Where the Meanings Are — On Praying in the Park

This past Shabbat we davened in a minyan led and comprised by men – and yet I was surprised to discover that it offered me a glimpse of a uniquely feminist prayer space.

For the first few months of this pandemic, we did not go to shul at all. Daniel and I davened independently at home and the kids joined in when they saw fit. Some weeks they used our barstools to create an Amud and distributed aliyot so that we might have a “proper” Torah service. Each person was assigned multiple aliyot, including Yitzvi, who still hasn’t reached the age of thirteen months—let alone thirteen years. The kids used my silver Yad to follow along as I read from the Chumash, which they then dressed in one of Yitzvi’s baby gowns. At the conclusion of each week’s home-shul, they organized “kiddush,” which basically meant they could eat any junk we had in the house and spoil their appetites for lunch.

Around Shavuot, Daniel began davening with a minyan that met in the park outside our building, one of countless outdoor minyanim that have sprung up in recent months on the porches and parks all over the city. Sometimes the kids would join him, but there was always someone still sleeping who could not be left alone, so I’d daven on the porch and try to listen in – feeling somewhat like the Rebbetzin in Amy Gottlieb’s The Beautiful Possible, who hears Kol Nidre from her backyard. I thought of it as a temporary matter, just for the duration of the pandemic – but “a temporary matter” can lead to the revelation of deep truths, as I know from Jhumpha Lahiri’s eponymous short story about a grieving couple who finally open up to one other during a power outage. I realized distressingly that this was now the model we were presenting to the kids: Abba goes out to daven with a minyan, and Ima stays home. At that point I didn’t yet realize how much I missed shul; I was primarily concerned with the example we were setting.

This past Shabbat, we all made sure to daven with the minyan in the park, both in the evening and in the morning. I am generally loath to daven in all-male minyanim; the presence of women does not make me feel more comfortable if the women don’t count. And yet the minyan in the park was not quite what I expected. True, there were far fewer women than men, and the women stood on the periphery; but the daveners spaced themselves so far apart from one another that when I stood on the edge I did not feel marginalized. Some members of the minyan were standing near the playground at one end of the park; I stood at the foot of the slide, relieved that for once my stroller was not blocking an aisle. The kids ran over to me from time to time to help themselves to their water bottles or to the pretzels I kept under the stroller, and I would call their attention to the part of the davening we were up to. I imagine they heard as much of the davening as they hear in our regular shul, where they are constantly running in and out. In the outdoor minyan, though, we had no one begging us to leave and go out to the playground – they were there already.

The Talmud often assumes a dichotomy between the beit midrash and the shuk, the study house and the marketplace. The beit midrash is “inside”—it is where the elite scholars sit and study Torah, which is referred to as eternal life, חיי עולם. The shuk is “outside” – it is where the unlearned masses buy and sell and occupy themselves with the things of this temporal world, חיי שעה. When a scholar shares an inappropriate or incorrect teaching, his rabbi will sometimes tell him dismissively to go take his teaching to the shuk – implying that his words have no place in the sanctum of the beit midrash, where the scholars strive for truth. At other points in the Talmud, a scholar will offer a teaching that would be dangerous to share with the masses—such as a halakhic leniency that could lead to lapsed behavior—and his colleagues will tell him that he is correct, but he should not to teach his ruling in the marketplace. Various stories (Yoma 87a, Moed Katan 16a) pit the characters of rabbi and butcher against one another, not necessarily as antagonists but certainly as antitheses: One is learned and lofty, while the other is physical and fleshy. Shul and the playground seemed to be a similar dichotomy of inside and outside. But now that shul was outside, the boundaries had collapsed – I could daven maariv with a minyan while watching my kids play, and they could hear Kabbalat Shabbat while hanging from the monkey bars. Afterwards, Liav told me, “It was fun to go to shul in the playground. It’s nice that Hashem is everywhere.” The whole world, she understood, is filled with His glory.

And yet we feel that glory in some settings more than in others. I know many women who refuse to daven in any minyan that is not fully egalitarian. That was me for a long time, and someday perhaps it will be me again. But at this point in my life, my spiritual needs take precedence over my religious ideals, and I would rather daven in a non-egalitarian minyan than daven alone. The Talmud in Avodah Zarah (4b) warns that a person should never daven Musaf alone on Rosh Hashanah, lest he or she be the only person davening at that moment and God’s judgement be focused on that person entirely. Better that we should approach God as a community, with all our collective human foibles.

If it allows more parents to daven as part of a community, then I’m all in favor of playground minyanim. While prayer isn’t quite like swinging on a tire swing, perhaps it’s not all that different from running in a relay race, with the prayer leader setting the pace. There are times when you are running and times when you are just standing there waiting for someone to pass you the baton. I tend to daven quickly, and so when I daven with others, I spend a lot of time waiting. It is in those lulls between various blessings and psalms that I often figure out what it is that I am really trying to say to God. Like the pauses between the movements of a symphony or the white spaces between the stanzas of a poem, the interstices of prayer are—in the words of Emily Dickinson—where the meanings are. Often in those moments of waiting, the kids distract me – Liav needs water, Shalvi fell down, Yitzvi woke up suddenly from his nap. I am fortunate they are all there to fill the white spaces, cognizant that they, too, are part of my prayers.

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