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The Wall Between Us

At his bar mitzvah, my son took his place in the men’s section of the shul—a place where mothers can’t go

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Letting My Daughter Go

When my daughter got married at 20, I worried she was too young. But I was the one who wasn’t ready.

Though it almost always rains on the Shabbat we read the Torah portion about Noah and the flood, we awoke on the morning of my son’s bar mitzvah to a gloriously blue, cloudless sky. The sun had blessed us, but a furious mingling of nerves and excitement unsettled my stomach nonetheless. After all, I had both awaited and feared this day since he was born.

We strode to shul as a family, the bar mitzvah boy together with my husband, our younger sons behind them. I fell back and walked alone into the women’s section after they settled on the men’s side. Before I knew it, my son was standing there at the amud, reading from the Torah. As his chanting made its way over to my side of the mechitzah, I felt the anguish that had lain dormant within me for years begin to bubble to the surface like scalding lava. This was his day, his simcha, a formal, public statement that marked the beginning of his Jewish manhood. But for me, his mother, it was undoubtedly an end.

I saw that fact mirrored clearly in the mechitzah itself, which rent my heart in two just as it did the sanctuary where we stood. Once an innocuous, architectural given of my Orthodox life, it had suddenly transformed into a rampart delineating a before and after in my relationship with my son. From that moment on, it would be unbreachable and we would stand on its opposite sides. While he leyned the story of Noah to the congregation, to me he recounted a more private, heart-wrenching tale: that of a son who had encamped in the world of men and had set off for his future.

***

I remembered the first Shabbat I brought him to shul, when he was just weeks old. I felt his perfectly timed breaths on my neck, and my davening that day teemed with such awe and gratitude that I never once looked over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of time in hot pursuit.

Before long, though, he was old enough to get restless in shul, leaving my side to make excursions to the men’s section of the sanctuary. His fleeting absences distracted me, but eventually he’d be back on the women’s side with his mother, eager to search the siddur for letters he recognized, longing to place his finger atop mine as I followed along with the ba’al tefilah. We were lost together in our shared focus on the words in front of us.

Reading, in fact, had tethered us one to another from the very start. I often read aloud when I was still pregnant with him, longing for him to know my voice as the one that would never fail him, secretly hoping the endeavor would secure his intellectual curiosity. Once he was born, I’d pacify him with the Seussian rhymes of Horton Hears a Who! when he cried. In no time, he grew big enough to pull stories off the shelf himself—many of them favorites from my own childhood—and beg me to read them in a constant loop until he could recite them word for word. We laughed together at Amelia Bedelia’s misunderstanding of household idioms and marveled at K’ton Ton’s tiny adventures. Through the less-venerated classic The Gas We Pass, he dulled my sense of disgust at body humor, desensitizing me in preparation for the parenting of a household of boys.

One spring, we took a train into the city, just the two of us. We snuggled together on the cushions in the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Jewish Museum and read In the Night Kitchen until closing time. We caught a case of the giggles that made me remember what matters and helped me—if only for that day—to forget everything else. On the train home, he fell asleep, his head on my shoulder, and I caught a glimpse of our shared reflection in the window. Yes, I knew better, but I naively allowed myself to believe that evening that this would last forever, that we would never meet on the battlefield of his adolescence, that he would always remain by my side.

Soon after that excursion, he began to read with ferocious independence—overnight, like the onset of a fever—though there was a brief window during which he would occasionally return to me with a story we could read in tandem. The last book of its kind was a yellowed, dog-eared copy of All-of-a-Kind Family. He found it on the shelf in our library, high up where I keep the titles I read myself as a little girl. When we closed the cover at the story’s end, I heard that chapter in our lives sigh its last sigh.

As more time passed, my son rarely sought even a recommendation. At my urging, however, he did read Little House in the Big Woods, before enjoying the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder oeuvre of his own volition. It was its realism, its historical hand print, that fascinated him, and he hardly cared that its heroine was a girl. On a family car trip to Mount Rushmore when he was 10, he alone joined me when we stopped for a tour of the Wilder homestead in De Smet, S.D. But that same summer, his reading was already exclusively of his own selection. I failed to pick up on the nuance, though, until he less subtly chose soccer, friends, and the hypnotic watching of professional football over anything that had to do with me. Not since I taught him to ride a bicycle without training wheels was I able to project forward so clearly to a time when our daily worlds would not be entirely engaged. Yet it had already come to pass, as if a soft wind had flicked the leaves off a tree in autumn—one by one, silently, until the branches were left bare. I had simply chosen not to see.

The last leaf fell to the ground on the morning of his bar mitzvah. As my son read from the Torah—a scroll from which I do not read—I realized that reading itself, the very thing that had long tethered us, is what finally severed our shared world in two. It seemed that the mechitzah, that wall of separation between the men and the women, between those who read from the Torah in our shul and those who do not, would be the defining symbol of this next leg of our individual journeys.

Soon after his bar mitzvah, he staged a literary rebellion, during which his reading habits mutated beyond recognition. Fiction, the last of our shared loves, was no longer deemed worth reading. He preferred sports journals and the daily paper to every tome I dangled in front of him. His individuating was entirely normal for a teenager, I knew, but it was still painful to bear.

***

This fall, two years after my son’s bar mitzvah, the annual cycle of Torah reading brought us, once again, to the Shabbat when we read Parashat Noach. Prodded by his father, my son agreed to be our shul’s ba’al koreh—literally, the master of reading—a meaningful way to mark a moment that had quickly receded into the past.

That Friday evening, as it poured outside, my son developed an unexpected curiosity about my recent reading. I feigned disinterest, silently jutting my chin out in the direction of the book pile on the coffee table. Perusing the titles, his eyes landed on a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

“Fiction?” he asked.

“No. Just an incredible story,” I replied gingerly.

Taking the book in his hands, he shrugged, said goodnight, and went to bed.

The next morning, I took my place among the women in shul. My son approached the amud, standing seven inches taller than he had at his bar mitzvah, his voice a full octave deeper. He once again read flawlessly, confidently, though not quite as ceremoniously as he did the first time around. I listened while I pondered the beauty of the ark’s construction, how its design carved out a designated place for everyone on board.

When he finished leyning, my son firmly shook the hands of the gabbaim who flanked him before turning to gaze at me over the mechitzah, just like he did on the day of his bar mitzvah.

Smiling, awaiting my approval, he was a man, but somehow—deep down and on his own terms—still my boy.

***

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Lynn Linderman says:

it’s really sad that this archaic tenet is so misogynistic~ Separation of Men from Women is ancient, and degrading at the very least~

    Lynn; Your hostility to traditional Judaism might be warranted if it’s tenets were forced upon its practicioners. But as it happens there are a plethora of worship modalities to choose from, making your comment nothing more than a bigoted outburst against the cultural practice of those who CHOOSE to worship differently than you.

      AriShavit says:

      We’re not in your synagogue; she’s more than welcome to voice her opinion here.

      I’ll second the opinion and say I’me appalled this relic of the past continues. If you consider the social pressures on those to conform to the community standards you might find its much less a choice than you think.

        Ari: Whoa! Why so angry? Michael never even hinted that the author’s voice isn’t welcome, you pulled that whopper out of thin air. In any case the notion that women are somehow incapable of making their own choices, religious or otherwise, is frankly quite demeaning to women.
        Although I am not myself religious, I am not going to judge folks because they want to pray differently than me. In my neighborhood is an all women gym called Curves, are those women being pressured by “community standards” to work out there instead of the Bally’s Gym down the street? Puhleez.

        Disparishun says:

        Yes, of course. She is welcome to voice her opinion, he is welcome to disagree, and you are welcome to sneer contemptuously. We get it.

      Suzy Lenkowsky says:

      Michael, I agree. There are too few Jews in the world for the” my way or the highway ” approach. We all need to find our own path and respect the choices others have made.

      I remember reading a comment from an Orthodox rabbi that ” there are those who are observant and those who are not yet observant.” leaving a warm welcoming door open for change ….or not.

      Judaism is a beautiful religion that should have room for all of us.Vitriol just adds another kind of mechitzah that bothers me more than the one found in the author’s shul.

    While I personally chose to join a stream of Judaism/shul that lacks a mechitza (because I appreciate davening with members of both sexes, without division), I feel that this short essay provides a potent case FOR the traditional arrangement, a ritualized separation of sexes after a certain age that instills in the young man a heightened sense of self and early maturity/responsibility.

    Is this true for the bar mitzvah and not the bat mitzvah (which, of course, doesn’t typically exist in such communities)? Yes, and that’s part of a patriarchal system/tradition still embraced by Orthodox streams of Judaism; that system is certainly subject to much critique. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t without profound merits, too. It’s not a black-and-white choice, really, and I wish for the sake of klal Yisrael (and general decency) that we’d all be more civil in our discussion of different strokes.

    Finally, kol hakavod to Mrs. Ukraincik on a moving essay!

Firstly Mazal Tov! While tefila can serve as a special bonding time between a father and son, a mother and daughter, it is not the entirety of life by any stretch. There is a whole world outside of the formality of the shul. There are family times, mother & son times, father and daughter times and so on. A pivotal moment? Yes. An impenetrable barrier between mother and son? Never.

Dear Mom;

As I grow into an adult, you must understand that I am not your little boy anymore. I will have my own interests; I will learn that there are differences between boys and girls and my interests my not be the same as yours.

Rather than mourn my growth, rejoice in it. If you feel that the mechitzah is a confining place, perhaps you and Dad should think about finding a shul with a smaller one or one that allows participation from both sides of the curtain. That’s a conversation you should be having with Dad.

One day I’ll remember the result of that conversation and revel in our sense of change as we moved to a different shul, one you where you felt more included. But it’s not my fault Mom that you are in the section you sit, that’s yours to change.

Laura Ingles was a wonderful character to read about and to visit her homestead. But Mom, why didn’t you suggest that I read the Hardy Boys or Mark Twain’s stories? They too are literary icons and you know, Mom, that as a boy, I like to see male role models, it’s part of the way I am built.

Mom, you’ve done a good job with me and I love you for it. But your love shold become more of a hug than a blanket as I grow older and find my way in the world.
Thanks for the story though.
Your son.

EvelynKrieger says:

Thirteen is a natural age for a boy to pull away from his mother. It doesn’t mean he loves you any less, though it can certainly hurt. It seems that you would feel these conflicting emotions even if you were sitting right beside him. Is it really the mechitza that pains you, or your son’s becoming a man and having parts of his religious life separate from you? Are you bothered that he lays tefillin and you don’t?
On the day of my son’s bar mitzvah, I too was behind a mechitza, yet I had a good view of him and I kvelled at every word he chanted. My female friends and shul members surrounded me with hugs and mazel tovs as they knew what this moment meant and how much preparation I had put into the event. The location of my seat did not diminish any of the nachos (pride) or love I felt for him at that moment. Every year since he has lained his parasha. It is what he has become that matters most. Mazel tov to you.

altershmalter says:

It appears this is an issue for Mom, not Son. Hla

The $10,000 Torah
Challenge has been up and
running for 3 weeks now. Not one single rabbi has even attempted to give an
answer.

Judaism passes thru
the mother merely because the rabbis say so; not because of what is written in
the Torah !

The Torah clearly says
it is permissible to marry Canaanite virgins. How could God have told Moses,
orally, that Judaism passes thru the mother and then made a written law which
says it is okay to marry Canaanite virgins? Do you think it is possible the
rabbis are lying?

http://drorbenami987.hubpages.com/hub/Torah-Metaphors-A-10-000-Challange

A link to this Torah
challenge has been sent to:

Prime Minister of
Israel

President of Israel

The Jewish Agency

The Chabad Movement

The AISH Educational
Foundation

The Progressive Jewish
Movement

The Conservative
Jewish Movement

and countless other
Jewish Institutions and synagogues.

Not one single rabbi
has responded. Why not?

    The answer, whether you choose to believe it or not, is that there is supposedly an oral law that was given concurrently with the Torah that is interpreted by (male) rabbis . One of the tents is that you are obligated to follow the Rabbi’s of your generation, even if it seemingly contradicts the written Torah. This is called Rabbinic Judaism.. which is the Orthodox Judaism of today. FYI, Ezra the Scribe first disallowed intermarriage, so even if it’s not in the Pentateuch, it is pretty ancient.

herbcaen says:

so what? Do you want to be in the locker room with your son in 3 years, or in his bedroom in 10 years? This is normal development

Ora Cohen says:

This article really touched my heart. I remember clearly, 13 years ago, crying softly with a sense of peace and joy, as I sat in the crowded women’s section with my two young sons, sleeping with their sweet heads in my lap, as the congregation sang Kabbalat Shabbat. I couldn’t imagine being happier than that moment, with love for my boys and a deep connection to my spiritual life. Years later, as I sat alone on the other side of the mechitza for my son’s bar mitzvah, that joy was mixed with the pain. I felt embraced by my women friends but disconnected from my son on that important day. I longed to hug him with pride and joy, as his father and grandfathers did, when he stepped off the bimah after he read Torah. Yes, it was partially the pain of saying good bye to that little boy who rested his head on my lap so many years ago, and all of those special moments, but it was also a terrible pain that our religious life separated us at this important moment in our lives. Yes, there will be other moments when I will be standing beside him, God willing, but I will never recapture that moment, as he moved from boy to man in the eyes of our Jewish community. That sadness I will always remember.

Don’t go to an orthodox shul and you wont have to write an article like the one above. I’m not going to pinch myself and complain that it hurts when I pinch myself. I’ll just stop pinching myself.

Things are not always black and white. One can be saddened by the fact that men and women are separated especially during a bar mitzvah celebration in an orthodox synagogue , Nevertheless , one can also be appreciative of the spiritual power of the traditional service and the warmth and caring of the community which chooses to maintain the separation . If only it was as simple as the angry , intolerant responses to the artcle seem to imply .

The idea that a 13 year old boy becomes a man bygoing through a bar mitzvah is ridiculous. Developmentally he is still a boy. Why Orthodox women tolerate being treated as secon class citizens is a mystery to me.
If they think separation of the sexes is warranted, let the men sit in the back and see how they like it.

    It’s not that he becomes a man in the modern sense, but it’s the age where the mistakes that young people make can begin to have lasting, even life-time, consequences. This is a ritual that marks, rather than creates, that reality.

      I do not see how reading from the Torah and the Prophets has anything to do with adulthood. Officially, the boy becomes obligated to follow Jewish law, but only the orthodox take this seriously and I see no connection between strictly following Jewish law and becoming a better person.

lumiss says:

That was beautiful… Thank you!

No one should be forced to sit at the back of anything.

Mazal tov, Merri! Beautifully written piece.

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The Wall Between Us

At his bar mitzvah, my son took his place in the men’s section of the shul—a place where mothers can’t go