Opening the Gates of Prayer

The women wore a variety of costumes, from Disney princesses to Queen Esther herself. Listening to them read the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther) with melodic, skillful voices that Purim holiday in a small shul in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood, I felt the distinct sensation of finding something that I’d always been searching for but never thought truly existed. I had been on the rotation of chazaniyot (prayer service leaders) for my Bais Yaakov high school’s prayer services, but my job had been minimal. This was different.

Ever since I started davening (praying) with a minyan (quorum) in elementary school, I have ached to lead communal prayer. I would envy the boys who led from the front of the room, seething when they would stumble or sing out of tune, wishing someone would give me the chance to use my voice, one that I knew could carry to the back of the room if I were allowed to raise it above a murmur.

I discovered women’s megillah readings while in seminary and was stunned. I had never heard of anything like them, but I knew immediately that I had to take part. The rabbis of my school didn’t want to advertise the one I went to, so I coaxed the details out of a teacher.

I left that reading feeling awakened, and resolved to layn (chant) megillah myself the next year. A rabbi to whom I expressed this desire found it humorous and implausible, but I wasn’t deterred. I felt like I had found a purpose for my voice, and I wasn’t going to let it be silenced anymore.

Indeed, I did layn the following Purim as a first-year student at Barnard College, and continued to do so every year while studying there. The joy of learning megillah trup (cantillation marks) inspired me to learn that of Torah and other books, as well. I asked a friend in the joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary to teach me, and we met every Monday afternoon as if I were preparing for my bat mitzvah. Thanks to her tutelage, I regularly layned at Lalekhet, the Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s partnership minyan, and gleefully read her aliyah (Torah portion) when she was called up to the Torah at a women’s reading on Simchat Torah. We embraced tightly after I sang the final note.

Last summer, I joined the layning rotation of a local partnership minyan. On a recent Shabbaton (a Shabbat retreat), a gabbai (person who coordinates the public Torah reading) asked me to learn an aliyah the afternoon before it was to be read, and I found that I could. On Shavuot, I read two chapters of the Book of Ruth. So when I heard about the Brooklyn Women’s Chavura, and saw that they needed Torah readers and prayer leaders, I opted to finally fulfill my lifelong dream of leading communal prayer by undertaking musaf (special prayer added on Shabbat and holidays) instead of layning, enlisting talented, generous friends to help me learn the traditional melodies and pick tunes. I had the immense privilege of saying, “Well, I feel like I layn all the time. I want to try something different.”

When I expressed this to the organizer of the Brooklyn Women’s Chavura after the services, still on a bit of a high, she smiled.

“You can do both next time,” she said. “Be greedy.”

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