A boisterous game of “Monkey in the Middle” overtook our family room after Shabbat dinner last week. Astonishingly, nothing was broken and nobody got hurt. Laughter, happy yelling, and lots of good-natured teasing kept the blue-and-white beach ball airborne and away from the “monkey,” who in this game, was my daughter.
My only little girl is a feisty 8-year-old. She holds her own with big green-gray eyes, a smattering of freckles, a knowing smile, and a steely grip amid the three brothers who love nothing more than to give her a hard time about, well, everything: that she mispronounces “bird,” that she’s something of a busybody, that she prefers to keep her room testosterone-free, and yells “out” as soon as a male body, canine or human, places a smelly toe over the threshold.
The boy-pack encircles her. One younger and two older, she is as spirited as they are, joins in their water balloon fights, eats as much as they do, and watches whatever they’re watching at full volume. But every few days their loud energy overwhelms her and she retreats to the Land of No Boys Allowed where the walls are painted sunlit coral and the fluffy pillow on her bed is of the purest, cleanest white. She curls up on the pink tie-dye beanbag and reads. Or knits a few rows of the scarf she’s working on.
She is a part of their wolf pack, and also separate. They always include her in their wild games. If she wants to, she does, and if not, she doesn’t. But she likes to feel included.
I assume it was her not-so-subtle separateness that determined she was the monkey in the middle last Shabbat evening. She chased the ball, leaped high in the air to catch it, and suddenly lunged in front of one of the boys to sneakily intercept it. Even when she did hold onto it, she continued to be the monkey, full of mischief and fun. When one brother held her away at an arm’s distance so he could pass it to the other, she giggled. When they goaded her to come closer, she joked right back. I waited for it to end in tears or hurt feelings or a ball in the nose. But it didn’t. It was only inclusive, opt-in, and participatory.
So when the topic of her bat mitzvah came up the next day, I shouldn’t have been that surprised at her perspective. But I was.
We belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue in California. I’ve never lived anywhere else in the United States, but I believe that the Bay Area is as progressive and innovative as it gets when it comes to technology, most politics, food, and Judaism.
Our Modern Orthodox community is exactly that: progressive and innovative, inclusive, welcoming, non-judgmental. But it’s still Orthodox. Men on one side, women on the other, a
(a divider between the men’s and women’s section of seating in an Orthodox synagogue) down the middle. In our synagogue, both men and women can lead services. When a man does, the whole congregation is present. When a woman leads, only the women attend. This understandably leaves some women feeling slighted, left out, controversially not worthy of leading a service and reading from the Torah before an audience of men, no matter how many reassurances to the contrary.
Of course, the women in my community don’t feel this way because if they did, they probably wouldn’t belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue in the first place.
A female-led service doesn’t happen often; usually for a bat mitzvah on a Shabbat afternoon. But when it does, it’s always a beautiful, melodious service with a unique serenity.
With one bar mitzvah barely behind our family, and please God three more celebrations to go, we are fully entrenched in the simcha season—not only at our synagogue, but also at the Reform and Conservative services nearby and at many beyond the Bay. Most Shabbat mornings, we listen to barely-teenage voices read Torah portions, hear their beautiful words of Jewish wisdom, and sing “Mazel Tov!” to lovely girls dressed in palest turquoise and fine boys in neat shirts.
So, “Will I have a women’s service, Mom?” was not a question too out of the blue even though my daughter is still four years away from her own bat mitzvah.
She didn’t give me a chance to reply, before she blurted out: “I don’t want a women’s service. That doesn’t seem fair.”
I took a deep breath and thought about how I should respond. I wondered if my daughter, who sits next to me every Shabbat while her father and brothers are apart from us, who tries to read the ancient Hebrew letters in the
, feels the probing, skinny fingers of doubt poking her heart—I wonder if she hears a small hesitant voice questioning whether she should feel sidelined and excluded, even though it’s all she’s ever known.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” she continued, oblivious to my search for the just-right words, “to the boys. And to Dad. I want them to see my bat mitzvah. And if I have a women’s service, then they would be left out. Like they would be excluded from a game.”
I held my breath. And my tongue. She’s not the one who feels left out. She’s worried that her dad and brothers will. And for this little monkey in the middle who is always included, that’s not cool. She knows how wonderful the women’s service is. How special it is to read from the Torah, and how proud her father and the boys will be of her when that day comes—but only if they get to witness it.
Our community is Orthodox. And innovative. Creative. Fathers do get to watch their daughters read from the Torah, and brothers can shower their sisters with candy. We have four years to figure out how it will work for our family, so that everyone feels included, even the boys. Plenty of time for lots of Monkey in the Middle!