Hardly anyone hasn't balked at the big recent question "When is a woman in her prime?" that was stealing headlines only a few years after the "Me Too" revolution, which took place decades after women had already crashed so many glass ceilings regarding the right to vote, and equality in receiving higher education and career success, it shocks me how society still has a long way to go in the journey for equality and respect for women.
It leads me to wonder, is there a better way? As a Jewish woman and mother of Jewish girls, having just returned from the largest international women's leadership conference, I look to traditional Judaism to see if it can provide an outlook, a mentality, a culture, that gives women, and our femininity, the true respect it deserves.
I am often asked why women do not lead public services, read from the Torah scroll, or get called up for an aliyah in a traditional synagogue. In a society where equality means "same" and requires everyone to have identical responsibilities, those may be valid questions.
The Torah, a holy code of law that doesn’t change based on lasting or fleeting social norms, teaches us that just as there is a heart and brain in the human body, each with different and unique roles, and different and unique responsibilities - one no greater than the other - so too men and women have different and unique roles and responsibilities in Judaism. Let's remember that no human can live with just a heart or just a brain. A healthy human needs both, one of each, and each functioning as intended.
Although I’ve only just touched the tip of the iceberg on this big and deserving topic, I wanted this little space here to talk about how ironic the above concerns of a woman’s role in Judaism sounds to me. When looking at how much responsibility is attributed to the woman, I wonder why the questions even come up.
I’ll start with the big one. Jewishness is passed through matrilineal descent. A father can be as holy as Moses, but if his children's biological mother is not Jewish, his children are not Jewish unless they choose to convert. Jewish identity depends exclusively on the woman!
Here's another thought to consider. In order to convert to Judaism, one must accept all the mitzvas, but there is a tremendous emphasis on three specific areas; family purity (mikva), Shabbat observance and Kosher. Each of these mitzvahs are commonly the woman's domain. The home environment on Shabbat, the kosher standards, and mikva, are very much feminine responsibilities!
I'd say this speaks volumes about how G-d, Torah, and its holy laws, value and trust the Jewish woman.
It almost makes me wonder: Where is the male outrage? Look how much the Torah cherishes the woman! How do the men feel about that? I feel compelled to ask the men reading this: Are you still with me? Are you ok? :)
It seems clear to me that as segments of modern Judaism drifted further away from the core daily observance of Judaism, and Jewish life started centering mostly on the once-a-week or once-a-year attendance at synagogue, the role of the Jewish women seemed to be lacking. But maybe we should pause and ask ourselves: Is the synagogue truly the center of Jewish life? Or is it the home?
Perhaps those concerns about women and Judaism stem from an altered Jewish observance.
Every Friday afternoon, as I get ready to light the Shabbat candles with my daughters, my toddler son Levi clamors to get his turn to light as well, which of course I oblige, if only to avoid the inevitable tantrum. I wonder as he grows up, and grows out of this, how he will feel about his role in Judaism being different from his sisters. When will he be old enough to understand that this treasured family moment is actually for the gals, and he gets to do other mitzvahs. He will wear a kippah, put on tefillin, and maybe even take a leading role in shul. I appreciate Judaism, which gives its women an awesome, tremendous, envious responsibility that conveys how much a Jewish woman and her femininity is treasured, valued, and cherished by the Torah.
We just celebrated Purim, which highlighted a Jewish heroine amongst many others, Queen Esther. She may not have been called to the bimah for an aliyah, but she's got a whole scroll named after her!
I hope my thoughts give you a new perspective, and make you think. I look forward to continuing the conversation!
Parenthood has made me think more deeply about many things I used to not think much about, including prayer and my understanding of prayer. Coming off the heels of the High Holidays, I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot.
When it came time to introduce my children to the concept of prayer, that they have a loving G-d, that wants the best for them, and they only need to pray, to ask, for all their needs, and thank Him for all their blessings. I struggled with this. I worried about taking the innocence away from them. What happens that first time they will inevitably ask for some elaborate wish or something truly important and get the proverbial “no”? How will they be able to reconcile that not always will they get what they want but that doesn’t mean that same loving G-d, who is the one running the world and in charge of it all, will say “No” and somehow, it really is still good.
Obviously, I had work to do on my own understanding of prayer, my relationship with G-d, and accepting the disappointments or challenges in life while still being able to still see G-d as one who does only good. I’m sure I’m not the only one with low disappointment tolerance?
A recent conversation with a friend, and a discussion we had about another aspect of parenting, really crystalized and clarified this question for me.
She reminded me that oftentimes in parenting, we parents will make a boundary, but then the inevitable kvetching, nonstop requests, and demands of our children will sometimes cause us to rethink our decisions, and re-evaluate the boundaries we’ve made. This does not necessarily mean that we are ‘giving in’ to our children’s demands, or that they “have us wrapped around their finger.” It can simply be a healthy exercise of the flexibility of thought and principle, of not stubbornly sticking to boundaries that might have been set without all the right facts on hand. Sometimes the situation can change and that can demand new solutions. This is true about matters big and small, when it’s about a chocolate bar after a poorly eaten dinner, a gymnastics class, or what time bedtime is.
I’d like to think this is true about prayer too, our spiritual parent, G-d, wants to hear from us. He may have a plan for us. And it may be a good one. But sometimes it doesn’t look good to us, and we can ask for changes, we can beg, relentlessly, just like our children, for even the most unrealistic of requests, and G-d who can do absolutely anything, even splitting the sea, may choose to re-evaluate His boundary, His plan, and maybe make some changes.
Like my wise aunt likes to say, "G-d is not a vending machine", we don’t stick a coin in and get what we want, we make our desires and needs clear, and He, who truly has our best interests at heart, makes His decision based on His knowledge of the bigger picture.
Wishing for all my friends to have their prayers answered. With Chanukah, the holiday of unnatural miracles coming up, we can have high hopes. As my favorite menorah lighting prayer goes: Sheasah neeseem la’avoteinoo, bayamim haheim, oo’bezman hazeh. May miracles happen just like they did in those days, in these times too.
Thank you so much for the incredible amount of feedbac that I’ve received from my writing
in the last two newsletters and I just wanted to say how much I appreciate each of you taking the time to read, comment, and take my musings to heart.
As we wrap up the fourth, (fourth!!!), year of our Gan Early Learning Center, which, as I like to proudly remind everyone, is the only northwest Jewish preschool from Minneapolis to Seattle, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what educating young children has taught me, over the last few years.
Just recently, one of our young friends asked me about the jar of baby corn lying on the counter, “What is this, Morah Mussie?” When I responded simply that it is, baby corn. I got the question thrown back right at me, “But what IS it?”
“Wow”, I thought as I quickly scrambled to check google, “I’m not exactly sure. Maybe it’s the corn on the cob as it is just beginning to grow, an actual baby corn on the cob, maybe it’s an entirely different vegetable. Is it a vegetable or maybe a fruit? I never even thought
One thing I’ve learned as a preschool teacher and director, over and over again: Stay curious. Keep wondering. Don’t ever stop learning.
This reminds me of our most recent Shabbat Experience, a question came up during lunch about a particular kosher tradition. When myself and Mendel were questioned about that, we kind of looked at each other somewhat dumbfounded, we actually weren’t quite sure
Although I was always a questioning child and teenager, and wondered and debated with my parents and teachers about everything we believed in and everything we did, somehow, some things fell through the cracks, and this one daily part of my life was just never wondered about. It was one of those things, done from a young age, that we just, well, did.
Needless to say, later that evening, Mendel and I opened the books on Jewish law, and learn, we did.
It is a special gift to be in an environment, where all of us come from different backgrounds and levels of observance. We are in a culture and mentality that is in learning mode, always questioning, in a sense of wonder, leaving no rock unturned. Just like young children. And I treasure that. Let’s stay curious.
Cable news was recently reeling from the two-week suspension of TV icon, Whoopie Goldberg, after her remarks regarding the Holocaust and racism against Jews.
I’m not going to delve into the validity of her statement, where she was coming from, the Black and Brown Jews she forgot about, and her understanding of race and racial marginalization, and persecution. I’ll leave that for others. I want to talk about something she said later that evening on the Stephen Colbert Late Show that struck me, profoundly.
Whoopie attempted to apologize and explain why she feels her experience with racial tension in America is different (perhaps more difficult) than what a Jew may experience. She explained
that because the color of her skin gives her race away, it makes her vulnerable to persecution from a stranger on the street. Therefore, you can’t compare her experience to that of her Jewish friends because “you can’t tell who is Jewish... they don’t look Jewish.”
Hold up, Whoopie :) you just conveniently canceled my husband and the large and growing portion of the Jewish community who will always wear a kippa/yarmulka and tzitzit and are clearly identifiable as Jews. And though our experience in South Dakota has only been positive, in other parts of the world, those who wear traditional Jewish attire, can find themselves as targets of unprovoked attacks.
Not only has our personal experience only been positive, we love it that Mendel is so identifiably Jewish. He can hardly walk through the Costco, HyVee, the library, and Washington Pavilion without getting a “Shalom” or “Good Shabbos” from a Jewish passerby he hasn’t met before, and so many non-Jewish people will come up to him and engage in meaningful and friendly conversations about Judaism and Israel. His Kippa, and tzitzit is the greatest built-in marketing, if you ask me.
I can’t wait for my little Levi to start wearing a kippa of his own so that I too can be more identifiably Jewish when I go around town with him and hopefully make some more Jewish friends.
But I digress, Whoopi’s comment about Jews not being identifiable, hit me hard. Maybe she is right?
And how do I feel about that?
Do I like that I can attempt to hide my Jewishness at times?
When I think I might be served better if others didn’t know it?
Do I sometimes rely on my whiteness and religious anonymity to keep life simple and undramatic?
Should I be doing that?
I believe Whoopi’s comment on the Colbert Show is a moment that calls for internal introspection for all of us.
Are we loud and proud Jews?
Do our neighbors, coworkers, and friends know us as loud and proud Jews?
Do they see us joyfully celebrating our unique heritage and holy traditions?
This reminds me of the young child, a member of our Juda Enrichment club, who signs all her school work with a beautiful Star of David near her name. She does this on her own initiative. Good for her!
And of the young Jewish professional in town, who when we moved here, we kept hearing from everyone we met, “Oh! _____ is Jewish, we know her.” "Who is this woman that everyone who has crossed paths with her, knows her as a proud Jew, we thought?"
These people inspire me.
Purim is coming up. Queen Esther in her time, temporarily hid her Jewishness, upon Mordechai’s advice, up until she realized that her fellow Jews survival was on the line. And then she spoke up. Loud and proud. May we all take the strength from Esther to be proud of our Jewishness, because any repercussions that may come our way, are small and insignificant in comparison to the great awesomeness of being a Jew. We are fortunate to have a rich history and heritage, and following our lead, everyone who knows us can rejoice in our uniqueness, as they discover their own.
Thank you, Whoopie, for the opportunity you gave me, to grow.
As my children grow and mature, I’ve come to a point where I can no longer dig my head in the sand.
They are starting to get it.
They are quite different from everyone else around them.
In my children’s eyes, shockingly, not everyone knows Hebrew, the Aleph Bet. To my children’s surprise, their swimming teacher (we love you, Kylee) has no idea what Chanukah or dreidels are. And to their confusion, their neighbors play with toys on Shabbat, that due to Sabbath observance, they typically leave for another day.
Isn’t the whole world Jewish? They think.
And what is Halloween? Why are children dressed up on a random Sunday evening? Why are they celebrating something that looks a bit like Purim in the fall? And wait what?! We give them candy, but they don’t give us?
I find myself attempting to delicately balance giving over a joy and pride in the Torah and our traditions, and simultaneously fostering an understanding and acceptance of others who are different. How do I instill the most important value of Chabad, total love and acceptance for every person, regardless of level of observance, belief, and practice, and yet at the same time, foster a love and passion, sense of importance, to our time tested values and mitzvahs that I hold so dear.
How to explain to very curious youngsters how something so special and important to our family is not the same way to everyone else. And oh my, how do you teach tact to five and six year olds?!?
I’m no parenting guru, (though I do avidly follow a whole lot of them!) and I can’t say I’ve figured it all out. But one thing I did learn is that it’s ok to listen to yourself. Follow your gut. Take a moment and try to pinpoint what it is you know is best for your children, and TRUST yourself.
Over time I’ve learned that it is ok to allow the words to come as they come, and realize that I, and every loving parent, truly does know what is best for their child, what they need to hear at any given time, and the best way to guide them.
And finally, when they see me live by example, treasuring my traditions and life while simultaneously respecting and unequivocally accepting others who live differently, there won’t be confusion. It will be as clear to them as it is to me.
L’chaim to all my fellow parents, grandparents, and friends in my children’s village. (It really does take a village!) Like the Rebbe said countless times to parents concerned about their child’s life choices and Jewish observance, “Be a living example.” That’s all we need to do.
Living life and raising Jewish children