Yocheved Lindenbaum
Owner of a whole broken heart

Hey you get off of my pew

Boarding an airplane, Danny tries to keep all his belongings close to him, in consideration of his fellow passengers. He chose his seat carefully, where his long legs would have some room, and he could lean against the window. He has committed the seat number to memory, but the woman ensconced in what he thought was his seat has him doubting himself. He checks and rechecks his boarding pass, and yup, she is in his seat. “Ugh!” I hate this he says to himself.  “Excuse me miss, but 36A is my seat.” “I don’t think so.” she huffs. Danny knows she’s mistaken, and assumes her error is due to the nervousness of flying and traveling, so he tries again. “Ma’am, here’s my boarding pass, with the seat clearly marked. Please recheck your document.” “Fine” she says and mutters under her breath. The line behind him is growing, children are crying, old people are shifting from foot to foot and he feels a seed of anger growing in his belly.”Oops! I’m row 37.” She gathers her belongings, squeezes out of the row, deliberately walks to the next row, resettles herself and sits down with an audible groan. Danny, considers whether he will stick to his flying etiquette, and keep his seat in the upright position, or whether he might take a long shluff, leaning back with ear plugs in his ears so he doesn’t hear a thing. He gets a hold of himself and recognizes his annoyance and opts to be his best self on this ride. Yet he is angry that this person made him so mad, and that she didn’t offer a word of apology or a sign of contrition.

Most people I know have been on one or both sides of this vignette and recognize the emotions of both actors. And we recognize that whether on a plane, in a theater, at a restaurant an assigned seat belongs to the asignee. Yet, Orthodox women, the world over, experience different versions of this, most often in religious venues.

Cases in point, for your consideration. For brevity, I will include only a few, but speak with a few Orthodox women, and like quinoa is kosher on Passover, I’ll bet each one can recount her own version of this story.

Over ten years ago, my family spent a few days at a kibbutz on the west coast of Israel. Waking on a Tuesday morning, and realizing my whole family was in shul, I decided to join them. I hurriedly walked to the guest house shul, to find a man taking up 3 seats in the women’s section (one for him, one for his tallis bag, one for his sefer) and giving me dirty looks when I entered and sat down. “Nu?” the holy man said to me. In Hebrew I said: ‘I’m in the right place’, and joined the tefilla.  Inside I started to stew. Why does he need to sit in the women’s section?

Purim 2019 I opted for an early minyan for tefilla and Kriat megillah. The neighborhood shul I opted for that morning has the main sanctuary split into 3. The center and largest, is the men’s section. On the left side, there is a significant women’s section and on the right, in the back there is a smaller women’s section. On Friday nights, when there is only one minyan, the larger women’s section is used by the men. This particular Purim morning, the small women’s section was mostly full, and I walked over to the other women’s section. When I entered, 4 or 5 men, almost in unison, turned and said: “nu! uh!” and motioned at me. There were many empty seats in the men’s section, so I opted to stand still. Again, the hand motions, the grunts, to which I responded: “I’m where I’m supposed to be.” As one or two more women came to the door, I welcomed them in. The gabai saw what was going on, motioned that he would deal with this and went to those men and told them they need to move. They all muttered as they gathered their heavy burdens, and plodded off to the men’s section, motioning at me and muttering under their breath. The pointing and whispering continued when tefilla was completed. The rabbi said to me: “You were 100% correct this morning.”

I started to ponder why a man chooses to sit in the women’s section when there are plenty of empty seats in the men’s section? Why can’t I expect that the space that the community has delineated for women is available to women? Why are men who have seated themselves in what was the empty women’s section, indignant when a woman enters, rather than sheepishly gathering their things and exiting? Do they have a right to sit in the women’s section if there appears to be no room in the men’s section? This year I returned to the same minyan. I arrived with the very first words of the morning prayers, in order to claim the women’s section for women, ready to plant my gragger, but surprisingly, or maybe expectedly, there were already more than 10 men in the women’s section (and there were multiple empty rows in the men’s section). I opened the door and one person helpfully said to me, “Uh, the women’s section is over there.” I responded with “This is the women’s section.”

I’m not sure why I dutifully went where he told me to go. “Chacham Einav B’rosho”, a wise person has his eyes in his head, meaning they can see ahead to consequences and take action to preempt a problem. Based on 30 years in the community, I knew where this was going. Yet I felt powerless to tell these men, young enough to be my children, that they need to vacate the women’s space. And as tefilla continued, the small women’s space filled, and filled and filled. Women who were part of the original shul community over 50 years ago, could not believe they were being shoved into this small area, while there is a perfectly good women’s section available. I tried to find a shul representative (president, board member, gabbai, rabbi) but couldn’t. Later I understood that there is always a gabbai in charge, but we women don’t know who it is, and most of us dare not walk into the men’s section to ask. And I can’t believe this is happening again. Why do women have to wait till men will allow them into the spaces they have delineated for women? Why am I being demure, afraid to be seen as pushy, demanding, etc.? Why do men get to decide when this issue is a problem?

Same guy from 4 years ago addressed the issue, but the question still remains. Why do these men think they can sit in the women’s section?

OY what a feminist, I hear you saying. You bet I am but this has nothing to do with feminism.

That’s what you get for davening in an Orthodox shul, you claim. Orthodox is what I am, and this is an issue of bad behavior by a few bad actors, who seem to be part of many communities. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the same 10 men who do this at every shul?

I have attended ritual events at places where there are separate doors for men and women. I abide by the rules of the locale, and use the women’s door, and often find men standing there and shmoozing. They look at me with surprise and either scurry away like cockroaches or avert their eyes. As long as they chose to stand in that space, assuming no women would appear, I would have hoped that they might have held the door open for me, once caught in this situation.

I request, gentlemen stay in your own, large spaces.

Women, take your seats. Without apology.

And to most of you guys who daven where you are supposed to, until the power balance equalizes, be stand-up guys. Insist that men stay in their space, even if no women attend that particular service.

Five days after Purim, my husband went to the same shul, same sanctuary for morning prayers. There were 16 men present (he’s an accountant and he counted).  Ten in the mens’ section and six in the larger women’s section.

Hey! You! Get off of my pew!

About the Author
Yocheved Grunberger Lindenbaum was a day school teacher of Ivrit and Tanach for twenty years and is now a Chaplain who was most recently employed at Holy Name hospice in Teaneck. Sometimes she is the Jewish chaplain and other times she is the chaplain who is Jewish. Yocheved is thrilled to have raised a wonderful sourdough starter.
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