Yesterday I attended a synagogue service that was part of the bar mitzvah celebration of a boy who lives in a moshav (cooperative rural community) about 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem. The tree-lined road from Jerusalem, part of which passes through the West Bank, is green and beautiful even at the end of August, when the region is parched and sere.
Jews from Kurdistan settled this moshav. The older generation is very traditional and religiously observant to some degree.
The synagogue appeared to seat about 100 worshippers. On this Thursday morning there were about 30 men in the main section and 20 women seated in the rear behind a half wall topped by a wooden grate. One of the women commented with dismay that the grate was a recent addition. It meant that in order to see the proceedings, the women, including the boy’s mother, had to stand and squint through an opening in the grate.
From time to time, the women ululated their good wishes and flung sweets over the grate, aiming for the boy but always falling short. A handful of young children scrambled under the chairs in the men’s section, collecting the sweets. By the end of the service, each of the children had a bulging bag of candy.
The men mumbled their way through the prayers. The women, many of whom by their dress appeared to be religiously observant, chatted and gossiped throughout. Not one of them had any role beyond ululating and throwing candy. The boy’s mother stood with her nose to the grate, but it was hard to follow the service and impossible for her to hear her son.
“Quiet, girls!” the beadle would shout from time to time. There would be a moment’s silence, and then the loud chatting would resume. The beadle would shrug his shoulders in exasperation and return to his prayers, until he again felt the need to admonish the gossipers.
The scene reminded me of Orthodox synagogues I have attended abroad and some Orthodox synagogues in Israel that are similar to the one in the moshav. In the Orthodox world, only in highly educated Western congregations have women demanded and achieved an active role.
No one but me seemed to be very bothered by this arrangement at the service in the moshav. I, on the other hand, was dying to say to the beadle, “Give these women a role. Jewish law allows it. Involve them, and they won’t sit there and gossip. Most of all, let the woman who gave birth to this bar mitzvah boy and educated him have a part in this milestone of his Jewish life.”
Instead, I smiled and shook hands and kissed and congratulated everyone. I was a guest, an outsider, and a dues-paying member of a Reform congregation; I had no way of knowing whether the moshav women really wanted anything more, but I knew my comments would be unwelcome.
I did do one subversive thing. I gave the boy a book about vampires, probably the only topic that might get him to look between its covers, and my card wished him exciting voyages of the imagination. Was I being patronizing in hoping his world would be more open?
Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.