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?