I am six. My family is at a Purim party at a neighbor’s house. I am sitting on my father’s lap, as he and the other men around the table sing riotously. They get up to dance, and my father leaves me sitting in his chair at the table. I starting pounding the tabletop to the beat of the music, as I had seen some of the men doing, before they had gotten up to dance. I feel elated. The music is fast and exciting. The impact of my tiny fist is causing the entire solid wood structure to shutter. I am thrilled by my own strength.
Suddenly, my chair is being pulled away from the table. A large, bearded face I do not recognize looms into view. “This is the men’s side. Go sit with your mother,” he demands, pointing to the living room where the women are all sitting, some clapping demurely in time with the thumping rhythm, some chatting amongst themselves, ignoring the music entirely.
I feel ashamed. I slide off the chair, and find my mother; her legs crossed beneath her long black skirt, absently bouncing my baby sister on her lap as she converses with the woman to her right, on the couch. I climb into her lap, jockeying with my baby sister for space, and bury my face in her sweater, so she won’t notice the glistening droplets teetering dangerously in the corners of my eyes.
I am twelve. It is Simchas Torah. I am sitting atop a stack of chairs at the very edge of the men’s section, giggling with my friends over which black-and-white clad bar mitzvah boys we think are cute. One of my friends mentions that the shul she had attended before moving to our neighborhood gave one of the sifrei Torah to the women, and they danced, as well. Behind a mechitza of course.
I have never heard of such a thing; never even considered it to be a possibility. But I am immediately enthralled.
As that hakafa comes to a close, I catch my father’s eye, and beckoned him over. “Tatty, can you ask the rav if the girls could dance with the Torah, too?”
My father, sweaty and and panting, a mild scent of Maker’s Mark on his breath, tucks my chin gently between his thumb and forefinger, and kisses my hair. “No, sheifala. I’m sorry.” He walks away quickly, melding back into the crowd of dark-haired, bearded, tallis-wearers he had emerged from.
I am eighteen, in seminary. My friends and I are visiting Tsfat. “Come to shul with us,” our host suggests. “It’s a beautiful davening.” The walls of the shul are painted with a mural of lush green hills, dotted with flowers and foliage. The psukim painted on the walls encourage all who love Hashem to sing His praises. Kabbalat Shabbat begins, and to my amazement, the women sing along. I sing as well. It feels wonderful, and I am filled with religious ecstasy. Maybe this is where I belong, I think. I visit again and again, just for the opportunity to sing out the praises of God, just like Dovid HaMelech, just like the psukim written on the walls.
On one of my visits, as I’m standing next to my hostess in shul on Friday night, she places a hand on my arm, as we’re singing. She’s trying to tell me something, but I don’t grasp her meaning. After shul, she tells me, “It’s really wonderful how much you love the tefillah. You are such a holy soul, and your voice is beautiful.” I am flattered.
“But,” she continues, “I think you might be too loud. My husband says he can hear you from the men’s section every time you come to visit. We have to let the men concentrate on their tefillah, too.” She smiles and hugs me.
“Of course, of course,” I respond, flustered. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
I don’t come back to visit again.
I am twenty-five. The Women of the Wall are fighting for the right to wear tefillin at the Kotel, to read from a sefer Torah. It’s all over the news. There are riots. There are people spitting at them, throwing chairs at them from the other side of the mechitza. “They’re too loud,” people say. “They’re disruptive. The Kotel is like a shul. Would you allow these Reform women to come into an Orthodox shul and pull these kinds of shenanigans?”
“Why do they have to be like men?” people argue. “Hashem gave women plenty of other mitzvot. When those women start keeping all the other mitzvot properly, then we can talk about whether they can wear tallis and tefillin. This is not about religion. It’s a political stunt.”
I understand these women. I have no desire to be like them–to wear a tallis or tefillin or read from the Torah. But I understand these women. I want to go stand with them, and show my support. But most of the women in my community are getting on buses to go to the counter protest. I can’t alienate myself from my entire community.
I stay home. I avoid reading the news.
I’m thirty-three. I haven’t been to shul in years. I haven’t even opened a siddur in years. I’m tired of not counting. I’m tired of being excluded. There seems to be some steam picking up behind various movements that are meant to keep women from disappearing from Orthodoxy altogether. I support them in my mind, but I am apathetic in my actions. The enormous efforts they put in seem too disproportionate to me, for the small victories they win. Societal changes come at glacial speed. There is nothing left for me in this community.
I visit a friend over the weekend. She tells me there is a very sweet English-speaking woman in her community who is trying to start a Conservative kehilla. Would I be interested in going to Friday night tefilla there?
I slink quietly through the doorway, unsure what to expect. Are they going to ask me to lead the davening? Am I going to recognize the tunes they use? Are they going to use the same tefillot I grew up with?
The tefilla is in the woman’s living room. There are chairs and couches arranged in a circle around her coffee table, where the members of the kehilla are sitting. Three men, and eight women, including me. She’s pleased that we’ve managed to put together a minyan.
We begin to sing. The woman whose home we are in is the chazanit. We all follow her lead. Everyone sings. Loudly, joyously, together. I fumble over some of the words, as I haven’t uttered them in more than half a decade, but for the most part, it comes back to me easily.
The tefilla is over, and the hostess comes over to wish me a Shabbat Shalom. “You have a beautiful voice,” she tells me, resting a hand warmly on my arm. “I hope you come back to pray with us again.”
“What did you think?” my friend asks me, as we head back to her house for dinner.
“I liked it. It was nice,” I say, and blink back the droplets teetering dangerously in the corners of my eyes.