Living in Israel, for me, meant mastering the art of feigning ignorance. “Ani lo mevin, ani lo mevin. Rak midaber englit v sfardit,” I would often say. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand. I only speak English and Spanish.”
But I always knew exactly what the stranger in the kibbutz cafeteria or the shop-owner in the shuk or the security guard by the bathroom was saying as he chuckled to himself and asked, “Atah ben o bat?” with eyebrows raised. His Hebrew translates to, “Are you a boy or a girl?” but really what he’s getting at is, “Come on, really?” He’s reminding me that I am a puzzle to be figured out for his amusement, and that because I am a puzzle (read: not a human), it is A-OK to ask me rude questions.
Throughout my stay in Israel, strangers and friends alike would ask me this question in an array of rude ways. And though I often felt hurt and disappointed by the ease with which those around me seemed to prioritize a few laughs and quick satiation of their curiosities over my well-being, as I look back at my stint in Israel, it’s difficult for me to blame these perpetrators. As far as I, someone raised in America who lived in Israel for only six months and is and was far from culturally integrated into Israeli society, can tell, gender separation is the law of the land of Israel; it’s as Israeli as hummus or yelling.
Upon an emotional visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall, arguably the most sacred site to the Jewish people and a prominent international symbol of Judaism, my many experiences of gender alienation in Israel fermented and constellated, and I became painfully aware of the pervasive nature of a binary gender system in Israel. I was skeptical of a Kotel visit, but the visit was on the itinerary of a seminar about tensions between the religious and the secular in Israeli society I was taking part in that weekend, so it felt imminent. I had been two years prior, seeking spiritual rebirth only to be severely disappointed by the realization upon arriving that it would not be safe for me to be on either side of the