I do not know what time it is when Cantor Chaim Dovid Berson begins to sing the Amidah, or Shemoneh Esreh, which is the central part of the Jewish prayer. It is a prayer recited three times a day – morning, afternoon and evening – in Orthodox Jewish communities.

On this Friday evening, I attend Ma’ariv, the Jewish service recited after the sunset. I am in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, located at 125 E. 85th St. on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. No cell phones or other electronic devices are allowed here; that’s why I don’t know what time it is. This is a sacred place where the faithful share a moment of prayer with the community, and I understand that cell phones would distract people from this purpose.

Men and women sit separately in the synagogue, and I join the few women present. It is the first time I have ever visited a synagogue and the first time I have ever attended a service. I look around. The men are dressed in a jacket and tie and wear the kippah, a brimless cap worn as a sign of respect. The women are elegantly dressed. The rabbi is in the center of the room on the bima, a raised platform. He chants and the rest of the congregation sometimes joins the intonation of the hymn.

When the prayer intensifies, and voices rise, the faithful begin to rock. The hands either go down the body or hold the prayer book; the feet are stuck to the ground. Some go back and forth, some go from side to side, and some make a deep bow at the end of the swaying motion. This movement is called “shuckling,” which comes from the Yiddish word that means “to shake.” It is a profoundly private moment between the faithful and their prayer, and each person takes as much time as they need to make this movement. 

While the faithful continue to shuckling, I observe them in silence. It almost seems like I can see the energy pouring out of their bodies and pervading them. Quickly, I realize that there is not a time when the worshippers are called to make that movement. The person begins to rock back and forth at their discretion, when they want to, and without needing someone to tell them to do so. Everything seems spontaneous and authentic.

Next to me, a girl named Mia is particularly focused in prayer as she moves her body back and forth, occasionally making a deep bow. At the end of the service, she tells me that that movement is her way of praying, and there is no precise explanation behind this gesture.

According to Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, the swinging represents the total immersion of the believer’s energy in prayer. He also jokingly tells me that it is a movement-related only to Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, and that the Prophet Mohammed is said to have warned his adherents “not to do like Jews who move back and forth.”

There is also another explanation of shuckling that can be found in the past, according to an article written in 2013 by Miriam Goldmann, curator of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s exhibition “The Whole Truth.” In the 12th century in Spain, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi reported that often the Torah was read by many men at the same time. To ensure that the process was quick, they developed this movement whereby they would bend forward to see the book and then quickly retract to make room for the faithful afterward.

However, the service is now over. I gather my things and present myself to the rabbis. Meanwhile, the community members greet each other by saying “Shabbat Shalom,” which is an invitation to enjoy a blessed Shabbat. I greet everyone by thanking them, and as a response, I receive a warm “Shabbat Shalom, Eleonora.”