It was such a small thing, that barrier, but within the space it created, I experienced some of the most profound comfort of my life. It created a place in which I could pray without reference to anyone else, a place in which I could look for G-d unselfconsciously. I grew to crave the feeling of inner quiet I felt when I sat and stood and swayed in that partitioned space, to wait for the safety and the joy of it. After a few months, I had to admit it: I loved sitting in the women’s section.
This newfound infatuation threw me into a tailspin of existential anxiety. Why did it make me feel so safe anyway? What did it give me that a mixed setting didn’t? Wasn’t it a blatant contravention of my principles? How could it feel good if it went against what I believed about gender equality? And, that being the case, could this whole mechitza love affair last? After all, even though it felt great, I still wasn’t so sure what I thought about the implications of being divided from men by a wall/curtain/balcony/whatever. The experience of praying in a separate space worked for me, no question about it, but the discomfort of acknowledging how much it worked almost outweighed my delight in the experience. Sitting in a women’s section is not what nice Reform girls are supposed to grow up to do.
Slowly, I began to unpack my concerns. What was so safe about sitting in the women’s section? It took me a long time to realize that it allowed me to shed a sense of scrutiny that I had carried for a long time. As a kid, I had always gone to shul with my mom and my sister. My dad didn’t come, except on high holidays, because he’s not Jewish, so we went the three of us. In a Reform synagogue, this stands out, because families sit together. If your father isn’t there, everyone can see. I don’t think anyone ever particularly cared, and I can’t remember anyone commenting on it. But I was a child, and my difference made me feel self-conscious and looked at, even if I wasn’t.
When I sat in a separate space, I found my own space for prayer, one whose contours had nothing to do with who did or didn’t come with me to synagogue. As a college student seeking to define her own religious identity, I came to see the mechitza as a symbol of my independence, and of my ability to define my own Jewish experience irrespective of my nuclear family. As a woman among women, what I felt was not kinship (although I was among friends), but rather, the liberating absence of family structure. Now, as an engaged woman, I still enjoy praying independently, without reference to my partner, my new family. The mechitza has allowed me to claim prayer as a private space, in which I can shed my various roles and simply be myself.
As for my discomfort about the implications of being divided from men, well, I still feel it. When I started praying in the women’s section, I wasn’t a fan of the idea of being a second-class citizen, shut off on the not-allowed-to-lead, not-allowed-to-count-for-minyan side of the fence. I’m not a fan of it now. I’m a feminist, I’m progressive, and I don’t like the idea of women being sidelined in religious settings or anywhere else. I know that on some level, sitting in a women’s section was a compromise with certain principles of symmetrical equality that I endorse, and I don’t like that fact.
That said, I knew that my male friends on the other side didn’t regard me as less intelligent or less able than they. We were separate for reasons of law and tradition in a religious setting, not because they were out to take away my rights or disrespect me as a human. And, I was choosing to sit separately from them. No one forced me to be there. I was claiming this separateness for myself, just as they claimed it for themselves. Though their choice involved greater participation and mine a sacrifice of agency, there was a similarity in the choice of separateness itself that to a certain extent mitigated my discomfort. In some sense, we were symmetrically choosing to be asymmetrical.
So, I established a tenuous ideological truce: While I wasn’t thrilled by the symbolism of the mechitza, nor by many of its practical effects, I trusted the intentions of the people around me. I also trusted my own intentions, and my own desires. That enabled me to be comfortable with the mechitza, and therefore with having it be a part of my experience of tefillah, even if I don’t love all aspects of it all the time.
As a result, I’ve been able to answer my last question: Can my love affair with the mechitza last? The answer, thus far, has been: Yes. In fact, the mechitza and I have been going steady for six years. I now attend a Modern Orthodox shul in my neighborhood, one I’ve been a part of since its founding. We are a young community, and we’ve davened in a lot of different spaces. Accordingly, our mechitzot have varied greatly in composition and location: Curtains strung across living rooms or between a kitchen and a living room, curtains hung between racks in a thrift shop, and now a lovely screen that divides an elementary school classroom in half. I still have some concerns about the meaning of the curtain/screen and all the things that happen on the men’s side of it that don’t happen on mine. But every time my fiancé and I walk into services, wave goodbye to each other and walk to our respective sides, I feel pleased that his space of prayer is for him and my space of prayer is for me. And every time I take my seat next to the boundary, I feel what I felt the first time: The world falls away, and I am still and silent inside. I focus. I am ready to pray.
Nathalie Gorman is a digital media professional by day and a writer by nights and weekends. She lives in Brooklyn, and can be found on the internet at Nattily.