For millennia, it has been taken for granted that the place for Jewish women was in the home and in the kitchen. And of all the public arenas that women were discouraged from entering, the Beit Midrash (study hall) was on the top of the list. Many Jewish women never even had the opportunity to engage with a page of Talmud.
While that reality has changed for most modern Jewish women, we owe a great debt to those pioneers who cleared the way for thousands of Jewish women to engage in high level Torah and Talmud study.
To celebrate a few of these women, JOFA has teamed up with six young Jewish women artists to create a poster featuring six such educational leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries. These posters are available now through a Kickstarter campaign ending July 14.
Meet the scholars:
Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) Nechama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, educated in Berlin, and moved to Palestine in 1930. She taught at many schools including Tel Aviv University, where she was appointed a full professor. In 1942, she began distributing stenciled pages of questions on the weekly Torah portion, They reached a vast audience and were eventually translated and published. She was awarded the Israel Prize for Education. Though her thoughtful, literary approach to the Bible revolutionized Torah study, she humbly insisted, “I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” Her tombstone is inscribed, “Nechama Leibowitz: teacher.”
After graduating high school in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold established the first American night school to teach English and vocational skills to Jewish immigrants in Baltimore. After moving to New York, she became an editor for the Jewish Publication Society. At the age of 49, her first trip to Palestine sealed her life’s mission: the health, education, and welfare of the Yishuv. In 1912 she founded Hadassah, which became the largest and most powerful Zionist organization in America, and which now boasts 330,000 members worldwide. Starting in 1933, Szold also ran Youth Aliyah, which helped save 30,000 children from Nazi death camps.
Rachel “Ray” Frank was born in San Francisco to Polish immigrant parents at a time when Jewish communities were just beginning to emerge in the West. She taught bible studies and Jewish history in California, where she quickly garnered a large following. She rose to prominence after delivering a series of sermons in Washington for the High Holidays and was soon dubbed “the Jewess in the Pulpit,” and later, “the Golden Girl Rabbi of the West.” Although she had no rabbinic aspirations, Ray Frank’s presence in the pulpit made space in the collective imagination for public female religious leadership.
Farha “Flora” Sassoon was born in Bombay to a family of influential tradesmen from Baghdad known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” By the age of seventeen, she knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani, English, French, German and had a thorough knowledge of Jewish texts. She wrote on Rashi, lectured on religious education, read publicly from the Torah, and her expertise in Sephardic doctrine and practice was unparalleled. According to historian Cecil Roth, she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate.”
Born in Poland, Beilka “Bessie” Gotsfeld immigrated to New York with her family in 1905. In 1925, she founded the precursor of AMIT, an organization connecting religious women to the cause of Zionism and expanding educational and vocational opportunities for religious women in Israel. Gotsfeld became the Palestine representative of the organization, eventually settling in Tel Aviv. She worked to establish three urban vocational schools for adolescent girls and two large farm villages that provided Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, and new immigrants educational programs and resources.
Born in Krakow to poor Hassidic parents, Sarah Schenirer left school after she turned thirteen and became a seamstress. After World War I broke out, she started to teach Jewish studies to a group of girls. This blossomed into 300 schools now known as the “Beis Yaakov” network, and by the time of her death approximately 35,000 girls were learning at Beis Yaakov schools. In her will, she wrote: “My dear girls, you are going out into the great world. Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands.”
I’ve been pushing off writing this post all week. I’ve been hoping that the boys would return home, that the girls would return home, that all children around could go to sleep at night safe and sound, surrounded by people who love and care for them. But alas they are not.
On Tuesday, a colleague and I had the privilege to represent JOFA at a Bring Back Our Boys rally to demand the release of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach — three teenage students (one of whom is American) who were abducted on their way home from school two weeks ago. Three teens who could have easily been my cousins or my friends. It was a moving event filled with touching speeches, heartfelt songs, tears and prayers. But the situation feels hopeless. What can we do to help? What can we possibly do to bring them home? I’ve called the White House to ask what is being done, I’ve written to the New York Times to demand greater coverage, but how much sway can we really hope to have over the actions of terrorists and people committed to hatred and violence?
And the same is true with the 219 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram (and even more kidnapped this week). How can we possibly expect a terrorist group that lives in the woods, and in the jungle, to return these girls home? Where is the army supposed to look for them? Who can put pressure on this group? Who can possibly convince them to free these girls?
But what has made me despair the most this week is a story making headlines about young immigrants who have illegally entered the United States alone. Over 50,000 children have dared to cross the border on their own, or with smugglers, in the hopes of finding better lives. These children are being housed in barracks and given the barest of necessities in preparation for deportation. Apparently there’s not enough room in this country and there’s not enough room in our hearts to accept these children and provide them with warm homes, accommodations and the chance to begin a new life.
I don’t know what I can do to bring back our boys or bring back our girls, but maybe I can help these kids who have literally shown up unannounced asking for help. I can advocate on behalf of these children who are alone, and cold and homesick within our own borders. I know who to appeal to on their behalf — their names are Schumer, and Gillibrand, and Obama. The policy for dealing with these children should be dictated by compassion, not xenophobia.
Maybe through the zechut (merit) of our efforts on behalf of children to whom we have no tribal connection, but towards whom we have the most fundamental human responsibility, we will live to see miracles performed in Israel and Nigeria. Maybe by emulating the behavior that we expect from the rest of the world — compassion and safe passage for all children — we can appeal to God with even greater legitimacy to bring back those children to whom we feel the closest.
Hamalach hagoel oti mikol ra y’varech et han’arim.
May the angel who has delivered me from all harm bless these children.
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A new issue of the JOFA Journal will soon be in our subscribers’ mailboxes; its theme is Orthodox women in the performing arts and sports. The headline we’ve given it is “Raising our Voices”—because many of the articles deal with the topic of kol isha, a woman’s singing voice heard in public. But I think a better title might be “The Dance.” The difference is not about artistic genre, but concept. Let me explain.
A rabbi I highly respect once told me that halakha—Jewish law—is like a dance between the rabbis and the Jewish people. The rabbis are the leading partner, putting their arms around the people and guiding them this way and that. But if they are out of rhythm with the people, if both are not moving in the same direction, then the dance will fail and the dancers will be frustrated with each other.
Within this issue of the journal, one can see the dance in motion around the issue of kol isha. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, in a d’var Torah on Vayishlah, recalls Rashi’s question about the whereabouts of Dina, Jacob’s daughter, when Jacob was about to cross the river and confront his brother Esau. The Midrash tells us that Jacob had put Dina in a box to protect her, so that Esau would not lay eyes on her. However, Rashi tells us, because she had been inappropriately locked up, Dina became a yatzanit someone who “goes out,” and she fell into the hands of Shechem—to far worse consequences. Rabbi Herzfeld sees this story as instructive for the issue of kol isha, in which over-stringency has had the effect of drowning out the voices of women and girls in every context and thereby squelching their spirituality. He calls for a more nuanced view that takes into consideration the content of the singing, not just the gender of the singer.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s understanding of kol isha is presented in tandem with the voices of women who wish to pursue careers in singing and struggle with the notion of kol isha. They run the spectrum from the Hasidic women’s rock band Bulletproof Stockings, who only play for all-female audiences, to Neshama Carlebach, who, after years of conflict, has concluded that kol isha ”is an antiquated, misogynistic concept that has no place in our modern society.” Neshama believes that she is following her father Shlomo Carlebach‘s conviction in stating that, for her, singing is “a holy calling.”
We also hear the voice of the young woman, Ofir ben Shitrit, who placed second in the Israeli talent competition, “The Voice,” and was consequently suspended from her religious school. We meet the Glaser sisters, who sing together both on stage and around the Shabbat table. We hear singer Rebecca Teplow proclaim, “It cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to encourage hearing the inner voice of the soul’s yearning.” For each of these musical women, kol isha is no theoretical question, but is central to how they will live their lives and pursue their chosen paths.
There are few places in the Orthodox world where halakhic issues are discussed from the perspectives both of the rabbis and of the people for whom these decisions are critical. The JOFA Journal is a forum in which the voices of women struggling with, and living joyously with, halakha can be heard. It is a place where “the dance” that is the process of halakha can take place.
Rabbi Benay Lappe instructed us in the traditional method of Talmud study, employing a famous passage from tractate Bava Kamma dealing with laws of damages. We began by memorizing the Mishnah, and then moved on to the Gemara (this time in the original Aramaic text). We were expected to obtain an Aramaic dictionary, and prepare our translation prior to class without consulting an English version.
If I thought Talmud study was difficult before, this was nearly impossible. The Hebrew and English translations I’d used while studying tractate Berakhot had added punctuation, vowels, and enough additional words to make a sentence understandable. But the Talmud is written in an Aramaic shorthand where many of the words are missing and speakers are often called “he” rather than by their actual names. When we shared our translations in class, none of us had come up with the same one.
Thus the first thing I learned from Rabbi Lappe was how fluid the Talmud text was, how open to interpretation. I saw that if not for Rashi’s commentary, which cleared up much confusion, the Talmud truly would be a closed book. Eventually, I became familiar with common expressions the rabbis employed in their arguments, as well as the limited vocabulary used in discussing damages.
With translation no longer so onerous, I came to realize that the rabbis had done something revolutionary. They had taken the Torah verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24) and proved that it doesn’t mean actual physical retaliation by an injured party. Rather, the person responsible must pay monetary compensation. The Talmud demonstrated how the rabbis uprooted a problematic Torah text and gave it a new meaning that kept Torah relevant in their changed society.
The next year Rabbi Aaron Katz arrived at our synagogue. Personal problems had forced him to leave Israel, where he had over thirty years of Orthodox yeshiva experience, plus rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate. I was heavily involved in writing Rashi’s Daughters, and he graciously agreed to help me study sections of Talmud that dealt with women. He also insisted that I learn those passages most Talmud scholars knew. If my work was going to be taken seriously, I had to “walk the walk and talk the talk.”
During the seven years Rabbi Katz lived in Los Angeles, we studied Talmud together once a week, him using the Hebrew and Aramaic versions, and me the new Schottenstein English/Hebrew interlinear translation (a boon for American Talmud students). We delved into the Tosafot, medieval commentators—including Rashi’s grandsons—who disagreed with Rashi, and had terrific arguments over whose interpretation was correct. We chose our texts by subject, which meant we jumped from chapter to chapter, eventually criss-crossing the entire Talmud. I learned that Rashi, and even more so his grandson Rabbenu Tam, held quite “liberal” opinions when it came to Jewish laws concerning women.
I completed my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy shortly after Rabbi Katz obtained a position in Florida. I started researching my new series, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, by reading about the history of Jews in Babylonia, which relied almost completely on the Talmud. My publisher urged me to hire a research assistant. Just when I thought I’d never find anyone with the qualifications I needed, Henry showed up at Torah study class. He had just graduated with a bachelor’s in Jewish Studies, had several years of Talmud study in a Jerusalem yeshiva, and was fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic.
We started working together, beginning with tractate Berakhot and continuing through each tractate in turn, finding passages of Talmud that mentioned Rav Hisda, his daughter, and the two rabbis who ultimately married her. It took over a year, and by then I realized sorcery was going to be an integral part of the new series. So we went through the entire Talmud again, tractate by tractate, searching for every mention of demons, magic, and enchantresses. We found far more than I expected, some stories were quite fantastic, but that will be the subject of another blog post. Our third trip through the Gemara focused on the people who populated the Talmud, their daily lives and their community.
I learned how this small group of beleaguered rabbis struggled to establish new Jewish practices after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. It took centuries, but the Talmud they created became the source of Jewish law and tradition for the last 1200 years. This was a story I had to tell. And, as a feminist, I was determined to write it from a woman’s perspective. That she turned out to be a learned, powerful enchantress made it even more compelling.
As I flick through the pages of my pocket prayer book deliberating over which tunes to pick for Lecha Dodi at this week’s local Partnership Minyan, two thoughts distract me. Firstly: I sincerely hope the clatter of the Jubilee Line train at rush hour is drowning out my occasional involuntary audible humming. Secondly (and slightly more profoundly): is this how diligent bar-mitzvah boys use their commute to school to cram in practice in the run up to the big day?
Quite apart from the momentary humour involved in imagining my thirty-something self sharing the same experiences as a thirteen year old boy, the latter thought is, for me, imbued with both sadness and excitement. Sadness, or perhaps more accurately, regret, at lost opportunities—crucially, lost education. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder of quite how far the role of women in Modern Orthodoxy has progressed in the UK in the last few years. Here I was, preparing to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat Service in an Orthodox setting—my skills no longer only of use in the ‘grassroots’ minyanim where I will forever be indebted to those (of both genders) who shared their knowledge with me.
In addition to spurring activism, one of JOFA’s main achievements in the last year has been the visibility it has bestowed upon the whole debate on women’s participation in Modern Orthodoxy. Last year’s JOFA UK conference shifted the conversation from the fringes to the mainstream, and whilst there remain divisions and frustrations on all sides—especially regarding the pace of change —there is immense value in the dialogue itself. In particular, there is value in hearing the unexpected voices, for example, those women who actually feel uncomfortable in close proximity to a Torah, an inevitable consequence of their lifetimes’ physical separation from this sacred scroll.
So, to what should we aspire in the year to come? For me, top of the list is acceptance from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo—their understanding that this is not an exercise in pushing boundaries; rather, it is about tearing down unnecessary fences (and fences around fences). It is about Jewish women reclaiming our heritage – not for the sake of doing the same as men, but because living an enriching life of Torah should not be unduly limited or defined by gender.
After that small request, comes the tachlis, the practical steps—where appropriate, share your skill set with others! Many of us are part of a ‘lost generation’ of women, enthusiastic to learn, but deprived of education in our youth… One thing is for sure, male or female, it’s an exciting time to be a Modern Orthodox Jew!
Join hundreds of women and men this Sunday (22 June) at the Second Annual JOFA UK Conference. Click here to register.
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I know that attending the Yeshivat Maharat graduation is the “right thing to do” but it is easy to forget, until I am there, how incredibly important it is to my own spirituality and notions of what Orthodoxy can be. This past Sunday was Yeshivat Maharat’s second graduation and as Rabbi Avi Weiss noted, seconds are pretty big in the Torah, i.e. Noah, Yitzchak, etc. Seconds validate that firsts are not a flash in the pan.
Sunday was that kind of big day. There will soon be five practicing, Orthodox, female clergy who have been ordained by Yeshivat Maharat. They will be working in synagogues in Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Montreal and on the West Coast. This year’s incoming class of seven students is the largest class so far. What strikes me each time I see them is: how natural, warm, wholesome, and unmotivated by ego they are. It just seems so right.
For me, the highlight came when Rabbi Daniel Sperber, unable to contain himself, talked about the “generic criticism” that innovations in leadership and ritual in Orthodoxy have been getting. As he noted, the traditional role of halakha was to solve problems that arose. Halakha was never meant to be static or petrified as people now demand. Hence the root—halekh—to go, to move forward—makes that abundantly clear and yet is so distant from where we are today.
For those who weren’t at the graduation, I suggest that you watch it online—it should give you renewed hope in the vitality of Orthodoxy. For those who were there, and some who were not, I look forward to seeing you next year for the “Chazakah graduation,” the third graduation.
Mazal tov Maharats Rori and Victoria, Rabba Sara and team. May you go m’chayil l’chayil, from strength to strength! We need you!
Something you hear a lot from feminist men is that it all started with the birth of a daughter. So powerful is this effect of a daughter on a father that a friend of mine recently told me of her elation at hearing that her synagogue rabbi had a new baby girl—this could only be good news for the women in his congregation!
But for me, that was not the case. I found myself dealing with issues of gender equality in Judaism years before I had kids, and even presented at the 2010 JOFA Conference—a couple of months before I would know what kind of baby was about to join our family. (That baby has grown to become a bright, beautiful, inquisitive little girl!). Having her in my life has definitely concretized some issues of feminism I had never dealt with before (“a girl in a blue stroller?”—“Make-up makeover sleepover!”), but it’s been relatively straightforward for my wife and I to navigate.
For now, our job is fighting the efforts of outside forces to pigeon hole her into pink toys, or “girl activities,” or excessive focus on her external trappings. Her favorite game right now is batting practice, favorite movie is Frozen, and if it was up to her, she’d wear patent leather Shabbat shoes with a tye-died t-shirt and shorts to school. I think we’ve struck a nice balance. As she gets older I’m happy to say that we are part of a synagogue community where women and girls have the opportunity to read from the Torah, lead services and speak from the pulpit. The roadmap is there—we just have to follow it.
But since the birth of my son less than a year ago, I feel the need to be a feminist dad much more, and I’m not as clear on what I need to do. My wife and I are doing our best to ensure that both kids have every opportunity to learn and grow to be the best people they possibly can. We will work our hardest to give them both exactly what they need to grow as committed Jews, contributing members of society, and ultimately to become good parents themselves. But for my little guy there’s something more.
What are the jokes he’s going to hear on the school bus, in the cafeteria and at summer camp? What examples will be set by his teachers, rabbis and other male role models outside the home regarding their attitudes towards female peers? There’s no way to shield him from all instances of misogyny or bigotry, but I do hope we can instill in him core values that will cause him to recoil (or rebuff) upon exposure.
At only 10 months old, he has no clue the uphill battle we will wage together to help him avoid the pitfalls of objectification of girls and discrimination against women. As an Orthodox feminist dad, I will also have to guide him through the still very narrow path those before us have forged on the boundary between traditional Judaism and gender equality.
With my daughter I have the very tangible task of exposing her to as much Jewish practice and leadership experience as possible. But for my son, there’s this amorphous task of helping him realize the importance of others expressing their Jewish selves to the fullest. I’m not sure how to do that, and thankfully I have a strong partner to figure that out with.
This Father’s Day, as I’m enjoying a special cup of coffee and some hand-drawn cards, I will also be reminded that raising our kids is the most difficult and important job we will ever have. And I love it.
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Readers often ask: How did a girl raised in a secular socialist family in Los Angeles come to be a Talmud scholar? A good question. But my background didn’t mean I lacked a Jewish education. I attended kindershul, run by Workman’s Circle, instead of religious school. I also learned a great deal about Judaism from books. For example: holidays, rituals, and the immigrant experience from All-of-a-Kind Family; the Holocaust and founding of the State of Israel from Exodus; Talmud and the yeshiva world from The Chosen. From this last book, it was apparent that only males studied Talmud.
Flash forward five years. My husband and I, newlyweds, had moved to Glendale, California, home to one small synagogue, which had just hired a new young rabbi. Seeing a Jewish community with many other young couples, we joined and started attending services as well as adult education classes.
Fifteen years later, I continued to study Torah in English, for my Hebrew skills had not improved much beyond being able to follow along in the prayer book. It was 1992. I heard about a new women’s Talmud class being taught by the feminist theologian Rachel Adler. She had started this class because, despite Southern California having the second-largest Jewish population in the world, there was no place where a woman could study Talmud. Whether one called it excluded, prevented, or prohibited—women didn’t study Talmud.
I confess that I signed up for this class for two reasons. 1. Rachel Adler had such a great reputation that I wanted to study with her no matter what the subject was. 2. I wanted to see why this Jewish text was forbidden to women. After all, as soon as something is banned, it immediately becomes more attractive.
The first class no sooner started than I knew I was way out of my depth. We met around Rachel’s dining table and nearly every other woman there was a Jewish professional, or studying to become one. We used the Steinsaltz Hebrew version of tractate Berakhot. I could barely keep my place, never mind reading aloud. Thankfully our discussions were in English. It took hours of agonizing preparation each week merely to keep my head above water. To my relief, our progress was sufficiently slow so that as time passed, I was better able to not only learn, but to participate.
I discovered that my forte was in rating the proof texts the Talmudic rabbis used to support their arguments. One would think that with the vast number of Torah passages available, the sages would have no trouble finding one to prove any position. Yet some were clearly better than others, and some were surprisingly lame. I learned that the first argument in a halakhic, or Jewish law, debate is a straw man, so obviously wrong that refuting it is easy. The second argument is only slightly better, and if the subject were simple, the third proof would be accepted. A complicated debate might have many more arguments, each supported by a proof text, until the matter is decided.
But not all arguments were resolved in one rabbi’s favor. Sometimes the debate ended with “teiku,” [let it stand], where each sage maintained his position. In other words, they were both right and Jews could legally follow either one. To my amazement, and delight, I saw that Jewish Law in the Talmud encompassed a diversity of opinions.
Talmud became my passion. Every Wednesday night for five years I sat with other dedicated Jewish women as we worked our way through tractate Berakhot. Here I learned the origin of the Judaism we practice today—synagogues, rabbis, observing holidays, our liturgy—things not even mentioned in the Torah where Jewish rituals primarily involve priests, sacrifices, and the Holy Temple.
The class ended when we completed that first tractate. Bereft, it took me some time to accept that my Talmud studies were over. We moved to a new synagogue, and on Rosh Hashana they introduced a woman rabbi who loved Talmud and wanted to teach it to us. My journey, apparently, had only just begun.
Ten years ago on Simchat Torah, three American friends and I walked from synagogue to synagogue in our North West London neighborhood, looking for a place where women were doing more than standing on the sides chatting while the men danced. We didn’t find one.
“The UK Jewish community is about fifty years behind America,” my friend remarked, shaking her head. Both of us had grown up attending American Orthodox Jewish day schools where women’s learning, prayer, Rosh Chodesh Torah readings and Purim megillah readings were quite normal.
At the time, these types of opportunities were not only unavailable to most British women, they were not even on the agenda. Now however, that is no longer the case. The conversation in London over the last several years has changed dramatically. Women are asking for greater participation in both communal and home life, and demanding opportunities for learning and observance that didn’t previously exist.
From this small corner of London, what has happened in the last few years is no less than a revolution. Women’s issues have gone from the back burner to a main topic of discussion and debate at Shabbat tables and lectures. They are reported on regularly in the Jewish weekly newspapers, and discussed on Facebook groups dedicated to Modern Orthodoxy and Jewish feminism.
JOFA UK along with Women in Jewish Leadership and the United Synagogues’ Women’s Executive are just a few of the trailblazing organisations and committees that have started over the past few years. With this organised support behind them, British Jewish women have found new courage to ask for greater ritual participation within Jewish law, whether it be in prayer, learning or leadership roles.
Thanks in part to JOFA UK, over the past year, we have seen more women’s megillah readings in London than ever before. A growing number of women are volunteering for communal posts that are newly open to them. Women are asking their children’s schools to be more conscious of representing female historical leaders. New classes and opportunities for women to study sprout up regularly. And these are just a handful of the recent developments. It is indeed an exciting time to be an Orthodox Jewish woman in the UK.
How we can build on the achievements of the last year and invite more women to add their voices to Torah study and ritual? JOFA’s second annual UK conference will be one place to discuss those issues. The conference will feature the founders of Orthodox Feminism, Blu Greenberg and her husband Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg. Blu Greenberg will discuss why it’s important to hear women’s voices, and whether speaking up can change expectations. Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg will present on the conflict within Orthodoxy over feminism. He will address how the role of women reflects a struggle, shared by men and women, to find a halakhic language to achieve a universal respect for the image of God.
Whilst the changing face of women’s roles in Judaism is happening too slowly for some and too quickly for others, that it’s happening in the UK can’t be disputed. What will the next ten years bring? Only we can answer that question.
Join us at the second annual JOFA UK Conference on Sunday, June 22 in London! Learn more and register for the conference here.
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.