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SPECIAL EXCERPT of "The Men's Section"

The following is a special excerpt from Elana's new book, The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, released Nov 2011: Prologue One cold Saturday morning, I walked into a synagogue in Jerusalem and did something I had never done before: I led the prayer service. It was January 2002, and my friend Haviva Ner David had called me to let me know that a new prayer group was forming and needed a woman cantor, a hazzanit. This was not a Conservative community, where this is normal, but rather an Orthodox group that was trying to give women as many roles in the service as was possible within Jewish law. Haviva said women would be allowed to read from the Torah, to be called up to the Torah and to lead certain sections of the service. This was quite a coup in a world where such roles for women were until then virtually unheard of. Haviva said that the whole project was about to become academic because no woman was willing to do it. “If you  don’t do it, we may have to ask a man to lead services instead. And that would just defeat the whole purpose.” Despite my then 33 years of dwelling in Orthodox communities, despite the fact that my father is a seasoned cantor and Torah reader, and that his father was a famous cantor, and despite the fact that I had spent hundreds of hours sitting in synagogues listening to others leading the service, the thought of doing it myself was daunting – and, frankly, exhilarating. "Okay, I'll do it," I said. Ignoring my complete lack of experience, and displaying either courage, blind faith, or startling irreverence, I agreed to do it. I called my friend Aaron Frank, an Orthodox feminist rabbi and Carlebach devotee, and asked for help. He taught me some tunes, made a tape recording, and guided me. I practiced for hours, suddenly making explicit what had only been passively understood, paying attention to stops and starts, memorizing melodies that I had heard since I was a child, and taking ownership, for the first time in my life, of a text that had been central to my religious identity for decades. I was ready to become a hazzanit. This particular Shabbat was about to make history, not only for me, but also for the entire Orthodox world. It was the very first Shabbat service of Shira Hadasha, (literally ‘new song’) an Orthodox-egalitarian synagogue that has since become a legendary, world-renowned focus of conversation at countless dinner tables and blogs, and a must-see tourist spot for Jews of all denominations visiting Jerusalem. That first week, Haviva, along with Tova Hartman, a Harvard-educated feminist professor who was the spirit and energy behind the initiative, were nervous that nobody would come.  This was not a lecture hall where people from non-descript backgrounds were taking notes and writing academic papers on feminist theory or researching sources on women in Jewish law. This was an attempt...

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