Shoshana Silberman, an author of books for Jewish families, remembers thinking about the dispute over women’s prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and how she might find a sensitive way to present the situation to young readers.
Judaism’s holiest site has been a scene of contention for years, between Jewish feminists who want to be able to pray at the Kotel using tallitot, tefillin, and Torah scrolls, and the Wall’s Orthodox supervisors, who forbid such activity to women.
“You can’t have a story that would emphasize violence or chair-throwing to a kid,” she said, referring to angry protests by the women’s opponents.
What came to mind as the nugget of a story was an experience she had while visiting her son Shmuel in Israel years ago, when she was frustrated by the Wall’s strict gender separation.
“But I was, of course, an adult, and it was not a story that would be of great interest to children,” she said. “I decided what I had to do was plop the story in a family, and especially focus on a 10-year-old girl, but all the people in the family would be affected by what happened at the Kotel.”
The result is “The Wall,” her first piece of fiction, which was included last year in the anthology New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family, published by Reclaiming Judaism Press.
Last month it appeared on the website of Women of the Wall, the leading advocates for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.
Silberman, newly residing in Lawrenceville, is the former director of the religious school of The Jewish Center, Princeton. She had been a member of the panel reviewing stories for New Mitzvah Stories and saw a niche for a story that connected to the here and now.
Author of A Family Haggadah, The Whole Megillah, and Siddur Shema Yisrael, among others, Silberman had never written fiction, although she certainly knew how to tell a story.
“I wanted a story that pertained to Jewish women today,” she said.
The tale she wove is about a family that wins a trip to Israel at their synagogue’s Purim raffle. When the family arrives in Israel, they want to go first to the Wall. The parents then explain to the children how prayer at the Wall differs from prayer in their home synagogue, where the family sits together and women pray aloud with men.
A daughter, Leah, wishes she could sing her favorite prayer, “Adon Olam,” at the Wall. Silberman treasures the prayer because one of its phrases — “B’yado afkid ruhi,” or “To God I entrust my spirit” —was a mantra for her late husband, Mel, when he was ill with cancer.
The girl’s father explains that the men and women must separate, and shares her disappointment. “I wish it were different, too,” he says. “You should be aware, though, that there are many people around the world working to make changes so that men and women can pray together, with all of their voices heard. I hope that when we return as a family — and I hope it will be soon, there will be changes.”
But “Adon Olam” ultimately does become part of Leah’s visit to the wall:
Mom and Leah entered the quiet women’s section, where tears seemed to substitute for song.
The ancient stones kept beckoning to Leah to come closer. Her hand trembled as she placed both of her prayers in a crevice. As she stepped back, she noticed that there were many tiny birds that had come to the women’s side. They flew about between the cracks, as if gathering up blessings and bird voices. Leah knew at once that they were singing her song — her Adon Olam!”
[from New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family, Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel, co-editors, ©2014 Reclaiming Judaism Press]
Silberman’s own experience, around which the story grew, was similar. She remembers praying at the wall, and seeing birds flock to the caper bushes that grow in its cracks.
“At that moment when I felt I didn’t have a voice — and this little girl doesn’t have a voice — just at that moment all of the birds came to the women’s side and landed on the green side of Kotel, and all started singing at the same time,” she recalled. “For me the experience was that the birds carried my prayer.”