Four women were taken into custody by the police on August 19 (Rosh Hodesh Elul) for wearing a tallit (ritual fringes) at the Western Wall, making Israel the only country in the world where wearing a tallit can be illegal, and the only country where there is a proposed law — submitted by ultra-Orthodox politicians — to make Jewish women’s religious practice punishable by a seven-year prison sentence. It’s not so much wearing the tallit that is illegal, but rather being a woman that puts one at odds with the police. Being a religious woman can be a dangerous thing in Israel.
I recently spoke with Deb Houben, a 35-year old graphic designer and wine taster living in Jerusalem, who was one of the four women taken into custody. A graduate of the modern Orthodox Maimonides Day School in Boston, she made Aliyah in 2007 and has been participating in the monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers of Women of the Wall for around five months. This is the second time she has been picked up by the police during prayers. This time, she was charged with wearing a tallit and disturbing the peace, and sentenced to 50 days away from the Western Wall or a 1000 NIS (~ $250) fine.
SZTOKMAN: How did you get involved with Women of the Wall?
HOUBEN: My friend Molly works for Women of the Wall, and she invited me to come and I really love it. I really enjoy the experience of davening (praying) with this group, and lending my voice. My brother recently gave me a new tallit, although at the kotel we call it a “shawl.” It’s a traditional tallit, with black stripes, because that’s how I like it. It’s what my brothers wear, and it’s what my father wears. In fact, the tallit I used to wear was my grandfather’s.