The Equal Power of Solitary Prayer

I’m not a huge synagogue-goer, especially since having my kids, (can you say, Children’s service?) but for the past 12 years, I have always gone to the services on the major festivals to say the Yizkor prayer in memory of my father.

Recently, I saw a conversation on a Facebook thread where someone asked where the custom of saying this memorial prayer in the presence of the community came from, rather than being happy to read it alone.
It took me by surprise. It had never crossed my mind that the Yizkor prayer was something I could say by myself, as part of private tefillah. In fact, in the past I have changed whole plans around for our festival lodgings, organized the day around my attendance, and even on one occasion run to three separate shuls on a particularly stressful Shavuot morning after a series of unfortunate events – all to make it into the service in time for Yizkor.

Growing up Orthodox, communal prayer is a big thing. The idea of a minyan, where ten people come together to make a quorum for speaking to God is a pre-requisite for certain prayers. However, in Orthodoxy at least, it doesn’t apply to women. Like it or hate it, women are exempt from attending thrice daily prayers with a minyan. In fact, there are very few times in the year that even the most traditionally observant of people would say that I need to be in shul, and most of those can be side-stepped if need be, by asking someone to pop round and help out by blowing you 30 shofar sounds on Rosh Hashana, or reading you a speedy version of the Megillah on Purim.

The pressure that I have put on myself to make it to shul four times a year for the Yizkor prayer has been coming entirely from an inward place – and I think, probably, a sexist one.

For women, prayer is not a communal act. Whatever we are meant to take from the services, Jewish law is very clear – we do not need a crowd to get it done right. The guilt that I feel when I think about ‘missing’ Yizkor in shul, is the same feeling that many other women, those who feel connected through prayer might feel at the idea of sitting at home this week on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, rather than trading places with their husbands and standing in shul instead.

For some reason, there is something about praying this way, quietly, without an audience, that feels like it isn’t enough. But where does that come from? Not halacha, as we said – women aren’t asked or expected to be at shul. So, why do I feel like I’m somehow not respecting the memory of my father? Why do you feel like you’re not making as much of an effort as you should be?

Well, I call patriarchy. On myself, and on anyone else who has convinced themselves that prayer alone is a lesser version of prayer in a group, just because that’s how the men are told to do it. If you want to be in synagogue, and you can make it work for you – then all power to you. Just make sure that you’re doing it because it makes you happy or it enhances your relationship with God, not because you feel that solitary tefillah is a poor (wo)man’s prayer.

This week, I hope to make it through the doors of my shul, to listen to the melodies of the prayers I grew up with, to fast alongside the rest of the community, to feel the strength in numbers as we pray for a good, strong year ahead for us all. There is so much to love about communal prayer, and the experience of synagogue, especially on the High Holy Days.

However, for the first time, if I don’t make it there, if my kids need me at home, if the fast is making me feel weak, heck – if I just decide that I don’t want to, I won’t feel less-than. I’ll open up my machzor, I’ll proudly find the Yizkor prayer, and I’ll honor the legacy that my father left – a daughter whose words are valid and powerful, not because she is standing in the presence of men, but because she knows that she stands in the presence of God.