Prayaz Club

Another way in which Orthodox Jewish men compete with one another is in prayer.

This might surprise you, but it’s true, and not just because Elana Maryles Sztokman talks about it in her book. It’s something that I’ve experienced firsthand.

Gents to the left, ladies to the right.

I’d say that prayer is probably the number-one thing that divides up the Jewish people. Everything about prayer says something about the person who’s in the group, and the person who chooses to not join the group. In the Orthodox tradition, men and women pray in separate rooms or in the same room, but divided by a partition called a mechiza. They never sit together. Orthodox women do not lead services, or read or carry the Torah (at least in a mixed group, womens’ minyans are growing in popularity), but in other forms of Judaism, they do those things. Orthodox services are generally conducted entirely in Hebrew; other services may or may not include any Hebrew. Some Orthodox services have singing, but none (at least those on Shabbat and holidays) include live instruments or recorded music. And it gets even more specific than that. At the synagogue I grew up attending, the mechiza is relatively small; upon standing, you can see the women from the waist up, which some Orthodox Jews would find distasteful. In other congregations, they have a trellis dividing the men and the women, and I’ve heard that for the women it’s not so much fun having to watch a group of men stand, sit, and bend through wooden slats. I can imagine that would be headache inducing. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, there is currently no space where men and women can pray together; it is divided in “half” by a trellis. I put “half” in quotation marks, because every year, the trellis seems to magically move a few inches closer toward the womens’ section, making it easy for men to go up to the wall but a virtual scramble for women to get anywhere close.

The 21st century has seen prayer undergo many changes, especially in the Orthodox world. Congregations such as the one I grew up with are doing away with cantors, otherwise known as the prayer leaders that pick the tunes and control the services (I actually can’t say anything too bad about cantors since my grandfather was one, and an awesome one, and I still remember when he called me up to the Torah on my Bar Mitzvah, one of my all-time favorite memories, and probably one of his, too, since I was the only grandson he got to do that for) and instead, just having members of the congregation assume those roles. Technology is also a factor. In the 1990s, when my synagogue’s crowds swelled for the High Holidays, we had a rabbi-approved sound system installed by members of the congregation. Generally, sound systems are not kosher in Orthodox synagogues but one of our illustrious and industrious congregants, an engineer, designed and installed it under the supervision of the rabbi, and placed the microphone close enough to the lectern to capture the voice of whoever was leading, but far away enough that it would not physically interfere with anyone and would not need to be adjusted. Needless to say, it caused controversy in the community, with some members (and non-members) branding us as “not Jewish enough” or “not as Jewish.” Some people left, but most of those who disapproved wouldn’t have come anyway, due to our mechiza, or the fact that some women came with uncovered heads or in long pants, or anything that they could find to criticize us.

The point I’m trying to make here is that prayer and competition go hand-in-hand in the Orthodox Jewish world; there is always someone or some group that is “not as Jewish” or “too frum” for someone. Everyone is a judge.

And of course, there’s “who’s praying the hardest?” a competition of masculinity usually seen amongst hoys in Jewish high schools, who have to pray every morning and afternoon. The mornings are usually when the most competitive sides of guys come out, mostly because they’ve just had breakfast and are amped for the day. It usually starts with who has the shinier tefillin, and who can tie them quicker and faster? Who can say the Amidah the fastest? Who can shuckle the deepest? Who can read the Torah the fastest? And who has the strength to  lift the Torah for Hagboh (answer: I never even tried), and how many columns can you open it to? Seven? Six? Only three? Psshhh…

The worst were the student prayer leaders, who would organize who’s doing what with the meticulousness of the United Nations and the drive of a swarm of gnats. They thought that they were running the show, but actually were super annoying and probably turned a lot of people off from coming to prayer or staying the whole time. Most of the time, I would avoid them, and after awhile they would stop trying to recruit me to do stuff in the service. One guy, though, found one of them to be so aggravating that he posted a fake Craigslist ad with a picture of a hot girl and what he thought was the prayer leader’s cell phone number, but was actually his home number, which caused his parents’ phone to ring all night with horny guys wanting to speak to Candy or whatever name he’d chosen, and that’s how you get kicked out of a Jewish high school. This is not to say that the annoying prayer leader didn’t have it coming, but it’s not saying that he didn’t.

Oh, Frank McCourt, how your angsty Irish prose got me through many a morning prayer service.

I chose not to partake in these games. In fact, most mornings of my junior year found me sitting in the second row, praying quietly along with the group, and waiting for our rabbi to give his morning sermon so I could break out the copy of Angela’s Ashes I’d been hiding under my tallis for a few pages of reading and attempting to not cry.

Speaking of judgment, try reading the Torah in an room full of Orthodox men. So far, I’ve only done it once in my life – at my own bar mitzvah – and there are probably people reading this who are judging me right now, but I don’t really care. But yes, I did read a whole Torah portion from an actual torah scroll, in Hebrew, and a Haftarah which was thankfully relatively short. Though I studied for an entire year, I was still terrified the day of, because whenever the reader makes a mistake, there are always at least three voices from the crowd pronouncing the word correctly and loudly. Could you imagine, giving a speech in front of 100 people, and saying something like, “pajamas,” rhyming the word with “llamas,” only to have five, eight, ten voices from the crowd spitting back at you “paJAAAAMas,” rhyming it with “Alabamas,” until you backtracked and said “paJAAAAMas?” Talk about pressure, especially for a 13-year-old.

I’m with you, sister.

As far as I’m concerned, I feel most comfortable praying in Hebrew and since I’ve been doing it my whole life, in a men’s space. Whether or not there is a physical mechiza doesn’t really matter; even men sitting on the left and women on the right would be fine, as long as it’s separate. The first time I sat with my mom in shul, it felt incredibly awkward. I’m also not a fan of choirs or musical instruments. Gospel music is lovely, but when there’s a choir standing there in robes, it makes me feel more like I’m in Sister Act than in a synagogue. And one time, I went to a service where they handed out tambourines and played guitar, and that made me feel a little bit silly, as if we were in a Montessori school, or around a campfire, or something.

In Sztokman’s book, she talks about egalitarian minyanim, where the quorum consists of ten men and ten women, instead of the traditional Orthodox tradition of ten men. This is one potential solution, but for every Jew that would buy into it, there would be two who would be against it. I think I’d need to try it to see if I liked it. Sztokman does say that there is a mechiza, which is good, and that both women and men do the leading and reading, which is something I’d really like to experience; there are some very talented female cantors out there with voices that fill you up with spirit and love for God. The whole theory why women shouldn’t touch a torah scroll is pretty ridiculous, and I won’t go into it here, but believe me when I say that as a society, we’re past that.

Most of all, prayer is supposed to be, at least for me, a time of spiritual introspection and personal communication with God, with a few rousing community-building songs thrown in. A good mix of solitude and togetherness is key, as a Jewish person and a member of a Jewish community that is larger than myself and those that are in the room with me. My dad always told me that he raised me and my sister so that we’d always have a sense of community, a family wherever we go in our lives because we can walk into any synagogue anywhere in the world, Orthodox or not, and know exactly what’s going on. Though people pray in different ways and for different reasons, I think that competition should be the last thing that comes to mind.

Well that was fun.

Now, please enjoy these dancing rabbis.

teach me how to rabbi, teach me teach me how to rabbi