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.
I sat in the tiny women’s section, trying to block out the noise and focus on the task at hand. By the time the men’s reading was coming to a close, and each man had had an aliyah, I was pretty sure I had it down. I looked up at the other women in the room, on whom I hadn’t had a chance to focus.
If I was nervous about not embarrassing myself — or the entire egalitarian community, for that matter — these other women looked positively terrified. All of them had beaten out thousands of other applicants to get into Yale (including me — Yale had politely suggested that I attend Northwestern), and most now worked at top-tier law firms or investment banks.
In their “other” lives, they had been committed modern Orthodox Jews with expensive day school educations, gap years at yeshivas in Israel, summers at fancy Jewish camps. But none had ever been close to a Torah scroll.
I took the yad in my hand, stood up to read and beckoned them to approach. One by one, they each had their first aliyah. They kissed the Torah with the wimple, trembling, and said the brachot, the blessings that they had heard thousands of times but never uttered.
Their faces shone with tears, and some of them were sobbing so hard that it took a while for them to complete the task. All I could think was what a crime it was that these women had been denied the pleasure of serving God in this particular way for more than a quarter of their lives.
And maybe I imagined it, but I think I saw something in the men’s faces, as well. A twinge of jealousy that they had taken this privilege so for granted that they would never be able to experience the intensity of the emotion that they were seeing unfold in front of them. They had had countless aliyot and had taken them for granted, never experiencing the kind of transformative moment that these women were having, faces shining with tears but also from within.
And me in the middle. I had grown up with a Conservative Judaism in flux. Some days, I would count in the minyan where I prayed, some not. Some days I could lead the community, others I cringed while my male classmates butchered a Torah reading they hadn’t bothered to learn properly. I never had the privilege of doing a less-than-perfect reading.
When I read, I was a living, breathing example. I was representing every girl or woman who had aspirations of taking her place as a full-fledged member of the davening. When I was in United Synagogue Youth, a Conservative youth movement, I would lead an “alternative” egalitarian service, which by virtue of its name scared off all my “traditional” friends.
Somehow people had gotten it into their heads that the service I was leading — identical in every way except for the DNA of the leaders — was less serious, less real.
I prayed in places where the only way I counted to the minyan was if I had professed my commitments to daily prayer, while a man who could not read a word of Hebrew was asked no questions. In one synagogue, I was “approved” to wear a tallit only after I proved to the rabbi that my knowledge level was sufficient.
I fought in many contexts to expand the role of women in synagogue life and beyond. I was called names and laughed at, and told that I didn’t understand the halachic issues behind my choices. And now that the egalitarian question is largely a settled one in Conservative communities, I get called a new name as someone who keeps the Sabbath and holidays and fast days: Orthodox.
It is in this vein that I identify with the struggles of the Women of the Wall, the movement of women demanding the right to worship as they choose at the Western Wall. I gave up on praying at the Kotel long ago, because I felt unwelcome and even objectified by the ever widening demands for me to cover up more and more parts of my body that I had never before considered alluring.
And I was increasingly troubled by the feeling that the Kotel had become more of an idol than a prayer space, as people would fax or email notes to be stuck into the “magic stones.” But their fight is so familiar.
I recognize the smirks and jeers of the men and boys, and the struggle for the chance to do what those smirkers rarely appreciate: to pray, out loud, in full voice, with full heart — enveloped in a shawl, at once ancient and new — body and soul pointed toward Yerushalayim, tears shining on their faces but also from within.
Leah Bieler has an M.A. in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She teaches Talmud in Connecticut.
A Woman's Place is at Prayer — at Kotel or Upper West Side