When I Was Strictly Religious…

a cross-section of people at the Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo by Lynne Golodner)
a cross-section of people at the Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo by Lynne Golodner)

Life was easier, in a way, when I was strictly religious.

There were careful rules and clear-cut parameters. Each day I rose and there were prayers to say upon opening my eyes, after going to the bathroom, before I took a bite of toast or a sip of coffee. I could sway before an eastern-facing window and move my lips in breathless prayer as my little children scuttled among my skirts.

I knew what to wear, for the uniform was proscribed for me. Days were laid out according to form and function – and by the time the sun sank below the horizon on Friday, a hush fell over our family as we welcomed the Sabbath bride.

In a way, I loved much about that life. But that was long ago and far away and I can only glimpse a taste of what I loved in faded blurry photos on Facebook.

It was when I lived in Washington and began to taste the sweetness of learning in a non-judgmental orthodox community. It was one of four synagogues on a one-mile stretch in Potomac, and the rabbi welcomed me in with his radiant smile, never caring what I wore, sitting down with me as equals over the text.

That was what drew me into the religious life. That I was a full player in the game of life, that I counted, that my voice could be heard.

Except I later learned that was not the case in most corners of the religious world. No, as a woman, I would be banished behind a barrier, made to sit quiet and unalluring as the men shone from the stage, their voices high and wide, inspiring all in prayer.

religious Jews making aliyah to live in Israel - photo from www.unitedwithisrael.org
religious Jews making aliyah to live in Israel – photo from www.unitedwithisrael.org

As a woman, I was a nobody. A purveyor of lessons to the babies I would carry, a maker of meals my community would eat around my finely laid table, a table I laid myself, of course.

And yet, there was an excitement to the idea of becoming religious in the beginning. It was that my life finally had meaning, structure, focus. That I could go anywhere in the world and walk into a synagogue and be welcomed into the fold. (That still will happen, but differently if I don’t play according to the rules.)

What do I miss about those days?

The absoluteness of it all. That one day a week, phones would cease ringing, TVs would silence, and we would walk on the ground, no matter the temperature of the air, to commune with friends and God, in synagogues, in our homes, for a 25-hour period of peace.

I miss the role definition – it was so clear what men and women did, delineated with ease. I may not have liked the role assigned to women, but it was clear what each of us was obligated in. And what we did not have to worry about.

Don’t get me wrong – it is by far an ideal way to live. It’s just, when I look at pictures of the people who first brought me in, and I start to traipse down memory lane toward those first awakenings of a spiritual approach to life, I get melancholy.

I love this movie, "Arranged," about an orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman who become friends and realize their observances parallel one another. True friendship rests in the understanding that we are all the same.
I love this movie, “Arranged,” about an orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman who become friends and realize their observances parallel one another. True friendship rests in the understanding that we are all the same.

The Shabbat in Jerusalem at a youth hostel, the floods of people in Friday finest descending the stone steps to the Western Wall to bring in the Sabbath.

The lecture in the rabbi’s apartment in the Old City, women in one room and men another, me not understanding any of his talk since it was all in Hebrew but understanding very well this sense of community, that doors are open to everyone who wants to listen and learn, and then consume the yerushalmi kugel the rabbi himself made for everyone who decided to join him.

The invitations to stay in people’s homes, eat at their tables, meet their friends, become part of the fold because of our shared values. The intense reverence of singing at a Sabbath table.

On the eve of my daughter’s birth, it was not only Shabbat, it was the first day of Sukkot, the fall harvest holiday. Throughout our neighborhood, people sat in wooden huts adjacent to their homes.

Inside my house, I counted the contractions and breathed deeply, not yet ready to go to the birthing center. The screen door was open in the living room, the windows open throughout the house, and through the screens we could hear joyous, beautiful singing, welcoming the Sabbath, taking their time with every word.

My precious Eliana came into the world quickly and easily. She is strong, tough, amazing. I'd hate to see her limited.
My precious Eliana came into the world quickly and easily. She is strong, tough, amazing. I’d hate to see her limited.

It was, simply, beautiful.

At that moment, my precious girl about to enter the world, I was as happy as could be. A part of all this! So much joy! The days never running into one another but instead standing out as precious gems to coo over.

But alas, it wasn’t always like that and I wax poetic even if I don’t include in this missive the memories not so pretty, not so idyllic.

Life is a mixture of inspiration and mundane. Let us fall out on the better side of both.

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