Every year, when the days grow short and chilly, I make my annual breast pilgrimage to New York. For a few hours I am lotioned, prodded, kneaded, and photographed by surgeons, mammographers, oncologists, and gynecologists, and spend much time between procedures waiting in dark rooms. Some of my medicos make light of our yearly encounters with jokes and banter, but my breasts are precious burdens and I prefer to keep the conversation businesslike as they lay exposed before us.
It began years ago, when my gynecologist Dr. Rossi was doing her rounds of checks of the female parts of me. She delivered my last baby, and although I have since moved to Maryland, I have kept her as my doctor; she has magic hands and I don’t relish the idea of looking for new ones. Dr. Rossi informed me she had found a suspicious lump in my breast, and that I would have to see experts as soon as possible.
In shock, I had to inform my family and boss in Maryland, find somewhere to stay for an uncertain amount of time, as well as someone to whom I could blurt out my fears. New York is not an easy place to find a shoulder to cry on. People are intent on billing hours and making delta profits. Conversations with frightened friends are not chargeable and have no delta.
For days I was on the phone making appointments and walking the city to meet them. All the while I comforted myself that not one woman in my family had ever had breast trouble, and that this was probably—hopefully—probably—hopefully, just a scare. I had read too much not to know, however, that the overwhelming majority of breast cancers are not genetic, and family history was of no moment once a malignancy was discovered. I did find a friend who lent me her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but was living in her Toronto pied-a-terre that week, and she was also my chief counsel. She had seen me through my journey from adolescent loose in New York through sober adulthood, and assured me of—what? Not exactly that everything would be okay, but that everything was as okay as it could be right now. I was doing what I could do.
These breasts of mine, they are family heirlooms. They hang large and low, irrespective of the size of the woman who inherits them. Even when I was thin as Kate Moss, I wore a C-cup bra; and when a normal weight, I’m somewhere between a triple D and a G cup. My mother once talked about a breast reduction, but my father grimaced, and that was that. I figured, these are the breasts I was given and I’m going to keep them, which means that I spend a lot of time looking for bras that fit or wearing ill-fitting garments.
My distress making my nonstandard body approximate the Western ideal, I dismissed as foolish vanity; I reasoned that my breasts were genetic burdens, just like flat feet, to be borne like a good girl, with bowed head. These thoughts took a turn when I became pregnant. I hail from a family of legendary breast-feeders. My grandmother was born weighing two pounds, and since she and her twin sister could not suck her mother dripped breast milk into their mouths until they learned to feed on their own. That milk, and their mother’s persistence, nursed them into childhood in an era before incubators or feeding tubes.
Every day of my pregnancy I creamed up my nipples with my grandmother’s ointment, readying my breasts for their destiny. The moment my daughter was given to me, she latched right on – and did not come off. Day and night she pulled on me, in the subway, while giving a class, in the bathroom, anywhere. She nursed through my second pregnancy, and a year into my son’s life. Never did my breasts complain, nor crack, become infected, or hurt. They are triathlon athletes, Olympian performers.
I am thinking of that first time when I lay ready for inspection in the surgeon’s rooms, waiting for the man who would proclaim me well or in need of fixing. I was so nervous, so sorry for these devoted beasts hanging at my side. “Well, you are large,” he opens the conversation, as he checks for lumps. “And you have such a small frame to support them. Don’t you get backaches?” I am offended; with the thousands of mammary glands he examines a year, why must he make snide remarks about mine?
The surgeon finds nothing awry. He says that the fibers that make up the breast are like noodles that start lumping together with time and gravity and (in my case) heavy usage. A poetic metaphor. But nevertheless, I am immensely relieved. The mammographer and oncologist also find me free of disease, and I can return home unscathed. They caution that with “complex” breasts like mine, it is advisable to make annual rounds of the specialists. I wonder what it might be like to have simple breasts—something like having a simple mind?
My annual breast pilgrimage to New York has now become an opportunity for a private trip together—me and my breasts. At the end of the visit I often feel beaten up and spend too much time in waiting rooms, but otherwise I can wander round the shops, eat in restaurants, treat myself a bit. And feel thankful for the complexity of my mammary glands.
After my son stopped nursing a decade and a half ago, he asked me why my breasts did not just go away. If he had no use for them, he wanted to know why they continued to exist. I could not answer him; it would have been such a relief to have dropped down a size. But now I believe that they remain as a kind of memorial to the selflessness of the woman’s body, the eternal font of life.
Rushing into a conference midway through a speech, I scanned the room for a seat then stopped, startled. Had I entered the Gentlemen’s Gallery of an Orthodox synagogue? But this wasn’t a synagogue – it was a colloquium on derivatives at an Ivy League university! Why was I the lone woman?
I sat down. My mind wandered from derivatives back to another era. It was my first year at Sydney University in Australia and upon entering my maiden Economics tutorial I was confronted with a boys’ football huddle in formation. Prying apart the interlaced arms to make a place for myself, I asked the female tutor, “Where are our money-minded sisters?”
“You’ll get used to it,” the tutor comforted me. But she was wrong. I entered university as women were flooding the disciplines and quickly taking up half the medical and law schools and I usually had plenty of female company in class. Those football physiques provided no advantage in competing for academic awards, which in my year were swept up by women.
Today, responsibility for the tax policy of the United States of America rests with my team. It is the highest honor to be invited to join and log the grueling hours expected of us. Work has a sacred quality: the more you do, the holier you are. Leaving before 7pm is like sneaking out of synagogue midway through the sermon. Extracurriculars such as family or aiding the poor are commendable in small doses; but the core of an American’s identity and the bulk of her or his time must be devoted to paid labor.
Kim and I are the only women on the team with young children. Whenever we catch a moment to chat, Kim dwells on how deficient she feels. “I only come in three days a week, and I just can’t give it my all,” she moans. “If I’m battling the mess at home, I’m thinking about the pile on my desk; and when I sit behind the pile, I’m imagining the volcano smoldering at home.” She laments that she cannot throw herself into the job with enough gusto to command respect from our colleagues.
Kim is wrong. She is a Harvard Law graduate with elite law firm experience and we all vie for the excellent judgment she rations out to our office. But because suffering servitude is the sanctified life, an employee who gives obeisance to a god other than work feels dismissed to the B League.
At a recent staff meeting, our boss announced that superstar Eva will not be returning to work after maternity leave. “Poor thing, she couldn’t bear to leave her baby,” the boss said. Kim and I made eyes. Neither she nor I could bear to leave our babies either, but it happens I am a single mom and she is married to a man who toils for the poor and underrepresented. This means that we must work for the rich and overrepresented. Eva’s husband is so fabulously busy at his place of business that he didn’t make it quite in time for the birth of his first child.
So Eva defects to the other side and Kim and I walk into rooms full of men like Eva’s husband.
But why did I feel so awkward at the conference on derivatives? How exalted was my position there, a peer amongst the most august thinkers in my field! Because I’m a lawmaker, all were deferential to me and there was only one dirty joke the whole day! Altogether, I was welcomed into the boys’ club.
On Shabbat morning, I skipped the conference and attended Orthodox services with my brother, where an opaque curtain separates men and women. Surrounded by flowing skirts, I was anonymous, blessedly shut out from the men. This community of women is my community; here I am invisible. And when I go out to play in the working world, the world of men, I must leave behind the fields of flowing skirts and the dividing screen. Even in games I practice every day, the rules remain unnatural, unfamiliar. Even when invited to join the A League, I remain an outlier.
As Shabbat was ending, my brother and I joined the campus gathering of “Take Back the Night,” an international movement to end violence against women. As the speeches began, my brother pointed out the simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. For him, a hearing-impaired social worker battling for those discarded into the Z League, this was a profound symbol of inclusion.
As we walked through the darkening streets and the ASL signs were lost, I mused, “How many and varied are the hierarchies of man and how glorious must be the view from the top.”
It is the day before Passover and everyone has a yahrtzeit but me.
My mother’s mother collapsed on seder night, ten days before her young grandson succumbed to cancer. “I don’t want to see my grandson die,” she told a relative. The shivas of grandmother and grandson tumbled one into the other. My brother’s wife died the first day of Passover, her son’s 13th birthday. The bar mitzvah was held in the shiva house on the Shabbat after Passover. My father’s mother lived almost a hundred years, surviving every Jewish calamity of the twentieth century. The night she died, my father was with us in America. Although he usually sat with her day and night, he did not perform the final duty as son; missing the funeral and sitting shiva alone, ten thousand miles away.
Where am I in this house of mourners the day of the seder? I am locked in a room next to the kitchen attending to the tax law. A tax regulation project is barreling through the Treasury Department, and I am the only one who can advise on the financial provisions. And woe is me if I do not help draft it, because then I’m going to have to interpret what they produce left to their own devices.
Fortunately, I do not have to come to the office. They have arranged a conference call so I can hear the discussions and make suggestions from afar. And when they break, I can skip into the kitchen and issue instructions there.
This is not the way I like it. Erev Passover, the day before the seder, is the liminal moment between the weeks of scrubbing and worrying, and the redemption of seder night. It is the fleeting transition when I survey the perfectly antiseptic aluminum foil spaceship I have built, and then sully it with preparations for the evening.
I prefer not to work on Erev Passover, but this time I don’t have a choice. I know the family will take care of everything, leaving only the romaine lettuce for me to check: I earned my insect-checking PhD in a religious kibbutz kitchen and delegate it to no one.
I call in to the tax drafting. As we argue and haggle, a Jewishly observant colleague chimes in. He does not have to cook or clean I muse; when he arrives home like a monarch at the appointed time, the table will be set and meal cooked. Yet I do not envy him: the preparation makes the holiday.
My daughter bangs at the door. I mute the phone. “You need to change the gasket in the oven,” she whispers. I roll my eyes. We self-clean our oven but I have a theory the gasket never gets hot enough for Passover cleanliness. Having conjured the problem, it’s my job to solve it. Hooking the phone to my shirt and adjusting the ear-phones, I remove the shelves from the oven and insert half my body. The gasket is attached with screws and requires some dexterity to remove.
While I’m deep in the cavity with the screws in my mouth, someone on the phone calls out, “Viva, what do you think about the language I’m suggesting?”
The phone is still on mute. I lean forward to unmute it and the oven tips onto me. “Viva! Are you there?” I gasp, “Yes, I’m here.”
“It’s hard to hear you. Are you in an echo chamber?” I push the oven off me and slide onto the floor.
“Can you repeat the language?” I ask, panting.
From the floor, I watch the family’s shoes scuttling; peels and food parts land on my lap. The children are twittering and making provocative faces at me.
On the phone, they repeat the regulatory language, and I suggest a modification. We debate the merits of the variant forms. I am pontificating on the floor, waving my hands. The drafter comes up with a third mutation, and we all agree.
I mute the phone again and climb back into the oven.
When it’s done, I clamber out, rising slowly to the upright position. My father is peeling potatoes. “Let me do that,” I edge him away. “No, no,” he says. “This is my job. You go back to yours. My mother would have been so proud of you.”
And so would my mother’s mother, who never went to university but was always urging my mother to finish her degree. As for my sister-in-law, the breadwinner, may she rest in peace, she was scrubbing her house for Passover the week before she died. What secrets would she share now?
Purim for Jews is a public riot, but in our family we celebrate Purim quietly. My brother Daniel can’t hear and our parents bought him a beautiful megillah so he could read it to himself. I volunteer to listen to his perfect tuneless reading, thrilled to skip the chaos in shul.
I try to stay home from work on Purim, but one year I was the lead lawyer in a litigation, and I had to be at our Manhattan offices by 9:00am on Purim morning. We brainstormed and decided my brother could read the megillah on the road between our Brooklyn home and my Manhattan office.
I dressed for work, davened, and watched for Daniel to come from shul. He arrived, we jumped into a black limousine, and Daniel unfurled the scroll to begin the story of Esther.
I get dizzy in cars, but not that morning. Holding the megillah in my hands, I thought only of black ink on white parchment. We meandered through the narrow streets of Sheepshead Bay through Ahasuerus’s party, and as he called for his wife Vashti to dance before him, we spun into Ocean Parkway, jugular of Flatbush, Babylon of the Diaspora. The road was clear, and we sailed through the execution of Vashti, the search for her successor, and Esther’s coronation. At a red light, Mordecai’s denunciation of the murderous stewards was recorded in the king’s archives.
Ocean Parkway merged with the Belt Parkway when Haman appeared, grinding his teeth over Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. Traffic is always heavy there because many roads join, and perennial construction puts several lanes out of use. We were grateful for the time. Haman cooked up his evil plot, chose the day to annihilate the Jews, and made his case to the king. We moved at a snail’s pace, Mordecai tore his clothes, and Esther ordered her people to fast three days.
At the end of the Belt Parkway we had to make a choice: to enter Manhattan from the bridge or through the tunnel. The bridge is free but takes forever; the tunnel is fast and smooth and quiet, but dark. The driver turned to ask, and Daniel and I looked at each other. Would we make it in time if we took the bridge? Would we be able to continue in the dark?
We handed over the tunnel fee and entered a darkness strobing with orange lights. Our queen weighed her options and was convinced that Haman’s decree of death would condemn her too. Approaching Ahasuerus uninvited would be less dangerous than sitting still. Daniel kept his face close to the parchment through the pulsing light; we were feasting at Esther’s first party. By the time we reached daylight, Haman had built the gallows for Mordecai and the king was disturbed in his sleep.
Out of the tunnel, the limo made a parabolic turn toward the West Side Highway. The route is clogged with traffic lights but has a majestic view of New Jersey and the waterfront. As we lurched along the highway, the king was reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty in the matter of the treasonous stewards. Dressed in royal robes, Mordecai was led through the streets of Shushan by the man who had authored a death warrant against him and his people. Haman’s wife knew her mate was doomed. We passed the museum-battleship Intrepid, anchored at the pier on 46th Street.
My office was between 45th and 46th Streets on Sixth Avenue. To get there from the West Side Highway, we had to drive through Hell’s Kitchen, filled with elegant restaurants and catchy awnings. The drive is at walking pace when all the lights are against you, but once we turned onto 46th Street my stomach unknotted: the final stretch.
Passing Manhattanites brunching outside in early Spring, we launched into Esther’s second party, with the risky revelation she made to Ahasuerus of the decree against the Jews and her inclusion in it. The king was inflamed; Haman & Sons were hanged. We reached Times Square. The assault on the senses is extreme, with flashing lights, gigantic images of naked humans, steam floating from a hot cocoa ad, whole movies running atop buildings. We sped through the multimedia into the block that housed my office. Almost done.
Esther and Mordecai reversed Haman’s decree, and the Jews were given the green light to murder their murderous neighbors. A feast was declared for all generations, friends gave gifts to friends, and Mordecai wrote the story we held in our hands. Our driver found a spot outside my building for the brief last chapter. The king levied a tax, and Mordecai became the prime minister, spokesman for the peace of his people.
I rewound the scroll back to the days of Vashti, ready for next year. Our driver turned and grasped my brother’s hands between his.
“Purim sameah!” he said. “I am Jewish also, from Persia. We sing a different megillah tune. Thank you so much, I am so happy you sang it for me too.”
I stepped out, smoothed my skirt, and adjusted my thoughts. Ready for business.
If I ever had a rabbi, Ruth Calderon would be her. I only ever saw Calderon once, on Youtube, as she delivered her maiden speech to the Knesset. She knows Talmud, she’s got the right values, and she’s a mesmerizing sermonizer. The perfect rabbi sans rabbinic narcissism.
I was booked into the JOFA conference anyway because I was speaking on a panel, but when I heard Ruth was coming I resolved not to miss the plenary (my kids – bless them – delayed me at the last conference). My co-panelists queried why I belonged at JOFA. I don’t go to an Orthodox shul, my closest friends and family have exited observance, and I’m sometimes gabbai of my trad-egal minyan, Segulah.
My co-panelists were making me defend my attendance (as if anyone should need a defense for being a JOFA-nik!), and I responded: I am a gabbai at Segulah in a sheitel, I am the first woman to testify before Congress in that wig, I eat only apples and (bad) chocolate out of the house, and I don’t accept honors at the minyan at which I call others up to do so. You see, a (male) rabbi gave me an anti-partnership-minyan psak and I keep to it.
As a feminist spiritual seeker, JOFA seemed a place I might feel a bit at home.
Well, it was more than a bit. For Ruth Calderon, I stood twice – when she came up to the podium and when she went down. Her words were breathtaking and she has lost none of her modesty with all the adulation.
My mind spun with Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold’s description of the Shabbat babysitter who comes to watch her brood while she and her spouse both daven with the community. I thought back a generation to when I was both breadwinner and rebbetzin. I stayed home on Shabbat nursing my babies because there was no eruv and the babysitter was hired to cover for my actual job.
The vibe at the JOFA Conference was palpable, full of young people and their mothers and grandmothers. The young ones: we raised them but they raise us higher. They didn’t let us get away with last season’s false platitudes. They’re not out of the closet: they were never in it.
At lunch I invited a lone eater to join my daughter and me and she turned out to be a “mom in a sheitel in finance” like me; after meeting her I had another professional reunion I wished hadn’t taken twenty years to happen.
I wish the JOFA conference was longer and more often. Even if others question my credentials, I can proudly say “ich bin ein JOFA-nik!”