Why I can no longer daven in an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue

Is a woman al­lowed to be in the Knes­set?’ Rabbi Shlomo Aviner asked provoca­tively. ‘Of course not’

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - BRIAN BLUM The writer’s book,

Many years ago, when we were still liv­ing in the US, I had a Re­form rabbi friend who said some­thing I found shock­ing at the time. He de­clared de­fi­antly that he would never daven (Yid­dish for “pray”) in a syn­a­gogue with a me­chitza – a di­vider separat­ing men and women.

Back then, my wife, Jody, and I were mem­bers of a Mod­ern Ortho­dox shul, and I just didn’t un­der­stand my friend. He wouldn’t go into such a syn­a­gogue even for a simha – a brit mi­lah or a baby nam­ing?

Then, a few weeks ago, we were in­vited to an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue for a Shab­bat hatan, where a groom is called up to the To­rah on the week be­fore or af­ter his wed­ding.

That’s when I re­al­ized that I, too, felt awk­ward in syn­a­gogues where men and women can’t sit to­gether.

This has been go­ing on for a while. As I be­gan to move away from ob­ser­vance over the last decade, es­chew­ing the me­chitza minyanim of my younger, frumer days felt more like an act of re­bel­lion (“why can’t I sit with my wife and daugh­ter?”) or per­haps a way of virtue sig­nal­ing my new, non-Ortho­dox sta­tus, rather than some over­ar­ch­ing anti-me­chitza ide­ol­ogy.

CHARLES KING’S re­cently pub­lished book Gods of the Up­per Air: How a Cir­cle of Rene­gade An­thro­pol­o­gists Rein­vented Race, Sex and Gen­der in the 20th Cen­tury helped me un­der­stand that my dis­com­fort might in­volve some­thing deeper.

King, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town

Univer­sity, has writ­ten the fas­ci­nat­ing story of Ger­man-born Jew­ish an­thro­pol­o­gist Franz Boas and his so­cial sci­ence col­leagues, whose pi­o­neer­ing work in the early 20th cen­tury chal­lenged – and even­tu­ally up­ended – long-held no­tions of gen­der, race and class.

In­ter­viewed on the NPR pro­gram Fresh Air, King ex­plained that, 100 years ago, most Western­ers be­lieved there were clear di­vi­sions be­tween peo­ple based on their sex, color or so­cial stand­ing.

Race, for ex­am­ple, was con­sid­ered “in­her­i­ta­ble and bi­o­log­i­cal,” King said, while “peo­ple came in nat­u­ral gen­der cat­e­gories [that] would be the same across all so­ci­eties and for all time.”

As a re­sult, every­one had their pre­scribed roles. Men, it was widely un­der­stood at the time, had a built-in ge­netic right to lead­er­ship – af­ter all, they had been the hunter-gath­er­ers, so of course they would also dom­i­nate in the mod­ern world as CEOs, sol­diers and syn­a­gogue heads.

Boas and his fol­low­ers were among the first to break down such con­cep­tions.

An­thro­pol­o­gist Ruth Bene­dict wrote in the 1930s, for ex­am­ple, about how among a num­ber of plains tribal groups in the US, gen­der iden­ti­ties in­cluded an in­ter­sex cat­e­gory “where a per­son could have some of the out­ward bi­o­log­i­cal fea­tures of one sex but oc­cupy a so­cial role that was on the op­po­site side.”

That was rad­i­cal: It sim­ply hadn’t oc­curred to peo­ple at the time “that the re­al­ity you were ob­serv­ing in the world was a prod­uct of cir­cum­stance, cul­ture and his­tory, not of some­thing that was in­nate,” King said.

Fem­i­nist writ­ers from Si­mone de Beau­voir to An­drea Dworkin ex­panded on the work of Boas and his as­so­ciates. To­day, the idea that gen­der and racial roles are not fixed by bi­ol­ogy has be­come main­stream in lib­eral West­ern thought.

THE MES­SAGE seems to have got­ten stuck when it comes to Ortho­dox Ju­daism, how­ever.

When I first spent time in Is­raeli yeshivot in the 1980s, I re­mem­ber hear­ing the mantra that men and women are “sep­a­rate but equal” and, as a re­sult, women are not ob­li­gated to ful­fill cer­tain com­mand­ments, nor are they per­mit­ted to lead par­tic­u­lar prayers or cer­e­monies, be­cause they have “more ho­li­ness than men.”

I found that disin­gen­u­ous at the time, but I looked the other way. An Ortho­dox life­style of­fered enough ben­e­fits for me to dis­so­ci­ate from the misog­yny lurk­ing at its core. Per­haps, I hoped, Ortho­doxy’s at­ti­tude would go away over time.

It hasn’t.

Just this sum­mer, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the lead­ing fig­ures of the re­li­gious Zion­ist com­mu­nity’s hard-line wing, when asked whether Ayelet Shaked could head the block of right-wing par­ties, de­clared, “The com­pli­cated whirl­wind of pol­i­tics is not for women.” Is a woman al­lowed to be in the Knes­set? he asked provoca­tively. “Of course not.”

Aviner is clearly mis­taken: there are Ortho­dox women in Is­rael’s par­lia­ment. More­over, the pro­gres­sive side of Ortho­doxy now or­dains fe­male rab­bis, even if they’re not al­ways called that.

But, to date, I’ve never seen an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue with no sep­a­ra­tion of men and women what­so­ever. The me­chitza may be low, it may be sheer or even made of glass, but it’s still there.

And for me, that me­chitza is like a high-volt­age wire or a ra­dio an­tenna, a vis­ceral sym­bol broad­cast­ing that con­gre­gants who ac­cept its pres­ence still sub­scribe to an out­dated be­lief that dif­fer­ent roles for men and women are im­mutable and eter­nal, whether that’s based on our hunter-gath­erer DNA or God’s word as trans­mit­ted by Jew­ish law.

I’m not try­ing to be pro­scrip­tive here. As Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, founder of the Chochmat Nashim or­ga­ni­za­tion of re­li­gious women fight­ing ex­trem­ism, told me, “I can re­spect the need for sep­a­rate seat­ing as a way to fo­cus and not be dis­tracted.” The prob­lem, she says, is that what starts with the me­chitza “be­comes highly un­equal, fast,” go­ing far be­yond the chore­og­ra­phy of prayer.

A bet­ter ap­proach – for me, at least? Me­chitza-less, egal­i­tar­ian syn­a­gogues. One that I par­tic­u­larly re­spect is Jerusalem’s Zion con­gre­ga­tion. While it makes no pre­tense to be­ing Ortho­dox, Zion’s slo­gan res­onates deeply. It reads sim­ply: “Come as you are.”

That’s a kind of Ju­daism ready for the next 100 years.

To­taled: The Bil­lion-Dol­lar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is avail­able on Ama­zon and other on­line book­sell­ers. bri­an­blum.com

If the Holo­caust rep­re­sents the dark­est night in all of Jew­ish – if not hu­man – his­tory, as Elie Wiesel fa­mously wrote, then the events of Novem­ber 9-10, 1938 may very well be the very dark­est night of the Shoah. In what would later come to be known as Kristall­nacht – the Night of Bro­ken Glass – the pent-up bar­barism and an­ti­semitic ma­nia of the Ger­man na­tion ex­ploded in un­par­al­leled fury and de­struc­tion.

On the pre­tense of the as­sas­si­na­tion of Ger­man diplo­mat Ernst vom Rath by Her­schel Grynspan, a Pol­ish-Ger­man Jew whose par­ents had been bru­tal­ized, Nazi SA storm-troop­ers and Hitler Youth ram­paged through­out Ger­many, Aus­tria and the Sude­ten­land, de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing Jew­ish in their path. Some 1,500 syn­a­gogues and study halls were looted, des­e­crated and burned; more than 7,000 Jew­ish busi­nesses were dam­aged or de­stroyed; hun­dreds of Jew­ish ceme­ter­ies and thou­sands of graves were de­filed. 30,000 Jew­ish men were sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camps of Dachau, Buchen­wald and Sach­sen­hausen, many never to re­turn, and as many as 700 Jews were mur­dered on the spot.

The mo­ti­va­tion for th­ese atroc­i­ties was man­i­fold. Of course, lo­cal an­tisemitism was not a new phe­nom­e­non in Ger­many; it had been rag­ing and ris­ing since Hitler took power in 1933. The Jews were de­mo­nized for a host of de­spi­ca­ble “crimes,” in­clud­ing their al­legedly hav­ing been re­spon­si­ble for Ger­many’s crush­ing de­feat in World War I, and for caus­ing hy­per-in­fla­tion and the Great De­pres­sion. The Nurem­berg Laws of 1935 in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized Jew-ha­tred, mak­ing it so­cially ac­cept­able, and primed the Ger­man pub­lic for the even­tual purge of its Jews.

There was also a sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial fac­tor. The Nazi Party des­per­ately needed a mas­sive in­flux of funds to pay for the raw ma­te­ri­als that sup­plied the vo­ra­cious Ger­man war ma­chine, soon to be un­leashed on the world. Jew­ish money was an ob­vi­ous source of in­come, and so a huge amount of Jew­ish goods and prop­erty were sum­mar­ily con­fis­cated. In­deed, Kristall­nacht’s Jew­ish vic­tims them­selves were forced to pay one bil­lion marks ($5.5 bil­lion in to­day’s terms) for vom Rath’s mur­der.

More­over, this was a way for the Nazis to ac­cel­er­ate their plan to make Ger­many com­pletely Ju­den­rein. In the 10 months fol­low­ing Kristall­nacht, more than 115,000 Jews – al­most half of the re­main­ing Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion that had not yet fled Ger­many – em­i­grated from the Re­ich. Com­ing close on the heels of the Evian Con­fer­ence – which had failed mis­er­ably in its at­tempt to find an in­ter­na­tional so­lu­tion for the Jew­ish refugee prob­lem – Kristall­nacht was Hitler’s way of em­phat­i­cally telling the world, “Whether you want them or not, the Jews will have no place in our coun­try.”

I want to sug­gest an­other, no less ap­pro­pri­ate name for Kristall­nacht: “The Night of Shat­tered Il­lu­sions.” While Hitler’s geno­ci­dal de­signs upon world Jewry were cer­tainly no se­cret – Mein Kampf had out­lined them al­ready in 1925 – this one event made it crys­tal-clear to the en­tire world that ev­ery Jew­ish life was now in mor­tal dan­ger. No amount of wish­ful think­ing or ra­tio­nal­iza­tion – such as British prime min­is­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain’s in­fa­mous “Peace in our time” dec­la­ra­tion, made just five weeks ear­lier – could deny or dis­miss the out­pour­ing of Nazi ha­tred. For­eign jour­nal­ists wit­nessed and re­ported it; even The New York Times made it their lead story in bold head­lines. And while some Ger­mans did con­demn the at­tacks, mas­sive crowds of or­di­nary civil­ians en­thu­si­as­ti­cally par­tic­i­pated in the ri­ots and joined in the car­nage against their neigh­bors.

Kristall­nacht is widely con­sid­ered to be the date the Holo­caust be­gan. From this mo­ment on, the truth was painfully, un­de­ni­ably clear for all to see. No Jew could be safe any­where the Nazi ten­ta­cles reached. Un­like other tragic pe­ri­ods in our his­tory, when our per­se­cu­tors might be bought off with money or po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, the Shoah was ob­ses­sively sin­gle-minded and vir­tu­ally im­pen­e­tra­ble; it meant to erad­i­cate ev­ery last mem­ber of our faith, with no ex­cep­tions what­so­ever – even in­clud­ing many who had no inkling that they had any Jew­ish blood at all.

If there is any­thing pos­i­tive to be gleaned from the hor­ren­dous legacy of Kristall­nacht – and all that was to fol­low – it is the im­per­a­tive to take an­tisemitism se­ri­ously, for it is deadly se­ri­ous. What be­gins as “be­nign prej­u­dice” – slan­der­ous words of hate and mere threats – can quickly morph into very real acts of vi­o­lence. So­ci­ety can rapidly fall vic­tim to charis­matic dem­a­gogues, adopt­ing a mob men­tal­ity that de­fies both logic and cul­tural norms. For rea­sons that no one has yet defini­tively iden­ti­fied, Jews be­come the tra­di­tional tar­get of choice for the ills of so­ci­ety, real or imag­ined. The rant­ings of an Er­do­gan, the Nazi-like im­agery of Pales­tinian jour­nal­ism, the rise of Amer­i­can white supremacy and left-wing BDS on cam­pus are all threats not to be ig­nored or ex­cused.

Glass, we know, is a medium that al­lows us to view events clearly. But that is only when we choose to open our eyes and grasp the re­al­ity that is star­ing us in the face.

The Nazi party des­per­ately needed a mas­sive in­flux of funds to pay for the Ger­man war ma­chine... Jew­ish money was an ob­vi­ous source of in­come

When Aluma Mekai­tan Guertzen­stein tells me she’s mar­ried and preg­nant, I burst into tears of joy. I’ve been asked to up­date the sto­ries of ter­ror­ism sur­vivors, those I met in the years 2000 and 2005 when the hor­ror of bus bomb­ings, restau­rant bomb­ings and disco bomb­ings aimed at young peo­ple was our daily re­al­ity in Is­rael. Thou­sands of Is­raelis were killed and maimed. Jerusalem, our real and sym­bolic cap­i­tal, was the tar­get of much of the ter­ror­ism. I’ve run into Aluma a few times over the years. Once she’d just got­ten her driver’s li­cense and was go­ing to see which cars she could drive. I was glad she’d gone on with her life.

Who can for­get Novem­ber 21, 2002? Aluma got up early, her mind full of num­bers. A 17-year-old school­girl, she was de­ter­mined to score high on the morn­ing’s math test, as she boarded Egged bus No. 20 in Kiryat Me­na­hem, a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood of Jerusalem where her fam­ily lived. Aluma hugged close her heavy school back­pack packed with books and note­books. Oth­ers were wait­ing at her stop on Mex­ico Street.

Among them was Na’el Abu Hi­lail, 23. He’d been driven into Jerusalem from El-Khader, south of Beth­le­hem, to this bus, de­lib­er­ately cho­sen be­cause by 7:15 a.m. it was al­ways crowded with chil­dren go­ing to school and of­fice work­ers go­ing to their jobs down­town. In his back­pack were no books, but 5 kilo­grams of ex­plo­sives packed with shrap­nel. Stand­ing near the driver where pas­sen­gers lined up to pay, he pulled the switch. The win­dows were blown out of the bus. The roof was ripped off. The blast wave rolled through the en­closed space, tear­ing the junc­tures where air and tis­sue meet: ear, lung and the gut. Me­tal frag­ments flew through the bus. Pas­sen­gers were thrown from their seats. Fifty pas­sen­gers were se­ri­ously and crit­i­cally in­jured. Eleven per­sons, four of them kids on their way to school, were mur­dered.

At first the count of dead was 12. But then a para­medic named Raphael, like the an­gel of heal­ing, made a last check through the bus and saw a school­girl’s eye­lids flicker. Aluma.

She was un­con­scious. She was bleed­ing from more than 30 cuts from her right arm and leg. A dense and rusty square me­tal frag­ment, 14 mil­lime­ters on a side, had passed through her ear into her brain. But her school satchel seem­ingly pro­tected her in­ter­nal or­gans from blast wounds.

She was rushed to Hadas­sah-Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Ein Kerem, min­utes from the site of the bomb­ing. In the first brain surgery, drainage tubes and a mon­i­tor were im­planted to mea­sure pres­sure. For five days she lay un­con­scious in the in­ten­sive care unit. Team mem­bers and fam­ily shouted her name. “Aluma, Aluma, Aluma,” but she didn’t an­swer.

Aluma doesn’t re­mem­ber much. Most is a blur of im­ages of peo­ple rush­ing and call­ing her name. She couldn’t sum­mon her voice to re­spond.

“We didn’t know if Aluma was still in there,” said her mom, a now-re­tired math teacher. Her grand­par­ents had been in Auschwitz; one grand­fa­ther had been killed in the War of In­de­pen­dence.

Only a month later, when her aunt brought in a lap­top and asked her to write her name, did Aluma surprise and de­light every­one by do­ing so. And when she was given a sim­ple math prob­lem, Aluma got the right an­swer.

Still, when the neu­ro­sur­geons told her par­ents that the brain dam­age was so se­vere, they weren’t sure they could suc­ceed in re­pair­ing it, spir­its sank. “It was worse than the day of the bomb­ing,” Rachel Mekai­tan said.

The pro­jec­tile had crossed her brain mid­line and caused se­vere dam­age, hem­or­rhage and a trau­matic em­bolism. They would need to close it off by thread­ing a wire as thin as a baby’s hair into her brain to cre­ate a coil which would close off the aneurysm. They’d never done it.

For­tu­nately, a new im­mi­grant neu­ro­sur­geon named Jose Co­hen, skilled in en­dovas­cu­lar pro­ce­dures, had ar­rived from Ar­gentina. Zion­ism.

The surgery worked. Later, the rusty me­tal shrap­nel would be re­moved.

At last, she was trans­ferred to re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in Hadas­sah-Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter, on Jerusalem’s Mount Sco­pus.

Af­ter the surgery, Aluma be­gan mov­ing her left leg. Doc­tors and nurses cheered in the op­er­at­ing room. And over the next months, Aluma started re­gain­ing her speech, and her abil­ity to walk.

That’s around the time a British MP by the name of Jenny Tonge came to visit. Tonge had said that if she had to live like a Pales­tinian she might con­sider be­com­ing a sui­cide bomber. She re­peated the com­ments on Sky News. And the next thing we knew, the BBC was bring­ing her to Is­rael, ea­ger to in­tro­duce her to sur­vivors of bus bomb­ings and their fam­i­lies. The Mekai­tans agreed.

While Aluma was hav­ing ther­apy, Rachel Mekai­tan talked to Tonge. The MP asked her if she hated the Pales­tini­ans and Rachel shook her head no. But she was fu­ri­ous at their be­hav­ior and the waste, and what had hap­pened to her beau­ti­ful daugh­ter, but she didn’t hate.

That morn­ing, in oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy, Aluma was string­ing beads on a wire, fight­ing to get back her con­cen­tra­tion and co­or­di­na­tion.

Af­ter meet­ing Rachel and Aluma, Tonge made a rare state­ment to the BBC that “sui­cide bombers were ap­palling and loath­some,” The for­mer MK, now in the House of Lords, hadn’t be­come a friend of Is­rael, but the visit may have pen­e­trated like a strand of a baby’s hair.

I feel like ask­ing all our fel­low din­ers, ‘Do you know who this is? In this cafe sits one of the bravest young women in the word’

ALUMA SPENT years of hard work in ther­apy, gain­ing back ev­ery­thing but the use of her right arm. She took that math test, and scored 100, then com­pleted her ma­tric­u­la­tion ex­ams and went on to fin­ish three aca­demic de­grees, in ed­u­ca­tion, art and vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

She’d al­most given up on find­ing the right life part­ner, when she got a mes­sage from a man named Mikael Guertzen­stein who wanted to meet her.

She told him right off on the phone about her right arm. “I’m a new im­mi­grant. That’s a hand­i­cap, too, so we’re even,” he said.

She was com­ing down with a cold. He promised to make her a soup. He’s a pro­fes­sional chef. Swiss.

The rest hap­pened fast, and they were joy­fully wed and are ex­pect­ing a baby.

Over lunch in a busy mall in Modi’in where they live, Aluma tells me about baby car­riages that can be opened and closed with one hand.

I feel like tap­ping all our fel­low din­ers and wait­ers on the shoul­der and ask­ing, “Do you know who this is? In this café sits one of the bravest young women in the world.”

I want to be like Rabbi Levi of Berdichev, shout­ing to heaven, “Mas­ter of the uni­verse, look down from heaven and see what a won­der­ful holy peo­ple are Is­rael.”

They don’t like peo­ple shout­ing in a café, so I’m telling you in­stead.

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

SEP­A­RATE BUT equal? Me­chitza of Ch­esed-El Syn­a­gogue, Sin­ga­pore.


(David Zev Har­ris)


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