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Rebellion at the Mechitza

‘One day I encouraged the girls in my class to stand as close to the mechitza as we could and to pray as loudly as we could. What could the rebbes say? We were praying.’

Marjorie Ingall
September 15, 2016
A mechitza at the Western Wall, 2012. Wikimedia
A mechitza at the Western Wall, 2012. Wikimedia

Editor’s note: Every day this week, The Scroll will publish a memory relating to an experience in Jewish education, in honor of those wonderful kids in our lives who are heading back to school, back to where it all begins, for better or worse.

Not long ago I read Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament in a couple of fevered hours, periodically shrieking in recognition. His adventure at his yeshiva’s “Blessing Bee” (which I assume was actually called the “brocho” bee, as it was in my school) was utterly familiar. In Auslander’s book, one kid gets particularly easy foods to name-the-blessing for (apple! bagel!) so that he’ll win the bee. In my case, the rebbes gave me the hardest possible blessings so that I’d lose. While other kids got “potato” or “grape juice,” I got “pineapple upside-down cake with raisins and caramel sauce.”

Thankfully, my brocho bee memories are way less tortured than Auslander’s, since mine aren’t tied into musings on having an abusive, alcoholic father or on the community’s implication that a child is responsible for a parent’s sins after that parent’s suicide. But at the time, knowing that the rebbes wanted me to take a dive felt pretty bad.

* * *

I was a Conservative Jew, but my parents wanted me to go to Jewish Day School, and one run by Orthodox rabbis was at the time the only option in our community. I was also a kid with a ton of pesky questions, a kid who tended to do very well in school despite her parents’ religious failings. Some of the teachers in my school were super-annoyed by me. In kindergarten, I was sent to the office because someone said I had a chicken salad sandwich in the milchig-only lunchroom. (It was tuna. I swear it was tuna. I swore it then, perhaps on my parents’ and as-yet-unborn children’s lives, but no one believed me. I did not even get to eat my cookie.) In second grade or so, I was sent to the principal’s office for insisting that Adam and Eve must have been cavemen, possibly with Neanderthal brow ridges. I sat there with arms crossed, refusing to relent. And in third or fourth grade, I led a rebellion at the mechitza.

The mechitza is a divider that separates men from women during prayer. Some mechitzas divide a room into side-by-side halves. The mechitza at my school divided the room front-and-back. Girls, obviously, were in the back. The mechitza was a segmented wooden divider, solid on the bottom, with decorative slats on top. If we’d been adults, we could have seen through the slats. But we weren’t.

My school was not as strict as some about the law of Kol Isha, which requires that a man cannot hear a woman sing. Some schools say that even hearing the singing voice of a girl over the age of three could drive men to impure thoughts, what with men being inherently weaker and more sex-driven than women, so even little kids should pray separately. Others have more nuanced views.

All I knew was that being behind that barrier made me less than the boys. All the Judaic studies teachers were men; they were on the boys’ side. Women taught secular subjects and Hebrew language, and they didn’t pray with us. It irked me as much as the prayer the boys said thanking God for not making them women. (We girls thanked God for making us “as I am,” which was totally not as good, obv.) So one day I encouraged the girls in my class to stand as close to the mechitza as we could and to pray as loudly as we could. What could the rebbes say? We were praying.

An older girl yanked me out of the room. One of the rebbes was waiting for me. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, his voice dangerously low.

“I’m praying,” I said innocently.

“Why are you suddenly so loud?” he asked.

“I’m praying with kovonnoh!” I said with wide eyes. Kovonnoh, as it was pronounced there (kavannah would be the modern Hebrew pronunciation) means concentration and intention. He stared at me for a long time. Then he said, “I know what you’re up to. Cut it out.” He sent me back in. But the fun had gone out of my mini-rebellion, like air out of a balloon.

I actually became less obnoxious as I entered tween- and teen-dom. I wanted to be liked. Being rebellious or loud is not an advantage for girls who want to be liked—not in Jewish schools and not anywhere else. I turned into a good girl and stayed that way until my mid-20s or so, when I started truly internalizing the fact that the deck is stacked against girls, no matter how loud or quiet they are.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.