Yom Kipur at Hadar: Part III–Annotating one’s siddur as a spiritual practice and why I had to wear a kipah

There’s a lot to say about Yom Kipur at Hadar this year. Intro here. Part I here. Part II here.

This story actually begins on Rosh Hashanah at Chavurat Lamdeinu. Rabbi Ruth Gais mentioned a quote from former JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein:

When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.

This really resonated with me. But I immediately thought about taking it one step further. Following the tradition of my mother, I make notes all over my siddurim and machzorim. Probably to an even greater extent than my mother does. I’ve often thought that I kind of study the siddur while I pray. Does that make me the rare lunatic to whom God actually speaks while he prays? (I mean this half-seriously.) Either way, ever since Ruth planted this quote in my head, I’ve been thinking about the notion of writing during prayer as a spiritual practice.

Now, I know that writing is one of the forbidden forms of work for those who observe Shabbat in that way. I’ve also been to Hadar three or four times before and never been asked to put on a kipah or told to stop scribbling all over my siddur. So I figured these were OK things. On YK this year, I got a rude awakening about the extent to which Hadar is willing to tolerate halachic deviance.

During shacharit, a gabbai came over to me and handed me a little business card with a page number and a task on it and asked if I’d like to open the ark on page such and such. (Hadar gives out honors in this way. It’s very novel, I think. The cards suggest using them as a bookmark for the page on which your honor will take place.) I politely said that I couldn’t because I was using a different machzor and I was afraid I’d miss the right time. He said, “OK. Well, can offer you first gelilah?” I know when that is, so I said, “Sure. Thanks.”

A few minutes later, he came back, holding a little black kipah. “Can I offer you a kipah?” I told him that I’d rather not. He seemed hesitant and confused. “OK. Well, when you go up to dress the Torah, we’d appreciate it if you’d wear one.” Fine by me. “Sure. I understand. Thanks,” I said, taking the kipah. I had also been annotating my machzor all morning so I had a pen tucked behind my right ear. “And if you could just put the pen away when you come up.” Fine by me. “Sure. I understand,”  said.

A moment later, I realized that I had my own kipah with me and pulled that one out so I didn’t have to use the borrowed one. I went ahead and put it on, borrowing some bobby pins from Dana, so I wouldn’t forget.

Then he came back again. “Actually, we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t write at all, out of respect for the community. If you have to, please go to the back and do it privately.” I grudgingly said, “OK. I understand.” I was pretty pissed, but didn’t really have any room to argue with the guy, especially since I was appreciative of the fact that he hadn’t insisted I wear the kipah the whole time.

So as the Torah reading was winding down, I went to stand in the back such that I’d have a clear shot to the amud when he called for gelilah. Standing back there, I decided, in the spirit of YK, that I’d find the gabbai later, during a break, and apologize to him, honestly, for being such a pain in the ass about everything.

By the time I got up there to start dressing the Torah, it was pretty clear that the gabbai has decided that between the pen and the kipah and everything that had already passed between us, I must be some kind of uncouth loon. So he felt the need to give me detailed instruction on how to dress the Torah. What he didn’t know is the I spent the better part of my life dressing the Torah more often than not at lay-led services at CBI.

The guy doing hagbah sat down, of course, with the front of the Torah toward him, making it hard to put the belt on. To make matters worse, it was one of those wacky Torah belts with the three circular clasp things that have to go through these holes. Its was damn near impossible to put it on backwards. So now I’m fumbling around and taking forever with the belt, so I look like even more of a moron than I already appeared to be. Once the belt is buckled, it’s a little higher than it should be. So I’m about to tug it down when the gabbai leans over and says, “If you could just pull it down to halfway.” I know.

Then he hands me the Torah cover. Like every other Torah cover ever, it’s got a slit in the back so that you can pull it open like curtains and ease it over the scroll easily. Well, this is clearly not the way the gabbai usually does it. You can, of course, leave the slit closed and lift the cover all the way over the Torah and drop it on from above. I guess he prefers that way because he starts looking at me like I’m doing something wrong again.

Then he gives me the breastplate, which I put on without incident. I had noticed when the Torah was brought out that it didn’t have crowns, so I know not to wait for them. But whoever was reading was obviously using a yad, so now I’m waiting to the yad. I turn back to the gabbai, expecting the yad. He already knows that there’s no yad to be put on so to him it looks like I’m waiting for further instructions. So he says, “You can go sit down now,” in this tone that says “Why are you still here? You’re done. Duh.”

So I go sit back down. Earlier, I had been considering keeping my kipah on, but I decide to take it off before I’m even back at my seat.

I did not write anymore, but I also decided not to apologize to the gabbai.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

22 Responses to Yom Kipur at Hadar: Part III–Annotating one’s siddur as a spiritual practice and why I had to wear a kipah

  1. BZ September 20, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    Holy shit. I’m very sorry to hear that this happened. It sounds like Hadar has changed a lot — I can’t imagine this happening a few years ago (when I was a regular participant). I’ve gotten the sense that Kehilat Hadar has gotten much more prescriptive lately, perhaps under the influence of Yeshivat Hadar (which never claimed to be otherwise), and it’s sad to see. You were sitting way off on the side, IIRC, so I can’t see how your writing was interfering with anyone.

    (On the other hand, maybe some things haven’t changed — in the past, when I read Torah there on Yom Kippur, they would ask me to put on shoes.)

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 20, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

      Indeed, I was sitting as far the left as it was possible to sit in a fairly unpopulated area. But, community standards are what they are. The question now is whether I can ever really be a regular participant at Hadar. If I lived in the area, I don’t think I could go every week because my siddurim would atrophy for lack of margin-scribblings.

  2. Glenda September 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    Dreadfully sorry to have set such a bad example for you! In case your readers are wondering, I mark up my siddur for a variety of reasons, which have shifted over the years. By the way, all my marks are done with pencil so that the are less obtrusive and easier to correct.

    As I came to this as an adult, I was initially simply lost about which parts were spoken, sung, translated, or repeated in a variety of ways.
    I also started keeping track of which service we did, since GoP has so many variations and I wasn’t sure what drove the selection on any particular night. That’s what made my siddur into a diary of sorts: I’d note the date, where I was when I was traveling, who I sat with, anything notable that happened that week, and so on. Therefor I can cite the actual date that my son stayed all the way through a Friday service without running out to babysitting or getting a head start on oneg.
    When I started learning to sound out Hebrew (rather than just mumble along convincingly), I started making little helpful marks like circling a kamats katan or writing a p or f over a pey that I missed often. (I particularly enjoy looking back at those and remembering my struggle.)
    After I learned more Hebrew, I start noticing that the translations on GoP simply didn’t always match the Hebrew. So then I started translating during services, which sometimes became so absorbing that I got lost again, but in a better way.
    When I started teaching Hebrew, it became important to inventory where my sliver of the curriculum occurred (prayers, roots, vocabulary). It seemed much better to get my students comfortable using their siddurim–more authentic, more long-term useful.

    The same goes for my Tanach: I follow along, note repeating roots, translate unfamiliar words, record who read which verses when. It’s fairly amusing to walk up to someone at oneg and say “I remember when you read this portion a few years ago…”

  3. Harold September 20, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    At a Synagogue in St Louis, they use the business card approach. The card lists your honor, Hagbah, Aliya, etc and on the back gives some brief instructions. I thought it was a great idea when I had the G’lilah honor there.

    At another synagogue in St Louis, I was sitting alone since my cousin was bimah girl that day. The gabbai offered me an aliya while I was putting on my tallit soon after my arrival. He started to walk away and then turned around and said, “You are Jewish, aren’t you?”

  4. jen September 20, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Wow…I would have been really uncomfortable if I’d been there and seen you writing. I’m emailing you more about that. A kippah, take it or leave it, I don’t care, but I’m glad they asked you not to write.

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 20, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

      Greatly appreciate the email, though I can’t say I’m happy about the entire situation. It will make it harder for me to attend Hadar again in the future. (Not the email, just the situation.)

    • BZ September 20, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

      Wow…I would have been really uncomfortable if I’d been there and seen you writing.

      Just for balance, I was there, and didn’t see any of this go down, but I would not have been uncomfortable if I had seen David writing, but would have been very uncomfortable if I had seen the gabbai asking him to stop.

  5. jen September 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    Like every other Torah cover ever, it’s got a slit in the back so that you can pull it open like curtains and ease it over the scroll easily.

    Halevai all Torah covers should be like that. Check out the ones our shul has with a) no slit at all or b) a slit, but closed with velcro. VELCRO. Rrrrrrrippppppppp noises during gelila? Yeah. No-one touches the velcro, so it might as well be a no-slit cover.

  6. Beth September 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    So. I’m clearly not Jewish. and so while I know (in the sense that you have explained the ideology to me) the theory behind not-writing, I know that I can’t really understand its importance to some Jews. HOWEVER. I definitely agree with you that writing during prayer can be an important part of the process. My old Bible is all written in, and some people I know have similarly highlighted and annotated Bibles, while others who’ve seen it have looked at me like I just used it for toilet paper. Beyond that, I have an entire notebook filled with thoughts and commentary regarding the Bible passages, prayers and sermons/talks that were given on only two three-day retreats. I think part of the problem is that for some people it seems unnecessary or pointless, while (I know this is true for me, and assuming it is for you, who writes constantly) for people like us, thoughts are a lot easier to organize when I can see them written out across a page or on a screen. I also probably wouldn’t remember a lot of my interpretations or their significance if I didn’t write them down at the time, and since those are an important part of prayer for me, I feel the need to record them when they happen.

    Anyway, sorry you had an awkward experience surrounding that :-/ (and that your pen gave out later….you were just havin no luck, were you? :P)

  7. Aaron Kasman September 21, 2010 at 10:04 am #

    Hi David,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your experience at Kehilat Hadar over Yom Kippur – the good parts and the awkward ones.

    I’m the gabbai who you mentioned in your post. I’m sorry for having unintentionally made you uncomfortable. I’m also sorry that we didn’t get to meet after services.

    With respect to gelilah, I want to provide some background:

    As you implied, each community and sefer Torah has its intricacies in terms of wrapping.

    As gabbaim, we’re responsible for making sure that the sefer torah is wrapped in a way that’s respectful of it (a matter of kvod Torah) and protects it physically. We’ve found that if we don’t provide instruction or pay attention to the wrapping, that it frequently gets mis-wrapped and may need to be re-wrapped on the spot. This runs the risk of being more embarrassing for the gollel/et.

    We’ve since tried to ensure that one of the gabbaim ensures that the sefer Torah is both wrapped correctly and that we treat the wrapping as a ritually significant moment. This includes passing the items to the gollel/et in a deliberate way.

    All that in mind, for all of the roles in the Torah services, it’s paramount to us that we try to help enable the experience to be a positive one for the person performing it.

    As a related thought, I think that gelilah is sometimes thought of a trivial honor. One might say “lifting the Torah is the tough part, there’s no big deal to wrapping it”. I keep in mind glilah is trickier than meets the eye:
    1. it is something that’s done in the spotlight in the room; all eyes are on the gollel
    2. the gollel may be dealing with unfamiliar or even awkward and ritual objects
    I’d venture a guess that for many people, the unfamiliar, manually dexterous part is made more complicated by being in the spotlight of the room

    For these reason, I hope that providing this guidance not be taken as a sign of perceived ignorance of the gollel.

    I would be happy to talk about any part of your experience at Hadar further if you would like. Feel free to drop me a line.

    – Aaron Kasman

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 21, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

      Aaron, I appreciate your comment! I also appreciate your comment being significantly more level-headed than my post. When I blog, I often think hours later of the quote by Rabbi Chaim Stern, “So often my words precede my thoughts, and I feel humiliated. I am a fool more frequently than I am a sage! O God, show me how to keep quiet more often, at least until I have something real to say and someone who wants to hear it.”

      In any case, I think I will drop you a line, more because I’m curious about a few things than anything else.

      I also wanna emphasize that my experience at Hadar was overall a positive one, as it was last year. I may even be with y’all again for Simchat Torah. We’ll see.

    • Micha'el Rosenberg October 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

      Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah states that gelilah should be given to the most honored person in the room, on the premise that the person is completing the Torah reading ritual, such that it is as if she or he has done the entire thing. But I would also imagine that the reason behind such a policy is also that gelilah is the most difficult, and thus likely to be embarrassing, honor, and thus better to give it so someone who can withstand any possible embarrassment should it occur from fumbling around with wimpels and whatnot.

  8. Joe October 3, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    Wow David, that is totally fucked up I cannot believe they asked you to stop writing. Even more, I cannot believe that the gabbi posted a long comment justifying his nit-picking over glila, but didn’t address at all how totally fucked up it is to impose on someone’s private practice (even of it’s happening in shul). It’s clear that he doesn’t get what was wrong with his request.

    BZ, I hope it’s not the outcome of Yeshivat Hadar. I’m a yeshivat hadar alum, and I love that place, but part of why it works is that it is a bounded space. If Halacha for hadar means exporting this kind of bullshit to Kehilat Hadar, that is a terrible outcome. It is also a betrayal of the sensitive discourse around Halacha I found at the Yeshivah.

    I guess if Hadar wants to run this way, they can. They should just have a sign that says, “please, check your autonomy at the door.”


  1. If my pen is offensive, I’m gonna need some kind of warning. | Jewschool - October 3, 2010

    […] year, I spent all of Yom Kipur and the morning of Simchat Torah at Kehilat Hadar. I did a repeat performance this year, adding several hours at Bnai Jeshurun on the night of Simchat […]

  2. If my pen is offensive, I’m gonna need some kind of warning. | The Reform Shuckle - October 3, 2010

    […] year, I spent all of Yom Kipur and the morning of Simchat Torah at Kehilat Hadar. I did a repeat performance this year, adding several hours at Bnai Jeshurun on the night of Simchat […]

  3. 2010 in review | The Reform Shuckle - January 3, 2011

    […] The busiest day of the year was September 20th with 507 views. The most popular post that day was Yom Kipur at Hadar: Part III–Annotating one’s siddur as a spiritual practice and why I h…. […]

  4. LimmudPhilly: Shabbat morning at BZBI with a weird-ass Musaf thing | The Reform Shuckle - March 11, 2011

    […] at the ready, but did not put it on. Eventually, the honors patrol came by and offered me gelilah (this story starting to sound familiar to anyone?). I accepted, certain that he was also about to tell me to cover my head. Instead, he handed me the […]

  5. Stowing my pen and covering my head | The Reform Shuckle - June 9, 2011

    […] complaining about it to people I know a lot and complaining about it even more here on this blog. One such blogged complaint in particular didn’t turn out so well. That blog post turned into a minor fiasco–which was, in the end, entirely of my own […]