As mentioned in a previous post, I got off on the wrong foot with my 9th grade Chumash teacher. She thought we ought to all be hanging on to her every word, and I found her rate of repetition of words too high to make any of them quite that valuable.
This same teacher taught Tefilla in 12th grade. She explained that as we left school and got married and joined the high-stress world of Jewish kollel wives, tefilla would be our main source of chizuk and our strongest connection to Hashem. We would turn to tefilla to help us through the dark times and give us strength to go on. Tefilla, she explained, is a special kesher the Jewish woman has to Hashem, whether we use the words in the siddur or Tehillim, or make up our own.
But she was going to teach us the deeper meaning of what was in the siddur.
I’ve never connected to davening. In first grade, when they gave us stickers based on who davened the loudest, I collected about five stickers over the whole year. It was just such a beautiful block of time for spacing out into imaginaryland.
When I got older, I made an effort to find meaning in prayers. Shmoneh Esrei was not difficult: each brocha was straightforward and clear. But the other 20 minutes of shacharis, the stuff about angels praising God and the lists of dry adjectives describing the Torah, I just couldn’t make sense of.
And through all of it, I never once felt like anyone was actually paying attention to me except the davening monitor. If God noticed I was trying to converse with him, he never let on.
No amount of translations, droshos, and excerpts from Praying with Fire seemed to make a dent in my problem. By 12th grade, the last thing I wanted to hear was that all good Jewish girls need to be superlative daveners. I was obviously doomed.
So during class I carried on doodling and writing as usual. This drove the teacher crazy. She was teaching us the secret to life, and I was perfecting a doodle of a horse’s head.
I can’t have been the only one not paying attention. I don’t flatter myself that the shidduch blackmail was strictly for my benefit. Because some days, when the teacher had just had enough of not being attended to, she’d try to blackmail us into listening.
“You know, I teach a lot of girls, banos,” she’d say, swooping down the aisle. “Many girls who graduate every year. And they go to the best seminaries and come back and want to get married.” she gave us all meaningful glances. And we knew exactly what she meant.
The way prep-school kids gear their entire lives toward an Ivy League college admission, bais yaakov girls gear their entire lives toward nabbing a good shidduch. Everything you say or do will be used against you in the court of shidduch research. So you had better be really careful about how you behave.
“And I get many calls, banos. Many calls about my girls from their prospective mother-in-laws. And I love saying wonderful things about my girls. I really do! I want to help them in their quest to build a bayis ne’eman biYisroel with a good ben Torah. And usually, I can say wonderful things about my exceptional students.”
She’d pause and lean over her desk, looking at us sadly. “And sometimes, I just can’t. I just can’t, banos. Because when a girl doesn’t pay attention in Tefilla class, what can I possibly think about her? A girl who doesn’t take her avodas Hashem seriously — what can I say about her? How is she going to be a good wife and a good mother?”
She’d shake her head, looking around the room in despair.
“It hurts me so much, banos, to be unable to help these girls. And I get so many calls! So many… It’s a small world out there, banos. A small, small world.”
I always felt guilty enough to sit upright and look attentive during these speeches, but the effect never lasted. I would never put this teacher down as a shidduch reference, and her circles were predominantly Boro Park Hungarian chassidim. The Jewish world is small, but my attachment to gebrokst was strong. One thing I was confident of coming out of Tefilla class:
There wasn’t a prayer of a chance of her getting to ruin my shidduchim.