Monday, April 7, 2008

On the Other Side of the Mechitzah

A few days ago, I attended an event organized for people from Chasidic backgrounds who are becoming "modern" and trying to integrate themselves into secular society.

(I'm being especially cautious with this post, as I don't believe there to be many such events [correct me if I'm wrong!] and I do want to remain anonymous.)

My presence there, obviously, was somewhat accidental. I came with a friend whose friend had once been in the abovementioned situation. I was an anomaly there, having come from a Modern Orthodox background. In this way, I was really just a spectator of sorts -- and possibly shouldn't have been there. That said, it was one of the most interesting experiences I've had in the recent weeks.

It was eye-opening to come face-to-face with girls changing from skirts into pants in the bathroom stalls, guys who grew up in America speaking English haltingly, men with payes and women dancing Jewish-style together to Jewish music.

What was strangest for me, though, was that the whole experience was religiously uplifting to me. It had been a long time since I'd been somewhere with so many people singing and playing Jewish music with such exuberance and joy. And it was (unsurprisingly) the first time that I ever found myself dancing in a circle with Chasidic-looking men. In fact, it was really one of the first times I ever interacted with men like these.

The dancing, in particular, was amazing. I've yet to find a women's section with truly exuberant dancing. Maybe it's our own fault, maybe it's the way we were raised, maybe it's the space constraints of women's sections in general. All I know is, with the exception of a few weddings, I've never experienced the kind of dancing I did at this event (and weddings are kind of different, because the focus is on a person, rather than the dancing itself -- and rarely does the exuberant dancing include more than the inner circle of 5-8 people).

For me, this kind of dancing has always been something to stare at from above - or through the mechitzah. I remember specifically, one time in Tzfat, being taken to one of these shuls where the dancing was supposed to be fantastic. Everyone had told me about it, and I was eager to go. When I got there, though, all I found was a horde of women crowded up against the mechitzah, pulling back the little lace curtains, and staring two stories down at the men.

But at this event, it was suddenly like I'd crossed over to the men's section - to the ground floor of the shul in Tzfat - the focal point of the activity. And it felt overwhelming. And it felt uplifting. And it felt beautiful.