The Person Behind The Posts

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Story of Yom Kippur and Me

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life
The world would split open. 
– Muriel Rukeyser

This is a story of a Jewish woman who loves God.  This is the story of a Jewish woman who tries very hard, time after time, to pray in a synagogue and feel God's presence.

This is a true story of Yom Kippur and me.

Many years ago, I developed a discomfort with synagogue attendance.  I rarely attend synagogue without pain.  There are two primary sources of pain for me in the synagogue experience and both are, in essence, all about feeling left out.  

Occasionally, but especially on Yom Kippur, when the prayers are so lengthy and unfamiliar, it pains me when I can't find my place in the machzor.  Today, I was lost for at least 30 pages.  When that happens, I am bereft. On Yom Kippur, I am trying so hard to feel God in the tefillot.  Sometimes my machzor has a different nusach than what's being said.  Sometimes things are skipped that I didn't anticipate.  Sometimes I can't make out the words that are being said or sung or the tune is so unfamiliar that I can't participate.  Whenever I don't know what's going on, I cry.

Sometimes my pain comes from the difference between what is accessible to me as a woman and what I sense is accessible to the men in the same shul.  From where women sit, it's impossible to tell when the aron is open.  I can't see the Torah, unless I walk up to the mechitzah during hagbah and lift the curtain.  In the shul we attend most commonly, a man will carry the Torah to the mechitza, open the mechitza for a few seconds to give women a moment to kiss the Torah.  Only a few do.  Whether it's from personal preference, from early conditioning or from the inconvenience of trying to reach the Sefer Torah or something else altogether, I don't know.  But it always pains me that I am barred from nearly all visual and physical contact with the Sefer Torah.

In the shul we attend most frequently, there is much lively singing.  From over the mechitza, I hear and sense a potent energy.  The men dance around the bima, often several times, in nearly every service. Where I sit, there is mostly quiet.  Women fuss with their young children, or sing quietly to themselves.  Even if they do sing, there aren't enough women's voices to blend as a kahal.  So I sit, overwhelmed by the difference between the prayer experience for men and the one that is available to me as an un-man.
Today, at the height of feeling left out, I shouted and shook my fists at God.  "Is this what You want?"  I raged.  "Is this how You want it to be?"  I felt left out.  I am hurt that I don't have the same range of spiritual expressions in shul.  It seems a thousand times harder to connect because I can't rely on the energy of those around me to lift me.

This hurt is very, very old.  Many women, even if they felt something like it in the long ago past, have developed a way to deal with it.  My wound is still fresh.  And I still bleed from it.

Sometimes I think I should have evolved past this stage already. I've been living this life for so long and, although synagogue architecture varies a bit, nothing essential has changed from the very first time I experienced a traditional prayer service, decades ago.  In all this time, I have been unable to transcend this pain.  It never stops wounding me. It never stops making me cry. Shouldn't I be past it already?

But the rest of the time I know that I will never evolve beyond it... because it is fundamentally unfair.  It's unfair that men have visual and physical access to the Sefer Torah and I have none.  It's unfair that men circle dance with one another around the bima as an expression of their bond with one another and with God and that pleasure is denied me.  It's unfair that every single visual cue about what is going on in the service is hidden from me.  It's unfair that, a good percentage of the time, I simply feel left out.

I try, truly I do, to transcend this pain and focus on God.  I close my eyes sometimes.  I consider the immediate area around me to be sacred space and I try to keep my eyes in my machzor and not look around, avoiding distractions. I coach myself that it's only about me and God. I remind myself that most women aren't bothered by these things, for if they are, then an awful lot of women are holding it very close to their chests.

I tell myself that this pain, this tension, is a gift from God.  The very presence of my pain demonstrates how much I care, how much I long for experience of plugging in, connecting to the Divine.  If I didn't care, it wouldn't matter. The absence of the ability to connect in shul certainly wouldn't make me cry.  But it does, again and again.

At the very end of Neila, when I am all but drained from a 25-hour fast, from countless hours of physically taxing prayer, from being tossed about by conflicting emotions, from tears and fleeting joy, we shout seven times, in full voice, "Hashem Hu HaElokim" - God, He is God.  I also shouted, as loud as I could, seven times in full voice, just like everyone else.  And then we sing, "L'shana haba b'Yerushalayim," - next year in Jerusalem.  "L'shana haba b'Yerushalyim habenuyah," - next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.  I close my eyes and imagine being at the airport, greeting the aliyah flights of everyone I love who still lives in America.

I cry again.  But for the first time all of Yom Kippur, it's a good kind of crying. 

In those final moments, something has been restored. My heart is open. I love God and God loves me.
Even if I almost never feel Him in shul. 


Yonatan said...

Rivkah, I am left speechless at you word and thoughts. I know this feeling, even though I am a man. I have the benefit of being able to see when the Ark is opened, yet without this cue, I would find myself lost as to where the rest were at in the machzor. So you are disadvantaged more than I.

I can tell you one thing, I don't know if it will help, but it helps me. I find myself extremely far behind the rest, especially when it comes to the Shemonei Esrei. You are making a connection with Hashem. He's hearing your tefillah regardless of your being "with the group". Its not a trivial thing - you're being heard even more, as your not concentrating on being with the kehilah - your giving a true accounting each and every time. The goal is this connection - not the other things. I know this still weighs heavy on your mind, but move forward knowing that the important part has been accomplished

Thanks for your post, I'm sure it will help others as it has helped me.

Anonymous said...

Rivkah, some synagogues are better than others for letting women see what is going on close to the Aron Kodesh. In Har Nof there is a lovely ezrat nashim upstairs, but in my neighborhood, there are walls and high windows to keep the men from looking up which is also important not to disturb their tefilla. So I daven at home with all my heart and talk to HaShem. I feel happy with my davening, some of it in English, and then I go to shul toward the end of tefilla with my children to wish my friends a Good YomTov!

Anonymous said...

This is a very moving post and I can see where you feel left out.

I also often feel left out in Judaism. When my wife is part of the 30 women taking challah for a sick person, or part of a weekly tehillim group. I also care about sick people. My wife also lights candles before shabbos and chag, and I feel that I don't have that same connection that she does. I don't have the mitzva a nidah either, where the woman gets to be spiritually cleaned from her body's rebirth. I also didn't experience the wonders of having a new creation grow in my body or have the wonderful experience of feeding him from my on body.

While each gender has their own spiritual "things", I suspect that most of the pangs are "grass is always greener" related.

My wife does not especially like the mikvah, and doesn't always have time for tehillim groups etc.. She gets sick during pregnancy and would like to leave the baby at home and go out, but she is nursing. However, looking at it from an outsider's standpoint, it looks like strong "connection" aspects that I, as a man, am left out of.

In the same vein, I don't know any men who actually feel a closeness to the Torah because they are able to touch it.
This closeness that you are envisioning is very superficial and not felt by anyone who is actually there. While looking at it from the other side, it seems like a fascinating ritual that you really want to be part of, but the reality is much less.

The only real way to feel a real intimacy with the Torah is by studying it.

Anonymous said...

Rivkah, I have tears as I write this. I am so sorry you feel this way. I totally understand and sometimes have similar feelings. There is a program across Israel to bring all types of Jews together for teffilah on Yom Kippur. As I stood davening Neilah I took a look around me and saw Ashkenaz/Sefard/Taymanee/Ethiopian/Russian/American/Asian/British/etc. All in unison say Shema, Declare Hashem Master of the universe and I couldn't help but feel those teffilot had to have pierced the heavens.

We have a lot to do as an Am kadosh and part of that is making some changes to make everyone feel a part of the klall.

I'm sending you a big hug and wishes for a year of only good.

Gitel said...

There's a famous story of a Simchas Torah celebration after the war. In the absence of a Torah scroll, the men held the children--living Sifrei Torah of the future.

While men may have a physical connection to the Sifrei Torah in shul that you will never have, you have a physical connection to the "living Sifrei Torah" that the men will never have.

We each have our own roles in this play called life. Not better. Not worse. Different.

Bat Aliyah said...

I gave birth a few times (the last time was 17 years ago) so I should never need to see a Sefer Torah? Kol hakavod if that works for you. It doesn't work for me.

Rachel said...

Rivkah, I SO empathize with you on this, more so because of my disability which just exacerbates all of this! I wrote about this too, in response to your post at

Gitel said...

I know I'm not the only woman singing quietly in shul. I feel good when I sing. I sing for me. It's not important that anybody else hear me. I'm afraid I just don't understand your position. Maybe it's because of my upbringing.

The first time I was in an Orthodox shul was for my cousin's bar mitzvah. I was very young. But I thought it was just so cool. I didn't attend another Orthodox shul until I was an adult. And I finally felt that I had found my home.

I'm truly sorry both of you feel that something is lacking.

And btw, Rivkah, you will always have a closer bond with your children than your husband will. And I'm childless, I'd trade places with you in a minute.

Rachel said...

Gitel, I wear hearing aids. I am very hard of hearing. I cannot participate in davening if I cannot BOTH SEE and HEAR what is going on. Having the script in front of me (siddur/machzor) helps. But it does not fully alleviate my issues. I have to FIGHT to have a seat in a place that suits me -- especially as a newcomer to a shul where everyone seems to have their own assigned (not really, but "kavua", set) seat and newcomers are supposed to be relegated to the less desirable seats. The "desirable" seats are to be "earned" with TIME. My disability is INVISIBLE and thus not given as much credence as those that are more visible such as ironically enough, blindness, or being wheelchair bound for examples. I also function VERY highly thus giving the appearance of NOT being disabled -- which really is not helpful to me since I AM VERY disabled -- and a mechitza only exacerbates this. I love to sing, but have a really BAD voice, due in large part to my inablity to hear (myself). There is no way I am going to raise my voice and be heard amongst a group of women who are davening QUIETLY. If I were able to be amongst women only, then the issue of "kol isha" (with which I do not hold but others do) would not be a problem and women could feel free to sing aloud -- and in which case I would sing aloud also, knowing that my voice would simply mix in with the rest and not stand out so badly. I am glad you like davening as you do, but please do not take the attitude that we are "poor sports" for not enjoying it the same as you do. You may like chocolate ice cream but I like vanilla....

Miryam said...

Rivkah, I totally relate. But the fact very fact that you have these yearnings is a sign that you are truly connected in a way no one else is. The pangs in your heart speak louder than volumes of machzorim ever could. HaShem hears your heart! He loves you!

Gitel said...

Pirkei Avos 4:1 - "Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has"

Rachel said...

Gitel, I am very happy, I have a GREAT life. But why should I sit back and and NOT enjoy davening simply because people who are ABLE bodied chose not to make davening accessible? Why should Rivkah feel pained because she is excluded from the merriment and the physical expressions that the men are easily afforded? This is not the same as not being happy with one's lot. I am sorry YOU feel that way. I believe in Hashem, I believe in Him fully, so I KNOW that whatever I have is in His intentions for me. But we are not supposed to sit back and be doormats for people. Hashem helps those who help themselves. And since there are people like yourself who are unwilling to advocate on behalf of others who are different, we thus must advocate on behalf of ourselves.

Yehudit said...

I love what you wrote... can I just live in your brain for a day or two? I relate to what you wrote, but my experience is based on going to a shul w/ 500+ppl, on a block w/ 3 shuls, in a city that has hundreds of shuls... I'm one in a million, it's not special anymore. It's just numbing for me, in addition to a lot of what you wrote about.

Anonymous said...

This is what I can offer you: For next Yom Kippur, a seat in the shul I go to, where they add a women's section behind the men, with a very sheer mechitza, facing the bima and the aron kodesh so you can see and feel part of everything. And for this Simchat Torah, a women's tefila and reading where you will be able to dance holding the torah. There are some things that you can't change, but some things that you absolutely can!

Bracha said...

I didn't mean for that last comment to be anonymous! Thought I put my name on it!

Anonymous said...

My experience of Yom Kippur was diametrically the opposite of yours. I davened in a girls' midrasha, with about 300 young women who davened and sang heart and soul the whole day. There were about 20-30 men in the "men's section". I realise that this is the exception to the norm, but it does exist. I can also recommend davening in Mearat Hamachpala for Yom Kippur. Just make sure that you arrange accommodation well in advance.

If you tell me where you live, I might be able to make other suggestions. There are definitely other frum shuls that are inclusive of women.

Batya said...

You're mentioned in my post, From a Few Friendly Blogs. Why don't you check out my comment on your post and read the others linked, too?

Susan B said...

I am so sorry you feel so bad in synagogue. You are right that it is not fair. I don't believe this is what God wants. I am certain God does not want you to suffer, and wants you to be able to feel close to God at all times.

Perhaps you can find, or create, a women's prayer group so you can daven in an environment in which you can fully participate.

josh said...

First time listener, first time caller.

I think it's important to understand that women and men are different. Men are physically stronger but spiritually weaker. We need all these extra halachot to condition us and discipline us into connecting to Hashem properly. We need the extra hour of davening each day at three times to keep us on the right track.

Women are virtually exempt. Women have a different job.

My wife was very sick at home for a few days last year. I had to take off work and handle the babies, kids, and home. The whole time, I did not daven in a minyan (no way to get out of the house other than drop off and pick kids) and could not even daven a full shacharit, once I just managed to put on tefillin and say shma and amida. Why would Hashem want to add all the 'male' mitzvot on top of the responsibility of the home? (and we all know how well most men handle the home when the mother is not around...)

As for touching and handling the Torah, it's cool, but fleeting. Don't sweat it. I'm a cohen. I so much want to be a pallbearer at funerals, it seems most people shy away, but I can't, and I accept that and move on.

In general, inherently, the women will not be versed in the whole prayer service. You don't need to be. But now that your last child is 17, you can start showing up to regular tefillot and get used to it. Eventually, you'll get used to the routine and notice that the structure is basically the same for all tefillot. On Yom Kippur there is a lot of extra stuff, even most men do not know what's going on.

Baila said...

Many communities have women's tefila groups. In Modi'in we have one for Simchat Torah and for Megilat Esther. I attend, but not because I feel left out of the regular tefilah. More to experience something different. The women lein, get aliyot etc. In our shul the women have a bird's eye view of the goings-on. We're still spectators, but at least I can see what's going on. What I enjoy about it are the songs-always marvel that some of the tunes are the same across the world and that they have been sung for many generations. If my grandfather was singing "vayehi binsoa haaron" then he must have heard it from his grandfather....maybe all the way back to Moshe Rabenu? Very moving for me to think about that. Shul itself is not the spiritual part of my Judaism. My tefilot in my heart and davening from my siddur while standing by my window at home is.

Try the women's tefilah. It might sooth you.

Anonymous said...

I attend the same shul as you and you expressed my feelings almost exactly—the only real difference is that I’ve been more worn down than you after years of the same at so many other shuls that my feelings, sadly, are blunted compared to what you describe. Kol ha kavod to you for remaining emotionally present.

I don’t bother knocking on the speakeasy window in the curtain because it’s too humiliating. Yes, that doesn’t say much about me as a Jew, since I should probably welcome the chance to humiliate myself to honor the Torah. But it’s precisely because I’m not such an exemplary Jew that I don’t feel comfortable making a spectacle of myself being so devout that I need to make my way through the seats to kiss the Torah through the little hole when almost no one else does.

When the men started dancing during Mussaf, I thought of getting the women started myself, but I didn’t. Another of my failures. I looked around for which of the young single women would do it—I probably would have at that age—but none did, and I chickened out.

I first started following your blog when you wrote about a similar issue last year—I think it was Simchat Torah. It really hit home with me also.

I don’t know what the solution is, but ever since I’ve become observant enough to only daven in orthodox shuls, about 20 years ago, my kavana and closeness to Hashem while davening—even at home— has suffered.

I’ve davened at Yedidya in Jerusalem a few times some time ago, and I do think many of their practices regarding women are an improvement, but I’m not very familiar with that kehillah otherwise.

I think a big obstacle to change is the fact that so many of the women and men who feel critical of the status quo are precisely those who are themselves not “native” to those customary practices and so are not confident about speaking out. Personally, even though I know that most of the problems are not halachically based, I don’t feel confident enough about my Jewish education or membership in the community to rock the boat.

Ironically, being in Israel, and specifically in MA, has made me much more comfortable being vocal about other otherwise-minority (in hutz la’Aretz) religious and political issues on which much of our community here do share my views. But “everyone” seems so comfortable with the issues you describe (even if they are in reality not comfortable at all) that I usually feel like it’s just my problem to deal with and that if I were spiritually higher like those other women I wouldn’t be having such feelings. I get the sense that any criticism of women’s “place” in shul is assumed to be a desire to leave orthodoxy, or to change halacha, or even to support the political left, as the groups which do desire those things tend to be the ones most vocal on this—totally unrelated in my opinion—issue you address.

Thank you so much for being brave enough to again bring it out in the open.