The women’s section was half empty, but the stranger, who stopped several times while walking up the aisle, chose the front row. Not just the front row, but one chair away from where Michal stood, trying to concentrate on the Amidah. Michal was, as always, intense in her devotions, but also, as usual, feeling that the words weren’t getting through, neither to He to whom they were addressed, nor to herself.
She instinctively placed a protective arm over the baby in her womb and evaluated the newcomer out of the corner of her eye. The stranger was breathing heavily, as if not used to walking much, but her figure was not a frail one. Gray hair was visible under a rose-pattered silk kerchief that covered her hair, tied under her chin rather than wrapped stylishly around her head like Michal’s. Worn this way, the kerchief indicated a grandmother of a long-gone age, or perhaps a woman who knew that she was supposed to cover her hair in synagogue but had no idea how to do so except for some vague, long since faded memory of her own grandmother. She leafed in confusion through the pages of the prayer book she had taken from the shelf in the back, her head moving from side to side.
Michal finished the silent Amidah and took the prescribed three steps back. She looked around at the dozen or so other women around her. They were mostly young mothers themselves and Michal admired them, and herself, for making the effort to pray in public, in synagogue. There were far more men, of course, but for the men it was expected, required. They had to be there. The women were there because they chose to be.
Michal helped the stranger find her place in the prayer book, which was obviously unfamiliar to her. The woman closed her eyes and rocked back and forth with such force that Michal feared she would keel over. Michal glanced at the friends and neighbors in the rows behind and beside her and received some encouraging looks. She reprimanded herself for feeling uncomfortable with the stranger and, to repair that emotion, she turned toward the old woman when she opened her eyes and offered her a smile. When the hazan began chanting the repetition of the Amidah, Michal helped the grandmother turn back the requisite pages so that she could follow along.
“I came to pray for …,” the woman whispered hoarsely to Michal, and Michal thought she heard ba’ali, my husband. She nodded sympathetically, but then suddenly realized that the woman had said “Bibi.” Michal did not realize until taking a step away that she had done so. But the woman took two steps toward Michal, standing uncomfortably close.
“I am so scared,” the woman said. “They are sucking his blood, the leftists, the media, the prosecutors. Only God can help him.”
The hazan began the Kedushah, the most sacred part of the service, where the worshipper, like the ancient prophets, envisions standing before the throne of God. Michal brought her feet together and stood erect, as demanded by the laws of prayer. The stranger, however, did not seem to know that talking, frowned on any time during the prayer service, is absolutely forbidden during the Kedushah.
“Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” the congregation chanted in response to the hazan—“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.” The newcomer strained upward to direct her speech into Michal’s right ear: “They’re treating him like Dreyfus.” Michal was sure that the woman did not know who Dreyfus was. The stranger directed her gaze to the raised platform at the front of the synagogue and brought her fingers to her lips to kiss them and send the kiss to the Holy Ark. “God help us!”
Michal raised her index finger to her mouth. In doing so, she felt arrogant, as if she were demonstrating to the stranger that there were rules that she knew and that the older woman did not. But neither did she want to encourage the woman to disturb the prayer, nor did she want to accept the transgression.
The woman looked around in surprise at all the other women in prayer. “Kol ha-kavod,” she whispered, too loudly, to Michal. “Everyone’s so serious here!” Michal winced. The old woman seemed to be doing her best to be exactly the kind of woman Michal did not want to be, not in shul, not anywhere else.
The hazan completed the Kedushah and Michal sat down. The stranger imitated her, but this time took the chair right next to her instead of leaving an empty seat between them.
“I’m not feeling so well,” the woman confided in her. “And the Iraqi shul up the hill, it takes me at least twenty minutes to get there. So I figured why not go close to home. God doesn’t care if you pray Sephardi or Ashkenazi, right?”
Michal forced a smile and put her finger to her lips again. She looked around at the other women and whispered, very softly, to the stranger: “It’s prohibited to speak during the prayers.”
The woman’s eyes opened wide and she stared at Michal for a long moment. She rose from her seat. Michal saw that she’d offended her and felt awful. The woman was already shuffling down the aisle. After a moment’s hesitation, Michal got up to follow her. She caught up just outside the double door that separated the sanctuary from the foyer. She wasn’t sure what to say.
“Excuse me.” The woman kept walking. Michal touched her lightly on the shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
The woman looked up at her. Michal couldn’t make out what the woman’s face said, what she was feeling.
Michal felt helpless. “We can talk out here.”
“I just wanted to pray for Bibi,” the woman muttered. She did not stop.
Michal was furious at the woman for not accepting her apology. She was worse than her mother.
“Why do you need to pray for Bibi?” Michal blurted out. “He’s rich, he’s powerful. Why does he need help?”
The woman stopped. She looked up to heaven rather than at Michal. “If they can frame Bibi, what can a little person like me do if they try to put me in jail?”
“Listen, it’s not that simple. You know, I work in the state prosecutor’s office.”
The stranger slowly turned her gaze to Michal’s belly. “Until you have your baby? Are you a secretary?”
The stranger was pressing all the wrong buttons. Michal told herself that this was a woman from another world, another age, and that there was no use getting angry. But she was. She bit her lower lip to regain self-control. “I’m a lawyer.”
The woman shook her head. “You’re all liars. He’s a good man, Bibi. What do you want with him?”
“Look.” Michal knew all the talking points. “He’s been investigated. By the police, by the prosecutors. Everything’s been done according to the book. It doesn’t matter whether he’s been a good prime minister or a bad prime minister, whether he’s done good things or bad things. If the evidence shows that he broke the law and violated the people’s trust, he has to stand trial. We can’t have one law for the prime minister and another law for everyone else.”
They had reached the synagogue’s outside door. Michal followed the stranger out. The woman put her hand on the railing by the stairs that led down to the street and stopped to catch her breath. But there was fire in her eyes.
“You have one law for you and another law for me. You’re allowed to talk and I have to be quiet.”
Michal realized that her words had not gotten through.
“Please come back in,” she pleaded.
The woman waved a hand at Michal. “I’m going home.”
Michal stood a long while, watching the stranger walk slowly up the street, stopping to rest from time to time. Then she returned to the women’s section, to say more words to God.
Haim Watzman’s Necessary Stories appear in The Times of Israel every four weeks. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and a collection of his stories, Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.