Alissa Burstein

Unholy thoughts from the women’s section

Twice a week I find myself in the ezrat nashim (women’s section) at synagogue. I will admit that my thoughts are not always with the Holy One. Maybe it’s late-onset ADHD. Maybe it’s the exhaustion of pre-Shabbat preparations. Maybe it’s just that I’m human. Whatever the excuse, I’ve decided to share with you what goes on in my mind while I should be thanking the Lord for all s/he has given me, and praying for a better world. And I’m willing to bet you and I think about some of the same things…

  1. Nail polish: Last week I decided to try something new. Instead of planning to do my nails Friday afternoon, to pamper myself a few hours before I light candles, I decided to be realistic. It ain’t gonna happen. Again. Just no time. Ever. So I did my nails in the beginning of the week, with the reasoning being that this way, I can enjoy nice, freshly done nails for a few days, and even have them look nice for Shabbat. I made it to Friday, the day I enter the kitchen at the crack of dawn and leave it to take a shower before lighting candles. But fear not, I worked all day with gloves to protect my self-manicure. At about two o’clock in the afternoon I decided to remove my gloves (literally as well as figuratively) and lo and behold…not one nail intact. Acetone and cotton balls, here we come. About five minutes before candle lighting I managed to smear one coat of clear. Like every week. So much for that approach.

Why don’t I just get a professional manicure like the rest of you lovely women with perfect nails, surrounding me in the pew, drawing my attention as I am supposed to be looking down into my siddur and not at the latest color fashion for this little piggy and that little piggy? It’s simple: I don’t have the time! Will someone out there please let me in on the secret of how you schedule going, sitting while they dry, then returning home with beautiful nails sculpted by someone else? I haven’t figured it out yet, after all these years. Besides, do you never reach for a dish in the closet, pick up keys you have dropped,  tie your shoes — that you all have flawless nails, all of the time? So I apologize if I don’t have that perfect, polished, look. But wow do I envy all of you!

  1. Telenovela: Do you like people-watching? So do I. As an ethnographer of sorts (at least on paper), one of the things I was best trained at, is observing. But straying from the tenets and integrity of academic standards, I love to look at people I don’t necessarily know, especially those I see regularly, and build a whole telenovela based on them. My imagination, and that of my compatriots who will remain anonymous to protect their innocence (I’ve already turned myself in!), can run wild. If only these people knew the stories we have built around them, based purely on what they are wearing, how they enter the synagogue, and when, and who they sit (and talk!) next to. These stories are purely fabricated, but oh so amusing. So the next time you see me in shul, run for cover. I may be re-creating you!
  2. Fashion: So this is how it goes with me — right before I take a shower before Shabbat (hopefully the first in the family so I still have hot water!) I look at my closet for about 30 seconds and choose the most reasonable outfit, preferably something I didn’t wear the week before, if I remember! It has to be clean, color coordinated, weather-compatible, and frankly, comfortable. I don’t understand all of you fashionistas who look stunning, but clearly can’t breathe. Or move. I try to be somewhat fashionable, but those who know me have probably picked up by now that this is not my top priority. I’ll let you in on another secret — I rarely choose a second outfit for Shabbat day. It’s very simple: a) why bother, and b) why dirty another shirt and skirt or dress? Mr./Ms. Global Warming would appreciate my attempt to minimize laundries. So I do admire all of you Kate Middletons out there, as well as you Melania Trumps. I’m fine with being Mrs. Doubtfire.
  3. My new glasses: My daughter loves to tease me. She especially loves to say to me, “Kol Hakavod (“good job”) mom, you’re growing up.” Unfortunately, that’s her euphemism for, “Chill mom, so you’re getting old, it’s better than the alternative.” I’ve finally accepted the fact that I need reading glasses. It took about 10 years. Yet I still don’t remember to take them with me every week. But on the weeks that I do remember, I can actually follow the Torah reading and even catch a Rashi (biblical commentary, typically in small print) or two! And a piece of advice — prescription reading glasses really are better than the drug store option. Sure, I used to color-coordinate my glasses to my outfit, since I had so many to choose from, but now you’ll be seeing me in my boring specs. Even if they don’t match.
  4. Noisy neighbors: An acquaintance once said to me that he believes (he really does) we are supposed to make small talk in shul. Judging by his behavior, he doesn’t mean small talk, but talk. Non-stop. For the entire prayer service. He thinks shul is meant to be a social gathering. The truth is, he is right, to an extent. The Jewish house of prayer is call “Beit Haknesset”—gathering house, not prayer house. Jews convene to pray, in a quorum, all together. We really do all get together. But, as I explained to my acquaintance, there is plenty of time to talk before shul, after shul, and at other community gatherings with members of the shul. Forgive me for generalizing (I will anyway), but in most Sephardi synagogues you can hear a pin drop, out of reverence for the Holy One; in most Ashkenazi synagogues chatter is taken for granted, and the norm, albeit a challenge. And I am not immune, I will admit. It is hard. However, I do try to keep my heart-to-heart conversations, business matters, and party planning for outside of the sanctuary.

As such, kindly allow me to sign off with a heartfelt request to my readers to please, be more aware of the background noise you are generating. Halachot (Jewish laws) of talking during services aside (guess what? It’s forbidden) — it’s common courtesy to not only God but to those who came to pray. And if you see me chatting, just wave your manicure at me — I’ll get the hint. Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Alissa Burstein is a mother, wife and cat lover living in the center of Israel. With a PhD in education, she currently works at the Bar-Ilan University Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in an administrative capacity. Yoga and good coffee (and cats!) keep her somewhat sane.
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