The wigs in my wardrobe stand poised, like ballerinas backstage, curled on their mannequin heads.
Since New York’s shutdown began in mid-March, I have not needed that armor, and the multiple roles they represent: the straight dark one is “serious journalist;” the wavy long one, “Upper East Side rebbetzin.” In normal times, these varied shades of human hair served as an announcement to the world: I am Orthodox, I am married, and I have stepped outside my house.
But in this pandemic, my wigs lay dormant. Instead, I have secretly enjoyed the cotton head scarves that let my mind breathe. I have also enjoyed the quiet of Shabbos at home — an anomaly for our rabbinic family, where the Sabbath is the busiest day of the week. I’ve grown to embrace the home, the private, over public spaces — over my sheitel-wearing self.
The shift was much more painful for my rabbi-husband, and many other men in our lives, who are used to attending daily minyan. Their separation from shul was tearful, and it was indeed heart-breaking to see those darkened sanctuaries, those lonely Torah scrolls in the shuttered arks.
But for me, it was really quite simple to advocate for closing shul as part of flattening the coronavirus curve, because my spirituality long ago disconnected from those sanctuaries. I realize, now, that I had already gone through that painful separation from organized prayer, communal spirituality — it happened when I became a mother.
The synagogue is no place for babies
In school, when they taught us girls about the different gender roles in what we called “Torah Judaism,” they would explain that men have more religious responsibilities because they need more of that structure, more of that spiritual work. That we women were naturally closer to God. “Do you want to have to go to minyan three times a day?” our rebbes would say with a laugh. Surely not! What a burden that would be! How lucky you are! Stay home.
I laughed along. Indeed, it was nice not to be beholden to the schedule of a synagogue, to determine my own prayer times wherever I was, I thought then.
But when I had my first child four years ago, my Yiddishkeit changed drastically. Actually, it seemed to drown somewhere in formula, piles of laundry, soggy Cheerios — while my husband was religiously obligated to continue going to minyan three times a day.
How I wished to have an excuse to get out of the house, to escape the kitchen, to have the silence of the amidah, the soft swaying of others around me! How I yearned for social interaction with other adults, offline, outside mom-group chats and Shabbos menus. How I missed being that young woman at Kabbalas Shabbos whisper-praying in the mostly-empty women’s section, the sky turning lavender behind the synagogue windows, the community members embracing one another, wishing each other a Gut Shabbes, exchanging jokes and news.
But my new reality had little room for synagogue. I did not want to leave my kids home with a babysitter on Shabbos, when I was already out of the house most of the week. If I did make it into the sanctuary, usually after a few kind preteens offered to watch my children while I sped through my prayers up on the high balcony, it was hard to focus.
Yes, I had prayed hard for children, and I am deeply grateful for these blessings, for their little hands and high-pitched voices and round cheeks. But no one prepared me for the reality that as they expanded my world, a part of me would also be lost.
How many times had I read in religious women’s books rosy descriptions of frum motherhood, equating a woman’s domestic work (cooking, taking care of the house and children) as that of a priest in the Temple. You are all building your small temples! They cried. How fortunate you are! Before motherhood, I had found these notions romantic; afterwards, I chafed at them.
“The home is the center of Judaism! Not the shul!” I remind myself as I cook for Shabbos, every week, a mantra of sorts.
It took the coronavirus for me to realize the minuscule place that communal prayer takes up in my life now — and how sad that is.
Post-pandemic, can shul be more welcoming?
Shortly before the pandemic, I found myself in the New Jersey town where I grew up for Shabbos. I needed a break from Manhattan, so I took the train — with two little ones in tow — and slept in my childhood bedroom and ate my mother’s food. And thanks to my little sister, who took the kids — I went back to my childhood shul.
I sat in the back, and could feel my youth’s prayers wash over me, as if I was sitting behind my younger self, head uncovered. I yearned for my girlish self, for whom synagogue played such a formative role.
What has been interesting about these months of quarantine is that they have thrown Orthodox men into traditionally Orthodox female experiences of Judaism, too. Of course many Orthodox mothers do go to shul, but it is generally not a priority. For many, it’s logistically difficult — finding childcare, or a small or uncomfortable women’s section, or nowhere to breastfeed a child. For some, it’s also ideologically uncomfortable, to feel that one is a spectator and not a participant. For many, they are just conditioned that way — I have to get this Shabbos meal ready, set the table, there’s just too much to do at home, shul isn’t my “thing.”
But over these past few months, everything shifted. The public — the minyan, the donning of the sheitel — disappeared; it became all about the private, the prayer facing the living room wall, the soft headscarf. Suddenly, husbands and fathers were thrust into “women’s work” — including spiritual labor, that structureless service of God that is much harder than checking off your list that you attended minyan and night Torah classes, too.
As synagogues start to reopen — my husband is leading services on weekday mornings, with strict distancing protocols — and as we take our wigs out of our wardrobes, as we step back into life in a quasi-public sphere — I pray that these months at home will have made more community members empathetic to the realities of many of the women in their lives, who often shoulder the bulk of domestic labor.
I hope they will now empathize with that vertigo that comes with being unmoored from regular Torah study, from the rhythm of communal prayer.
I hope that more religious men will now understand the angst of that mother sitting on the floor on Shabbos morning, building yet another MagnaTiles tower while pining for her once-beloved seat in shul — and secretly resenting herself for not accepting this with a soft smile as her spiritual duty.
I hope Orthodox communities will be able to make space for the mothers in their midst, to prioritize women’s participation and voices in the public squares of Judaism, too — by offering childcare during popular prayer times, by securing an eruv that allows families to walk to shul with diaper bags and strollers, by ensuring that the women’s section is reliable, accessible and comfortable.
If we don’t — we risk keeping our women in a perpetual, domestic quarantine.
As shul reopens, can we make it more welcoming to Orthodox women?
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.