The Kotel: Are You A Man or a Woman?

Maxwell Zachs
October 9, 2013
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A mechitza (Hebrew: מחיצה, partition or division, pl.: מחיצות, mechitzot) in Jewish Halakha is a partition, particularly one that is used to separate men and women.

Mechitzot are something I talk about a lot, they are also something I think about a lot, they represent the physical and metaphorical separation of men and women in ‘orthodox’ Judaism. Mechitzot can be anything from a little string separating the synagogue in half- to balconies for women- to thick walls though which the women listen through small holes in the plaster. You can safely bet your last coin that despite assertions that the mechitza represents a ‘separate but equal’ ideology it is never the men who are relegated to the lesser space. The mechitza requires not men and women to separate themselves from each other but for women to be separated from the men, I am sure you will not be surprised I find the concept problematic for many reasons.

However, you may be surprised if I tell you that up until this week I had never actually seen one in real life. I have been lucky enough (in my opinion) to always have attended synagogues and Jewish spaces where gender egalitarianism has been collectively embraced- not to say that within progressive Judaism sexism has been eradicated but certainly it is less overt. This week despite my best efforts to avoid the experience I was taken on a class trip to my first orthodox synagogue but since there was no praying or Torah reading etc… we were not required to segregate, I didn’t know this in advance and was prepared any minute to slip away at a moments notice. The mechitza is problematic for me, not only because politically I reject the segregation of women away from public spaces and condemn it as misogyny but also because I don’t know what side of the mechitza am I supposed to sit on. Halacha, that is the Jewish legal code, differs dramatically on the status of transgender people- when it comes to the legal status of transsexuals, within orthodox Judaism it has nothing to do with how you feel inside and everything to do with what genitals you were born with, some rabbinic authorities will accept a complete sexual reassignment as indicative of a gender change but many don’t. In fact, Dana International, the famous Israeli transgender woman who represented her country at Eurovision (and won) was declared by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to count as a man and only as a man in perpetuity. In many ways the sheer unwillingness of orthodox authorities to allow for people to exist outside of the gender binary undermines the system they are trying to enforce- should Dana International turn up at her synagogue and sit in the men’s section while I sit at the back with the women?

The segregation of the mechitza does not just apply in synagogues either, at the ‘western wall’ in the Old City in Jerusalem, there is also a mechitza. If you want to approach the stones at the point where they are closest to the holy of holies you will again have to submit yourself to the dreaded choice; are you a man or a woman? The first time I went to the Kotel I was too scared to go on either side of the wooden grille, back then people would often get confused by my gender calling me Ma’m, Sir and then blushing and walking away, or doing a little double take when I walked into the bathroom it wasn’t usually a big deal but here at the Kotel the stakes were much higher. For people who break the rules of normative behaviour at the Kotel being arrested is the least of their problems, last month women who tried to read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section were spat on, abused, and had chairs thrown at them by a mob of ultra-orthodox men, then they were arrested and interrogated for several hours. I was terrified that if I entered the men’s section and didn’t pass as a man I would be subjected to all kinds of humiliations, I was also terrified that if I did enter the men’s section I was choosing one part of my identity over another.
I went back a week later, having grown my beard out and being more sure of passing as male, I approached the ancient stones, revered by some reviled by others, I felt nothing. I stood there for almost an hour with my forehead pressed roughly against the rock waiting for something, anything, some small slice of spiritual enlightenment, no words came to my lips, after many many minutes I decided to pray for someone to cut down the mechitza (it hasn’t happened yet). Standing there all I felt was shame and fear. With my face to the rocks I had exposed my back to the threat of violence and the feeling of having a large rainbow target on my back rushed to my ears, the blood pounding away, I heard nothing and walked away with heavy feet and a heavier heart.

Back to Stockholm, I am standing with my classmates in a tiny synagogue with four long rows of pews, each seat in the pew has a name tag, they are all the names of men. Casting my eyes to the back of the room a wooden barrier topped with a simple net curtain marks the area for women. I don’t go in there but you can tell the women sitting in the back section would have to crane their necks to see anything at all- and the men will sit the whole time looking away from them, if they did by chance turn around the human beings enclosed therein would be entirely invisible. It is not cute, it is not quaint, it is a systematic erasing of women from the most important part of the culture to which they belong. It is also a continued denial that there is any validity in a life that cannot live up to the strict and strenuous rules of gender binary. Looking at this mechitza I felt these goosebumps all over my body, it reminded me of that time standing at the western wall waiting for someone to hit me over the head with a chair.

On the way back to the classroom my teacher said to me, the token big mouth progressive, ‘See Max, it wasn’t so bad was it!?’ I nodded and smiled, not because I agreed but simply because I was feeling very lucky to be moving further and further away from that little wooden box and everything it represents to me.

I’ll be going back to Israel in a few months, no doubt we’ll take a trip to the wall, I don’t yet know what I will do- will I enter the men’s section in an act of invisible subversion (but subversion none the less) or will I take my Tallit and pray at the boundary between the men’s and women’s sections? Maybe I can repeat my prayer and someday soon that mechitza will be cut down and I will be able to pray as my whole transgender self without fear and without shame.

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Maxwell Zachs is a well-known transgender advocate in the Progressive Jewish community in the UK, having formerly held the position of National Secretary of Keshet and currently chairing the Queer and Transgender Jews Forum, he is also the Patron of the Rainbow Jews Project. Max finished off a year working for the Quakers as a Peace Worker where he had been working on counter-militarization of youth projects to take up a year's fellowship at Paideia- The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Stockholm. Paideia allowed Max to follow his dream of intense and close study of traditional Jewish texts, whilst a Paideia fellow he also completed several academic and literary works including his thesis 'Queer Theory and Babylonian Talmud', his first published novel and a number of plays based on Queer readings of the Torah. Max writes regularly for a diverse collection of publications including: The Guardian, The Independent, Pink News, Huffington Post, Original Plumbing, The Transgender Studies Journal and Kartoon Kippah.

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