In my childhood, every weekday morning began the recitation of morning prayers, a kind of lengthy assembly for a pledge of allegiance to God. On winter dawns such as this one, gathering inside for prayer was a relief from the Siberian cold of the schoolyard where the wind lacerated our thinly stockinged thighs under our obligatory skirts.
Things have changed since my schoolgirl days and on this bitter cold morning every woman attending the morning minyan is snug inside of her woolen trousers. I have not recited the week-day prayers for more than forty years, but on the anniversary of my mother’s death, I have come to say the kaddish.
I am ill at ease; in this setting it does not take much. An old man shuffles in front of me and drops a talis or fringed prayer shawl in my lap. It seems I will be honored with the dressing of the Torah and to handle the sacred scrolls I must wrap myself in the talis..
This is my father’s cloak – of righteousness, of daily devotion, of otherness. This is the canopy of my father. This is his shroud.
Surely in my time away – three decades – I have missed much. Other women, more committed and pure-hearted than I, have already debated this. The pedigreed, authoritative Jewish feminists have long-ago come to their conclusions. I know little about their reasoning, the legalistic nuance. I only know what I feel. I do not belong inside this fabric, I do not want to be enveloped by this faint masculine scent, veiled in the life story of another.
While I was in other part of the world, American Jewish women won a rightful place beside their men in an exclusionary ancient tradition. Does this presume a blurring of gender boundaries, an assumption that our totem rituals, ceremonial garb and spiritual needs are the same?
In my sacred dance practice when I move slowly, suggestively in taksim stye, I wrap myself in silk veils in the manner of Salome. The veils have a certain play – the yards of pliable silk or chiffon allow for concealment and revelation. Veiled women are not unknown in the rabbinical tradition, but often they are associated with the cult prostitute of pagan shrines or women who have chosen disguise for treacherous ends. I wonder if I might have substituted my veil for the talis on this day. When the prayers end, I mindfully fold the talis into smaller and smaller squares and make sure it is safely tucked away.