In Part 1, I discussed the Partnership Minyan, the factors that I believe might fuel the orthodox opposition, and the motivation to participate. As we all know, it can be difficult to understand another person’s perspective, particularly if your experience in the same environment has been different. It is so easy to take things for granted, we often forget that everybody does not share the same opportunities, liberties, and abilities. In this deeply personal post, I invite you to look through my eyes, and share in some of the formative religious experiences of my early life. You might recognise some of them in your own life, your mother’s, your sister’s, or even your daughter’s. The third and final part, which I will post next week, will describe my ongoing spiritual journey and my experience within PM.
It’s early, on a bright, crisp morning. The birds are singing, and the sky is a pale blue, unusual for Manchester. I’m four years old and wearing my smartest clothes, my coat buttoned against the cold. Mummy is in a hurry, she has ushered me out of the house and opened the car door. We’re going on a trip to see Daddy at work. Normally obedient, I stop in my tracks and look confused. She turns to me.
“In you get.”
“It’s Shabbat. My teacher said I’m not allowed to.”
Realising that their decision to send my brother and I to a Jewish school is having an effect, my parents resolve to increase their religious practice.
I’m six, and I’m in shul, sitting downstairs with Daddy, sharing the warmth of his tallis (fringed prayer shawl), and plaiting the tzitzit (fringes). I watch the men, listening, and copying what they are doing without really understanding at all.
It’s Simchat Torah (Celebration of the Law), and I’m eight years old. The women throw handfuls of sweets from the upstairs gallery. All the children, myself included, scrabble around on the floor to collect whatever we can. Now my little purse, brought along just for this purpose, is bulging with sugary treasure. I don’t even like sweets; I just want to join in. The room is alive with raucous singing, and stomping feet. The men are holding Torah scrolls aloft, ecstatically spinning around, and stopping only to drink tots of whiskey. The women – the few who have bothered to attend – sit in the gallery and watch. Tomorrow, the men will dance, and each will be given an Aliyah: they will bless the Torah, acknowledge its primacy, and thank G-d for giving it to us. Tomorrow, the women will again sit in the gallery and watch.
Nine years old. We’ve been invited to Friday night dinner in the home of a religious family. The host starts to sing a song, and Dad joins in. I pick up the tune, and although I am painfully shy, I decide to be brave, and start to sing along. Then I’m told to stop. “Shhh! You’re a girl. You shouldn’t be singing. The men might hear you.” I blush, and a veil of silence falls. Even now, twenty-seven years and two choirs later, my singing voice is constrained.
Eleven years old, and I’m in my bat chayil (‘Daughter of Worth’, coming of age) class. So far this year, we’ve learned about mikvah (a ritual bath used by women), tznius (modesty, knees and elbows covered, and everything in between. Skirts; thick tights; long sleeves; high collars), kashrut (kosher laws, it is assumed we will be managing the kitchen one day), and we’ve baked a honey cake. Without warning, our teacher asks us to read the shema prayer out loud, one Hebrew word each around the table. My blood runs cold with shame – I can’t read.
Fortunately, I know the prayer by heart; we recite it robotically every day in school. In panic, I count around the table and work out what my words will be. Thankfully, I get them right, so I can continue to hide my illiteracy. I went to a Jewish school for seven years, but the teachers never spotted that I couldn’t read Hebrew. They didn’t care.
Actually, I’m in good company: a surprising number of Jewish women can’t read Hebrew. Why bother teaching them when they don’t have to get through a Bar Mitzvah? You can spot them if you know the signs: ‘accidentally’ forgotten reading glasses; the prayer book frequently on the wrong page, or no book at all; total, awkward silence during prayers, or constant chatter to obliterate the service that isn’t speaking to them.
Twelve. Officially an adult, I sit in the vertiginous gallery. Shul services are now a spectator sport: from my high perch, I watch the boys and men downstairs as they lead the services and participate in rituals. Young boys are invited to open and close the ark (the cupboard where the Torah Scrolls are kept), or to sing anim zemirot (‘song of glory’, a responsive song, where the boy and the congregation sing alternate verses). Bar mitzvah boys strut about in their new suits. Older boys, recently returned from study in yeshiva (religious school), learn from huge books of Mishna and Talmud, and are treated like the sages of old. I observe as the boys are congratulated, clapped on the back. They shake hands with the Rabbi and other dignitaries.
As the only woman upstairs on Friday nights, and a regular on Saturday mornings I am conspicuous by my presence, but no one invites me to engage in study, or even in conversation. I’m not allowed to lead the service, Mishna and Talmud are a mystery to me, and the Rabbi won’t shake my hand. I am religious, and want to go deeper, but because I am a woman, I am physically and spiritually excluded.
By thirteen, I had internalised the message that my voice should not be heard, and that my body should not be seen or touched. Already shy, I had learned to be invisible, not even offering my hand to shake for fear of embarrassing someone. I was illiterate in Hebrew, with a head full of memorised prayers and songs which were no more than strings of syllables I could barely pronounce and could not translate. I yearned for knowledge, but had no-one to ask and nowhere to go. For the likes of me, the shul service was something to be watched from afar, but not actively participated in.
This religious stuff was meant to mean something to me, but clearly, I meant nothing to it. At thirteen, I rejected a religion that had rejected me, and started a new spiritual journey from the ground up.
I invite you to add your own experiences in the comments below, so that we can all share and learn from each other. If we can recognise the points in our lives where we were prevented from reaching our potential, then we can be careful not to revisit them upon the next generation. Equally, if we can spot and augment the points that enabled us to grow, then we and our communities will be able to enjoy a much more positive and spiritually fulfilling existence.