Dear He's A Lady Reader,
You didn't even know it, but you've been waiting for this story for a long time.
P.S. It's written by Hannah.
My dad tells me that while I’m in Budapest I should go to the Dohány Synagogue, where he thinks my great grandparents were married. It’s a very beautiful synagogue, with lots of nice geometry on the outside and two large black and gold minarets, so I want to go inside to see more. They want to charge me fifteen bucks for the pleasure, which is not acceptable to me, so I enquire whether there is a time I could come for free – for services, perhaps? (“You cheap Jew,” I think to myself)
Yes, Friday evening.
Do men and women sit separately at this synagogue?
Yes. (“We’ll get through this, Hannah.”)
I suddenly realize that I have not been to a gender segregated service in a long time, not since I gave away the bulk of my dresses, not since strangers regularly began addressing me as “Sir.”
A friend and I come back to the synagogue a few days later. The one dress I brought to Hungary is not long enough to get me into a synagogue, and I’ve gone the route of no compromise and worn what’s most comfortable for me – pants, collared shirt, vest. Leaving my apartment I have a moment of guilt and throw a long cotton scarf into my bag, in case I feel the need to sport a feminine accessory.
My friend is late. I watch the door to the synagogue anxiously. Sweet-looking old couples are being wished a good shabbes and shorts-wearing tourists of all genders are being turned away. Are they admitting women in pants? I think so. I do a trial run. I approach the door. “My friend will be here soon, and then we would like to come to services.” In halting English he responds, “All right, but no cameras.” Ok. My friend arrives, and the guard tells her that the sleeves on her dress are too short, so she can’t come in without a shawl. I give her my scarf, and while she goes to lock up her bike I walk into the synagogue unaccessorized and unaccompanied. A man hands me a kipah, the head covering worn by Jewish men and sometimes women. The kipah is a sign of humility before God (who is above you).
I sit in the center aisle, where men and a few women are milling around. Without comment. My friend comes in and pulls me to the side, and upon reflection, and as services begin, this is in fact where all the women are. It turns out that every person sitting in our row is an English speaker, from London, Westchester, and Long Island. We chat, as we cannot understand the Hungarian inflected Hebrew or discern from the melodies where we are in the services. After a few prayers, a man comes to our row and speaks to me in Hungarian. “I’m so sorry, do you speak English?” (In my head, “I’m sorry, I will not continue to disrupt your services with my idle chatter”). “Please take off that kipah. You cannot wear it. I’m very sorry.” “Ok.” “Would you like a different head covering? I can give you a piece of lace.” “No, thank you.”
And with that, I can stop worrying. Whatever gender situation there was has been resolved, for me, for now. I’m in.
After services, several groups of women approach me. “Why did he take the kippah away from you?” “Well, why do you think?” I say.