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Alone in New York City, she had heard that on this night there would be dancing here, and she’d looked forward to it all week. She couldn’t wait to dance, and she hoped to find a community that would embrace her.

The Women’s Balcony

The Women’s Balcony

A Sukkot Experience


One evening during the “intermediate days” of the festival of Sukkot, at the Simchat Beit HaSho’evah celebration held annually at Neve Yerushalayim, a Jerusalem women’s seminary, my daughters and I engaged in four or five hours of nonstop dancing. The boomingly loud music, provided as it is each year by a local women’s band, was earsplitting, irresistible, rhythmic, sometimes sweet and yearning. The women and girls, mostly strangers to each other, came in all ages, and for those uninhibited hours hundreds of us danced and danced and danced as if nothing else in the world existed but our feet, and our songs, and our exhilaration.

On the bus ride home late that night, as my littlest girl fell asleep on my lap and my teenagers talked with their friends, I thought of a Simchat Beit HaSho’evah celebration twenty-five years earlier, when a young Jewish woman, harboring some tender hopes and fervent questions, entered a synagogue. By herself in New York City, she had heard that on this night there would be dancing going on here, and she’d looked forward to it all week. She couldn’t wait to dance, she hoped to find a community that would embrace her, she wanted Jewish explanations for everything in her own life and on the planet. And last but not least, when she walked through those doors, she wanted G‑d Himself to be there waiting for her.

From the women’s balcony of the 72nd Street Synagogue, I looked down upon the men dancing for a Jewish holiday I’d never heard of until that day. Fathers held children aloft on their shoulders as they circled around and around and around; small girls and boys dashed in and out of the delighted procession. These self-inclusive families were everywhere, it seemed. The music was fast and loud and catchy. Outside there was thunder and lightning and cold. In here it was warm and bright.“I’d like to know why the women aren’t dancing with the men.”

I tapped my foot and looked around discreetly at the women occupying the tiered benches, and when I couldn’t stand it any longer, sidled over to the sedate-looking lady seated a bit to my left. I had recently started recognizing these people’s well-coiffed wigs; this woman had on a brown one, and a little round hat atop that. “Excuse me, can I ask you something?”

“Yes?” She turned her head partway. She appeared, I thought, to be some sort of European, in her early thirties: trim, no-nonsense, attractively even-featured, attired in a navy blue suit with a lacy white collar.

Next to her I felt unkempt, but it was the disorderliness of my ravenous heart I had to hide. “Excuse me, could you tell me—”


“I’d like to know why the women aren’t dancing with the men.”

She stared with large hazel eyes. Her chin drew in. The pretty girl at her side, who I supposed was her daughter, around twelve, with glossy auburn braids, leaned forward slightly and surveyed me with guarded curiosity. I felt like a wild-hearted monster compared to these two. “The English,” the woman said. “I am sorry, I do not know to speak Engl—”

I repeated the question, not trying this time to conceal the hard edge beneath my words.

One, two. A few moments stood between us. Then: “You should speak to my husband. He is a rabbi. He will know how to answer you very good, he knows better to talk than I. Wait after downstairs and I will bring him.”

Afterwards, in the wood-paneled anteroom, I waited. A cloakroom was on one side, an oaken stairway on the other. Girls and women and little children were all coming down the stairs with a lot of conversation and noise, men and boys and more little children were exiting out of some hallway to my right, everyone was getting their coats and wraps. Families reunited, the place gradually emptied out, and I was alone. Suddenly an opaque glass door opened up and a black-suited, bearded man with a large black yarmulka stepped forth. As the door shut behind him, I caught a fast glimpse of the brightly lit synagogue proper within.

He stood before me, wary. Was I scaring these people?

“Yes,” he said, “my wife tells me—” Also a European, it seemed, from some vague country like Belgium. “You want to know about the dancing?”

A sudden bitter irritation twisted inside me. This husband, this rabbi of hers, better prove women weren’t second-class citizens, after all, in this whole get-up. And heaven help him if he couldn’t give me an answer, pronto.

“Right. I want to know why the women aren’t allowed to dance with the men.” My anger sounded to my own ears flat, cool, confident, the way I wanted it. “They should enjoy themselves, too.”

The man drew himself to his full height and looked down upon me with chin upraised. Now I understand: he was trying quickly to calculate what should be said in response. What would be of most benefit to this sad girl with the scared eyes? Is she from a Reform congregation? Is she one of those feminists? “The women do not need to dance, because they are on a higher level than the men.” He squinted a little, trying to hit the right note with this hostile, melancholy American Jewess. He hoped to. “Do angels need to dance?”

Something opened up within me, some channel. I wanted to believe . . . him? The anger melted for a moment in my desire, the desire which had brought me to this painful place in the first place, where I felt impure and unworthy. Do angels need to dance? I tried to take it in. He’s saying I don’t need to dance, because I’m an angel.Their lives and mine were hardly on the same planet

But it was hard to keep my feet still.

Therefore, I’m unangelic?

I wish I were angelic.

“Do angels need to dance” . . . It sounds like a compliment. It’s surely a compliment. But not for me? Because I need to dance?

I wanted . . . something, and waited for more.

The rabbi, however, seemed to have completed what he had to say, and expected me, apparently, to go now.

Out I stepped into the wet Manhattan night, with his answer in my emptied heart.

Speeding along in this bus now, two decades down the road, a sorrow seized me for that child, almost as if she were a daughter to me rather than myself. I wished the well-meaning rabbi and his wife had told me that, of course, separate dancing by women is permitted, and explained honestly why women can watch men as they dance but not vice versa. I wished they’d convinced me that although none of us is an angel, I too would fly one day; and that sometimes I’d even transcend the prison of my human limitations by restricting myself according to halachah (Torah law).

I wished that, somehow, they had known how to make me feel included, that cold and rainy night, rather than ostracized.

But how could such things reasonably be expected? Culturally speaking, their lives and mine weren’t taking place on the same planet. Just as mine hadn’t prepared me in any fashion for them, theirs had in no way prepared them for relating to modern young American women. And in those years, there were no women’s seminaries yet in Manhattan, designed to speak my language.

As familiar shadows of Jerusalem rushed by in the darkness, it struck me, though, that even if the rabbi and his wife had given me those frank replies, perhaps I wouldn’t have had ears to hear. The whole notion of separation of men and women would probably have seemed to me so old-fashioned and oppressive and strange that I might have rejected uncompromised truth, had it been proffered.

G‑d Himself was waiting for me, however, just as I had hoped. A few weeks later, one of the couples in the neighborhood invited me to a Friday night meal. When the woman lit two candles for Shabbat and covered her eyes, I found the sight so very beautiful, and was so touched that this was a Jewish ritual, part of my own heritage, that I sat right down, took out my drawing pad, and executed an exquisite charcoal line drawing of the candles and their burning flames.

She said nothing. I sat there, blithely unaware that I was doing anything wrong, and drew my picture—until she distracted me with her baby (she saw that her guest was a newborn, too)—and felt that perhaps this world could be mine, after all. I was on my way.

From B’Or HaTorah Journal: Science, Art and Modern Life in the Light of Torah. B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.
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Anonymous Bloomingdale, NJ June 28, 2015

Women in the Synagogue is an amazing story of consciousness, which leaves us in awe.
Beautiful, simply so. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman October 26, 2011

For Anonymous, Colorado Springs Personally, I have to agree, and it doesn't seem from my reading that the author bought it either. Moses and Aaron also kept the mitzvahs--does that mean they are lower spiritually? Reply

inge oppenheimer yonkers, ny/usa October 21, 2011

women dancing with men As a mental health practitioner, I was impressed with the rabbi's attempt to sidestep the woman's feelings with the use of flattery. I go along with the hope expressed by anonymous of Tampa, Florida - that this young woman find a shul which allows identifying herself as an observant jew while also accepting her as a human being with human needs. Reply

Jason Schwadel Satellite beach, Fl October 20, 2011

Welcoming Answers often have meaning based on the way they are said as much as from the content. Answer with a warm heart. Reply

Anonymous Delray Beach, Florida October 20, 2011

Maybe those women didn't dance because their balcony had no room for them to do it. Maybe the men who designed the shul set them up there for just that reason: They were supposed to be spectators, not participants. I don't buy that "angels" nonsense. Angels don't wear out early doing all the housework, laundry, cooking, and cleaning. Angels don't produce (and then care for) a dozen babies in a dozen years. This evasive rabbi couldn't bring himself to say, "Because we, the real people, don't want you to." Reply

Anonymous Colorado Springs, Colorado October 19, 2011

I don't buy the theory that women are "higher than men" and therefore do not "need" to dance, or that women are as angels. Get real. The reason really is that men want the power, and to not be distracted by the feminine presence. I thought we as Jews are reaching for yichud, the uniting of the masculine and feminine. At least women should be allowed to dance in a separate space. Reply

yiddish guy paris October 19, 2011

Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining I don't get it. i can understand that the author is in need to belong to a community, because life is so hard when you are alone, but what was the logical explanation to the rabbi's answer?

The whole notion of separation of men and women DOES seem old-fashioned and oppressive and strange. And it is the lack of logical explanation that increases the number of secular jews. Or am I missing something? Reply

Anonymous Liverpool, England via October 17, 2011

Simchas Torah dancing If the person concerned had to ask the question, it revealed that she was not very familiar with orthodox Judaism, and I think , the Rabbi answered correctly in this situation.

Even so, we need to know why we do things, and dancing on Simchas Torah is not essential in itself. Explaining the reason we have this holiday is more important, and when she knows the how and the why, she will then be in a position to participate with the women in celebrating this holiday. Reply

M. S. via October 15, 2008

Reading him Right It's obvious to me that had he answered factually you would never have accepted it, since you were angry and had preconceived ideas. So I think that he wasn't trying to speak condescendingly or to fluff you off. Many men really do see women as angels-- when they are married to women who honor them.
I have seen couples who look to me just like angels!! Reply

Sho770 Geldern, Germany July 19, 2008

thanks Thanks you for sharing your very moving testimony.
Indeed, answering "correctly" to people desperately looking for answers isn´t easy, even more so when a single word or the tone of our voice can push someone away or... draw him close.
An answer like the one you got about women being angels would have made me think that the guy tried to avoid answering me, and I wouldn´t have appreciated that. Stating clearly that men can´t dance together with women wouldn´t have hurt and would have made things clear too. The comment on women being angels (wow!) could have followed...
The fact questions are asked is the biggest step, the first and most important step forward, towards truth and probably inner peace. I didn´t have so much questions, since I had the luck to discover our heritage together with my parents and brother, so it all came as a maybe not so easy but obligatory process, learning little by little. Thanks to all those who kindly showed us how to live as jews. Reply

Binnie Stein Woodmere, N.Y. / USA February 21, 2007

DANCING WITH TRADITION My Grandfather always taught me that if the Jewish people bend their traditions too far, they will break. This beautiful well written storiy shows us a young woman who went throgh a transformation in her early years during which she discovered who she really was. She returned to her heritage and is now bringing up her family in a truly traditional way. Because of people like this wonderful lady, we have hope that our people WILL survive and continue to dance with their tradition forever as they sing AM YISRAEL CHAI! B'Yididut! Reply

Anonymous phoenix, az December 14, 2006

The souls of Israel The time is coming when the souls of Israel will once again be united. If we close our hearts and minds to strangers and make them feel unwelcome....who knows what we are really doing to ourselves? Reply

Marli Parker Eclectic, AL. USA October 17, 2006

I am not JEwish but am looking to convert. I feel I can relate to this story so much because I truly am searching to find my place in this world, among a people I love so dearly. And sometimes I get discouraged by the things I don't understand, and I get overwelmed at the vast differences between what I am learning and what I have been taught. May Hashem bless us all with patience and understanding! Reply

Anonymous tampa, fl usa August 4, 2004

Answer to story posted THe story brings out how a first impression can cause pain in a womans
heart who is looking for her roots. With out a doubt she was in the wrong place at the rigt time....... The holiday of Simcas Torah is a beautiful holiday and many services are filled with happiness and joy and dancing to celebrate the holiday. The Orthodox celebrate without the men and woman dancing together but I have been to services where the woman do dance seperately to celebrate. On the other side the conservative services dance together and the reform dance together. So I feel a sadness that this woman was at a service that did not give her the inner joy and meaning of being Jewish and a part
of a group to full fill her inner soul with joy and happiness. I do hope she goes to a different Temple in New York where whe will be welcomed... Reply

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B'or HaTorah
B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.