We sing here because we can’t sing at the Wall

They’re not the usual protesters you see outside the Israeli consulate. No Palestinian flags, no anti-Israel slogans — just half a dozen Jews in their 60s and 70s standing politely in a row, singing peace songs in Hebrew and English. They’re so inoffensive, passersby hardly give them a second glance.

This unlikely group has gathered on this spot in downtown San Francisco every other month for the past year, gripping their song sheets and holding up a sign that reads, “Public Equality for Women in Israel.”

What do they want? Not much, some might say — just the right of women to pray with tallit and Torah at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, or Kotel. Not much, and yet everything.

“I find it completely humiliating that when I go to Israel, I’m marginalized,” 72-year-old Abigail Grafton tells me as she hands out fliers while seated on her walker. It’s not easy for Abigail to get to these protests, but she makes it a priority. “The equality of women in religious ceremonies and public places in Israel is very important to me.”

The group got started last February, after Walnut Creek residents Malka and David Kahn heard Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman speak at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. As she listened, 60-year-old Malka recalled her own experience at the Kotel three years earlier, when she joined the Women of the Wall at their monthly Rosh Hodesh service.

“I was cursed at, spat upon, I had a chair thrown at me,” Malka says. “It was the first time in my life I experienced anti-Semitism.”

On her Bay Area tour, Hoffman told the crowd that American Jews should do something to help. Malka and David took her seriously, as did Abigail and her partner, 72-year-old Shoshana Dembitz, who recalls Hoffman telling them to “stand outside the consulate.” The Kahns don’t remember Hoffman being that specific, but the first San Francisco protest took place soon afterward. People brought prayer shawls and a Torah, and they did a full morning service on the sidewalk outside the consulate. That became too cumbersome, so now the group just sings. Even that is significant, Shoshana says, “because we can’t sing at the Wall.”

Something else that sets this group apart from the usual protestors is that they love Israel. They have lived there, they have children there, their parents and grandparents even helped found the state. That’s why they take it so personally.

Malka was living in Jerusalem working in a dentist’s office, when the Yom Kippur War broke out. “We are all lovers of Israel,” she tells me. “It is our homeland, my homeland. And we want it to change.”

Linda Kurtz, 66, shows me a photo of herself and her then-future husband, Frank, standing at the just-liberated Kotel in June 1967. Behind the happy young couple, men and women are milling about freely. There is no mechitzah separating the sexes and Linda’s arms are bare, something that would not be permitted at the Wall today.

The group has met with Israeli Consul General Andy David. In fact, he has invited them up to his office. The meeting was “very friendly,” Shoshana says. But his message was clear: Please don’t do this.

“It’s uncomfortable for them that we’re there,” explains David Kahn, 60.

“I told them there might be some imperfections in Israel,” Andy David later tells me. “But it takes time to change people’s ideas. It won’t happen overnight.” If they want to be effective, he says, they should write letters, collect signatures and lobby members of Knesset. “One thing that is not effective is to come and sing in front of the consulate,” he says. “Nobody hears about that in Israel.”

That may be, but this is the course these folks have chosen. Veterans of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, Roe v. Wade rallies — Shoshana even marched with Dr. King in Chicago — street protesting is what they know how to do. So they will keep singing as Ami Goodman strums his guitar. They’ll keep holding up their signs and handing out fliers.

“I’m willing to put my body on the line,” says Abigail, who was arrested twice for anti-war protests in the 1960s. “I’ve done it before.”

“My only frustration,” Malka adds, “is that more people don’t join us.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].