Super-Pious

My elementary school was so large that grades had lunch at different times, and in multiple lunchrooms which doubled as auditoriums with stages at one end. The eighth grade ate in their classrooms because there was just no space for them. But when I was in seventh grade, my grade ate lunch in the large lunchroom with the sixth grade.

We all sat class by class, at long tables arranged, as a friend pointed out when I told her this story, like the Great Hall in Hogwarts. The sixth grade was at the far end of the room, and the seventh grade tables were towards the front, near the stage. Each table was manned (womanned?) by the class’s Hebrew teacher until their English teacher came towards the end of lunch to take over.

After lunch, we were led in bentching (grace after meals) by a few girls, and then we davened mincha (the afternoon prayer).

One day, the principal who usually stood at the front of the room directing everything, from bentching to mincha to class-by-class dismissal, wasn’t there. Another principal, Mrs. Pitkin, took over. But before we could start mincha, she took the microphone and called across to the back of the room.

“Excuse me,” she said, “excuse me, why are those girls standing at the wall? Why are they already davening?”

And all heads swiveled to the back of the room, where a line of five or six sixth-graders were already standing for shmoneh esrai (the standing silent prayer). And immediately the entire room burst into gales of laughter.

Because those five or six girls were not simply standing there, they were shuckling, swaying in concentration, so hard that their ponytails were flopping back and forth over their heads and down their backs as they violently flung their upper bodies back and forth – in concentration, remember.

Their teacher waited until the noise of the laughter had died down, and then called back across the room to Mrs. Pitkin, “Rabbi Eiserman gave them permission to always start earlier.”

There was a pause as Mrs. Pitkin continued looking perplexed, and the teacher added, in a tone which seemed almost ashamed of what she was saying, “because they take a long time to daven. They, um, they have a lot of kavanah (concentration).”

How they could concentrate with hair flying in and out of their eyes, I do not know. How the hanhala could allow such a farcical exhibition of proper davening, I do not know.

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