Back in my more spry days, I was invited to attend an event that an Orthodox synagogue in Harrisburg was throwing on my paternal great-aunt's 92nd birthday. I hadn't been to an Orthodox shul in recent memory, so I followed my mother to the service.
Before I continue, there are some things that the reader must know. Let me list the passengers in the car to Harrisburg:
- Me- Twelve years old, member of a Conservative-leaning Reform synagogue
- Mom- Newly converted Jew
- Aunt- Former Orthodox Jew, current non-practicing Jew
- Uncle- Catholic, convinced that the horizontal designs on a tallit are "racing stripes"
The traffic to the state capitol was horrendous that Saturday, making our group a tad late to the proceedings. We tumbled into the synagogue's vestibule, composed ourselves to look sufficiently spiritual, and, when we judged that it would not be impolite to enter the sanctuary, tip-toed in.
The first thing I noticed was there was a obvious lack of women in the seats in front of me. In my head, I could hear various religious school teachers in my head, quietly instructing me to find the women's section. This is an Orthodox synagogue, they said, men and women sit separately. As I turned to whisper this bit of information to my mother, my gazed passed over the bima and was draw to a man in black furious gesticulating to a previously unnoticed area full of women. The rest of the congregation seemed oblivious to the activity around them as they prayed privately to themselves.
Keeping an eye on the red-faced man, I pulled on my mother's jacket.
"Mom," I hissed, "Mom!"
She didn't respond, apparently concentrating on something more important. I looked away from the bima to see what could possibly take precedence over our immediate seating. Mom and my aunt were busy trying to spot someone for my poor gentile uncle to sit with. I tugged furiously on Mom's jacket again, but to no avail. Desperately, I glanced back to the bima and my heart dropped.
The angry man in black was no longer there. Instead, he was charging down the aisle towards us, his nostrils flared in righteous rage. "Uh-uh-uh-uh," I spluttered, nearly yanking the jacket from my mother's back.
"Get over to the women's section now!" The man's voice was just short of shouting and, to my horror, he seemed to be directing most of his wrath in my direction. As it often happens when I am the subject of a harangue, my face burst into a brilliant crimson color, the nerves in my teeth tingled, and my knees began to give way. "Get over there, or we'll have to start all over again! Now!"
If the congregation hadn't noticed us before, they certainly did now. Curious heads turned to see the disturbance behind them.
A Pre-bat mitzvah, a new convert, a lapsed Jew, and a Catholic-- we didn't stand a chance.
Sending a pleading glance back over his shoulder, my uncle shot into an empty bench and hunched over a prayer book full of foreign phrases and words. Mom, my aunt, and I shuffled up the stairs to the female section, avoiding the eyes of the women therein. As I sat on the hard bench, I could feel my mother's stiff body next to mine, shaking with anger and embarrassment. I surreptitiously wiped the tears from my eyes and stared holes into the man in black for the rest of the service.
After the service, many of the congregants came up to us to apologize for the man's behavior. He could have handled it better, they said with chagrin.
My purpose in this story is not to rail against the beliefs of the Orthodox, including the male-female dichotomy of a congregation. I respect the man's feelings about the matter. What I absolutely do not respect is the way we, the ignorant, were shamed in front of strangers. I don't care if that guy was a rabbi, cantor, president of the congregation, or the synagogue caretaker-- nobody has a right to treat a person in such a way. It would have been a mitzvah to direct three obviously disoriented adults and one panicked child to their proper seats quickly and quietly. Instead of remembering the man as a raging asshole, I would look fondly back on the encounter and on the guy who taught me a valuable lesson in Orthodox thought.
Luckily, I know enough Orthodox to assure me that he was a fluke, a blight on the face of the modern Orthodoxy. But what about other people who might encounter the same sort of situation? Will they chalk it up as another mark damning those of a more conservative belief system? Lord knows that the Orthodox can't afford more of that.
Sometimes we must watch what we say or do, as it might bounce back to reflect an entire people. Sad, but true.
PS. My family has several interesting stories about The-Synagogue-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but I'll save those for another time.