Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hitting My Head on the Mechitza

I have a long-held policy of avoiding non-feminist prayer spaces as much as possible. This manifests in my choice to pray in the morning at school in the group that is not part of the "main mechitza minyan," but rather just a
few girls in a classroom, and my sleep late, pray alone Shabbat mornings. The avoidance of my family's
shul and school davening is a conscious decision, made with a lot of thought; during some of my initial religious feminist struggles, I chose, to entirely misuse and distort Sheryl Sandberg's advice, to lean in. I arrived at shul early on Shabbat morning and prayed all of the prayers. At school, I attended the main minyan and davened seriously, following along and answering the chazzan out loud. But after a month or so, I realized that despite all my efforts to focus on prayer, I always ended up sitting and stewing to myself, hating the religious systems and community I was trying so hard to insert myself into. Thus followed my flight from shul.
For some, the epitome of Rosh HaShana imagery.

For the last year or so, my private prayer practice has been spotty at best. Try as I might, I just can't summon up the enthusiasm to daven. I tell people that I'm constitutionally not a davener, that a struggle with a difficult page of Talmud is much more spiritual for me, and it's true. But when I daven, I don't mind it; it's finding the motivation to begin, to add it to my routine, that's the struggle. Community also helps; whenever I find myself in a feminist/egalitarian prayer space, I'm always a little surprised to be reminded that I don't hate shul -- I just hate sexist shuls.

All this struggle and introspection leads me to Rosh HaShana, two of the three days a year when shul attendance is practically compulsory. Even more than that third day, Yom Kippur, I really HAD to go to synagogue on Rosh HaShana, to fulfill my obligation to hear the shofar blown. The first day wasn't so bad; I walked in ten seconds before the first round of blasts, stayed for that and to pray the individual, silent Amidah, and then promptly left until the shofar was next blown. I was surprised and delighted by my ability to fluently read the Hebrew that I struggled through last year; it was heartening evidence that my Jewish texts skills are improving. I also changed some of the male God-language to the feminine form, and when I alternated male and female verb forms, the liturgy seemed much less objectionable. I especially liked the juxtaposition of extreme divine power with feminine God-language.

The other shofar blasts were interspersed with a few pages of liturgy, recited by the chazzan -- I read my volume of Mishna during that part, and on the whole it was tolerable. The second day, however, I made it into shul five fateful minutes earlier. Those five minutes were Hachnasat Sefer Torah, the returning of the Torah scrolls to the ark.

Those five minutes epitomized all the reasons I stopped going to shul in the first place. Men were honored, paraded around this sacred object that they seemed to have exclusive claim to, and male voices dominated the auditory space. Even during congregational singing portions, women were quiet, leaving only the deeper rumble of their husbands, fathers, and sons to fill the room. Coupled with this, my family had seats in the front row of the women's section, and the glass-topped mechitza ended right in the middle of my field of vision when I stood up in the heels I was wearing; the way it cut across my line of sight gave me a pounding headache. This inauspicious start left me feeling grumpy and uncharitable, generally a bad state of mind on Rosh HaShana. I followed the same patterns in prayer (and leaving prayer) that I had the day before, but I was unable to appreciate the liturgy or really feel that it had meaning. Instead, I spent most of the time that I stood with my machzor reading -- and changing -- the words and resenting all the men in the room; their wives were doctors and lawyers, and they felt no cognitive dissonance when the considered consigning them to the back of the room!?

What was most frustrating for me was that when I bowed at the beginning of the Modim section of the Amidah, I all but hit my head on the glass mechitza in front of me, something that's happened to me many times in the years my family has sat in the front row (more often then not, my head really does make contact, painfully, with the glass). The designer of the space made the front row too close to the mechitza, a simple, inadvertent gesture that showed that whoever designed the women's section wasn't thinking about the  real, live, women who would pray there, swaying and bowing. That little injustice made the larger injustices seem all the harsher.

Now, I'm left still resentful of the entire congregation of people, men and women, who are blind to the injustice they perpetuate. By avoiding shul for a while, I had avoided that unpleasant feeling, and I have no regrets about that, nor do I plan to change my general practice of avoidance. But I'm left with this inability to forgive the blindness. I can't in good conscience go into Yom Kippur in this same shul feeling the way I do about its members, but nor can I forgive them. I'm left hitting my head against the mechitza, a solid expanse in front of me that everyone else looks through and ignores.

1 comment:

  1. Zeesh, and I thought *our* synagogue was poorly designed!

    "Men were honored, paraded around this sacred object that they seemed to have exclusive claim to, and male voices dominated the auditory space. Even during congregational singing portions, women were quiet, leaving only the deeper rumble of their husbands, fathers, and sons to fill the room."

    Been there, blogged that. Sigh.

    Thanks for including me in your blogroll. I never did figure out how to recreate my old blogroll after the website that was supporting it went out of business (or whatever websites do).

    Also, thanks for writing to me recently. If I hadn't received an e-mail from you, I wouldn't have recognized you name, and I wouldn't have been able to congratulate you on becoming a member of the inaugural Rising Voices Fellowship class. Mazal tov!