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Men who stand at the back of the shul talking right in front of the women's section...and what should be done to them

As promised. I was thinking of calling this post "A Tale of Two Men Who Spoke in Shul and Incurred ALG's Considerable Wrath" but decided to go with what I originally promised instead. You can let me know which title you prefer.

Preface #1: I have tried to italicize and define (or provide links that define) all Hebrew and Yiddish words, but I'm sure I missed some. If you have questions of that or any other nature, please leave them in the comments or e-mail them to me at abacaximamao@gmail.com (or any other e-mail address you may have for me). I tried to be internally consistent in terms of spelling of non-English words, but I'm sure I wasn't entirely successful and I think it's about time to birth this baby, inconsistent spellings and all. I have more important things to discuss, after all, besides men who talk in shul.

Preface #2: Talking in shul irritates the hell out of me, even more than bad layners do. At least with bad layners, I feel that since I personally don't know how to layn (I should really learn but "ALG cannot carry a tune" has been drilled into my head for so long that I'm afraid to try), it's not entirely fair of me to complain if others do a bad job. I mean, it must be hard to get all of that trop straight, and who am I to complain if some words are mispronounced, slaughtering the meaning of the text in the process? With talking in shul, I don't talk in shul so it irritates me when people do. I don't care if people aren't davening, but when they come to services and prevent me from davening...well, let's just say that it ain't pretty. This is something that has bothered me at least since the sixth grade, which would make this an irritant for the past, um, fifteen years?

For those of you about to protest that not talking in shul destroys the whole purpose of going to shul...Of course I go to shul to catch up with people--who doesn't?--but that is what kiddush is for. Get real, people!

Preface #3: I really like mincha. I'm not much of a morning person, and I'm always afraid that Shabbat morning services are going to be too long for me and I'll get bored and go crazy. Therefore, I tend to get there sometime during musaf, and therefore miss the core of tefilah (prayer). (My bare minimum goal is to get there in time to catch up by hitting the major parts of davening before kiddush starts.) I really like mincha because it's at a good time of day, it's short, and it hits the highlights--Ashrei, Torah reading, the Amida, repetition, Aleinu, and zeh hu! What could be better? So long after I stopped going to shacharit in college I still attended mincha/maariv, and even though I'm a total slacker when it comes to Shabbat morning services, I try to go to mincha on Shabbat whenever possible. (Aside: I actually prefer maariv to mincha in some respects, because I love--I mean really, really lurve--the brachot (blessings) before Shema during maariv and I sometimes find the repetition of the Amida to be annoying and maariv doesn't have it, but that usually works out to be a less-convenient time of day for me.)

(I include Preface #3 because I want you to know that even though I may seem arrogant and self-righteous in regard to talking in shul--I freely admit that I am--I am not arrogant and self-righteous about other davening-related things, like getting to shul on time or people who routinely miss sof zman kriyat shema. I also want you to know that I don't go to Shabbat mincha because I'm so frum (as some misguided individuals assume), but, rather, because sometimes it's the only davening I can stand.)

Moving right along then...

Here's the story. Incredible though it may seem, it's true (at least insofar as any individual person's recollection of events can be considered to be "true").

Three Shabbatot ago, I went to mincha at a nearby shul, and I chose to sit in the part of the ezrat nashim (women's section) that's on the ground floor, in the rear right of the men's section. It's not a particularly attractive ezrat nashim, and, in fact, feels something like a cage, lattice-work and all. The alternative is to go upstairs to the balcony, which is sufficiently steep that I sometimes feel slightly nauseated or dizzy as I stand and recite the Amida. Needless to say, such conditions are not optimal for kavanah (mental focus), so unless the downstairs is crowded or it's Friday night and I want to get away from the hordes by davening in some unused front portion of the balcony, I sit downstairs. During Shabbat mincha, especially early mincha, there are usually not so many women there (1-3). During regular Shabbat mincha, there are sometimes other women there (3-5).

So there I was, trying to listen to the Torah service, and several middle-aged men who were standing in the men's section (ezrat gvarim? is that a retronym?) were discussing baseball and business in a voice above a whisper. I was sitting about five feet away from them and I could hear their conversation but I could not hear the Torah being read (20-30 feet away from me?). The bal koreh (Torah reader) was reading too softly, it's true, but in that case, I would think that the chatters would be especially careful to keep quiet so that they could hear.

1. I said, from my pew, "Shhh!" loudly, but the talking continued.

2. Finally, at some point, hearing all I wanted to hear about baseball and business, I went over to the mechitza (which I could see through but not over), and said, "Do you think you could keep it down in there?" (I acknowledge that this was a rude way to ask for silence during prayer, and I later apologized to the two men, which is part of the story.) The Torah was put away, the Amida was said, but without much kavanah because I still upset that I had had to make two calls for silence before I was heard. The men were quiet, at least, during the Amida, at least until they finished.

3. Then, during the repetition of the Amida, the same men were talking again, and I couldn't hear the shaliyach tzibur (prayer leader). If I'm going to be in shul during the Amida, you're damn straight that I'm going to say, "Amen" after each bracha (blessing) and try to focus on the meaning of the words, especially if I had difficulty concentrating the first time through. This time, I went back over to the mechitza and said, "Please be quiet. It's not nice to talk" or something like that (I was trying to be nicer than I had been the first time). Of course, by this time I was rather irate so it may not have come out sounding so pleasant.

I felt bad. I actually felt bad about the way that I had asked the men to pipe down. I didn't think they were right to talk, but I thought I could have asked them in a nicer way, perhaps, if I hadn't been so annoyed with them. I also wanted them to understand why it's so wrong to stand and talk right outside the ezrat nashim--the cage, the alternative to which is praying up on a balcony that sometimes makes me nauseous or dizzy. I was pretty sure that they didn't get it, and I wanted them to try to talk elsewhere in the spacious and mostly empty ezrat gvarim if they couldn't control the speech itself.

So I went up to one of them in the shul lobby and I said, "Shabbat shalom. I'm sorry if I was rude in the way that I asked you to be quiet, but I was having a hard time davening."

"That's okay," he said. "You were perfectly right and we were wrong to be talking."

"And furthermore," I continued, "I was irritated because there isn't really anywhere else for me to sit but there in the corner and if you want to talk in the future, please move to a different area of the shul."

"Okay," he said, nodding sympathetically. "I will try to remember to be quiet in the future. I'm sorry for talking. Shabbat shalom."

"Ah," I thought. "There is hope after all."

So I went up the second gentleman and I said, "Shabbat shalom. I'm sorry if I was rude in the way that I asked you to be quiet, but I was having a hard time davening."

"That's okay," he said. "I didn't mind. We're going to keep talking though, you know."

"I really wish you wouldn't," I said. "There isn't really anywhere else for me to sit but there in the corner and I don't want to have to keep shushing you. It isn't nice to have to do that. If you want to talk in the future, please move to a different area of the shul."

"Hah," he said. "You know, these men think they own the shul and they sometimes disregard other people. But, to be fair, the men were sitting and talking in that corner long before they put the ezrat nashim there and they will keep doing so. That's where the talking men sit!" he said, as if talking men could only sit in one quadrant of the shul, the quadrant currently occupied by the ezrat nashim.

I couldn't believe it. There I was, going beyond the call of duty and making an effort to apologize for being rude in asking him to be quiet during davening, and he was both justifying his right to talk during davening and ignoring my plea that they move it elsewhere so that women could daven.

"My God," I thought (not said, thought). "These men think that having women get aliyot and read from the Torah would be a breach of kavod hatzibur (honor of the congregation) and look at how they behave! What a bunch of...."

And I walked out.

I actually don't know what should be done to such men. (I mean, of course, the men like the second man I spoke to, not the first, who was perfectly lovely.) Do you have any thoughts?


hmmm... flogging?

I'm certainly not perfect about talking - sometimes I talk, but I'm rarely the instigator. However, I wouldn't ever take a stand that talking was the principled thing to be doing in shul!

Perhaps speaking to the Rabbi might help? There are some personalities in my shul which are more likely to be responsive to authority figures than to random people.

If that doesn't work, just bring a big pointy stick. ;)

(If you like that approach, I've got a solution to the agunah problem you'd like too...)
It seems to me that the second guy was being sarcastic and poking fun at the fact that you got so worked up over it. I don't think he genuinely thought that it's more important that that section be devoted to talking men rather than davening women. I'm not saying he's right, I'm just saying that I don't think he was as proud of his own talking as you think he was. Sometimes us guys respond to unpleasant confrontation with humor (humorous to us, at least).
This reminds me of the sign in a shul in Tzfat. It said, "If people talk
here, where will they pray?" I thought that thought it the nail on the head.
"...hit the nail on the head," that is.
Thanks for the suggestion, David. (Actually, both of them.) I have hesitated to speak to the rabbi about it because it's not my regular shul, and, in fact, I avoid it like the plague except for when it's convenient, like for Shabbos mincha. I'm not a member nor am I a "regular," although I guess going there for Shabbos mincha more often than not might qualify me as a regular. In any case, I am going to e-mail the assistant rabbi with a link to my blog. If it's bothering me, it might be bothering other people.

Avi, I do think that the second guy was being a little bit sarcastic when he said that the guys were never going to change, they owned the shul, etc. And I'm sure if he stopped to think about it, he would agree that davening women belong in that corner of the shul more than talking men. Maybe. I'm actually not sure--a lot of men seem to not understand why any woman would ever want to go to shul or hear layning or whatever. I think you sometimes underestimate the disregard with which many Orthodox men hold women.
Alg - you're absolutely right about noticing the disdain: it's one of the things I get regularly jarred by. My upbringing was relatively secular, and my mom was heavily invested in the 70's feminist movement, so I might be more sensitized to the nastiness than others are.

I've had conversations with other men in my shul (over the size of the women's section downstairs) where my argument boils down to "we need to bend over backwards to not be rude, and to be accomodating to women's spiritual needs" and the counter argument boiled down to "no, the women's section is big enough as it is" (most days, there are one or two women in it, but occasionally, for no apparent reason, 5 or 6 will show up for shaharit)
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