It still surprises me that, during the six years I lived in Montreal, each of my homes was in a neighbourhood significant to Jewish life.
My first apartment was on Bagg Street. Visible from my window was the Bagg Street Shul, Montreal’s oldest, still active synagogue. It is an Orthodox shul in the heart of the traditional neighbourhood known for St. Urbain Street, St. Laurent Boulevard, Schwartz’s smoked meat, and Warshaw’s, where you could buy anything. I lived on Bagg Street, but I never dared to attend services at the shul. Not one Shabbat or High Holy Day service. Why not? I think I worried I would feel uncomfortable.
Then I lived for two years on Park Avenue among the haredi of Mile End-Outremont. There was a cheder directly behind my apartment. I bought chocolate babka at Cheskies Bakery and I got used to averting my eyes when I paid the male cashier at the grocery store where I bought Shabbat candles and Israeli halvah. This is the neighbourhood in which I would sit for hours in leafy Parc Outremont, ostensibly reading Nabokov or Derrida, but really staring at the young women my age who were already mothers to multiple bouncing children. On Simchat Torah, I joined a street party on Esplanade Avenue. I almost rented a basement apartment with a recently kashered kitchen and, every chance I had, I spoke to the young women. They were often in pairs or trios, often with their children, and they wanted to talk to me, too, despite my lack of modesty – my ignorance of tzniut.
“Oh, you’re Jewish?” they would exclaim, when I told them. Their eyes widened at the books I carried. Their eyes widened at my too-short skirts. “How old are you? You’re not married? You don’t have children? Don’t you want to be a mother? Don’t you believe in God?”
Somehow, I kept engaging in the conversations. The young women looked harried, but they also seemed to have a sense of purpose in life. I was a drifter and a dreamer who had no idea what to do. These girls seemed to have a sense of certainty. Did I want what they had?
“What’s it like to keep Shabbat?” I finally asked.
“You don’t keep Shabbat? Keeping Shabbat is the most wonderful gift!” one girl said to me.
“Yeah,” agreed her friend. “I feel pity for those who don’t keep Shabbat. You should try it!”
Since I left Montreal almost 10 years ago, I have found the Jewish home I never expected to find at Or Haneshamah, Ottawa’s Reconstructionist community. OrH is progressive and resolutely egalitarian, and I wonder if my haredi former neighbours would see my deepening practice as legitimate.
On September 28, the Forward published “From Black Hats to Egalitarian Prayer – and Back?” by Orthodox New Yorker Eli Reiter, who writes about his first experience davening “egal” and the maelstrom of emotions he felt during and after the service: guilt, discomfort, and also awe. The woman service leader prayed and led with a kavanah (intention) that left Reiter “shaken … moved … [and] wanting,” even though he felt he “wasn’t supposed to like it.” As Reiter comes to admit, spiritual practice can come in different forms, but the beauty is in whether or not it moves you. “Out of the corner of my eye,” he writes about the egalitarian service, “I noticed something I’ve never seen before during prayer. A woman was crying. Who knew some people express emotion during services?”
I wear a tallit now when I pray, or when I lead services or chant Torah, but I have not forgotten the young women of my Mile End-Outremont neighbourhood. In fact, I think of them every Friday night, because I keep Shabbat now, in my way. Shabbat is wonderful, I think, and when I light the candles I send out a smile, over time and space, to my Montreal interlocutors. Yet I would never feel pity for those who don’t observe Shabbat like they do, because I think Shabbat is a state of mind you can carry in your pocket. The point may not be how we pray, but that we pray. Or at least, that we connect at all, with intention.