esther, however, got wind of the plans and persuaded the King to retract his decree.
King Ahashverosh, in Susan and Hallel’s rendering, is an empty vessel, ready to be filled by anyone he sought to please in the moment. The King is easily influenced and lacks principles, never mind the ability to sift through competing ideas.
Throughout this discussion, the Silvermans compare Rabbi Rabinowitz to Haman and King Ahashverosh to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Of course, their use of such metaphor is, well, metaphorical and not literal. Their view is that Rabbi Rabinowitz, as the top state authority at the Western Wall represents only the worship customs of only the ultra-Orthodox, and as PM, Netanyahu repeatedly acceded to the positions and laws advocated by the Rabbi.
Susan: You really “took in” the metaphors, the paradigms, of Torah and interpreted them in your personal experience.
Hallel: Yes – and unfortunately, Rabbi Rabinowitz echoes Haman, who entered the palace of King Ahashverosh: “There is a certain people… whose laws are different… and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8)
That’s like Rabinowitz approaching King Bibi. “A group of women who wish to express their worldview chose to transform the Western Wall… and cause unneeded conflicts between brothers… in contrast to the law…”
Susan: Netanyahu, like Ahashverosh, was an empty vessel, filled by any ideology that affirmed or gave him a sense of his own power.
Hallel: Thereupon King Bibi removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Rabinowitz and said, “The money and the people are yours to do with as you see fit.” (Esther 3:10)
Susan: And then, "The couriers went out posthaste on the royal mission… ” (Esther 3:15). The Israeli police enacted the decree, saying that our detention was “as a result of [our] wearing the garments that [we’re] not allowed to wear…”
Hallel: Exactly. There was “a people among them” who did not dress like them, worship like them or share a worldview like them. And I wanted to be like Esther!
III. THE MORNING OF… NARRATED BY SUSAN AND HALLEL
We packed our tallises (shawl-like garments worn over the shoulders by Jewish men when in prayer) and wore them under our clothes in order to get through Western Wall security. Had they noticed women wearing religious garments sanctioned for men only they would have either forced us to remove them or not let us pass.
We sang and prayed, standing at the back of the section designated for women at the Wall. A police officer approached and told us to remove our tallises.
We put our bags on the conveyor belt and passed through a metal detector, as does everyone wishing to enter the Western Wall Plaza.
High-tech security is deployed to stop terrorists and intercept Jewish pray-ers of the female gender who assert the same rights and privileges as men.
It was like the Book of Esther had actualized.
We encountered familiar faces. Some were American women who were Conservative rabbis. They had just come from a trip to Ukraine where they prayed publicly and freely; only to arrive at the place of 2,000 years of Jewish spiritual yearning and be arrested. For praying publicly.
We sang and prayed, standing at the back of the section designated for women at the Wall. A police officer approached and told us to remove our tallises. We refused to comply. Another police officer approached and asked again. We refused a second time.
He then instructed us to go with him. It was unclear where to. We linked arms.
On another side, I (Susan) linked arms with my friend and rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser. We lowered ourselves to the ground. Ellen whispered, “I’m supposed to fly out tonight.”
“Me too,” I (Susan) answered.
IV. BEING DETAINED
Hallel: At that point, I knew Abba was smiling.
Susan: He was, because I looked to him for support and there he was nodding happily. We made it through the rest of the prayer and walked as a group to the Plaza’s main exit.
As had been the custom of the Women of the Wall since its founding, we sang the song of the Israelites upon our emergence from the parted sea: Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayihi yeshua.” God Is my strength and my song and will become my salvation.” (Exodus 15:2) A free people who could now choose a relationship with God, to build a kingdom of priests and holy nation. And I thought: “Phew! We made it!”
Hallel: But that’s when they got us – along with eight other women. I remember we held hands as we were escorted to the police station in the Jewish Quarter (of the Old City) then taken by van to the one by the Jaffa Gate (location of the main police station for the Old City).
Hallel: You told me to flirt with a policeman and ask for a pizza.
Susan: It almost worked. He said, “Yeah, sure!” But his superior yelled at him in reply, “Absolutely not!”
Susan: There, a semblance of democracy kicked back in. We were held for a few hours where we were interviewed and processed. The detective sat behind a desk, purportedly watching a video of the “crime” and asking us questions, checking our responses against his computer screen. “Were you wearing a prayer shawl?” “Did you resist arrest?”
Hallel: Yeah – and you told me to flirt with a policeman and ask for a pizza.
Susan: It almost worked. He said, “Yeah, sure!” But his superior yelled at him in reply, “Absolutely not!”
Hallel: Then “The Tweet” that went around the world. Auntie Sarah heard about our detainment and shared it with her 12 million followers.
Susan: I heard the cop that wouldn’t let us get pizza say to his colleague: “How famous is she?” I guess he wasn’t a Sarah Silverman fan.
Hallel: Again, the Ahashverosh-like character of our government emerged and it was no longer in their interest to keep us. So we were released.
V. THE AFTERMATH
Susan: But there were other people – perhaps lacking 12 million Twitter followers but who had sway with those police officers. And, to their credit, they weighed in.
Among the men who came to support Women of the Wall that day was Yitzhak Yiftah, one of the three paratroopers who helped capture the Western Wall from Jordan in 1967.
Hallel: The one in the photo that always makes me cry. Him and two fellow paratroopers standing at the wall.
Susan: Right after Lt. General Mordechai Gur spoke those immortal words, “Shortly we’re going to go into the Old City of Jerusalem, as all generations have dreamed about.”
Hallel: Did you know that in 2001 the Supreme Court ruled that the photo was the property of the entire nation and belongs to everyone?
Susan: Unlike the Wall itself!
Hallel: That seems to be what Yitzhak Yiftah was thinking. After our arrest he was interviewed about it. He said: “I decided to come here to show my support for all those who wish to pray at the Western Wall whatever way they wish, so long as they are not doing anything immoral. It breaks my heart that the ultra-Orthodox have decided the Western Wall belongs to them.”
Susan: His fellow paratrooper, Eilon Bartov, was there that day, too, and said: “It is astonishing that women can be arrested in this country for wearing prayer shawls.”
Hallel: They also said that the Kotel had to be liberated again!
Susan: I am so proud of you taking your place in Jewish history. My little Esther!
Hallel: Thanks Mama. I just wish our government was more like Esther and Mordechai, and less like Ahashverosh. I wish that extreme sects with power would not choose to wield it, like Haman did.
Susan: You do more than wish, sweetie. You are a bold activist. In addition to taking action, you need to be like Esther in another way as well. Record your actions for history. “Dispatches were sent to all the Jews in the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the realm of Ahashverosh with an ordinance of equity and honesty… And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll.” (Esther 9:30, 32)
Upon the repeal of the King‘s initial decree to annihilate all Jews, Queen Esther ensures that word of the reprieve was spread throughout the Kingdom.
Hallel: I do! But instead of parchment, I have Instagram, Twitter and TikTok!
VI. THE OUTCOME
One month after we were arrested at the Western Wall for wearing tallises, the law was amended to “allow” women to don the garment. We insist, however, that any law – civil or religious – that “allows” women to do or say something is suspect. The very premise is anti-democratic and undermines the value of “tzelem elohim,” or, in the vernacular, the core tenet of Judaism that we are all, men and women, created “in God’s image,” by definition meriting equality and dignity. Female and male.
1) Women of the Wall was founded in December, 1988. Attending the initial International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem, women from a wide range of denominations within Judaism attended at the Western Wall, often called the “Wailing Wall.” This Wall is the remains of the grand Second Temple, which stood on what Jews refer to as the “Temple Mount” and where the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built atop the Temple ruins. At the beginning of each month in the Hebrew (lunar) calendar, Women of the Wall meet at the site and assert what they believe is their right to participate in and lead prayer from the Torah (Jewish holy books, or “Old Testament”) while wearing certain religious attire considered by the Orthodox stream of Judaism to be appropriate only for men. (As is reading from the Torah, in their view.) Often, when Women of the Wall engage in this monthly ritual they are assaulted verbally and, often, physically; typically, by younger, male, ultra-Orthodox extremists. This issue has been fraught and allowed to fester by successive Israeli governments who are hesitant to challenge the entrenched and powerful ultra-Orthodox institutional leadership. Read more about this in a concise summary of the history of the site in their article, Minority Rule: Why the Kotel still favors Orthodox Jews, written by former MK and Prisoner of Zion, Natan Sharansky, together with award-winning American presidential historian and leading Zionist intellectual and activist, Gil Troy.
2) The Siniatic or “Mosaic” Covenant refers to the religious and legal relationship between the Jewish people and God, as articulated in The Ten Commandments as well as the Five Books of Torah, as they are known in Judaism, or the “Old Testament” to others.
3) The Clamshell Alliance was formed in 1976 in opposition to the development of a particular nuclear reactor in New Hampshire. The movement was borne of a push in the Nixon era to significantly expand civilian nuclear power capabilities in the United States. Clamshell activists primarily employed civil disobedience as a means of protest.
4) Queen Vashti was the first wife of King Ahashverosh. Ordered by her husband to appear at a banquet he was hosting and dance for the guests, Vashti refused, reluctant to flaunt her beauty and sensuality in an immodest manner. For this the King had her banished or executed, the subject of much debate over the centuries. The King next took Esther as his second wife.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider becoming a Premium Subscriber to State of Tel Aviv so you can access all premium content.