That Time I Dressed as a Mechitza… for Feminism

Mechitza: (Hebrew: מחיצה, partition or division, pl.: מחיצות, mechitzot) in Judaism, is a partition, particularly one that is used to separate men and women.

My hatred for mechitzas developed early, despite growing up in a congregation without one. I had the privilege of traveling extensively with my family as a kid, and my father insisted, always, on us attending services at a local shul. More often than not, that meant my mom, sister, and I enduring mechitzas.

I’ve sat in synagogue balconies so far up that the rabbi and men below looked tiny and distant, like toy figurines. I’ve been placed behind sheets, partial walls, and, once, in Tunisia, in a small windowless room with thin vents for us women to hear, but not see, the service. I was a teenager at the time, and the only woman in synagogue that day. I sweated and seethed alone in that tiny, hot, beige cave, until I heard the service’s final “Amen,” feeling like Hashem’s shameful secret.

“Wasn’t that wonderful?” my dad would declare after such services. I’m sure it was, for him and the men around him. He described, with moist eyes, the powerful kinship and connection he felt with the other men praying, his fellow daveners, even without a shared secular language. 

Never, not once, did I have an analogous encounter in the women’s section. Those spaces, whether in Europe or South America or Northern Africa, tended toward sparse attendance and mumbled, bored participation. Even in balconies fairly close to the action, the heat emanating from the men’s chanting and swaying somehow never reached our seats.

T, my dear friend of twenty years, knows my feelings about mechitzas. So, before Purim, she called to warn me that her daughter’s forthcoming Bat Mitzvah megillah reading would occur at an Orthodox shul with such a structure. This put me in a bind. I’ve known this young lady since her first week on earth, and I could not imagine missing her big night. But, as a rule, I do not attend segregated services. 

So, T and I came up with a compromise. I would show up to her daughter’s Purim reading, in costume, dressed AS a mechitza, and stand on the men’s side. 

As a visual artist, I loved the challenge of crafting a visible device to separate myself into male and female halves, and landed on creating a curtain type structure attached to the top of a yarmulke, the long fabric dividing my body in half. On one side of the curtain I would appear as a woman, with long hair and bright lipstick, while my bald head, fake gut, and artificial mustache on the other side, would read as male. 

Mechitza, Mixed Media, 2022

I make politically progressive, passionately Jewish art that lots of Jews don’t like. Mostly, my work critically examines the political and psychological complexities of American Jewish wealth, the experience I come from. It won’t surprise you that I’ve grown accustomed, over the years, to negative feedback from my own people. 

However, before creating Mechitza, my Jewish output has exclusively been video art and sculpture. Walking toward the shul door the night of Purim, awkwardly navigating the fabric dividing my body and the partial vision created in its wake, I was nervous. This wasn’t a screening or exhibition opening. This was me, in the flesh, visually voicing my feminist critique of mechitzas on my person, in a physical space containing one. 

Let me be clear. We’re talking about a super modern orthodox congregation, in Brooklyn. The kind of site containing both a mechitza and the rabbi’s announcement, at the start of services, for any trans people to pick their preferred side of the shul. I did not perform this art protest in a rigidly conservative space, because I do not, as a rule, enjoy verbal and physical violence against my person. 

With a mix of dread and adrenaline, I entered the cavernous hall, and positioned myself directly behind the mechitza, a purple fabric curtain about 4 feet high in the middle of the floor. Immediately, a woman donning a bright magenta wig and a warm, big smile approached me. “I love your costume!” she said. “What inspired this?”

I explained my stance on mechitzas, the agreed compromise with T, and ended by asking her, “Can you believe we’re still doing this to women? In 2022? It’s shameful!” She did not respond, but quickly backed away from me, silently, her large grin seemingly stuck on her face in anxious retreat.

Responses to my costume that night ranged from the annoyed to the delighted. My showing up as a mechitza invited folks around me to talk, sometimes intimately, about their history with and relationship to these dividers. Some women explained the relief and joy of not being expected, in this one aspect of their lives, to sit beside their husbands. Other congregants extolled the benefits of their daughters being surrounded by Jewish women of all ages. Not compelling arguments to me personally, but certainly a different take.

One man, a self-described wrestler with orthodoxy, confessed that he too had only come to support T’s daughter, and generously thanked me for my costume, filming and photographing me extensively, mostly staying by my side. I will always be grateful for his support and presence that evening.

Child after child inquired about my getup, most unable to guess its meaning, even when I pointed to the nearby mechitza as a clue. I suppose that response struck me the most, how quickly we integrate bigoted ritual norms and then render them assumed, unspoken, almost invisible. Just visually highlighting the choice to segregate by gender proved a small form of resistance.   

Following Purim, I felt my usual feminist Jewish rage, but also a new, joyful permission. Do I wish mechitzas would disappear from ritual life immediately? You bet. But just the act of forcing dialogue about them with other Jews, through my work, left me giddy and strong. 

Soon after Purim, I passed a nearby Chabad. Three men stood outside, anxiously trolling for Jews to complete a minyan. We all know this ritual, just as we know that such men refuse to count female or visibly trans humans toward the sacred number of bodies required for group prayer.

This time, though, I decided, inspired by Mechitza, to force the conversation. “Looking for a minyan?” I  asked the men, smiling earnestly. “I’ll do it.” I meant it. 

One guy refused to make eye contact or acknowledge me, pretty typical observant sexist behavior. Another glared at me from under his black hat as if I had physically threatened his loved ones. Again, very much expected. 

The third, visibly less religious than his companions, who read as a classic Chabad-adjacent type, sheepishly addressed me. “I mean, well, I personally wouldn’t mind at all,” he said, “wouldn’t bother me! It’s just…” and here he trailed off, motioning toward the entrance, “I just don’t think the rabbi…anyway, it’s very nice of you to offer.”

I smiled again, meeting his embarrassed gaze. “Go ahead,” I offered, cheerfully. “Ask the rabbi. I’ll wait.”

Danielle Durchslag
 is an artist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn.