Between the Holy and the Frustrating

It’s Friday afternoon in a quiet Maryland suburb. Cars pull into driveways and kids get off school buses, ready to relax. But the second I get home the Shabbat prep begins. I sweep and mop the kitchen floor, clean my room, change my sheets and take a shower. As I step out of the shower, I realize with a shock that it’s five minutes till Shabbat. I toss on some nice clothes, pull a brush through my tangled curls and run downstairs just as my mom yells “candle lighting!”

My mother, sisters, and I each light two candles, like our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. As the sun sets we bring light into our home. We wave our hands over the candles in unison and say the blessing welcoming Shabbat. “A-a-a-men” my dad yells from the kitchen. I shove my feet into shoes, grab my coat, yell “Good Shabbos!” and slam the door in my rush outside. I pass men in black walking to the other synagogue. “Good Shabbos!” I say. I get to synagogue, and pull down my skirt, a habit from years at Orthodox day school that I can’t seem to shake off. On good days, I arrive in time for yedid nefesh, the opening prayer of the Kabbalat Shabbat service.

And then, finally, everything slows down, and I allow myself to get lost among the ancient tunes. As my wet hair drips onto the floor, my stress from the past week begins to fade away. The carpeted room with stained glass windows feels like home. I’m sleepy but awash in the melodies and familiar words. We sing aloud, and as the song ends the men begin to dance around the bima, podium. They do this every week joyously laughing as they sing and dance and their white shirts become a blur. The women sit, silently. I fidget, bite my lip, and pull down my skirt again. Some of the women and girls around me turn to each other and chat in whispers. The spirit of prayer and joy is gone from our side but lives on in the smiles of men on the other side of the mechitza, the barrier that divides the men’s and women’s sections. Finally the men sit down. We continue to pray and sing, and the melodies don’t echo, they swirl around the room and touch dusty books on the shelves, and pouffy skirts worn with heels, and the kippot taken out of back pockets. Sometimes I close my eyes for just a second and feel the pulse of the room. We bow to welcome the angels. Our murmurs bring dust and holiness swirling around the room as we finish Kabbalat Shabbat.

A boy my age gets up to introduce the speaker, a man. He stands right at the mechitza and spends 10 seconds speaking to the men’s side for every two seconds he glances at the women’s side. I count. Then the chazzan, prayer leader (the word also means cantor), moves from the bima to the shtender (table from which the Torah is read). The room is silent as he bows. I smile as I bow and allow the prayers to wrap around me and shift and settle once more. I murmur my prayers silently as the women behind me whisper their conversation. The men mutter their prayers loudly and their words disrupt mine. But their prayers are more important, right?  I love maariv, the evening service. I love looking outside as the sun’s last rays shine through the stained glass windows that are decorated with Hebrew letters, written in shards like the broken pieces of our people and my heart.

Each word out of the 13-year-old chazzan’s mouth is a shard in my heart. He is just past his Bar Mitzvah and takes it for granted that he is allowed to lead us all in prayer and be our representative to God. He stands at the front of the congregation with us behind him and nothing between him and the Ark. I sit in the middle on the women’s side, and feel miles away from the Ark. I love leading prayers, but will never have the opportunity to lead Kabbalat Shabbat in this room where I have been praying since I was four.

But then we all recite the Shema and cover our eyes so that for a moment it is just us and God. The whole congregation, united in our aloneness with God. We stand and sing and then step back and forward, each at our own unique pace. The room is full of swaying and brushings of cloth and silent whispers. I close my eyes and mouth the words I was taught so long ago. I think of the many Jews in my family who have been reciting this prayer for centuries. I wonder how many of them were women. There is beauty in the whisper and the silence and the swaying. But most of the swaying is on the other side of the room. Women are quieter and move around less. They feel less comfortable here. They don’t feel at home. They’re only here twice a week, not three times a day.  The men recite Mourner’s Kaddish, as does one woman who is not allowed to say it alone. A high school boy recites Kiddush over the wine and then a lower-school boy leads yigdal, the last prayer. There are no lower-school girls in synagogue today.  I wish they were here. I wish they could feel this beauty and struggle with me.

After the service ends I don’t want to leave the tangible feeling of prayer, and holiness and community. But I have the next 25 hours to look forward to, full of prayer, family, Torah, food, and friends. There will be more difficult moments. Today, tomorrow, forever. There will always be struggles with this ancient, beautiful, heartbreaking religion for this 17-year-old Orthodox feminist. And I’ll think about it, engage in productive dialogue about it, and do something about it. But right now, wrapped in holiness and a feeling of peace, I remember why I’m still here.

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