Elana Sztokman's JewFem blog

Elana Maryles Sztokman, PhD, writer, researcher, educator and activist, writing on issues pertaining to gender and Jewish life in Israel and around the world.

SPECIAL EXCERPT of “The Men’s Section”

The following is a special excerpt from Elana’s new book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, released Nov 2011:

Prologue book-men.

One cold Saturday morning, I walked into a synagogue in Jerusalem and did something I had never done before: I led the prayer service. It was January 2002, and my friend Haviva Ner David had called me to let me know that a new prayer group was forming and needed a woman cantor, a hazzanit. This was not a Conservative community, where this is normal, but rather an Orthodox group that was trying to give women as many roles in the service as was possible within Jewish law. Haviva said women would be allowed to read from the Torah, to be called up to the Torah and to lead certain sections of the service. This was quite a coup in a world where such roles for women were until then virtually unheard of. Haviva said that the whole project was about to become academic because no woman was willing to do it. “If you don’t do it, we may have to ask a man to lead services instead. And that would just defeat the whole purpose.”

Despite my then 33 years of dwelling in Orthodox communities, despite the fact that my father is a seasoned cantor and Torah reader, and that his father was a famous cantor, and despite the fact that I had spent hundreds of hours sitting in synagogues listening to others leading the service, the thought of doing it myself was daunting – and, frankly, exhilarating.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” I said. Ignoring my complete lack of experience, and displaying either courage, blind faith, or startling irreverence, I agreed to do it. I called my friend Aaron Frank, an Orthodox feminist rabbi and Carlebach devotee, and asked for help. He taught me some tunes, made a tape recording, and guided me. I practiced for hours, suddenly making explicit what had only been passively understood, paying attention to stops and starts, memorizing melodies that I had heard since I was a child, and taking ownership, for the first time in my life, of a text that had been central to my religious identity for decades. I was ready to become a hazzanit.

This particular Shabbat was about to make history, not only for me, but also for the entire Orthodox world. It was the very first Shabbat service of Shira Hadasha, (literally ‘new song’) an Orthodox-egalitarian synagogue that has since become a legendary, world-renowned focus of conversation at countless dinner tables and blogs, and a must-see tourist spot for Jews of all denominations visiting Jerusalem. That first week, Haviva, along with Tova Hartman, a Harvard-educated feminist professor who was the spirit and energy behind the initiative, was nervous that nobody would come.  This was not a lecture hall where people from non-descript backgrounds were taking notes and writing academic papers on feminist theory or researching sources on women in Jewish law. This was an attempt to actually change Orthodox women’s lives. To succeed, they needed ten men, a quorum, willing to place themselves, their families and their religious identities behind a completely new idea. It was all rather unsettling.

That first Shabbat everyone watched the door in nervous anticipation. Would people come? Would anyone protest? Would some rabbi that nobody ever heard of issue an edict of excommunication? Would the participants even know what we were trying to do? To everyone’s delight, that first night, in which over 50 people participated, and which took place at the International Cultural Center for Youth on Emek Refaim Street in the funky and cosmopolitan German Colony, passed without incident. Within a year or two, it evolved into a standing room only service. This became the experiment that exceeded everyone’s wildest dreams.

Shira Hadasha had some unexpected consequences as well. Like the proverbial rock in the lake, it sent ripples throughout the Jewish world, altering Orthodox discourse and practice. Feminist communities have been emboldened, and the model has been duplicated in various versions in at least 20 additional communities from New York to Melbourne.  Shira Hadasha enabled more public roles for women and permanently changed the rules of what is considered possible within Orthodoxy. As one journalist in Modi’in, Israel, wrote, “People are asking: If they are doing it, why can’t we?” Suddenly, rather than asking, “Can we allow women to lead?” Orthodox communities are asking, “Why shouldn’t we?”

For many women, the world impact was not nearly as significant as the personal one. That Shabbat morning, I was not thinking about numbers or broad social change – I was feeling alive. Liberated. This was the moment when I stepped out of my assigned role, when I rejected that cloistered enclave that is the “woman’s place”, and experienced feeling truly present in synagogue for the first time.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1980’s in a fairly typical modern Orthodox family of four daughters, going to synagogue on Shabbat had pretty much one meaning: clothes. My sisters and I would spend most of Friday planning our outfits down to the last detail, walking Avenue J to fill in the missing pantyhose, earrings, nail polish, shoes, and any form of accessory that would enable us to stand out while following the fashion rules.  Shabbat morning was full of the female family ritual of negotiating earrings and belts, and deliberating over jackets and the weather until we hit the ‘scene’ – that is, the “shul”, or synagogue. My sisters and I usually arrived towards the second half of the service. The prayer leader was like a stage performer – if you were lucky, it felt like going to a concert, but at other times the audience could be seen looking at their watches, snickering at their bench-mates’ jokes, or nodding off. Reprimands to stop the constant chatter were frequent, supplemented by the occasional loud rap-rap-rap on the podium.

There was a large stage at the front of the men’s section, where four seats faced the congregation. One seat was reserved for the rabbi, one for the President, and two for other communal leaders, such as the chairman or treasurer. I suppose the idea that a woman would hold one of those positions never even entered anyone’s mind. As far as I know, no woman ever asked to sit in one of those chairs; leadership was indelibly etched into the men’s section, and everyone seemed content. Certainly no woman ever asked to lead the services or to be president – in fact, I doubt it ever occurred to anyone to imagine such a scenario. There was no discussion, no suggestion, and no protest. That was the standard Shabbat experience of my youth.

For my father, however, Shabbat was an entirely different affair. He would wake up early, and, as if getting ready for work, put on his suit and tie, make a cup of tea, read the newspaper, and sometimes simply head off to synagogue in time for shaharit, the morning service. Other times, he spent the morning practicing his layning, the Torah trop, or cantillations. He was a seasoned ba’al k’riah, reader of the Torah, having mastered the complex tradition of trop at the age of 13. The sounds of my father practicing his reading on Shabbat morning spreading through the house, filling my lungs and spirit with the ancient chants as my body rose to inhale the Shabbat. I loved those sounds, perhaps as an unconscious alternative to the clothes ritual, or perhaps because I also longed to take part in this time-honored Jewish heritage of words and song.

But alas, I was a girl. The idea that I would one day chant from the Torah was beyond my life experience, a thought that was as likely to enter my consciousness as the possibility of one day becoming an astronaut or a Broadway dancer. These were things that religious girls simply did not do. Listening to my father practice his cantillations was the closest thing I had to a meaningful prayer experience.

As years passed, my own sense of alienation from Orthodoxy, especially Orthodox synagogue life, swelled. For a few years, I tried to come to synagogue earlier, in time for Torah reading, feeling a connection to this part of the service. Sometimes I would pay close attention to my father’s chanting, trying to figure out what notes the little lines on top of the text signified. It was like a puzzle, like learning to read music by listening to someone else play the piano. It was enchanting and stimulating, but owned by someone else. Eventually, when I became a young mother and going to synagogue was more of an effort, these moments subsided, and synagogue faded from my life. When Shira Hadasha opened, I had pretty much stopped going to synagogue altogether, except to stand outside and socialize. For although the sanctuary may not be a place for young mothers, the Shabbat community experience is still a central feature of Orthodox life.

 

Becoming a hazzanit in the synagogue was one of several watershed experiences that profoundly altered me, and helped me discover my own belief system and identity. It’s as if it released my spirit, and let me know that the sanctuary was a place where I actually belonged, where my presence mattered, where I could fully participate, where my space was a space not on the side of (passive) women, but rather in the center where prayer happened, where real connection to God was taking place. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was actually in synagogue. The Jewish heritage that I yearned for from behind the mehitza, the partition, became mine.

The establishment of Shira Hadasha was also a defining moment for my family. Shortly after it opened we moved to Melbourne, Australia, for three years. Because there was no equivalent of Shira Hadasha, I spent many Shabbat mornings at home. I eventually hooked up with the Orthodox Women’s Network, a group of remarkable, feminist women who have their own prayer groups once a month at mincha, the Shabbat afternoon service. There, under the warm and caring guidance of Dr. Jordy Hyman, Janet Belleli, and Naomi Dessauer, I learned to read from the Torah for the first time, and became an avid reader. Though relegated to a space outside of the synagogue, these women gave me the courage, inspiration, practical tools and friendship that enabled me to take ownership of this tradition among like-minded women.

When my oldest daughter became bat mitzvah in our third year in Melbourne, we gave her all the options for celebration. At the age of eight, she had been to Shira Hadasha with me, where she led the “Yigdal” at the end of the service, a role generally given to underage boys in Orthodox synagogues. Unlike me, she knew what it felt like to lead services. She had also come with me to the women’s prayer group many times, including for her friends’ bat mitzvah celebrations. She had also been to disco parties, and to the Conservative synagogue, and had experienced virtually the entire range of options for a bat mitzvah celebration. She chose the Shira Hadasha model because, she said, “the women’s group is unfair – why should we leave the men out?” I asked her to repeat that answer several times because I did not comprehend what could possibly be unfair to men. My experiences of female exclusion were not her experiences. She felt that she had every opportunity to read Torah, to participate, to lead services. And in a bizarre irony, the only exclusion that she witnessed was the exclusion of men from the women’s service! Shira Hadasha, in a matter of a few short years, had shifted my daughter’s perception of justice in the world. I had to wrap my head around the fact that her reality was simply different than mine; the world had changed rapidly indeed.

So we booked a hall and created our own private synagogue for the bat mitzvah, Shira Hadasha style, and it was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. Listening to my daughter read her entire portion, both from the Bible and prophet sections, in a room filled with 200 people was moving beyond words. Women who were called up to the Torah for the first time in their lives cried. My friend Janice Broder brought her 80-year-old mother, who also cried. “It was the first time I had ever touched a Torah,” she later told me. My daughter laughs when I recount this story, and finds it amusing that something so run-of-the-mill for her can be so wondrous to others. But it was an enormous event, the first of its kind in Melbourne, one that changed reality for many of those present.

A month later, a group led by Professor Mark Baker decided that it was time to make this type of sevice regularly available to the Melbourne Jewish community. Though these were our last few months in Australia before returning to Israel, they were in some ways the most spiritually fulfilling, because for the first time, we had a Shabbat experience as a family in which we all felt like equal participants. Sometimes I would read Torah, sometimes my daughter, and we all went to synagogue together. It was wonderful, and it changed our lives and shifted our expectations irreversibly.

When we moved back to Israel in August 2005 and settled in Modi’in, we naturally joined a group of people who were experimenting with a similar synagogue model.  After two months, the group, Kehillat Darchei Noam, started an Orthodox-egalitarian Friday night service in a private garden. Within two months, the group rented a space, borrowed a Torah, and initiated a Shabbat morning service as well. My family immediately became actively involved, despite a bit of a trek every Shabbat. It was uplifting to be in a comfortable place where the values that we believed in so strongly were shared. It is not surprising that within two years the community had 70 member families, not bad for a group that was not sure it would survive its first month.

My personal involvement with what has become dubbed in some places the “Ortho-egal shul” has taken on different roles over the past six years. I have been hazzanit, layner, teacher, event planner, web-content writer, youth leader and advocate. Between Melbourne and Modi’in, however, as I finished my doctorate and continued my professional interest in ethnographic research, my attention turned to research. Ethnography has that gripping effect: once an observer, always an observer. I could not take off my research lens.
What particularly intrigued me about places like Darchei Noam and Shira Hadasha were the men. It seemed to me that the motivations for coming to a synagogue like this were very different for men and women. As a woman, I could point to my own sense of disenfranchisement, the emotional and spiritual void that the synagogue was filling and in my quest for meaningful religious life. But I wondered: Why are the men here?

My curiosity was magnified during an otherwise innocuous conversation with a male friend, a liberal-Orthodox Jew whose bookshelves are lined with feminist literature, who has four daughters, and who I assumed would be supportive of the Shira Hadasha venture. To my surprise, he said, “I can never pray in a synagogue like Shira Hadasha – because if women are doing everything, what is left for men to do?” I considered this remark, and as much as it pained me, I understood. Clearly the men who go to a partnership minyan are giving up something and getting seemingly little in return. The partnership model deprives men of absolute authority and ownership of the synagogue experience. I was intrigued at how men navigate that tension.

In 2006, therefore, after having taken part in three different Orthodox-egalitarian synagogues in three cities over two continents, I set out to find out about these men-enablers who go to the partnership or ortho-egal shuls. I needed to understand these men, willing to go against social and religious convention on behalf of women, willing to risk alienation from religious normative life, to be labeled “non-Orthodox”, and to abdicate their proud roles as exclusive synagogue leaders. They actively engage in a form of social change on behalf of other, despite bombardments of messages about licentiousness, excessive sexuality, and threatening the continuity of sacred law. I wanted to speak to them, to find out what drives them, what motivates them, and what issues they have to navigate to be in this space. This book, then, is about men changing, and about changing men.

With this research, my connection to these synagogues has taken a new turn. It comes from a place of curious wonder, from the desire to open up an unexplored world. The gender navigations of Orthodox men are, indeed, a newly unearthed island in the ocean of qualitative research. It is thrilling and exhilarating to be at the edge of such discovery. Yet, ironically, I am discovering a world in which I have dwelled my entire life – that is, Orthodox Judaism. How strange for something to be so very familiar and yet completely foreign and unknown – the world of men. As Sara Delamont writes, if women are changing, men ultimately have to change as well. Exploring men’s inner lives within religious Jewish practice has been an amazing and eye-opening voyage.

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