Monday, January 26, 2009

Mourning Stinks

On Sunday afternoon I went to mincha/maariv at an Orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood. Last week some random lady there told me that because I sat in the back, instead of next to her, the Kaddish I said didn't count, and later in the week she emailed me to lecture me on "the special structure of Kaddish." Hey thanks, lady. It's not like I work at a Jewish educational website or anything… Anyway, I probably should have taken the hint and never gone back, but some of the other possibilities in my neighborhood don't have a great reputation for always getting a minyan, so this week I was back at the same place, and when I walked into the women's section I was greeted by…big smelly garbage bags. Many big smelly garbage bags taking up the entire section.trash.gif

There is a metaphor here, and it is not even remotely subtle. Women are trash. Trash belongs where the women usually go. Wow. Thanks.

I was standing in the doorway in shock when a couple of guys showed up to try to figure out what to do with the trash bags so there could be some space for women to daven (I know, novel!). It turned out that the trash bags were full of clothes that had been donated and were going to Israel to families in need, which is nice, I guess, but doesn't really explain why they were taking up the space that had been designated for women. Also, they were smelly.

In the end, the trash bags were pushed to one side and a mechitza was set up within the women's section, to separate us from the smelly trash bags. So, the women's section, which was already less than a quarter the size of the men's section, was suddenly about a third as big as it had been before, which is to say, very small.

When a person dies, we often say of them, "may their memory be for a blessing," or, "of blessed memory." This is the first time that I feel like my mother's memory has really been besmirched. This is the kind of thing that would make her turn over in her grave (so to speak). My mother was a person of utmost tolerance and respect. She was passionate about egalitarianism, but she wouldn't dream of intentionally offending any religious person, and was accommodating to a fault. And here I am, trying to honor her, trying to say Kaddish, and I am grouped with trash bags.

I know that there's a significant difference between bags of trash, and bags of clothing that are going to tzedakah. I appreciate that so many people donated items to go to families in need, but I am frankly irate that the attitude of whoever is in charge of this shul was apparently that the women's section can be used as a storage facility, that it doesn't matter if women have to daven next to huge piles of trash bags, and it doesn't matter if women are davening next to something that smells.

I think observant women need to be making more of a showing at shul, and I think that's the quickest and most effective way of changing the way Orthodoxy views women and feminism, but after my experience on Sunday I can fully understand why women might stay away.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Progress and Stasis in Mourning

I was overjoyed about the inauguration of our 44th President on Tuesday, but couldn't help feeling a little sad, too. People like to say that time heals all wounds. I don't believe that, not least because one of the things that is hardest for me is seeing how time is moving me away from my mother. Every day she is farther from me, and while it's nice to not have the grief be so raw, it's more than a little horrifying to think that we're almost five months away from her death now.eema_fountain.jpg

Yesterday on the way to work I was reading Pablo Neruda's Captain's Verses on the subway (note: reading Neruda on the subway is a great way to get picked up by emo Hispanic guys, in case you were wondering) and came across a poem that I'd read many times before, and never liked. The poem is called The Dead Woman (La Muerta) and is basically a promise from a man that he will go on living when his lover dies, even though he will be in deepest despair.

In the past, when I read it, it felt distinctly unsexy. I usually pick up Neruda because I want to read something sensual and stark, and this poem never felt that way to me. It was kind of depressing. A downer. Not what I look for in Neruda.

And then yesterday I read the poem differently for the first time. It wasn't about a lover dying so much as a mission towards good that continues despite generations of despair. In the middle of the poem, Neruda writes:
I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.
I shall live on.

For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.

Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be dead.
When my brothers go to prison
I shall go with them.
When victory,
not my victory,
but the great victory comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come even
though I am blind.

It's a poem about civil rights. I don't think I ever saw that before, though I knew Neruda was an activist, in my mind he was all passion and tenderness. But here he is in a poem saying that even when he is grieving for someone he loves he feels obligated to continue the journey towards justice.

My mother was many things, but to say she was a civil rights activist would be overstating things to a considerable decree. She never charged me with making sure equal rights are finally achieved in this country, but she did believe, passionately, in helping those who need help, and many many times she encouraged me and all kinds of people in her life to work for the things we believe in. While listening to the inaugural address I thought a lot about how much she would have been nodding (and let's face it, weeping) had she been listening. It made her seem both very far away, and very close.

There's a lot written about why the Kaddish doesn't actually mention the dead at all, but it struck me today that perhaps Neruda nailed it in the final stanza of his poem:

No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive,
because above all things
you wanted me indomitable,
and, my love, because you know that I am not only a man
but all mankind.

When people we love die we want to lie down and never go on. But there is still so much work to do. Just as in the Kaddish we say of God, "YeYamlich Malchutei b'cheychon u'veyomechon" 'his sovereignty should be accepted soon and in our days,' well that has to be followed up with actions. We have to do something to make that happen. In the face of loss, we need to progress.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Kaddish: It's Different for a Girl

I haven't written much about actually saying Kaddish in the past few months, partially because it has become so much a part of my routine that it already feels unremarkable, and partially because the few notable moments of saying Kaddish have been almost completely negative.

There are a few famous books about saying Kaddish, including of course Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier and Living a Year of Kaddish by Ari Goldman. But there are no books about saying Kaddish as a woman (that I know of), and I think this has a lot to do with the extremely different experience a woman has at almost any daily minyan.

Simply put, there are thousands of minyanim where a man can go to say Kaddish when he is mourning a parent, and there are websites designed to help one find the closest and most convenient service. In big cities it's not uncommon for a mincha minyan to meet in a conference room, a stairwell, or a large office. But the vast majority of these minyanim are Orthodox, which means that they require some form of physical separation between men and women during davening. This is called a mechitza, and most often appears in the form of a sheet, a curtain or a balcony. In many of these places, women simply wouldn't be allowed to join the minyan because it wouldn't be possibly to put up a mechitza.

Even at synagogues that have women's sections (sometimes called Ezrat Nashim) it is so uncommon to see women at minyan that men have appropriated the space for themselves. At one synagogue in Manhattan's midtown the women's section on the floor of the sanctuary has signs all over that say it is for women only, and that men should not sit there, but the signs are ignored by the dozens of men who show up for mincha and pace up and down the area. At that same synagogue, when the sanctuary was unavailable one day I was asked to stand behind a door. Once, a man stood on the staircase leading to the women's balcony, effectively blocking women from davening. Shuckeling with his eyes closed it was clear to me that he had no idea I was trying to get around him, or that his particular spot might be a tad inconvenient for others. At Chabad of Midtown I stood on the women's side of the mechitza, surrounded by men who seemed to either not notice or not understand that I was a woman, and they were not supposed to be hanging out with me while praying. At a mincha minyan in DC that meets in a conference room my sister stands outside the door in a vestibule. A friend who's saying Kaddish this year as well tells me that she often finds that men just on the other side of the mechitza from her will talk all the way through the kaddish, though she's clearly saying it inches from where they stand.

I don't want to be a big whiny-pot. And I know that this kind of thing only matters to a small minority of people, but I happen to be one of those people, and I'm tired of being shoved behind a door and tired of standing awkwardly on the staircase. EemaTorah.jpg

The only way I can see to make this situation improve is for women to show up at shuls and minyanim more often. There are a combination of factors that have led to women often staying away, including child-rearing, and being told that women are not obligated to pray, but this has to stop. If women in the Orthodox community want to be taken seriously and treated like full members of the community, and not just vestibules for incoming Jews then we need to be present more often.

The year my mother was saying Kaddish I was only 14 but I remember her telling me how frustrated she was when she went to minyan. The shul she went to most often was "traditional," a denomination that seems to only exist in Chicago and England, wherein the service is Orthodox and only men are counted in the minyan, but seating is mixed. One day there were nine men and three women present. The men called a local Jewish janitor, who sat listlessly in his chair while the rest of the men davened.

I didn't really understand at the time, but now I get it. There is something incredibly frustrating and sad about trying to fulfill a mitzvah that honors a dead parent and feeling like you're being discouraged or dishonored in the process. It feels like an insult directed at both the parent and the child saying Kaddish.

I don't mind that I'm not counted towards the minyan when I go to an Orthodox shul, but I do mind that many of these places seem mystified by the concept of women even showing up for services. Women need to start making their presence known more at synagogues, and synagogues, in turn, need to make sure they have acceptable spaces and facilities for women.

Photo: My mother and a girl she taught to read Torah about 15 years ago.