West­ern Wall, 2007, Pho­to by Avishai Teiche

In the sum­mer of 2022, my fam­i­ly trav­eled to Israel for the first time as a com­plete unit. My daugh­ter was eight and my son six. When we arrived in Jerusalem, we went straight to the Kotel. We had explained the sig­nif­i­cance of the West­ern Wall to our chil­dren so they were pre­pared with lit­tle notes to place between the stones. I was excit­ed to show them this, the holi­est of all sites in our cul­ture and reli­gion. The majesty and pow­er of the West­ern Wall con­sumed us as we cov­ered our shoul­ders and observed the large crowds vis­it­ing as tourists, res­i­dents, sec­u­lar Jews, reli­gious Jews, non-Jews. We walked towards the wall as that same unit of four to get close to it and place those lit­tle notes inside, and then my hus­band and son went to the men’s side and my daugh­ter and I went to the women’s side. In a sin­gle breath, my fam­i­ly was sep­a­rat­ed. Still, our hands touched the stone wall and it felt mag­i­cal; we said a few silent words, placed our notes in the wall, and left. 

At first, the kids went along with the tra­di­tion, a bit confused. 

It’s just the way it is here,” I said to them, with a nod to the song, Tra­di­tion,” from Fid­dler on the Roof. We explored the site a bit more, my daugh­ter with me and my son with my hus­band. My daugh­ter and I could see from afar that the men’s side was larg­er than the women’s side, almost dou­ble in size. It had libraries and scrolls, shade, and a place to sit. This was my third vis­it to the Kotel, but the first time I real­ly noticed these details.

My daugh­ter turned to me, her face sullen and her eyes wide. 

Why is their side so much bigger?”

For the entire­ty of their short lives, I’ve only shown my chil­dren nar­ra­tives of equal­i­ty, or at least attempt­ed equal­i­ty. They had nev­er seen the Dis­ney of old, films like Sleep­ing Beau­ty or Snow White, and instead I had shown them the new Dis­ney, Moana and Frozen. They were read­ing from a wealth of children’s books on Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, Hillary Clin­ton, Gol­da Meir, and Sonia Sotomay­or, and I was work­ing hard to try and nor­mal­ize gen­der equal­i­ty at home so that they would grow up know­ing and believ­ing that any­thing is with­in their reach. 

But then, my daugh­ter asked again, Why do they have chairs and a library and we don’t on our side?”

And in a sin­gle after­noon meant to illus­trate all the strength and beau­ty of our cul­ture, it was as if all of the work I had done was unraveled.

Because it’s the men’s side,” I said back, and could almost hear the song Tra­di­tion” break, a dozen instru­ments falling all at once, the prover­bial scratch on an old LP. I had focused on try­ing to main­tain a sense of equal­i­ty, but at this moment I knew it was real­ly only an illu­sion of equal­i­ty. I thought that if they grew up see­ing equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, then it would free them to go out and be unen­cum­bered in the world, but I had failed to pre­pare them for the sud­den shock and weight of tra­di­tion that still sat­u­rates so much of our lives today.

This is a cen­tral con­flict we face today: how do we main­tain and pre­serve the beau­ti­ful cus­toms of Judaism, while also work­ing towards a more pro­gres­sive, equal soci­ety? Years before this trip to Israel, it was with many of these issues that I was strug­gling as I wrote what would become my third book, my sec­ond nov­el, The Major­i­ty, which is a fic­tion­al sto­ry of a first female Supreme Court Justice.

By shield­ing them from cer­tain real­i­ties, I have done them a ser­vice and a dis­ser­vice simultaneously.

The book direct­ly explores this ques­tion by telling the sto­ry of Sylvia Olin Bern­stein, the Con­temp­tu­ous SOB.” Sylvia is also the first Jew­ish woman on the Supreme Court. In the nov­el, I fol­low Sylvia’s long path to pow­er — from ear­ly moments in her life, through law school, moth­er­hood, work, and beyond. 

Ear­ly in the nov­el, when Sylvia is twelve years old, her moth­er dies, and her father invites an Ortho­dox rab­bi to con­duct the minyan at the shi­va. The rab­bi does not count her in the minyan, and thus excludes her from par­tic­i­pat­ing because she’s not a man. This is a turn­ing point for Sylvia, as she is pre­vent­ed from mourn­ing her own moth­er as part of this long-held rite. She even­tu­al­ly con­fronts the rab­bi about this, hav­ing researched Jew­ish law, and explains that these laws do not come from the Torah, but rather from tra­di­tion. In oth­er words, it’s inter­pre­ta­tion, not law, and it is these ear­ly influ­ences that inform Sylvia’s jour­ney lat­er in life.

When I brought my own young chil­dren to the Kotel in the mid­dle of writ­ing this book, I real­ized that I hadn’t pre­pared them for the his­to­ry and tra­di­tions entrenched in our cul­ture. No mat­ter how much I raise them to believe in equi­ty, fair­ness, and jus­tice, at that holi­est of sites, it feels as though my val­ues are not upheld. By shield­ing them from cer­tain real­i­ties, I have done them a ser­vice and a dis­ser­vice simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. How can we move for­ward with­out under­stand­ing and acknowl­edg­ing tra­di­tions? How do we rec­on­cile the mil­len­nia of his­to­ry and tra­di­tions, with so much of today’s world? Per­haps an answer is to demon­strate where we are now, and where we have been in the past. Through that, we can show our love and our inquis­i­tive­ness, per­haps even our dis­sent, and see what we can do to help trans­form while still feel­ing con­nect­ed to a his­to­ry and tra­di­tion that runs deep in our veins.

And with that, Tra­di­tion,” the song, began to play again.

In The Major­i­ty, when Sylvia isn’t count­ed in her mother’s minyan to recite the Mourner’s Kad­dish at shi­va, this doesn’t dis­suade her from Judaism or pur­su­ing her val­ues; rather, it teach­es her to embrace both. It teach­es her how to research and think like a lawyer, and to inves­ti­gate law in order to under­stand the ori­gin of some of these tra­di­tions. This is exclu­sion, not exemp­tion,” she says. And exclu­sion is based on cus­tom. Cus­tom is not writ­ten down in any book.” 

Indeed, we can make our own tra­di­tions, cus­toms, and con­tin­ue to respect the old, but start to add to it, too. Which is exact­ly what my fam­i­ly did in Israel last sum­mer, when we proud­ly placed our wish­es for a stronger future in the stones of the West­ern Wall.

Eliz­a­beth L. Sil­ver is the author of the nov­el, The Major­i­ty, as well as the mem­oir, The Tinc­ture of Time: A Mem­oir of (Med­ical) Uncer­tain­ty (Pen­guin Press), and the nov­el, The Exe­cu­tion of Noa P. Sin­gle­ton (Crown). Her work has been called fan­tas­tic” by The Wash­ing­ton Post, mas­ter­ful” by The Wall Street Jour­nal, impor­tant” by The Los Ange­les Times, has been pub­lished in sev­en lan­guages, and optioned for film. A grad­u­ate of The Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Beasley School of Law, and The Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia’s Cre­ative Writ­ing MFA, Eliz­a­beth cur­rent­ly teach­es cre­ative writ­ing with the UCLA Writ­ers Pro­gram. She is the founder and direc­tor of Onward Lit­er­ary and lives in Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia, with her family.