Yael Unterman

Of intruding eyes and hidden things

Ah the irony! The elevated galleries of Orthodox synagogues give women the immodest opportunity to snoop on men in their prayerful intimacy with God
Detail of 'Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,' by Polish Jewish artist Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878, Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Detail of 'Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,' by Polish Jewish artist Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878, Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

In 2014, I published a collection of short stories The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing. Reading over a few of the stories revealed to me (and to the discerning reader, perhaps) the fact that I am somewhat obsessed with what we reveal and what we conceal. Perhaps that is because I am very interested in personal authenticity and with vulnerability, both of which have a lot to do with what we are willing to reveal.

In the title story, “The Hidden of Things,” I spin a yarn about a former successful rock star who becomes religious. She grew up in London, nominally Jewish, her parents (a therapist and a TV reporter) fairly assimilated shrimp-eating Jews. They named her Astor for her grandmother Esther, who survived the concentration camps.

Astor sees great success on the popular music circuit, but also suffers from anorexia and a profound feeling of alienation. After a chance encounter with some Chabadnikim and an engagement with the (to her) surprising question Doesn’t anyone blush anymore? (this is actually the title of a book by Rabbi Manis Friedman), she finds herself drawn to this foreign world of other-worldly all-covered-up people. She not only joins but outdoes them, wearing over-long sleeves and experiencing a strong desire to cover her hair, though she is single.

This transformation leads, unsurprisingly, to tension with her parents, as this dinner scene conveys:

He drank some more wine, delaying his reply, then said quietly, “My mother went to the camps for being a Jew.”

His daughter was startled. He hardly ever spoke of that time. “When we came here she instructed us to keep a low profile, to blend in. I have honored her wishes, and if you care for her memory, so should you.” He gave her a hard look, and a hint of mockery entered his tone. “The Biblical Esther also kept her faith a secret. Her uncle Mordecai commanded her to. Did you know that?”

Red patches appeared in Esther’s cheeks. Her mother burst out: “Look at you, sleeves to your knuckles! Soon you’ll be wearing a burqa from head to toe, with a slit for eyes. Then it’ll be farewell daughter, hello bloody postbox!”

–  It is God’s glory to conceal, Esther thought.

Though they are in an argument, both Esther and her parents are advocating for concealments, just of different sorts. The name Esther is no coincidence, of course — it means “hidden,” and my entire story is, in its depths, an ode to the messages of concealment and revelation in the Purim holiday. [1]

As often happens, this character was based on a real person — in this case a young woman I met one early Shabbat morning in Bat Ayin, at a Kiddush following a Breslov prayer service. She was a ba’alat teshuvah, newly religious, and I was very surprised to note that she wore a hair covering though she was single — explaining to me over a bowl of cholent that she felt a strong urge to. While we have photographic evidence of unmarried young Jewish girls covering their hair in various societies, it is probably more to do with Muslim influence; and in any case, this certainly is not done today anywhere that I know of.

I chewed over this non-normative choice for a while after meeting her, and  found that she wouldn’t leave me. Then, to my great distress, I heard that she had committed suicide. I’ve commemorated her in my character Esther, who is probably herself teetering on the edge of mental health, and who likewise wants to cover her hair, because there is “too much light”.

Throughout the story, I engage with various ways in which we uncover and expose ourselves — not only through clothing, but also through writing, speech and songs; talk shows and transparent bags; and coming out of the closet to courageously announce one’s true identity and authenticity to the world. (For me, at the time, the act of publishing this book itself was a form of coming out of the closet, of saying “I’m single and, yes, it’s painful.”)

In the final section of the story, Esther attends a synagogue that has a wooden lattice mechitzah from which the women can look down at the men, though not so easily — they have to press their face against it, which leaves little marks on their cheeks. One day, this lattice is replaced by a one-way mirror,[2] and Esther is startled and dismayed at how clearly she can now see the men:

One Friday night she arrived in the women’s section to find the wooden lattice gone, replaced by a transparent glass partition. She turned in shock to the rebbetzin: had modesty been thrown to the winds? The old lady laughed at her.

“No, dear, it’s a window on our side, but for them it’s a mirror. So we can see them, but they only see themselves. Isn’t that clever?”

–  But that’s unfair. Do they know?

She stares down in fascination at the men’s section, noticing all the new details she can now take in. Then, at the end of the hymn lechah dodi, as she gazes down, she notices that the men remain facing the back a little longer than the women. In this scene, I played out a thought I had about modesty and intimacy in the synagogue:

But now Esther saw something she had never noticed before. While the women turned again to the front relatively quickly, the men remained facing the back for a minute, until the tune was over. This meant that for a few long moments, the men and the women actually faced each other, like the cherubs, one male and one female, adorning the Israelite ark. At this revelation, Esther felt some thought agitating inside her, pushing to surface:

– The word for face is the same as the word for inside: panim, pnim. When you meet someone face to face, your inner worlds meet.

Around her, on the second floor of the synagogue, the women were silent. A few closed their eyes, a few hummed the tune. But down below, the men, their faces upturned, sang rowdily, almost breaking the disintegrating floorboards with their stamping feet. Esther felt that she ought to avert her eyes from this sight, that there was something immodest about staring at the men. Nonetheless she pressed her nose to the glass with a greedy hunger that alarmed and shocked her.

–  Do they know?

To her surprise, Esther found her own body moving back and forth in time with the men, her feet pounding wildly to the song, her lips mutely shaping the tune. She suddenly felt as if she was back in those sublime concerts … But then she had never paid attention to anyone but herself. The faces, out there beyond the blinding spotlights, were to her an undifferentiated mass, a many-headed beast named Audience, existing solely to be sated by her. Now, here in this old crumbling synagogue, held together by prayers, these strangers’ faces with their starkly revealed ecstasy caught at her throat and moved her in an unfamiliar way.

The tune intensified. The men’s rapture engulfed them. Faster and faster they swayed, higher and higher they jumped. They clapped and sang until finally, at the height of the chant, with their eyes closed and their arms flung joyously upward, it seemed to Esther as if these men were embracing the Shabbat Bride, embracing God Himself. Clutching her scarved head tightly with both hands, Esther suddenly cried out into the euphoric tumult, her shout swept away by the roar. Her eyes were wet, and she had never felt happier than at this moment. In another second she would surely burst with gratitude for this blessed sight, this secret knowledge, this wondrous intimacy with these anonymous bearded men, and—more incredibly still—with the God she saw reflected in their upturned faces. At long last: King, Father, Beloved.

Yet in some discerning place inside her, with the one sentient cell remaining in her giddy brain, she asked herself:

–  But do they know?

… Do they know?

… Do they know how naked they really are?

I am not sure any of my readers understood the point I was making (at least, no one ever approached me to discuss it explicitly); but it’s a point I continue to ponder, and it goes as follows:

Those Orthodox synagogues that place the women above the men (and not all do, especially the more modern ones) might well succeed in their goal of removing the women from the men’s line of sight. But women have eyes too, and women can also become distracted by the opposite gender. Why is there an assumption that these women looking down are emotionless and desireless beings? To presume that women might not feel the physical and emotional attraction from which the men are being preserved – and to actually stick them at a higher vantage point so that they can more easily indulge these attractions – is naïve at best, and placing a stumbling block at worst. I remember many childhood Shabbat services in an Orthodox synagogue in which I, an overly romantic teen, gazed adoringly across the mechitzah at my latest crush (who remained entirely oblivious of me, of course). Our ladies’ section in Yeshurun Synagogue wasn’t even that high, but it was perfectly placed to indulge my eager young eyes.

Yet my point goes beyond mere romance or physical attraction. What I really want to talk about is the overlooked intimacy of prayer.

For those people in the synagogue for whom prayer is more than just a ritual, a cultural or sociological act; for those for whom it goes beyond muttering unintelligible words or declaiming by rote; for those fortunate ones for whom it is a profound communing with God and the transcendent, a great disservice is done, in my opinion, by placing others in a position where they can easily observe them.

It demonstrates a lack of spiritual sensitivity to ignore the magnificent intimacy that takes place when one is praying — an intimacy that should remain private, if the laws of modesty are fully understood. Esther’s experience is based on a real one I had, when during the final verse of lecha dodi — the one beginning with bo’i kalah where all turn to face in the opposite direction — I found myself looking down from my front row seat right into the face of a man who was clearly filled with love and ecstasy and communing with God and the Sabbath queen at that moment. I felt truly embarrassed, like a voyeur. That moment was not for me to see; and yet the synagogue’s design had let me see it, seated in the front row as I was.

Yes, I take responsibility for my own eyes; and since then I have avoided looking so directly. But those old-style Orthodox elevated women’s sections, in something that can only be described as the height of irony, create a very immodest situation. Modesty is not only about sleeves and bare skin – it is about respecting another human being’s space and boundaries, beyond which only people who have permission can enter.

This phenomenon is widespread, beyond the synagogue’s walls, and I find myself on the receiving end of it. Several times I have found myself annoyed at those who blithely take photographs of people meditating, dancing or singing in devotional settings, or engaging in any other (what should be) private acts of spiritual communion. What can I say, I find it highly intrusive, and even crass. I am travelling to the Ukraine soon, and was asked by the organizers if I give my permission for a film crew that will be present to film me. I responded that I don’t mind if it’s done while I’m listening to a lecture or walking around (that’s a lie – I do mind, but it’s all relative); however I stressed that I do not want to be filmed while praying, or singing, or doing anything else that expresses devotion.

In the opera Tosca, the painter Cavarodossi captures on his canvas, entirely unbeknownst to her, a lovely young woman who has been coming to the church for the past few days to pray with devotion and piety. He sings:

“And she was so absorbed
in fervent prayer that I could paint
her lovely face unnoticed

I remember once, at a Limmud conference in the UK, a man came up to me while I was praying and took about 50 photographs without asking permission, ignoring my attempts to glare at him (he probably thought that made a particularly good shot – “Woman glaring in prayer”). When was finished I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he explained in delight, “There was such a lovely interaction between you and the light.”

Would someone photograph another human being without permission while they were lying fast asleep in their pajamas? Breastfeeding? Taking a shower? People today do these kinds of things, or not far off. Not far from my home, displayed on a wall, is a series of photos of people on the Paris underground. I don’t believe any of those people gave their permission for their faces to become art objects and advance this artist’s career. I am a big fan of art, and I have my own curious and voyeuristic tendencies, but this is unethical, in my mind.

It’s so odd to me that I have to explain this position, and it’s so objectionable to me that today many cameras are out there ready to snap us in our every moment and objectify us in the guise of art. Another of my stories, “The Ged of El Al,” is about (spoiler alert) the shock and distress that a young ex-Hasid feels when he sees a shot of his former religious self praying at the Kotel, on an El Al video shown at the start of his plane ride back to Israel. The camera had caught him and devoured him, to be offered up for viewing pleasure every time a plane took off. “Hasid praying at wall,” an object. But he is not an object, as Yehuda Amichai expresses so well in his poem “Tourists” with his plea for humanization of himself as more than just a marker for a tour guide: “”But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

We live in a Big Brotherish world of constantly watching eyes and of people who insist on photographing you and putting your photo up on Facebook when you simply intended to attend an event (at least once I hesitated to attend an event, because I knew someone would be filming me while I sang or danced, whether I liked it or not). And then there is my friend, whose face was photographed during a Jewish organization’s singles’ event and then used for many months to promote the organization’s subsequent events, while they shockingly ignored her repeated requests to take it down. This is a form of violation.

Even when not so extreme, we all put up with this insidious behavior today, and that, to me, speaks of a dulling of sensitivity. You may find yourself not resonating with my position, but perhaps there are people at the other end of your camera who do.

End of rant, thank you for bearing with me. And please try not to photograph me while I am praying.

* This blog touches on these questions explicitly through the lens of the Purim story.

** Oddly enough, the synagogue on which I based this, which at the time of writing had a lattice-work mechitzah, later changed it to a one-way mirror. This was not the only thing in my book that subsequently came true.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
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