They took us to Tzfat for Shabbos, to the dark center of the black-hat world. These people guard their tradition like your grandpa guards his fake teeth. Aside from wearing the same outfits and chanting the same tunes their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, the Tzfat Jews are, unsurprisingly, somewhat sexist.
On Friday night, our group split up. Half of us went to the Carlibach Synagogue, where the girls were only shushed for singing too loudly; and the other half, including me, actually had a bad experience.
We walked up to the women's section of a different Synagogue down the street, which comprised of a balcony overlooking the men's section. It was small and dark, curtains hiding the spacious men's section below. We could barely hear the Chazan, the leader of the prayers. The lone occupant of the room, an old woman in a long black dress, snapped at us to close the door after we walk in. There were quite a few of us and the last girl, who didn't hear the instruction, left the door wide open. The old lady heaved herself up and shut the door, then turned around and scowled to see Lilly pushing aside the curtains hanging over the balcony to peek down at the men.
"That is not allowed here!" she said too loudly, and I winced as I was certain that the men below could hear her. "We won't have any of that nonsense here!"
She gestured towards a small, unobtrusive plaque halfway up the wall which read, in Hebrew: This is a holy place. Do not push the curtains aside!
We pushed the curtains back into place and sat down. This was not enough for our elderly friend. Every few minutes she got up and made a round of the women's section, checking to make sure we weren't moving the curtains when she wasn't looking.
Now, look. Old ladies are old ladies. They're finicky. And this old lady was a Charedi, the strictest sect of Judaism, probably born and raised. She had that look about her that old people get when they discover a certain group of wrong-doers — in this case, Modern Orthodox American tourists — and decide to fight this evil with all the strength they can muster. Picture the old man in your neighborhood who starts spitting fire every time your soccer ball rolls into his yard. Annoying, yes; but it is his home and, as your mom will remind you, he is someone to be respected. We were in her Synagogue, her territory, and we would stick to her rules.
So I moved to a seat next to the door in order to get up and close it the next time someone walked in, since it was obviously hard for her to stand up more than necessary. Everybody finally settled down in their seats — even, after one more suspicious round of the area, the old woman.
The prayer began.
"Lecha dodi likrat kalla...Go my love, towards the bride; welcome the Shabbat." We raised our voices in song, together with the men that we could not see and, for a moment, felt at home. Even the old lady was singing along peacefully, having forgotten us for a moment.
As Rose and Amital's beautiful voices soared high above the men's bass tones (both were involved in choir in their respective high schools), I thought to myself, I bet they can hear us down there. I bet they know that they have guests.
I was too right.
After a few minutes, the singing on the men's side came to an abrupt stop. A voice rose to us, anonymous, from below.
"The women are requested to stop singing. This isn't Carlibach here."
The prayer continued, now all bass, low and dark below us.
The worst part was the old lady. The one whose life's work was guarding the Synagogue from harmful outside influence. The one who, moments before, had been singing right along with us. The men hadn't said, "Please sing more softly," or "Would the choir people with the incredible voices keep it down?" They had said "Women — stop singing," and that included her too.
She smiled garishly, shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. "I don't know what's going on," she mouthed to us. Suddenly sheepish, apologetic. Suddenly, against her will, on our side.
I got up and left, unsurprised to see Lilly right at my side. The rest of the girls followed. The old lady remained, to deal with what had happened however she could.
There is something incredible about that, too. To stick to something you believe in, even if it's hard beyond comprehension. This woman was Charedi to the core. She was the only local woman in the Synagogue most women there don't go pray with the men at night. She must have been the strong one, the rebel, the one who wanted to show her connection to G-d alongside the men. She believed with all her heart, and she wasn't going to let sexism stop her. I admired her for that. But this way of life certainly wasn't something I believed in, so I left without a backwards glance.