Stowing my pen and covering my head

If you’re a regular reader, you know two things: First, that I hate putting on a kippah and, second, that I like to take notes in my siddur during services.

It has become increasingly clear to me that these preferences of mine are not well received in some communities. As the range of places I’m willing to daven has expanded–or drifted to the ritual right, as it might be more accurately put–I’ve had to deal with this issue more and more.

My first attempts at dealing with this involved complaining about it to people I know a lot and complaining about it even more here on this blogOne 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 making.

Then I started trying this thing where I’d walk into a place where I suspected they’d want me to wear a kippah with my head uncovered and wait for someone to correct me. I’ve only ever met with success using this method. Either no one tells me to put one on or they do. It’s not like I’ve ever been ejected for this. (It hasn’t even cause a blog post fiasco. Yet.)

While I was using the better-to-ask-for-forgiveness-later-than-permission-now approach to covering my head, I was using a similar approach to note-taking. I’d keep the pen in my pocket and try to take notes really discretely. Now that I’m actually writing this down, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually had bad luck with this method either, though I’ve only tried it in pew seating situations where it has some chance of success.

The risk associated with taking notes during services is that it has become compulsive. If I have a pen on me, I will make note of every little thing–when they switch leaders, what tunes they do for everything, liturgical oddities, the presence of other people I happen to know, the date, various architectural features of the space, etc. I could go on. It is this compulsion that has made posts like this exhaustive catalog of the minhag of one community possible.

Which means, as many–Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, most prominently–have pointed out to me, that I risk not noticing the forest because I’m taking a rubbing of the bark of every damn tree. I’m like those hordes of Japanese tourists that can’t possibly have seen one inch of Europe until they go through their photos once the vacation is over. I have pretended that this problem doesn’t bother me, but it has begun to–though this is certainly the first I’ve mentioned it here.

Now I’ve moved to South Orange and I’ve found Beth El, a nice shul that makes me want to stick around. I’m fairly mortified to find myself on the verge of considering the possibility of maybe eventually inquiring about membership at a *gasp* Conservative shul. And I want these people to refrain from ejecting me from the premises.

Which means that I have been leaving my pen at home and putting on my kippah before I go in. Of course, I wait until I’m at the door to put it on. And as soon as I’m out the door, I take it back off. But still.

(“If that’s the case,” you’re wondering, “how did he produce this blog post about services at Beth El?” My new method is to fold over the corner of any page in the siddur on which I want to remind myself that something of note happened. So far, it’s seems to be working.)

I feel, on the one hand, like this is all probably pretty good for my problems with ego and humility. On the other hand, I feel like I’m losing some battle. Being that asshole who takes notes in services has become and identity issue for me.

And, just as an aside–and maybe as a last word of protest on the issue–I have noticed that Beth El refers to itself as a Conservative egalitarian congregation. If that’s the case, why don’t the women have to cover their heads? I have noticed that many women, probably more than usual, do cover their heads, but the sign on the bin-o-kippot does say “all males” must cover their heads.

And, just as a final complaint on the topic in general, I don’t know why it matters to anyone else what is or is not on my head. I have to wonder what would happen if I went to Beth El for shacharit and failed to put on a talit. Would that matter? Or only on the bimah? Would anyone chastise me if I showed up on a weekday and didn’t wrap tefilin? Why is everyone so bizarrely attached to this one little minhag?

Alright. That’s all. I meant for this post not to turn into a rant, but it’s only been like a week so far. I’m still working on being over this stuff.

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18 Responses to Stowing my pen and covering my head

  1. David A.M. Wilensky June 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    How snazzy is this new comment thingy?

    • Leslie Bass June 10, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

      I wanted to “like” your comment. But then I realized I couldn’t.

  2. gsmckinney June 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    It’s good to be in a community, but how anyone else has the energy and nerve to micromanage personal behaviors of other folks is bewildering to me.

    I’d never be who I am without having made notes in my siddur–although I use a wooden pencil, not a pen.

    Dog-earing pages as a preferable behavior? Shudder. That actually degrades the paper, so seems far more heinous.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 10, 2011 at 11:48 am #

      I’d never be who I am without having made notes in my siddur–although I use a wooden pencil, not a pen.

      Pen or pencil, the same probably goes for me. I think I never would have started the sort of in-depth reviews I’ve been doing here lately without copious notes.

      Dog-earing pages as a preferable behavior? Shudder.

      Yeah, that was a habit you never could break me of. Yet it seems more practical than the alternative, which would be those little arrow sticky things.

  3. Rich June 9, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    When I read your beth-el review I was really impressed that you put on a Kippah.

    As to why kippot are mandatory for males but optional for women I can only venture a guess, which I will credit to Shira Salamone. Kippot are beged ish according to some. So while a man cannot violate halachah by wearing, a woman can.

    At Beth Jacob, on one occasion I forgot to don a kippah on the way in and the gentleman behind me pointed it out. On another occasion, I had reached the end of weekday shacharit and as I removed my shel rosh, I was chagrined to discover that I was a NAKEDHEAD. No one had said a word.

    I differ from you in that the first time I walked into a reform shul, it was with a sense of defiance that I donned a kippah srugi and a tallit. Same sentiment, but reversed.

    Don’t shrink from joining a C-Shul. I know lots of people who have Reform and Reconstructionist smichah who daven at mine, and you already know someone with Reform smichah who davens there. And where else are you going to go for weekday shacharit, anyway?

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 10, 2011 at 11:56 am #

      When I read your beth-el review I was really impressed that you put on a Kippah.

      Well, Rich, you might say that I dress to impress.

      Kippot are beged ish according to some.

      In an Orthodox setting, I’d buy that notion, to a certain extent. However, since kippot are note a matter of halachah and their purported meaning is certainly not male-specific, I can’t understand why we should expect men to be reminded the God is above them, but not women.

      And in a Conservative setting, I suppose beged ish might still be an issue if a member of the Laws and Standards committee happens to be a member of your shul. But given that women can wear pants to a Conservative shul, I’m not buying the beged ish argument. Especially if their kippot are in a feminine style, as they often are.

      None of which is meant to pick an argument with you. I get that you were just throwing the idea out there. I just wanted to explore it fully.

      I differ from you in that the first time I walked into a reform shul, it was with a sense of defiance that I donned a kippah srugi and a tallit.

      Yeah, but these days those are both neutral statements in most Reform shuls.

      And where else are you going to go for weekday shacharit, anyway?

      That’s quite an assumption about what I’m doing with my mornings these days–not to mention when I have the wherewithal to wake up.

      • Randi June 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

        Beged ish is the reason why I generally avoid wearing kippot. But it’s complicated.

        Years ago, after my giyur, I decided to obligate myself in wearing a talit for morning prayer and in head covering for prayer. At the time, I had no issues with wearing a kippah for the reasons that you’ve already mentioned: they can be feminine and the reason for wearing it isn’t gender specific.

        But then I got married to a nice Apikorus Jewish man, who loathes to don a kippah. It felt strange to me to wear one when he didn’t–that it gave the appearance that not only was I out-Jewing him, but out-manning him as well. While I certainly don’t see a kippot on women as butch, it does make me feel that way a little. Now I wear all manner of scarves and headband-y things and hats to accomplish covering my head while taking care to not be over-tzuniusdik in ways that would offend the sensibilities of my congregation or call more attention to me.

        I think I overthink this topic even more than you do, David.

        • Diplogeek June 13, 2011 at 8:06 am #

          I made geirut relatively recently. I actually like wearing a kippah when I daven, though weirdly, while I wore one davening at home, I didn’t start wearing one at shul until relatively close to my conversion; I decided I was being weirdly inconsistent in my practices and started wearing one after that. I would give some consideration to trying out a scarf or something, but as I lay tefillin, it’s totally not worth the trouble. Tefillin fit on over a kippah easily; trying to maneuver them around anything much bigger (even one of those Bukharian-style kippot) has proven to be a huge pain in the neck.

          If I meet/marry a guy who hates wearing kippot, my approach might change, but I doubt it, if only because of the tefillin issue. There’s also the fact that at my regular shul, the vast majority of women wear kippot- even the older ones. I can only think of a handful who don’t, off the top of my head, and a lot of them either do the chapel cap thing or at least put one on if they’re up on the bimah.

  4. anonymous June 9, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    Regarding tefillin, I think they’d probably prefer you wear it, but they don’t have a basket of tefillin outside the sanctuary. Maybe a shul might have an extra pair or two. So if you don’t have it, they probably can’t give it to you. Meaning they either ask you to leave, or let you stay without wearing it. My guess is any conservative or even modern orthodox place would let you stay. Tefillin also has the issue that you have to know how to put it on or have someone help you. A yarmulka is easy to put on.

    Regarding a tallis – maybe some Conservative places will want you to wear one, but that is easy to get out of. Ashenkasic Orthoodox practice is not to wear a tallis until you are married. So, I would think that a Conservative place would let you be without a tallis, even though Conservative practice is to wear one from bar/bat mitzvah. On the other hand, if you are going up to the bimah (other than davening mincha/maariv on a weeknight), I would expect you to be required to wear a tallis.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 10, 2011 at 11:59 am #

      Ashenkasic Orthoodox practice is not to wear a tallis until you are married.

      Which is something I only learned recently. Any idea where that tradition came from?

      It’s also interesting that the practice has completely disappeared in the liberal movements, where talitot are always conferred at Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

      • anonymous June 10, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

        I didn’t know where it came from. Did a quick Google search and came upon this (http://www.globalyeshiva.com/forum/topics/tallit-before-marriage?commentId=727216%3AComment%3A34424). One random guess of mine would’ve been to make the marriage candidates more obvious … but likely that has nothing at all to do with it :-)

        Interestingly, I believe the sephardic tradition is even to encourage boys under the age of bar mitzvah to get used to wearing a tallis, by having them at least where it at times. (I’m only omitting girls/bat miztvah here, since there really aren’t more liberal sephardic movements, even if individuals are less traditionally observant.)

        Back to (orthodox) ashekansic practice, it is acceptable for boys under 13 to have certain aliyahs (e.g., gelila) or to lead parts of the service (e.g., birchat ha’shakar, Kabbalat Shabbat, and on Shabbat/festivals, ein k’eloheinu through anim z’mirot). When doing so, they would wear a tallis. (Just going based on what I see done; I can’t cite you the reasons.)

  5. uzi June 10, 2011 at 5:20 am #

    I don’t know what the policy is today but in the past there was a policy at Beth El that all women who take aliyot to the Torah were required to wear a head covering. I believe this may have been true for talit as well. It may be worth asking the Rabbi or someone on the ritual committee for clarification.

    You point out an interesting double standard/point of tension in defining a community as egalitarian. I imagine that most communities either don’t know or don’t care about what the full depths of what a label like that means and are perfectly happy having it mean that women can take full part in ritual just as men can. Weak? Perhaps. Still a good thing? For sure.

    As far as writing notes during davening, I know of several congregants who would ask you to not do such a thing if they noticed. They would not throw you out of course but simply indicate that this was in breach of the communal/public standards of shabbat observance. If you can remember what you were thinking at any given point in the service the dog-ear trick seems to be a happy medium.

    • David A.M. Wilensky June 10, 2011 at 11:46 am #

      I got the impression from some the all-female cast of younger service leaders I’ve met so far that it’s at least very strongly encouraged with them to wear talit and kippah on the bimah.

      By the way, thanks for your perspective as a former member of Beth El on these posts.

      • uzi June 10, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

        That sounds right.
        My pleasure. It was great shul to grow up in and I still attend when I am back visiting my folks. I hope you continue to enjoy it.

  6. Laura June 12, 2011 at 3:53 am #

    And, just as an aside–and maybe as a last word of protest on the issue–I have noticed that Beth El refers to itself as a Conservative egalitarian congregation. If that’s the case, why don’t the women have to cover their heads? I have noticed that many women, probably more than usual, do cover their heads, but the sign on the bin-o-kippot does say “all males” must cover their heads.

    Yeah, I’ve…er, thought about this. I still secretly wish that I’ll come into my Conservative shul one day and there will be a “Women too!” sign. I’m thinking it’s the way it is precisely *because* it’s only a minhag. In a totally egalitarian community (though I’m not sure if Conservative still only considers self-obligated women obligated, though….), if men are required to wear a tallit, I’d be a little offended if women aren’t. Because that’s an obligation—just like I was a little upset to find that none of the women at our minyan wore tefillin (maybe it’s just a Southern traditionalism thing). But it just so happened that men started wearing the kippot and women didn’t, no mitzvah is really happening, so it’s not really “egalitarian” to have women do it as well. Technically.

    Although I’d still prefer if women who get aliyot wear a head covering. That’s just good sense.

  7. David A.M. Wilensky June 12, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    I have found that most Conservative shuls now require anyone going up to the bimah to cover their heads, regardless of sex.

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