Is It Too Early To Teach My Daughter To Be A Feminist?

My 15-month-old daughter has a game she likes to play. She enjoys walking up to my husband while he is sitting on the floor, grabbing his kippah off his head, putting it on her own head, and then running away saying “hat, hat, hat.” It should be noted that she likes to play this game with colanders, books, shoes, and anything else that she can lift on top of her head. But, as a feminist and a first-time parent, I turn her excitement with wearing her daddy’s “hat” into a larger question of how I, along with my husband, will raise our daughter.

Should we encourage her to try on the kippah, and see if it feels right to her? Should we send her to a pluralistic day school so she can choose the practice of Judaism that speaks to her? Am I sending the message that women don’t need to go to synagogue when we only make it in time for the end of services? No doubt the more experienced parents reading this will tell me I have plenty of time until I need to start worrying about these larger questions. After all, my daughter’s main aspirations in life right now are to successfully steal my toothpaste and wrangle more snack out of me. But she is already being inculcated with ideas about gender roles in Judaism.  

Recently, at parents’ night at my daughter’s daycare, I noticed a poster up on the wall of her classroom, depicting a little boy and a little girl on Shabbat. The boy had challah and a kiddush cup in his hand. The little girl, who looked about four or five, was lighting Shabbat candles, and was wearing a kerchief on her head. My daughter’s day-care teacher was talking about the Shabbat parties they hold every Friday, with the toddlers taking turns being Shabbat Ima (mother) and Abba (father). And it hit me: My daughter, who is not yet a year and a half, is already surrounded by messages about what she should and should not do, about what her role is in the Jewish community. At the risk of identifying myself as “that parent,” I raised my hand and asked about what the Shabbat Ima and Abba did at these Shabbat parties. Luckily, my daughter’s daycare teacher is a kindred spirit, and said that all of the children “light candles” and “drink wine,” and she agreed that we should not be relegating them to specific roles yet. But the question remains: How do I raise my daughter to feel empowered to make her own decisions and discover for herself a Judaism which is meaningful.

I wonder whether Jewish day schools and camps are having these conversations as well. With Modern Orthodoxy currently being pulled in opposite directions, will the major institutions charged with raising our children alongside their parents reevaluate how gender roles are taught to students? Will little girls continue to be called, as girls were in the summer camp I attended for six years, “mitzvah meidelachs,” roughly translated to “sweet little mitzvah girls,” or will they be challenged to question texts? Will boys begin their days, as they have for centuries, proudly thanking God for not making them women, or will they respect and support their female peers as equals, and not question them as leaders? Not to mention the questions that will soon be commonplace about the soundness of phrasing all of these questions in terms of binary gender!

I am uniquely lucky to have a mother who is incredibly learned, who has always been two steps ahead of me in thinking about Jewish feminism and what role women should play in the Jewish community. Before I was open to the idea of female rabbis, my mother was scoffing at the continual banishment of women from the rabbinical sphere, and while we both study Daf Yomi (daily page of Talmud) she takes far fewer shortcuts than I do. There were never different expectations for me than there were for my brothers, a fact which I bemoaned when I had to spend hours in synagogue and my friends could play outside. As importantly, my brothers were raised to be gentle, sensitive, and not to question women as authority figures and role models. I am thankful for the example my mother has set, and hopeful that as each new question on how to raise my daughter rattles around in my mind, I can find strength in the strong women I know, take a deep breath, and know that my daughter will have the support and encouragement she needs to always be as funny, kind, loyal, silly, and strong as she is today.  

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