Hello From the Other Side
When I texted my chavrusa that I might miss the tail end of an upcoming night seder to help make the Selichot minyan on the Beren campus, his response was, and I quote:
“They have Selichot at Stern? weird matziv....”
He had a point. There certainly are legitimate reasons to attend the minyan downtown, chief among them being its 10:45 pm start time, which enables you to be asleep before the 1:00 am Selichot in Glueck even begin. Fair enough. All that notwithstanding, it still sounded like a “weird matziv.”
Nevertheless, being an aspirational journalist and an armchair sociologist of Orthodox Jewish culture, I had figured that a “weird matziv” might be the best place for me to find interesting stories and discover hidden dimensions of frum life. This event was a prime example of the best kinds of sociological adventures — the ones that throw you headfirst into a foreign culture and turn your regular routine upside down. In this case, the foreign culture was the Beren Selichot minyan, and the animating question was: what is it like to be one of a handful of men praying in an all-female beit midrash? Cool, creepy, inspiring, distracting? I didn’t know, and I wanted to find out.
Once I arrived, the first surprise was the feeling of familiarity. Stepping into the Lea and Leon Eisenberg Beit Midrash on the seventh floor of Stanton Hall — colloquially referred to as 245 — at first glance, everything looked the same: same sefarim, same room layout, same (looking) rebbeim, same kol Torah.
After a few awkward seconds, however, everything began to feel different. Usually, I’m quite capable of making myself feel at home in any beit midrash, no matter the situation or location. Having spent years inhabiting these spaces in various yeshivot, summer camps, and learning programs, it’s generally easy for me to find my ‘makom,’ broadly defined, and get comfortable. That didn’t happen here though; it just didn’t feel like my space. I was a “stranger and a sojourner” in a foreign land, or to put it less dramatically, I was a self-conscious minority in the beit midrash, a place that always used to feel like home. Not a second class citizen, mind you, but a minority all the same. That was a first.
I became aware of this fact within just a few moments of entering the physical space. Usually, I take the time before tefillah begins to thoughtfully choose a perfectly positioned seat several rows behind the bimah and conveniently located next to a sefarim shelf — ideally the one with sets of Rambam and his commentators. Here, the other men and I quickly packed ourselves into a cordoned-off section of the room, many times smaller than the rest of the beit midrash, enclosed by thick curtains and far in front of everyone else in the women’s section.
A more significant difference than area size was proximity and connection. Sitting in our thickly curtained enclosure and positioned away from the much larger women’s section, I felt — for the first time — strangely distanced and disconnected from the vast majority of the other mitpalelim.
In reflecting on this baffling new experience, I realized that for me, a crucial aspect of tefillah b’tzibur is being “in the middle of things,” ala b’toch ami anochi yoshavet (2 Kings 4:13). Enveloped by the shouts and murmurs of my fellow daveners beside me, I can tap into their energy and passion for inspiring my own tefillah. Here though, I felt like I was on the sidelines, praying with a dozen or so men while the fuller experience of truly immersive group prayer was being had by the 100+ women who were a ways behind us, beyond the curtain.
The recitation of Selichot itself made me even more aware of my newfound minority status. As we sang various lines out loud, I discomfitingly realized that the chorus of voices echoing throughout the room didn’t sound familiar, it didn’t sound like mine. In other words, everyone was saying to-may-to while I was saying to-mah-to.
I would never have imagined this to be a big deal, yet it feels very different being in a group where everyone is singing at the same octave verses being in a group where everyone is singing at the same octave except for you because you cannot possibly match her higher pitch.
Consequently, I couldn’t just seamlessly join the uniform block of voices in the room. We were singing the same song but were on entirely different wavelengths.
Additionally, since my voice was a minority within the larger group, I had to concentrate a lot more than usual just to stay on key and not give in to the temptation to match the ambitiously high octave of everyone else in the room. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I also had to work hard for my voice to not get drowned and canceled out by the majority of other voices behind the curtain through bitul b’rov, as it were.
The next morning, sitting in my carefully chosen seat in the Jacob and Dreizel Glueck Center for Jewish Study beit midrash and relishing being “in the middle of things” once again, the significance of my experience the previous night suddenly dawned on me.
Attending Selichot as a man in a predominantly female space was inspiring and a bit uncomfortable, and also something more: it was the first opportunity I’ve ever had to experience a true role reversal.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a celebrated essay about consciousness called “What is it Like to be a Bat?” In some small yet significant way, my Selichot experience gave me some insight into the rarely considered question “what is it like to be an Orthodox Jewish woman (in a minyan)?” On the Beren Campus, I was the minority in the room, essentially taking the traditional place of women in any other Orthodox minyan.
As movies like “Switching Places” and “Freaky Friday” have, in various degrees of profundity, gently reminded us, sometimes you literally need to get out of yourself and see the world as others do in order to truly understand them. I didn’t walk a mile in anyone’s heels (thank God), but I did sit for an hour on their side of the mechitza. Granted that this wasn’t a complete role reversal since men still led the Selichot. Nonetheless, it’s the closest I’ll ever come to experiencing tefillah “from the other side.”
Last year, there was a lot conversation (both in these very pages and elsewhere) about the place of women on the Wilf Campus. I have no policy prescriptions to pitch or a list of improvements to demand. Remember, I’m just one guy who likes interesting stories and the occasional “weird matziv.” All I have is the observation, backed by recent personal experience, that it‘s hard to be fully comfortable as a minority in a space that is not primarily designed for you to be there.
I’ve known for a while that a non-trivial percentage of Orthodox women experience much of what I felt at Beren — disconnect, distance, and discomfort — every single time they daven in a minyan. But I never really took their experience all that seriously until I put myself in their place.
Beyond the practical steps that should be taken to improve the tefillah experience for everyone, there’s also a much more general lesson to take home from all of this:
The best way to really get the priorities, concerns, and hashkafot olam of people who are very different than you is to experience the world as they do. I encourage anyone reading this to run the experiment and flip your normal experience of life on its head in some small way and live instead as others do. I promise that you’ll learn something invaluable about what it feels like to be someone else and walk through the world as they do. And if you’re lucky, you might even get a good story out of it too.
Photo Credit: Women reciting Selichot at the Kotel behind a mechitza.
Photo Caption: Marc Israel Sellem