Two weeks ago, I joined thousands of families around Israel for a time-honored ritual: the Saturday night grand finale of a month-long youth group extravaganza.
For one month each year, youth groups seem to take over the country. My kids spend a full month with their peers being led by well-intentioned 16- year-olds. The Saturday night performances signal the end of a month-long youth group extravaganza where my kids were never home, or when they were home, they were covered in paint. It is a month celebrating being young, getting just a bit older and loving group activities (needless to say, not all kids love group activities – my 10-year-old spent the month reading the Percy Jackson series instead).
But the final weekend is a blowout. Saturday night has the time honored daglanut (group choreographed flag waving), dances and plays. It is a doozy. Parents everywhere charge their cameras and their phones to simultaneously take pictures of their beloved children while checking their mail for hours as they sit in auditoriums, pavilions or outdoor basketball courts watching hundreds of kids perform. Each age group has a co-ed play, a boys’ dance and a girls’ dance.
At least I think it was a girls’ dance. I can’t be sure. Because it happened in the dark.
Perhaps not exactly what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he sang, “Dancing in the Dark,” but this has become the default dance setting in this Orthodox setting. In order to be mindful both of halakhic guidelines and what I hope is a genuine attempt to empower our young women, someone somewhere thought the best way to allow girls to dance in front of an audience of both men and women was to get creative and turn off the lights. There were dances with glow sticks, dances with neon lights and ultraviolet lights. We saw a lot of glowing gloves and sticks and masks, just not a lot of our daughters.
When my daughter was four, she took ballet. She was quite adorable. At the end of the year, we sat through her final performance. As all those little pink fluffy girls danced their dance, curtsied and got off the stage, only one remained: my daughter. Completely unaware that her twenty friends had twirled off the stage, she stood there, in the spotlight. At some point, she snapped out of her reverie and raced off the stage.
I like the spotlight being on young women. I think there is value to finding ways to encourage and empower all women – young and old to be showcased, featured, and celebrated. I think that is why dance after dance in the dark left me feeling saddened and disappointed.
I need to contextualize my frustration by saying, my daughter could care less. She wasn’t upset in the least. The daglanut remains a co-ed march/dance done fully lit for everyone to see (maybe marching around waving flags to loud music isn’t considered dancing). It is only the girls’ dances that are affected. So she was proudly, giggly, visibly part of a fifty-person flag dance and an hour later I squinted trying to guess which glowing white mask was my daughter.
I recognize that this is someone’s idea of a solution, and I’m grown up enough (most of the time) to be able to articulate frustrations while not claiming to have all the answers. I get that in some Orthodox circles this is the best solution. I understand and begrudgingly respect that someone somewhere thought this would be the best solution creating a hybrid of visible and invisible young women. But in the big wide world we’re introducing our daughters to, I want more. I want her to be able to shine, in whichever way she chooses, without neon glow sticks. For me, I’m waiting for the next generation of young women to feel both empowered and visible.
Looking at the award-winning photograph “Chayla in Shul” I wonder:
What is Chayla thinking? Here she is. Alone in this cavernous space, standing stiff, her gaze focused somewhere in the distance. Her forearm rests delicately on the parapet, as though she ought not be touching it at all.
I can almost hear the photographer gently giving instructions. “Hold your prayer book in your left hand, and put your right arm there to support it.” Chayla narrows her eyes ever so slightly, questioning, “Here? On the wall? Are you sure?”
When the synagogue is full with worshippers, this is the wall that keeps the women from falling down to the space below, where Chayla’s brothers pray. It is the wall that holds the women in, signaling the spiritual distance that stands between them and Chayla’s father. He is the rabbi who leads the service down there.
This image has gotten a lot of press recently, as winner of the John Kobal New Work Award, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for portrait photography. The winning photographer, Laura Pannack will receive a cash prize, and her photo will be on display until February in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
Maya Benton, who wrote about the photograph for Tablet Magazine, learned that Pannack hopes the photo will convey a “positive perception of the Jewish people and of the community.” I have no doubt that it will. The image is beautiful, as is the poised eleven-year old Chayla, who is the subject. But for us insiders – who have grown up in a synagogue like the one shown here – the photo resonates in a very different way.
Like Chayla, I was once an 11-year old girl who prayed in a synagogue with a balcony. On the brink of becoming a Jewish adult, I would soon be banished from my warm seat in front of the holy ark, near my father and brother. Up above, far from the Torah, I would find a spot next to the other women. They would trickle in late to synagogue, after they finished preparing for their Shabbat guests. Catching up with friends, they would chatter while I tried to concentrate on my prayers, longing to be part of the experience unfolding in the “real” synagogue down below.
Later, as a young woman in college and graduate school, I also sat in a balcony in synagogue. In those days, I was looking for love. As I watched the young men below, I abandoned my prayers. They swayed with closed eyes, connecting to the Divine, while I, up there so far away from holiness, could not help but look down and feel empty.
Now, as the mother of three daughters, I still sometimes find myself in the balcony. I love my Orthodox synagogue; the community that it houses, its warm, traditional Shabbat space. But when the few seats in the women’s section downstairs fill up, and I head to the second floor, I am reminded of how far away we women are from the experience of communal prayer.
I hold my daughter next to me. At 10, she is just a year shy of Chayla’s age. I wonder what she thinks about what we are doing up here, and why we are so far away from her father down below. What message are we sending her about prayer and community and her place among the Jewish people?
Maya Benton believes this portrait is a successful one because its subject “evinces an air of confident composure and studious equanimity, as though she knows exactly who she is.” That is not what I see. I find it so successful because of the way it captures Chayla’s complex experience (and that of so many others). It captures the effort that is exerted to maintain equanimity in a place where you so clearly do not belong. And the confusion that comes from loving your religion, your people, your traditions, your God, but knowing – so deeply – that there is no comfortable spot for you in the synagogue space. So you stand alone, looking into the distance with a disconnected gaze, wondering: If I leave here, then where shall I go?
In my mind, the definitive tale of sisterhood was not the conventionally chosen classic, Little Women, but rather the All-of-a-Kind Family series. To eight-year-old me, those books were perfection: I read them like they were scripture. Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie (and Charlie, born later and the only boy) probably shaped my vision of what family and sisterhood should be. True, they were a poor immigrant family at the turn of the 20th century living in the Lower East Side and I was a not poor, not immigrant child, not living at the turn of the 20th century, living in Toronto, but subtlety was never my strong point.
Those sisters did it right. They went to the library, they bought penny candy, and they had Shabbat dinner. Sure, Henny was a troublemaker and Sarah even lost a library book once, but even in their delinquency I loved them.
All this goes to explain that somewhere, deep inside of me, I always thought I’d be a mother of girls. I blame Sydney Taylor and her glorious books. I thought I’d be a mother of daughters. They’d love each other and fight with each other and braid each other’s hair. Instead, I had one daughter (off to a great start, I thought) and then four boys.
My daughter was born five weeks early. We didn’t have time (or foresight) to pick out a name and, perhaps more significantly, figure out how to celebrate her birth with a Simchat Bat ceremony. It turns out that when you grew up as a Modern Orthodox Feminist (all words that are so charged with multiple meanings that I could easily be persuaded to align myself with none of them as well as all of them) and you have a girl, it becomes a pretty big deal. At least, it became a really big deal to me. Add all of that anxiety of how to properly welcome a girl into a society which has no organized ritual in place for girl-welcoming, to sleepless nights and crazy hormones and you have… me and my very patient, very thoughtful husband sitting up at 3 am the night before our daughter’s Simchat Bat collecting prayers, wishes and quotes on how to raise a daughter which we turned into centerpieces on each table. Think Dr. Seuss meets Rashi.
At the ceremony, I stumbled through some Dvar Torah welcoming our baby and expounded on the need to create a way to embrace daughters. I probably talked for too long and maybe got a bit preachy, but we served really good cake so I think people were kind enough to let it slide.
I love/hate the murkiness of raising a daughter in this world. I get it right sometimes and I get it so very wrong some times (like yesterday, I got it wrong yesterday). At what age does she attend a women’s megillah reading with me? Is it okay for me to separate her from her friends in synagogue so that she joins me and my agenda? If she isn’t comfortable with my version of Simchat Torah, do I tread lightly or turn it into a teachable moment? And all of that angst is okay.
What would Sydney say? She has become a de facto guru of mine. I look to her for wisdom. And I read my daughter All-of-a-Kind Family as soon as she could understand the words.
For great content and networking on the subject of ritual innovation, join us for the JOFA UnConference November 23, 2014. Learn more.
When we received our JOFA sukkah poster last week, I excitedly showed my daughters, ages five and ten, the poster of women leaders. They looked it over and the following conversation ensued:
Child: “Do you think Uncle ____ and Aunt ___ would want to hang it in their sukkah?” (We are city dwellers who don’t have our own sukkah.)
Me: “Sure, why not?”
Child, a bit sheepishly: “Well, Mommy, I don’t want to be mean, but the women are a little ugly, don’t you think? Couldn’t they have made them prettier?”
Me: “I don’t think the point was whether they were pretty or not.”
Child: “I am not saying Nechama Leibowitz looked like a rock star in real life, but I’m sure she was prettier as a young woman.”
Me: “Do you think that we’d be having the same conversation about the Baba Sali or Rav Moshe Feinstein? Are they especially handsome?”
Child: [Rolls eyes] “I knew you were going to say that, but I still think they could be prettier.”
And so I thought about it—should the artists have attempted to “airbrush” Nechama Leibowitz?
Why do pictures of older male rabbis look distinguished to most viewers, but pictures of an older Nechama Leibowitz remind us of an elderly grandmother?
This summer the New York Times ran an article about camps that ban “body talk”—among them the Jewish farm camp Eden Village. The article noted that at Eden Village “on Friday afternoon, when the campers, girls and boys from 8 to 17, are dressed in white and especially polished for the Sabbath, they refrain from complimenting one another’s appearances. Rather, they say, ‘Your soul shines’ or ‘I feel so happy to be around you’ or ‘Your smile lights up the world,’ … Signs posted on the mirrors in the bathroom read, ‘Don’t check your appearance, check your soul.’”
While I could see the virtues of checking your soul, rather than your appearance, if I am to be honest with myself, I can’t actually imagine parenting (or living) this way. I do tell my kids they look beautiful, and when they remember to brush their hair, I comment on it. I like hearing compliments on my appearance and I want my daughters to hear those compliments too and compliment others, while not being overly focused on their appearance. This, of course, is a very tough balancing act, made all the more difficult if one has a child who loves fashion and notices everyone’s clothes (as is the case for my five year old).
One of the great virtues of JOFA commissioning this project is that it allows all of us to see women scholars represented on the walls of our sukkot and schools. While there’s certainly some part of me that wishes that my girls didn’t ask “why aren’t they prettier,” I am glad that this sparked the question for them. There is no doubt that children raised as part of a society that thrives on airbrushing will expect conventional beauty from women leaders and scholars, but I hope that we as parents and educators can begin conversations with them that will begin to chip away at some of these notions.
I still have not gotten situated to the long Shabbats of the summer. For sixteen summers, I was immersed in the beauty that is Camp Stone. At camp I looked at my watch not in anticipation of when Shabbat would end, but rather to see how many precious minutes of this beautiful time still remained. Camp was an environment in which I felt empowered as I thrived as a person; a Jew and a woman. It was a place where, at the age of thirteen, I could be entrusted with the welfare of my plugah, my fire pit work crew, at the machaneh chutz, the two night camping trip. By fifteen, I was carrying a canoe, without assistance, for over a mile on a week-long canoe trip. It was the place where, at the age of nineteen, I cared for campers as if they were my own. Despite my numerous positive experiences, I clearly remember serving as the Sganit Rosh Moshava, second-in-command at camp if you will, and leading an educational activity.
Overall, I found my job that summer to be invigorating. I was working with staff and campers, creating programming, solving problems and building relationships. There was one moment, however, that I will never forget. That young blonde haired girl, soon to enter sixth grade, mentioned that a woman could not be a Rosh Moshava, a head of camp. Although her statement was irrelevant to the educational conversation about prayer, her words lit a fire in me. She may not have even been born during the years that Ellie Schreiber and Estee Eisenberg had enthusiastically taken on the role. Truth be told, in nearly forty years of camp, only two women, in comparison with upwards of fifteen men, held the title of “Rosh Mosh.” A couple of years later, then serving as a woman Rosh Moshava, I winked at the camper, now entering eighth grade, as her bus pulled into camp.
This camper’s words made it clear to me that I had an opportunity to show her that camp is a place without glass ceilings. That it truly was a coincidence that the role of Rosh Moshava had been held by men in in the 2000s. Since 2008, two more women have stepped up to the plate as Rosh Moshava at Camp Stone. My serving as Rosh Moshava was only a piece of the puzzle.
Those in the camping world often describe camps with utopian language. Camps are set in remote locations allowing distance from the ‘negative’ influences from general society. While camp is an opportunity to negate gender stereotypes, it is also a place where stereotypes can be strongly reinforced. For example, while a healthy body image can be difficult to maintain with television, the fashion world, magazines and other media, camps can choose to allow such magazines into camp or they can create a culture where conversation about one’s weight is taboo. Camps, and the general community, need to take this powerful responsibility in. Camps can serve as catalysts for change.
I encourage camps to push further, past the obvious goals of ridding our youth of sexism. Camps can be the place to reinforce or reinvent norms and rituals of the Orthodox Jewish community. Camp is a place where girls sweat, get covered in mud, can let their hair and guard down and be anything but ladylike. Research has demonstrated this truth since the early twentieth century. What is special about camp is that the unique setting makes a woman saying kiddush on Friday night, for example, normative or mainstream within the Orthodox camp community. Why is that the case? Because camp administrators create a culture and what they say goes. I appreciated the way that Yaakov Fleischmann, former Rosh Moshava, put it while addressing camp staff. He explained that it does not matter if you fit in, what you are like at home, or what is popular outside of camp. Inside of camp, he enthusiastically expressed, “You define ‘cool.’” The camp administration trains camp staff in understanding camp values in such a way that staff can transfer those values to campers. It does not matter what is ‘cool’ back home, inside of camp, it is a whole new game. What may be considered questionable or controversial at a synagogue is the standard in camp.
What makes camp critical in effecting long term change, is when campers and staff bring their camp experiences to their home communities and question the status quo. Camp is a place where gender equity, gender balance, and inclusion of women in ritual have the most potent impact. The beauty of camps, in contrast with other settings, is that school and synagogue politics do not factor into decisions. When potential areas of improvement are identified, action can be taken expeditiously. Camp decisions are based on chinuch, on the welfare of the campers, resulting in an environment that is willing to listen and adapt to best meet the needs of our daughters, our future.
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.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.