One Tired Ema

Pray like nobody’s watching


Two days ago, in Machne Yehuda (one of Jerusalem’s markets), I stumbled upon a simple scene that really brought home what I’m doing here.

An Orthodox minyan, a prayer quorum, was meeting for the afternoon prayer in the back of a shop selling nuts, dried fruit, spices, and candy. Despite a synagogue deeper inside the market, a whole 90-second walk away, this ad hoc group just took a quick break from work or shopping and got it done.

It still sometimes startles – and thrills me – to realize that Israel is full of religious people doing their thing. A lot of them are Jews. (Not exclusively; I’ve seen Moslem prayer rugs in use on roadsides and sidewalks as well. Jerusalem is also home to monks and nuns in their religious dress, who regularly take public transport and shop in the markets.) This isn’t to say that the atmosphere is suffused with it; in Tel Aviv, a much more secular-seeming place, afternoon prayers are usually decently tucked away in office meeting rooms, and non-kosher food options outnumber the kosher ones.

Anyway, after spending so many years in America trying to make my outward religious expression muted in order to shield myself from confrontation or awkwardness or, god, all the explaining, it is odd that I generally don’t have to anymore. (This is partially luck, as I haven’t had to be the only religious co-worker in a firm, which has definitely happened to people I know.) At work in America, I prayed in stairwells; said the grace after meals swiftly at my desk with my head nearly tucked under my desk. I pretended to like hats as a fashion statement.

The other day I was in a doctor’s waiting room with my son, and sunset was imminent. “Did you say mincha at school?” I asked.
“Not today,” he said.
“So do it right now; you’re about to run out of time.”
“Which way do I face [towards Jerusalem]?”
I pointed him the right way, approximately, and he just did it, in a room full of a dozen people.

It is a small thing, hard to describe, without seeming like a fanatic. But I was one of five Jews in my high school graduating class of a couple of hundred.

Watching my children blending in, seamlessly, puts air in my lungs.