Wearing the Pants in Shul

Halves: My better half

My grandmother never spoke a word of Hebrew. She was born into an assimilated Czech family in the early 1900s; her parents’ Judaism was cultural, not religious. She married a Russian doctor who liked to boast that he almost attended rabbinical school.

My mother, their oldest child, never learned Hebrew either. (How could she, moving around the American south as my grandfather, by then a thoracic surgeon, followed his Veterans’ Administration postings without complaint? Sometimes they were the only Jews in town, the nearest synagogue hours away.) But my generation broke the trend; I learned the aleph-bet at eight; I was blessed with a Jewish education that the women before me couldn’t have dreamed of.

My experiences of synagogue worship were mixed-gender. Still, it seemed normal to me that women my mother’s age, and my grandmother’s, couldn’t read Hebrew. They thumbed the English sides of the siddur pages. When something wasn’t transliterated, they hummed along. I was different. I could follow my grandfather’s rapid-fire recitation. I was breaking the gender paradigm. Now and then 1 urged my mother to learn Hebrew, but she never did. Her life was full enough without it.

Fast-forward a decade or two. My grandparents, may their memory be for a blessing, are gone. I stopped hounding my mother to learn Hebrew years ago. 1 am five years married, happily so. My husband is a marvelous man in more ways than I can count. It happens that he is the child of a Jewish-Christian intermarriage, and does not consider himself Jewish.

Like my grandfather, I had a near-miss with rabbinical school. And like my grandfather, I’ve married someone who neither speaks nor reads Hebrew; someone whose affiliations with Judaism are familial and cultural, rather than religious. Here the comparison breaks down, inasmuch as my grandmother was Jewish and Ethan isn’t; but I sometimes wonder whether my grandfather would laugh at this further way he and I have proven alike.

In my grandparents’ generation, and even to some extent in my parents’, women expected to be shortchanged in Jewish education. The disparity between my grandparents’ religious educations was the norm. Boys went to heder; girls didn’t. It never would have occurred to my Grandma Lali to be frustrated by that.

My father, a first-generation American who grew up in San Antonio, became bar mitzvah at 13. But Hebrew school was an opportunity my mother never had, though in high school she trekked to the nearest city to meet other Jewish teens, and she spent a few summers at a Zionist camp in Louisiana (where she met my father).

My generation puts a lot more stock in gender equality, and sometimes in breaking down gender binarisms altogether. Much to my mother’s amusement, Ethan and I planned our wedding together; we share household tasks once considered “women’s work.” I’m learning to use his power tools; he cooks and sews better than I do. So it’s strange for me, perhaps for both of us, to have a sphere of our lives where I’m the one who wears the pants.

When we’re in synagogue together, I’m the one who knows what’s going on. I’m the one who’s comfortable. I’m the one who can read the texts and parse the complicated matrix of minhagim, customs. which vary so widely from shul to shul. I’m the tour guide.

And no matter how I try to prepare him for what’s in store, there’s a good chance I’ll miss something. The language and the liturgy are so familiar to me that I forget what it’s like to be new. Maybe, having learned Hebrew in second grade and having attended synagogue my entire life, I’ve never really known what being a synagogue outsider is like.

Even visiting church with Ethan and his family isn’t quite analogous: services are in English, and the hymnals help me fake my way when it’s time to sing. Synagogue liturgies, in contrast, are almost always bilingual; we rarely provide sheet music, and transliterations and translations aren’t always up to the task.

I love knowing what I know about Judaism. And I love being married to the man I married. But sometimes I wish I could encapsulate my years of study and give them to him: a magical hearing aid that would translate on-the-fly, a potion that would transmit my liturgical familiarity and context and memories. On a good day, synagogue worship gives me moments of real connection with the tradition and the community and my sense of the Divine; I don’t think he finds those here. Navigating the waters of Hebrew and unwritten melodies and congregational customs takes up too much attention, and there’s no focus left for religious experience.

I’m not entirely comfortable being the one who wears the pants. I’m happy when we’re on equal footing, but being in the position of power is strange to me. Fortunately, Ethan handles synagogue experiences with grace…and there are times in our dance, like when we travel to the foreign countries where he works and knows the ropes, when it’s clearly his turn to lead.

Over time, I’m realizing that the religious power dynamic isn’t as one-way as it might seem. Being married to an “outsider” has given me new insight into what it means to be “inside;” Ethan is not the only one learning, here. I may be the tour guide, but it’s the process of introducing my tradition to my husband that has shown me how Judaism is quirky and sweet and strange.

Rachel Barendlat is author of two poetry chapbooks, most recently What Stays (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series,2002). She is working on a book about Jewish ritualcraft.