There was a time when we first started dating when being apart from Jeremy left me feeling off-kilter. Being in shul was especially weird.
Even though we could usually see each other across the mechitza, or the partition between the sexes, it was still an unsettling experience. During longer services, Jeremy would pass by my seat and motion to me; we’d both go outside to the social hall and reunite for a few minutes before separating again to our sections.
I have prayed my whole life in Orthodox shuls, but I never really paid attention to the gender divide until I started dating. I knew, of course, that the separation of the sexes bothered people who were concerned about gender equality. But even though I’m a feminist, I didn’t see it that way. It was just how shul was. We used to joke that in my shul in Baltimore, where the women’s section was in the back, we didn’t know what our rabbi looked like until he left the shul and started doing online podcasts. What did I care what the rabbi looked like? My dad is a rabbi and if I had any questions about Judaism or Jewish law, I just asked him. I never felt the need to connect with our shul rabbi.
Now that I’m married, being separated from the men finally makes a difference to me because it means I have to be apart from my husband.
Jeremy and I do have the option to try something different. There’s a small group in our community that conducts prayer on Shabbat with a trichitza— that is, a worship space with a men’s section, a women’s section and a gender nonspecific section. We haven’t been yet, though we do intend to try it out. But they don’t get together every week, and the truth is, even if we did try it out, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable sitting in the egalitarian, mixed section regularly — partly because I grew up in a sex-separated minyan, but also because there is halachic reasoning behind the mechitza. And as much as it might inconvenience me — which is, honestly, not very much — I still put halacha as I understand it before my own comfort.
The separation has a bright side, as well. Being apart from Jeremy, and feeling his absence, reminds me that, as much as I allow the relationship to become the main focus of my life, it is not the entirety of my life. I need room for me. I need room for God and my religion and my growth in that arena and every other. My relationship, indeed, can only benefit from a couple of hours of meditation in shul each week.
Besides, there’s a certain thrill of being a couple in shul. Growing up, I saw couples interact across the mechitza: the wife would hand the baby to her husband to concentrate on her prayers, or the man would motion to his watch to indicate it was time to leave. There was a secret understanding between these couples across the mechitza, one that I grew up observing without being a part of, and it’s strangely exciting to partake in that myself.
The mechitza doesn’t make me feel oppressed and it doesn’t make me feel unequal. It does make me realize I’m a bit of a pansy for not being able to go two hours without speaking to my husband. But then again, when I’m trying to talk to God, I don’t need any more distractions than my own mind provides me with. I can talk to Jeremy later. These few moments are for me and God.