The details may vary from patient to patient, but the scenario is usually the same. A mother and newborn baby come to my pediatric office for their first doctor’s visit when the newborn is three or four days old. As I speak to the mother, I always ask her if she has any questions or concerns. Even though her newborn is only a few days old, often the mother would like to discuss daycare options, or how she could pump and store breast milk for her anticipated return to work in a few short weeks. The first weeks and even months after a new baby is born should be spent with the mother, partner, and siblings bonding, but all too often, families use their limited time at home worrying about and preparing arrangements for when they return to work rather than relaxing with their newborn.
The United States has one of the poorest maternity leave policies in the world. In fact it is the only industrialized country with no law requiring paid parental leave. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), mothers are entitled to take off up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave after giving birth, as long as the company employs a minimum number of people and the mother has been employed there for at least one year. Many women use saved sick and vacation days to supplement the unpaid leave. According to the United Nations, the United States is so far behind that it is one of only two countries in the world (the other being Papua New Guinea) that does not have paid maternity leave. Many of these statistics are well known and thankfully there are many legislators and organizations working hard to rectify this situation.
Sadly, I have observed that many of the mothers and fathers in my office, and many of my friends who have unpaid, short, or no family leave work for Jewish organizations. Some of these organizations provide only four to six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, forcing many mothers to make a choice to return to work only a few short weeks after giving birth. Other organizations require new mothers to apply for short-term disability benefits, which provide only a percentage of one’s regular pay, in lieu of paying for maternity leave. Many fathers are eligible for only a few days off, if any. Even though these policies may be on par with other organizations and companies in the United States, Jewish organizations must consider whether these types of paltry parental leave policies are really in keeping with Jewish values. Aren’t we constantly praising our community’s emphasis on Jewish family life and the importance of raising and educating our own children? Yet do our own non-profits, federations, day schools, and other Jewish organizations really model these values? Do we show parents that time spent with their newborns is important and necessary? As a pediatrician, I see many mothers who have to give up breastfeeding earlier than they would like to because of an early return to work, fathers who feel stressed that they are given only a few paid days to be home with their families, and families who do not have the time needed to bond with their newborn. It is clear that Jewish organizations are not modeling the values that they preach.
To be fair, the primary reason many Jewish organizations give for offering only unpaid parental leave is that they are non-profits, so by definition have limited funds, and therefore cannot afford to pay employees during parental leave. Also, many organizations argue that they are unsure what standards should be included in an equitable parental leave policy and how to craft one. But this should not deter our community from finding a solution.
Through their “Better Work, Better Life campaign,” Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) provides comprehensive recommendations, guidelines, and standards to help organizations develop equitable parental leave policies for their workplaces. Nearly one hundred organizations have joined the campaign and established family leave policies using AWP’s standards. Unfortunately, there are few Orthodox organizations represented on this list and it is time that the Orthodox community begins to examine their own attitudes and standards towards family leave. Women and men in the Orthodox community can begin by asking to meet with their synagogue, school, and communal leaders to ask if their organizations have an equitable family leave policy and if not, offer to help implement one. Additionally, organizations need to think creatively and consider increased work and job flexibility for returning parents.
It certainly may take some creative efforts to allow for better paid parental leave and more flexibility but as Jews, we should hold ourselves to our own standards that reflect our own values and beliefs and not simply provide our families and communities with the bare minimum that has become accepted as the norm in this country. Supporting Jewish families through strong parental leave policies provides an opportunity to model Jewish values and more importantly, directly impact the health and well-being of our individual members.
For more on this topic, you can watch a recording of a recent JOFA webinar titled “Work-Life Balance, Equal Pay, and Staying on the Promotion Track: Advocating for Yourself in the Workplace” or follow part II of the conversation that can be found at jofa.org/blogcast
“Ima, can you help me with my chapter of megillah?” My thirteen-year old son Davi, who recently became a Bar Mitzvah, has volunteered to leyn a chapter of megillah at his school’s megillah reading on Purim morning. “My teacher gave us recordings,” he tells me, “but I want to learn it the REAL way—with the trop.” I smile. He reminds me of myself as a young teenager: eager, passionate about his Judaism, yearning for authenticity.
So, we sit together and begin to learn. We discuss the places where the trop turns to Eicha trop and why that is. We discuss where to pause for the congregation to recite a verse out loud. His prepubescent soprano voice rings out clear and sweet as a bell. We laugh together when a trop comes out sounding funny. We sit together at the dining room table, cozy and happy, learning together and enjoying each other’s company.
The only remarkable thing about this scene is that it is utterly unremarkable in our home. My son did not think twice before heading straight to me when he needed help with leyning. He didn’t even consider going to my husband. Trust me, he goes to my husband for help with lots of other things, including leading prayer services, gemara homework, and lots more. But, in our home, Ima is the leyning expert, the one who teaches the kids their parasha for their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs and who leyns the megillahs on Purim, Tisha B’Av, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Davi doesn’t know any different. In his experience, moms are the ones who leyn.
Our lived experience is immeasurably important to how we see the world. Perhaps nothing brought that home to me as vividly as the day, years ago, when Davi came home from preschool before Presidents’ Day and exclaimed, “IMA! GUESS WHAT?! Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer! I thought only girls could be lawyers!” The only lawyer Davi knew at age four was his mother. Why should he possibly think that the law could be a career for men too?
So, part of my goal as an Orthodox feminist is to transform our community’s lived experience, and, in so doing, reform our unconscious expectations and preconceived notions about gender in Judaism. Each time my children see a Rabba or a Maharat in front of their synagogue, their automatic association between rabbi and male is challenged. Each time my children sit in a gemara class taught by a woman, their brains are being patterned to see women as Talmud scholars. As we all know, once those connections are made and once old patterns of thinking are broken, change comes more quickly and more easily. It’s a lot easier to make the case for hiring a Maharat in a synagogue whose congregants have long had experience with female religious leadership!
All of this was swirling around in my head as I sat at my dining room table learning megillah with Davi. I felt my heart swell with contentment and hope for the future. I yearned to share my moment with my community of friends, so I decided to share it on Facebook. “Teaching my son to read megillah,” I wrote—and then, in an attempt to explain why this act felt so much bigger to me than it might have appeared on its face, I hashtagged my post: #OrthodoxFeministMoment. It was my Orthodox feminist moment—a moment of poignancy and meaning in which my dreams for the future of Orthodox Judaism seemed possible and attainable.
Imagine if we all posted, tweeted and proclaimed our #OrthodoxFeministMoments. Maybe our collective voices swirling through cyberspace would help shape a new reality for the future.
Did you have an #OrthodoxFeministMoment today?
Last month, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. In the months before her Bat Mitzvah we moved from the Boston-area Jewish community (where we had spent the past fourteen years) to Shepherd Park, Washington D.C and a day school my children had barely known existed. Following our move, planning a Bat Mitzvah was exactly what we all did not have time or energy for. Before our move, my daughter and I had studied some Mishnah together and participated in the Matan Bat Mitzvah program, so I considered suggesting that we just throw her a small party, opting out of the difficult process of defining and negotiating a meaningful Bat Mitzvah ritual for her. No sooner had I formalized the idea, when I realized that that was exactly what had happened to me when I was her age. My parents had offered to throw me, the youngest child and the only girl, a party of no religious significance for my Bat Mitzvah, and only if I really wanted it. I recognized the cue and had opted out. I had felt that loss. For me, the loss was realizing that my Bat Mitzvah was not Jewishly significant and that it need not be celebrated.
In stark contrast, my older son had studied with a local rabbi leading up to his Bar Mitzvah, learned to read Torah under his father’s tutelage, prepared and delivered divrei Torah, led the prayer service, and read Torah on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. He always expected to do those things; and we also expected them of him, and were so proud to fete him. I realized that my daughter, and all of our daughters, deserve the same high expectations and just as importantly, our admiration and celebration of their becoming members of our adult Jewish community.
My daughter and I, after much discussion and with the help of the Rabbi, the Maharat and my husband, navigated among the diverse and well thought out Bat Mitzvah options available in our Shepherd Park community. We decided to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah during a women’s mincha service on Shabbat afternoon where my daughter led the service, read from the Torah, and delivered a d’var Torah. Her service followed the regular mincha service at synagogue which meant that both men and women were present at the service, although only women were invited to actively participate. This allowed all of my husband’s large, non-Orthodox, family to attend, something which was very important to both my daughter and my husband’s family. It was celebratory and beautiful in every way, not the least of which was her grace and competence. But in planning this celebration, we realized that it would not have felt complete if we did not also celebrate her becoming part of our regular community. So we decided to celebrate on Shabbat morning as well.
I admit, when I was first asked if my daughter would deliver the d’var Torah in synagogue on Shabbat morning, I was ambivalent because there did not seem to be any meaningful space within the Shabbat morning service for her to mark the occasion of becoming a Bat Mitzvah. I realized though that we celebrate each baby joining our community and each boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah as a community, with singing and sometimes dancing. And so, on Shabbat morning, after the mi sheberach prayers, and before the Musaf service, my daughter stood and recited a special prayer that we had studied during the Matan mother-daughter Bat Mitzvah program. It marked her transition to becoming a full member of the community and asked God for guidance and help. Afterwards, my husband and I blessed her and the congregation broke out in song and dance – with all the women near the front of that section dancing around her and celebrating her entrance into the congregation. After the conclusion of the morning service, she delivered a d’var Torah to her and our whole community.
As my husband said, when he spoke following the mincha service that my daughter led so beautifully, we hope that the skills our daughter developed in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah – leading prayers, preparing divrei Torah, studying and reading Torah – are skills she will continue to hone as part of her continued Jewish growth. But as importantly, I hope that she can internalize the joy she witnessed as her community celebrated the significance of her becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Our daughters deserve that much.
This past Simchat Torah, my mother began planning her synagogue’s first women’s mincha, afternoon service. She was inspired by the joy of the Simchat Torah women’s reading, and wanted to extend it to a regular Shabbat. So she worked with some young women in the community to make it happen, and brought women who might never have prayed or connected as a community to a mincha service.
She recently wrote, in The Torch, that she needs to effect change because of us, her daughters, my sisters and me. It is true that we “struggle fiercely with the dissonance between our place in the religious sphere and our ability to lead in the outside world.” Outside of the Jewish community, we have power. Power to shape the discourse around us, to assume leadership, to practice the rituals of our professions and of our communities of common values without anyone questioning whether our very engagement undermines our belongingness. Outside of the Jewish community, I can use every talent in my arsenal to make this world a better place–voice, humor, and compassion are welcome–whereas the Jewish community polices them under the titles of “modesty,” “tradition,” and “careful halakhic process.”
But Ima, it’s not “hard for me to hang onto my Judaism.” I was brought up by a role model who showed me its beauty and worth in every action; to leave is unthinkable. The struggle lies in making Judaism, which was not written for me, as much of a conduit for contribution and action as the rest of my life—to live it, not simply to be it. To live it, like you do.
Ima, it is women like you, not me, who will change Judaism. It is women like you, women who are joyous with their lot and excited to find they can do something more, who will bring Orthodox Judaism slowly but surely into the twentieth century (their great-granddaughters may bring it into the twenty-first). I, for whom a gag reflex is triggered when a well-meaning man tells me, “of course women can do that,” can no longer abide being in the same room as a discussion about whether women can or cannot celebrate some aspect of their religion in public. It’s my religion—how dare they imagine that they have control over it?
And the thing is, I grew up without bitterness. It took two years of midrasha, seminary, three years in college, and a lot of investigation into the halakhic process, to bring me to the polite distance I keep from the Jewish community today. My withdrawal from community means, to me, that I can have no say, no power, in how it develops. Seven years before this, I was leading the first women’s mincha services at my university, giving shiurim, classes, and fighting for women’s active role in the community. Now, nearly a decade later, I am tired of the constant internal struggle and cognitive dissonance. Like so many of my more perceptive and high-powered female friends, I have withdrawn to pursue leadership in other fields.
But it’s a withdrawal that has allowed me to keep my joy in Judaism. To celebrate it personally, through tefillah and learning and observing kashrut and Shabbat, through my private conversations with God and considerations of how to act and what to say. Eventually, I will find a community driven by the same impulses that drive me, and then I will again begin to contribute and be part of a community. Until then, I will enjoy the brief simple delight of reading Torah on Simchat Torah in my mother’s synagogue, quietly celebrate my religion on my own terms, in my own private space, and repeat over and over the lines of the Shabbat service, which, in my mind, represent the religious feminist’s creed:
Tayn chelkaynu b’Toratecha v’taher leebaynu l’avdecha b’emet.
Give us a portion of Your Torah and purify our hearts to do Your work with integrity.
When a person is born or a person dies the Jewish community rallies with meals, support, and love. When a person is experiencing infertility the community is silent – and those suffering feel they have to be silent.
This is a strange omission, especially considering that the history of the Jewish people is replete with tales of infertility – Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel all have difficulty conceiving and pray for children.
After being married a little while we soon realized that having a baby was not something that would happen easily for us. Rather than feeling like a part of the community, we began to feel isolated. Friends from the past would say things such as, “We’d love to hang out with you, but then who would our kids play with?”
The road to having children can feel endless and lonely. Watching friends and family have babies while they examine your never growing belly can lead to an intense sadness that only those experiencing infertility can relate to. At an engagement party, someone once came over to us and said “you never change,” pointing to Rachel’s stomach.
After almost three years of many doctor visits, no pregnancies, and thinking it probably wouldn’t happen for us, we did finally get pregnant, only to first have a chemical pregnancy, followed by an ectopic pregnancy. When suffering from pregnancy loss, people are quiet and suffer in silence. There is very little in the way of a support network. Mentioning pregnancy loss or infertility can lead to weird looks rather than sympathetic responses. People aren’t sure how to respond. There are no meals delivered to people suffering from miscarriages, no time for mourning, no time off from work, and people are expected to attend synagogue the week of a miscarriage with smiles on their faces. After all, no one knows the internal struggle that’s going on.
If the topics of pregnancy loss and infertility were less taboo in the Jewish community, people could get the support they need. Dealing with infertility involves a long process of seeing doctors, nightly injections, and early-morning appointments. Many times husbands may not be able to attend the appointments, and wives are left going by themselves. The process may involve missing days of work, additional hormones wreaking havoc on your body, and expensive procedures and medication. For many, adoption may seem like the only answer, but that’s also a difficult, long, lonely road, with expenses that add up quickly.
Ultimately, in-vitro fertilization did work for us and helped us start our family, but many others are not as lucky. Infertility is a lonely experience that changes a person. We will never be the people we were when we first got married. While we knew having a child might be difficult for us, we didn’t realize how long the process would be and the toll it would take on us as individuals, our relationship to each other, and relationships with our friends. At one point after being invited to a friend’s child’s birthday party, we had to leave a little early, and our friend told us, “Don’t worry, it was really only meant for mothers and children anyway.”
The experience of infertility shook our confidence in the Jewish community and some of the friendships we had previously formed. It removed the (possibly naïve) optimism we had when we first got married. After being in the dating scene a little while, getting married seemed like the answer to everything. We would finally be able to fit in and catch up with a community that centers on marriage and children. But rather than fitting in we began to feel more and more isolated. It got to the point that we were jealous of our pregnant pet guinea pig. Our confidence in our community and ourselves was (and still is) shaken.
While the experience of pregnancy loss or infertility will never be easy, perhaps if the topic of infertility were less taboo in the Jewish community, more people would speak up about their struggles and more support could be offered. How can we make the topic less taboo? For starters, synagogues can have lectures to raise awareness of the issue, communities can ensure they include and invite all members for Shabbat meals, especially those who do not fit in as well. Perhaps meal conversations can have less discussion about people’s children, or instead schedule Friday night meals in such a way that kids can be put to bed before the meal or before dessert and the adults can hang out together afterwards. More community events can be offered for people with infertility to interact with each other so that they don’t feel so alone. Synagogues could also organize meals for women who experience pregnancy loss, and communities could organize rides or company for women going to doctors’ visits alone. While there are some support organizations out there, there are few (if any?) Modern Orthodox organizations that help people connect with like-minded couples experiencing infertility.
The more the Jewish community speaks about topics such as infertility and pregnancy loss, the more those suffering from it will feel comfortable reaching out to their community for support and discussing what they are going through. A cultural change like this may not happen overnight, but perhaps future family and friends who suffer will have more support to make the process a little less unbearable. Let’s not allow those in our community to suffer alone and in silence.
“Tzi-tzit tzitzit tzitzit, where are you today?
I need you for a bracha, I need you right away!”
This was a common refrain for my three-year-old daughter Dahlia in the morning as she goes through my closet while I get dressed. She sings the song every morning in her class when each child chooses whether to take a pair of tzitzit, ritual fringes, from the box. In our house she will often playfully put on my tzitzit, but the one morning I spent in her nursery school class, none of the girls chose to.
And that’s just fine. None of the women she knows wear tzitzit, and I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if she didn’t either. But with her fourth birthday coming up, my wife and I thought about what tangible rituals might be relevant and meaningful for a little girl.
Enter Atara Lindenbaum, Rabbi Roni Handler, and their JOFA UnConference session on reinventing rituals for early childhood. Atara shared that her daughter began lighting Shabbat candles when she was three, and I thought that was a beautiful idea. In a conversation with Atara after the session, she recommended that we not only engage Dahlia with the ritual, but also make it a bit more of a meaningful ceremony—invite the rabbi or do something special in synagogue. I loved that idea, and with Dahlia’s fourth birthday coming up, we ran with it.
Since we had no template for a ritual like this, I posted a note on Facebook to solicit ideas for how to make this moment special. You can read the full back and forth here, but it spawned debates over how many candles she should light, whether to do the first lighting at home or in synagogue, and whether having the rabbi attend reinforces the perception that a male rabbinic presence is required to legitimate Jewish ritual experience. We received recommendations for what candlesticks to use, blessings to make, and texts to incorporate. It was a great discourse.
What we settled on was a very small ceremony at home with our immediate family and our community’s rabbi. We bought Dahlia a beautiful set of travel ceramic candlesticks, and my sister sent a box of colorful candles. With only a few minutes before Shabbat, I spoke to Dahlia a bit about what it means to be growing up and connected it to Moses’ growing up in the Torah portion, the rabbi said a few words about how Dahlia is now part of a tradition of lighting candles that goes back thousands of years, and then she lit the candles and said the blessing together with my wife Adina. After the rabbi left for synagogue, Adina and I blessed Dahlia, and then we sat down to read some emailed notes from grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
I had imagined that this would be a memorable (and perhaps formative) experience for Dahlia. I thought it would be serene and we would all be present in the moment. But she’s four years old, and within seconds she was much more concerned about her brother taking a balloon than the significance of her candles. And that’s alright. Because I know that again this Friday afternoon, the next, and—please God—many hundreds to follow, she will stand next to my wife, light her candles and say her blessing.
In December, the New York Times printed an article about the new fashion guidelines for state legislators in Montana. In the article, a number of women were cited as frustrated by a dress code that they thought unfairly targeted women, and did not provide an appropriate level of respect and frankly, faith, in the female legislators’ professionalism and ability to follow social norms.
It’s fairly common to read about dress codes that unfairly scrutinize girls’ dress in schools, whether it is a Jewish day school or yeshiva haggling over skirt length and the visibility of collar bones, or a secular school negotiating “leggings as pants” or revealing prom dresses. So I wasn’t fazed by the concept of an unfair dress code, but rather its targeted demographic—adult women professionals, elected officials who could presumably figure out how to dress with decorum, or at the very least, should be able to follow some basic tips from a fashion blog or magazine about what is or isn’t appropriate office attire. Why did they need a list of fashion guidelines handed down from the senior state legislators to tell them how to dress?
It made me wonder: Is there such a thing as a feminist dress code? What would a feminist dress code look like? Is there any way the Montana legislature could have gotten this right, or did the very fact that they were policing adult women’s outfits doom them from the start?
When we critique school dress codes, we often argue that they are overly focused on sexualizing the bodies of women and young girls, but we never hold up the shining example of the perfect feminist dress code, the dress code that those schools should aspire to emulate. Is it because that perfect feminist dress code doesn’t exist?
Most of the time, dress codes seem to be constructed with a focus on covering up women’s bodies and they ignore (or only perfunctorily address) the clothing choices of men and boys. The underlying assumption is that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and therefore bad, and need to be dealt with, covered up. Whereas men’s bodies, just are, and men need to be dressed “appropriately” but it’s pretty simple to figure out what that means.
Dress codes often have much longer and more detailed guidelines for women. For the men, the core of the instructions might be: no shorts, no jeans, no T-shirts. Whereas for the women it is: no shorts, no jeans, no T-shirts, and then the list continues with a list of body parts: all shirts should have sleeves that cover the shoulder, hemlines should cover the knee, necklines should not be too plunging, etc. The assumption is that women need far more instruction on how to dress appropriately, and what body parts should and shouldn’t be visible, while men should be wearing clothes that are appropriate for the occasion.
So, I repeat my question. What would a feminist dress code look like?
Is it a “balanced” list of restrictions that is a similar length for both women and for men, rather than a list of restrictions on women’s clothes that is twice as long as the men’s list? Is that even possible?
Would it also address the sexuality of men’s bodies? For example—including requirements on the lengths of men’s sleeves and shorts, explicitly prohibiting “Deep V” neck T-shirts for men, or perhaps, prohibiting visible chest hair or undershirts (technically an undergarment, similar to a visible bra strap).
Is it the tone of the dress code? Could we build a dress code that treated both women and men as people who only need a few reminders about the level of formality of a particular environment (e.g no jeans and sneakers, or suits are required), and leave it to individuals to figure the rest out?
Or is it the assumption about the enforcement of the dress code—that the men will be able to follow it naturally and easily, and women will need more guidance and reminders about what is and isn’t appropriate?
So if the Montana state legislature (or your child’s school or camp) were to “re do” their dress code, is there any way they could “do it right?” Could they institute a feminist dress code? Or are dress codes intrinsically sexist and un-feminist?
I’m a runner, a three-time marathoner. Whenever someone asks when I took up running, I say I started 12 years ago. But the truth is that the first time I really ran was for a rabbi: I was 14 and he wanted cigarettes. He was my eighth grade teacher, a towering man, with a full beard, a long black coat and a black hat. He summoned me to his desk, handed me a wad of money, and told me he wanted a pack of Benson and Hedges. And so I became a runner. I ran my teenage guts out, to the store and back, breathlessly handing him his cigarettes and change – all with the rabbi’s stamp of approval.
Today, I am a member of a closed Facebook group for Jewish (mainly observant) female athletes. Most of the postings share victories, milestones and inspirational moments. Members typically offer or ask for the usual advice about running. And then, one member, we’ll call her Sarah, posed the following query:
Anyone have issues with frumkeit [religious observance] and athleticism? For years I didn’t run or do working out [sic] at all because I learned that it was a tznius [modesty] issue, that women shouldn’t run in front of men, and I couldn’t afford a gym. Now I am trying to get in shape and I’m being lax on the no running in front of men rule that I learned, but I am keeping the spirit of it and only running when it’s dark, so I’m not in full view of everyone. Anyone else hold similarly, and had to find a compromise they’re comfortable with?
Questions loomed in my mind: Shouldn’t frumkeit and maintaining one’s health be synonymous? Isn’t athleticism an integral part of overall well-being? Shouldn’t we all be encouraged to exercise? And of course, I was reminded of the time I was given rabbinic approval (minus the actual supervision) to run.
When asked to explain, Sarah added, “It’s for the same reason we don’t dance in front of men- because of jiggling body parts.”
Jiggling. Body. Parts.
In her Facebook comments, Sarah insists a refusal to ask a rabbi for guidance, all the while asserting her desire to be fit and healthy. She shares that she has struck a compromise and runs in the dark so no one sees her. That effort to find a happy middle ground has to be commended as well.
But she never questions the initial premise that women shouldn’t exercise when there’s a chance men will see them and still worries that she is in the wrong.
Those who abide by halakha accept that there are times when women’s voices are silenced or when women are relegated to the other side of the mechitza. Even so, many of us have seen first-hand women’s great creativity in balancing halakhic concerns of modesty and participating in a number of physical activities – including singing, dancing, and exercising. Women will swim during “women’s only” hours or will go to “women’s only” gyms. If they choose to swim in a public venue, in an effort not to expose their skin, they will wear modest “bathing suits” (shirts, skirts and leggings made of water repellent fabric). When running, they may opt to wear long-sleeve shirt and skirt attire, all-the-while covering their hair (if they are married). And while these athletes may not look like the norm, they are doing their best to walk a tight-rope, striking a balance between halakha and health, an effort that should be applauded. There are countless other women of different faith traditions who make similar efforts to accommodate their own religious requirements.
As a runner myself, I love that Sarah wants to run. I want her to feel that same sense of accomplishment as I do when I finish a race or hit a new personal record. If need be, I want Sarah to push back at the rabbis and teachers who tell her women should not run. I want her to challenge them to allow her to exercise her freedom – and to be free to exercise. As someone familiar with the halakha, I want Sarah to remind them that our tradition commands us to keep our bodies healthy because refu’at ha-nefesh and refu’at ha-guf, healing of the spirit and of the body, shouldn’t wait until either is completely broken down – and running has the capacity to heal both the body and the spirit at once. I want to encourage women to take care of themselves and to encourage other women to do the same.
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.
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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.