I decided to go one Saturday morning. I was too afraid to attempt a Friday night, when there was supposed to be dancing in the aisles. I planned to arrive at 10:15, since I knew only losers showed up on time. I wore my fanciest and most uncomfortable skirt, which only looked good when I held my breath.
There are 39 types of work you're supposed to avoid on Shabbat and holidays. The broad definition of "work" encompasses, among many other tasks, lighting a fire, carrying, and tearing (which extends to toilet paper, in some extreme interpretations); debating and bemoaning the fate of the world is not included. My mother, even when she started eating BLTs, would not carry a pocketbook on Yom Kippur. But a purse without handles was fine, since "clutching," according to my mother's halacha, was a distinct and permissible category, unlike "swinging from straps that hang in the crook of one's elbow." Remembering this, and lacking a purse, I crammed my keys into a tiny shirt pocket and walked the 20 blocks to M.'s synagogue. I felt naked; it was the first time in about a decade that I had left my house without a wallet or major satchel holding most of my possessions. You never know, in New York, what you might need. I had no idea the Upper West Side had an eruv, an area demarcated by a little wire suspended from trees, traffic lights and telephone poles that snaked around Broadway and into Riverside Park and which announced, with rabbinic certitude, that "outside" was really "inside." Carrying was OK in this shadow zone of home. The eruv was why Orthodox women loved it here; it gave them permission to push multiple children to shul in baby carriages every week rather than stir the soup and wait for their husbands to come back. My ignorance of the eruv's existence allowed me to go to services that first time burdened with nothing except my preconceptions.