The Invisible Woman

Last shabbat, I was sitting in shul during mincha, already having finished my private shemona esrai prayer, waiting for the chazzan to begin the public repetition. As is oft to happen, I was the only woman in shul. Now, let’s be honest here, I don’t normally go to shul for mincha, but megilla reading was Saturday night, ten minutes after shabbat ended, and I wanted to make sure I got to shul in time. I sort of figured that other women would have had the same thought, but nope.

But anyway. This particular shul has what I term a “women problem”. By that I mean, women just don’t go to shul. They don’t go on Friday night at ALL and on shabbat morning, there are MAYBE a third of the number of women as there are men. I’m not really sure why this is. The shul is located near an apartment complex where many young, newly married couples live. Some of these couples have children and apparently, once you have children, you become unable to ever leave your house at a reasonable time. I get that. But many of these couples don’t have children. The men go to shul, but the women stay home and read or sleep or set the table.

This is particularly troublesome for me, as one of the things I enjoy about shul is seeing my friends and having a chance to catch up with them on a weekly basis. (Obviously not during davening. Don’t you dare try to talk with me while I’m praying. But afterwards, hello.) If my female friends aren’t there, I feel like shul is lacking.

I’ve thought a lot about why women don’t go to shul, and I’ve spoken to a number of women about it. Although each has their own particular reason it basically comes down to “I’d prefer to stay at home and do X than go to shul”.

I mentioned above that I don’t normally go to shabbat mincha. I did, however, do that while I was in college. In fact, in college I prayed with a minyan three times a day, seven days a week. Sometimes I missed a minyan because I had class or homework or was too exhausted to wake up because I had just pulled an all-nighter, but the goal was there. A lot of that had to do with peer pressure, and the fact that going to minyan meant a chance to see my friends. Maariv was great because it was a short prayer in the middle of the night where I could literally take a 15 minute break and see 50 of my friends, and then go back to whatever I was doing before.

So, that brings me back to my current predicament. I go to shul on Friday night and I see maybe three women there, many weeks I’m the only one. Shabbat morning there are maybe twenty. Shabbat mincha, forget about it. Nothing.

There I was, last week, in shul on shabbat afternoon, davening mincha, when the gabbai starts walking around the shul and collecting the unused siddurim and chumashim to re-shelve. Now, this is totally inappropriate during mincha. He should be davening; he can clean up afterwards. But even more inappropriately, he walked over to the women’s section and started to do the same thing there! I was standing alone, and there he comes, just waltzing in to my section as if he owned the place.

I had many mixed feelings about the occurrence. On the one hand, I felt violated, raped. Who is he to decide he can come over to my section?? On the other hand, I felt like I shouldn’t really mind, because anyways I don’t like mechitzas and I would prefer to daven without them, though I recognize their pseudo-halachic  requirement (really, all that’s needed to satisfy the halacha is a separation, these ridiculous fake walls that people put up are basically just chumras adopted by leading rabbis). So if I would prefer to daven without a mechitza, why should I care that this guy violated the mechitza rule and just waltzed in to my section?

I guess what bothered me was the double standard. He, because of his maleness and sense of owning the shul, could go wherever he wanted whenever he wanted, and no one will say anything. Me, because of my femaleness and otherness, can only go where I am told. I couldn’t just decide to walk over to the men’s section, no, that would make the men feel uncomfortable. Plus, they will say, a man can’t pray in front of a woman, but a woman may pray in front of a man, so if the gabbai was really just walking around and collecting books, no halacha was violated.

Well, you know what? Maybe no halacha was violated, but I was violated. My sense of space was violated. My sense of belonging and sense of welcome was violated. I felt like I didn’t matter, like I was invisible.

And you know what? I was invisible. I, as woman, was invisible. Because there was just me there. The rest of the women were at home taking care of their kids or their house or their friends or their novels. But you know what? That’s not okay. Women, if we don’t want to be invisible, we have to be visible. Come to shul. Pray with me. Take the time out of your day to tell the shuls that we are not the invisible half of your membership, we are here and we are present and we are worth something.

In other words, lean in.

Emotions and Observance

A friend once told me that keeping niddah was much harder than keeping any of the other mitzvot, because emotions come in to play much more so than other halachot, like shabbat or kashrut.

At the time, I agreed with her. I mean, niddah walks its way into your bedroom, pokes its head into your sexual life, and stays there, like a mole, interrupting time that should be private.

However. As I gave more thought to the idea, I started to think that perhaps other halachot are like that as well. I mean, the very idea of halacha is that it’s a life-system, it should dictate each and every decision that one makes.

I felt the emotional pull of halacha shortly after I got married. I was used to waiting 3 hours between meat and milk, my husband waits 5. I agreed that since traditionally the woman takes on the man’s customs after marriage, I would change my custom and start waiting 5. It made sense to me, at the time. I was thinking of our future children, and how it might be confusing to them if mommy waits 3 hours and they have to wait 5, or if daddy waits 5 but they wait three.

I believe now that this idea is naive. I actually WANT my children to appreciate the fluidity of halacha and the distinction between law and custom.

I also believe that the concept of wife taking on husband’s customs is patriarchal and sexist. This is actually the ONLY situation in which I just blindly accepted his customs. When I pray, I pray the way I always have. At Chanukah, I light my own menorah, and plan to have our children light theirs as well, even though in his household, only his father lit a menorah. When we make kiddush on shabbat, he says the blessing over the wine and I say the blessing over the bread (this was actually his suggestion, and I love it), even thought neither of us grew up in a family that did that. We generally believe in adopting customs that make sense to us, not simply customs that have been handed down from father to son, forsaking the daughters and mothers.

So, yes. The 5 hours thing bugs me. Every single time when I choose to wait instead of having dairy, when it has been somewhere between 3 and 5 hours. Over shabbat, I wanted an iced coffee with milk 4 hours after having meat at lunch. I was in turmoil-I really want this drink, and I’m really bitter about this whole 5 hour thing. After debating with myself for approximately half an hour, I decided to “screw it to the man” and assert my position that this whole paternal custom thing is ridiculous and damn it, I was going to have milk in my coffee.

I opened the fridge, and realized that we had a bottle of soy milk sitting there, about to spoil in the next couple of days if not used immediately. Oh, fine. I resigned myself to having pareve iced coffee for the sake of not wasting ingredients, but I still was going to inform my husband that I reject his 5 hour custom and I’m going back to 3.

(For the record, my husband was extremely supportive of my decision and laughed when I told him that I struggled with it for half an hour).

This was not about the milk. It was not about the coffee. It was about feeling belittled by halacha simply because of my gender.  I will say that I certainly have my issues with niddah, but the concept of emotions becoming intertwined with halachic observance is no less at play in kashrut or shabbat (Have you ever had to walk out of court early because the sabbath was coming? Not fun.) than it is with niddah. By its very nature, halacha is designed to function within a persons emotional sphere. Sometimes I appreciate it, but other times I don’t, and for me, thats when I really have to examine my emotions and figure out what the true issue really it.