Nearly 20 years ago I was living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a haven for observant Conservative Jews. I had my choice of multiple minyanim to attend; even the crowded weekend city streets had an air of the Sabbath, and kosher food abounded.
There were so many Conservative and egalitarian options that I rarely ventured into the neighborhood’s Orthodox community, and I certainly never attended an Orthodox synagogue.
One year, during the holidays, a friend asked if I would come with her to a Simchat Torah minyan in someone’s home. Two brothers had lost their mother on Simchat Torah a few years back and couldn’t take the craziness of synagogue on what was to them a somewhat somber day, so they invited a bunch of their friends from Yale University to a minyan in their apartment.
It had become an annual tradition that had grown over the years, and for some reason, my friend had been invited and wanted me to come with her. It was an Orthodox minyan, but this year they had decided, for the first time, to have a special women’s Torah reading, and we thought it would be a good idea to be supportive.
I arrived early in the service and was immediately accosted by one of the men. He had heard I could read Torah, and was wondering if I wouldn’t mind….
A lot of things went through my head. Clearly they had planned on using me. Couldn’t they have called a day or two earlier and asked me to read? As it happened, I had never done that reading. It was familiar enough, but could I learn it in time?
I knew if I agreed to read, it would need to be perfect. Damned if I was going to have all of these Orthodox Yalies with high-powered careers smiling self-satisfied smiles and thinking, “We knew a girl would do a terrible job.” I said yes.
I davened as fast as I could by myself, hitting the highlights, and then took a look at the reading while the service continued around me. The apartment was packed, so there was nowhere for me to go.