In order to get your driver’s permit — in order to get on the road and operate a vehicle 300 times your weight with the terrifying ability to crush another human being if handled improperly — all you need to do is sit in a classroom and learn the theoretical rules of handling that vehicle. Of course, if you’re like most American teens, you’re probably not even paying attention in the class, but even if you do, as soon as you hit the road you realize something: All the studying and memorizing in the world cannot prepare you for the actual experience of driving. You have to learn by doing, and that’s terrifying because you’ve never done it before.
This is just like marriage. You can read every single book out there to prepare you, but it just isn’t the same as being married. Marriage is a scary thing for many people; it can’t crush another human, at least not literally, but it inevitably will change your life and the life of the person you marry. And marriage presents, at least for the Orthodox Jew, a plethora of new experiences that have remained hitherto on the pages of books or spoken about among peers and in classes.
Among others topics, I’ve written about on this blog: niddah, mikveh, and yes, sex. I learned and heard and spoke and read about the topics and their details before I got married, but many things didn’t really click until after I had experienced them for myself.
Let’s take, for example, living with another person. Every single book I’ve ever read talks about how hard it will be to live with a spouse — and I’m not even talking advice books here, I’m talking novels. That message is thrown at you in every possible way. I read about it so much I thought I knew what was coming. “Well, marriage will be tough, but we love each other and we know what’s coming, so we’ll work through it.” Easy peasy.
But then we got married and a few months in I noticed that whenever Jeremy puts the knives back in our fancy little knife block, some are turned around the wrong way. They come all facing one way. They’re clearly supposed to go the same way. It’s so obvious and so easy to me.
But for some reason, Jeremy just shoves them in helter skelter, throwing off my OCD need for organization and pattern. It’s really the smallest thing, and I can — and do — just turn them back around myself, but it bothers me in a way I never thought was possible.
And in the middle of the night, when Jeremy reaches for the blankets and I’ve got them all wrapped around me, I have no doubt that he thinks to himself that I’m more bothersome than he ever thought I could be before we lived and slept together. (Or, since it’s the middle of the night, he probably thinks something more like, “Grnnnthh” but that roughly translates to the same thing.)
Sometimes we get so annoyed with each other that we need space. But we live together. But we knew that living together would be hard and we loooove each other, right? Yeah. But it’s so much harder than either of us could have pictured in our pre-wedded bliss. And here’s the secret reason why: In the middle of whatever drama is ensuing, thinking about how much you love your spouse just isn’t going to make the problem go away. Trust me. I’ve tried.
The same rule applies for hundreds of other aspects of marriage, many of them a lot more difficult to contend with than backwards knives, such the constant need for communication, or the hardships of niddah. You can read about it all day long for every day of your engagement, but the reality doesn’t hit until it’s, well, real. Only then can you turn around and say, “Oh, that’s what they meant when they said that.”
You can and should prepare — don’t go in blind — but a lot of what you hear and see won’t hit home until you’re in the moment, handling that vehicle, and hoping to God you’re doing it right.
There was a time when we first started dating when being apart from Jeremy left me feeling off-kilter. Being in shul was especially weird.
Even though we could usually see each other across the mechitza, or the partition between the sexes, it was still an unsettling experience. During longer services, Jeremy would pass by my seat and motion to me; we’d both go outside to the social hall and reunite for a few minutes before separating again to our sections.
I have prayed my whole life in Orthodox shuls, but I never really paid attention to the gender divide until I started dating. I knew, of course, that the separation of the sexes bothered people who were concerned about gender equality. But even though I’m a feminist, I didn’t see it that way. It was just how shul was. We used to joke that in my shul in Baltimore, where the women’s section was in the back, we didn’t know what our rabbi looked like until he left the shul and started doing online podcasts. What did I care what the rabbi looked like? My dad is a rabbi and if I had any questions about Judaism or Jewish law, I just asked him. I never felt the need to connect with our shul rabbi.
Now that I’m married, being separated from the men finally makes a difference to me because it means I have to be apart from my husband.
Jeremy and I do have the option to try something different. There’s a small group in our community that conducts prayer on Shabbat with a trichitza— that is, a worship space with a men’s section, a women’s section and a gender nonspecific section. We haven’t been yet, though we do intend to try it out. But they don’t get together every week, and the truth is, even if we did try it out, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable sitting in the egalitarian, mixed section regularly — partly because I grew up in a sex-separated minyan, but also because there is halachic reasoning behind the mechitza. And as much as it might inconvenience me — which is, honestly, not very much — I still put halacha as I understand it before my own comfort.
The separation has a bright side, as well. Being apart from Jeremy, and feeling his absence, reminds me that, as much as I allow the relationship to become the main focus of my life, it is not the entirety of my life. I need room for me. I need room for God and my religion and my growth in that arena and every other. My relationship, indeed, can only benefit from a couple of hours of meditation in shul each week.
Besides, there’s a certain thrill of being a couple in shul. Growing up, I saw couples interact across the mechitza: the wife would hand the baby to her husband to concentrate on her prayers, or the man would motion to his watch to indicate it was time to leave. There was a secret understanding between these couples across the mechitza, one that I grew up observing without being a part of, and it’s strangely exciting to partake in that myself.
The mechitza doesn’t make me feel oppressed and it doesn’t make me feel unequal. It does make me realize I’m a bit of a pansy for not being able to go two hours without speaking to my husband. But then again, when I’m trying to talk to God, I don’t need any more distractions than my own mind provides me with. I can talk to Jeremy later. These few moments are for me and God.
There are many things that make being Orthodox difficult. In fact, if I started a list right now I think I would be busy for hours, compiling all the challenging aspects of following halacha as I understand it. But no matter how frustrating it can be sometimes, no matter how many times a day I want to rip off my hair covering, as soon as Shabbat rolls around, I can’t imagine being anything but Orthodox. Shabbat is the reward for making it through the week.
Shabbat has always meant, to me, a stretch of uninterrupted relaxation. It’s enforced relaxation, in fact — just sleeping, eating, reading and hanging out with family and friends. As I grow older and my weeks became more stressful, I am more and more grateful for the blessing that is Shabbat, counting down the days until Friday as soon as Monday begins. It is a weekly mini vacation made all the more special by the infusion of spirituality that I’m certain I can feel almost tangibly. And now that I’m married, Shabbat means all that and more.
Instead of a personal blessing, Shabbat now feels like something created for couples to restore their relationships to their ideal states. After a week of work and school and distraction, of television and texting and typing, Shabbat is 25 hours where it’s just me and Jeremy and nothing in between us. Even if we wanted to avoid each other, all we have are books and magazines to distract us from one another.
Our friends told us that Friday would be stressful, a hectic day of rushing to prepare the food for Shabbat. Instead, the anticipation of Shabbat sets in on Thursday night, and Friday is, if not relaxing — I tend to go overboard with the cooking — a day of cheerful bustling, waiting for the moment to welcome Shabbat that week. It helps, of course, that this year Jeremy and I both have Friday off, and we’re not trying to fit all our preparations in around work and school. (That will go away eventually, but for now we’re enjoying the perks.)
Then Shabbat begins, and even if we want to do something different, we can’t. Our phones are turned off, our laptops put away, and we have only each other for entertainment. We go to shul, we have meals, usually with friends, and we take walks to help digest all the food I’ve cooked. And we talk. And talk. We talk about our weeks, whatever we’re reading, whatever philosophical topic has struck Jeremy’s interest, or whatever bizarre news factoid I’ve picked up. And when we’re not talking, we’re sitting next to each other, reading, enjoying the special Shabbat silence uninterrupted by phone beeps or Facebook bings.
During the week, I’m a technology addict. I can’t put down my phone even when I’m watching TV. If I’m not checking Facebook, I’m checking Twitter. When Jeremy asks me to put down my phone, it feels like an imposition. My hand actually feels empty. But on Shabbat, I don’t miss any of it. I don’t care what’s happening outside of whatever room I’m in. I’m with the only person I want to talk to, and I experience actual human interaction with friends in real life. I may not always detect that spirituality I used to feel so deeply, but I feel a literal sabbatical from the fast-paced world. In short, Shabbat heals the shallow wounds that each week inflicts on me.
Life is simpler on Shabbat, and so is our relationship. If we disagree, we have hours to talk it out, instead of having to work our discussions around the rest of life’s demands. A day without technology has always been, for me, a day to recharge and prepare for the coming week while allowing the past one to wash away. Now it’s a time where my relationship can benefit, too.
In college, friendships were ripe for the plucking. There was a veritable buffet of potential best friends; hundreds of men and women of my own age were just waiting for me to confide my secrets to them or to watch a movie or go dancing with them. All I needed to do was jump into the pool and find them, the other somewhat-odd nerds who were also fond of books and alcohol.
But now I’m old. The articles I’ve read about the changing nature of friendships in adulthood tend to focus on the late twenties and early thirties as the pivot point, but we Orthodox Jews like to get a jump-start on adulthood by marrying early. So now I’m old, and I live in the suburbs and my buffet of friends is gone, or at least a bridge or a tunnel away.
When you’re young and Modern Orthodox and living in New York, you typically live in Washington Heights. I, on the other hand, live in New Jersey, in a small Jewish community that until a year ago I’d heard of only once. I don’t go to grad school, so making friends there is not an option and, as I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing, I won’t have children for some time, a change that, on average, adds nine new friends to a woman’s social circle. I got married and I suddenly found myself best-friendless, feeling a bit like I was holding up a friendship bracelet with no one to give it to.
Of course, my husband is my best friend and all that, but not having a friend I could gossip with from time to time made me realize how much I need estrogen-fueled companionship. Sure, my husband completes me, and I can talk to him about anything, but complaining to someone about lady stuff is entirely less fulfilling when they can’t complain back. There are certain things I need friends for, and not just friends on Gchat.
When we were first married — a whole five and a half months ago — this was much harder for me. Jeremy saw how sad I was living so far from my college friends and he offered to move. “Let’s give it a year,” I bravely told him. We had friends over for Shabbat, and had frequent meals with the one couple we knew in town. We Facebook friended everyone we met in the community, hoping they would turn into real-life friends.
As weeks passed, the urgency to find a new BFF nearby diminished. Nothing changed, except for my own mindset. I realized I was so desperate for friends — couple friends and a female soul mate — that I wasn’t letting it happen naturally. And, importantly, I was terrified of becoming a quiet married couple without the active social life I enjoyed in college. But we’re slowly becoming just that, and it’s simply part of growing up. I wasn’t prepared for that when we got married, but with Jeremy’s patient support and a few bursts of frenzied socializing in the city, I’ve become happier at the thought of spending time just with my husband. And when he’s not there? Well, I do things that I enjoy: writing, reading, even napping.
Jeremy and I are lucky in that we’re Orthodox and have a natural community built around our synagogue. Someone mentioned that you have to actually go to shul on Shabbat to make grown up friends, and we became more diligent about waking up early on Shabbat mornings to do that. We still have friends over for Shabbat, but we also focus on having quiet weekends with just each other. We have the couple we knew when we moved here, and we see them every few weeks. We have kind-of-friends that we’ve met in the area, and over time, I’m sure, we’ll become real friends with some of them and stay kind-of-friends with the others. And I remind myself that even in college, it took me a year to find the niche I’d been looking for. It wasn’t as simple as walking into a room and pointing; it took time.
My birthday is coming up and if I do have any sort of party with friends it will probably be with the friends I have from high school or college; I don’t have anyone else I feel close enough with yet that I’d want to celebrate with. If I wrote this post a few months ago, I would have cried at the thought that I’m months out of college and don’t have any new friends to party with, but now I’m okay with that. I have my friends from college and high school, and though I might not live near them, they’re always there when I need them.
Part of the idea of marriage is to bind together with another human being; the word marry actually means “to combine,” and the idea of marriage in Jewish tradition, beginning with Adam and Eve, is to be “united…and become one flesh.” It’s all very romantic and wonderful sounding, until you remember somewhere down the line that if you don’t have time apart, you’re probably going to commit some very grave crimes. Or at least fantasize about them.
Jeremy understood this a lot earlier than I did. When we were dating he told me that one of the things he learned from his sister’s relationship with her husband is that they could both be sitting in one room together and doing completely different things for hours at a time. He wanted that same dynamic with his significant other. “Well that’s weird,” I thought, because why the hell would you want to be with someone and not spend time with him? “That’s sweet,” I said, because we were dating and that’s what you say when you’re dating someone and disagree with him.
But since we’ve been married, those moments — together, but also alone — have become a lot more frequent. And they hold a lot more appeal. In fact, they are crucial.
Jeremy and I love each other, and we love spending time together, but sometimes, for entirely practical reasons — like he has homework or I have a blog post to write — we need to be able to sit in the same room and not talk for hours at a time. And at other times, for entirely emotional reasons — like we are so tired of each other’s faces that we absolutely need to go hang out with other people — we need to be able to spend time apart. And we need to know that in neither of these scenarios is being apart a bad thing.
I think spending so much time with a single person makes the fewer moments of separation all the more essential. Jeremy and I are both highly independent people — we both have stories from our childhoods about when we would have friends over and sit to the side and read while they talked with each other. (In my case, I would make them read as well.) As much as we prefer each other’s company to anyone else’s, we don’t always want company at all. In fact, I hadn’t realized just how much I need time to myself until I chose to spend all my time with someone else.
Most days, I end work excited to come home to the apartment that I share with my husband, looking forward to the simple joy of a quiet evening with him after he comes home from late-night classes. What we were never taught about Adam and Eve is that even though they were “one flesh,” it wasn’t too hard for them to get away from each other when they needed to because they had the entire world to themselves. (And I’m guessing they needed to get away from each other more and more after the snake incident.) Jeremy and I, on the other hand, have a one-bedroom apartment. And while I can’t wait for him to get home most nights, I often find myself savoring those few hours that I have to myself.
I went to the mikveh recently, and it was the first time that I didn’t cry. For married women, going to the mikveh comes at the end of the niddah, or the length of the menstrual cycle, plus seven days. It concludes niddah; after a woman dunks in the mikveh she can touch her husband for the first time since her period began.
From everything I was told in high school, the mikveh is supposed to fill a woman with a spiritual feeling; it’s a magical experience, a sensation of rebirth and renewal and possibly, just possibly, unicorns will fly above your head during the process. (It’s highly possible that I’m a tiny bit bitter about what I was told.)
The truth is, the actual experience of dunking in the mikveh waters has so far been fine, if not downright pleasant. It’s kind of like swimming in a heated pool, only naked and with a woman politely watching you. So, weird, yes, but not exactly something to cry about. But the first time, I didn’t know that. All I knew was what I’d been told, and magical rebirth was a lot to live up to.
A lot of women find the mikveh a spiritual process. They spend time in the water after the ritual dunking, praying or praising or requesting. To me, the mikveh was scary. I’ve been practicing Judaism my whole life, and to suddenly have a new law thrust upon me was overwhelming. Before I went for the first time, my kallah teacher, or bridal coach, guided me through the process. But I was still afraid I would forget something or do it wrong. The mikveh process has a lot of steps, including intense cleaning. You have to remove all dirt, which is a lot harder than it sounds. You are supposed to dunk twice, with every part of your body submerged, and if even a hair floats above the water, you have to dunk again. There is also a blessing to say inbetween the dunks, and though the blessing is on the wall, I wasn’t allowed to wear contacts, so I wouldn’t be able to see it; I’d have to remember it. If only I could have had a practice run.
The first time I went was a few days before my wedding. Having a new law to suddenly practice, the weight of all these expectations of wonderfulness that I might not live up to, and yes, probably the fact that my wedding was two days away and I was due for a good cry, all hit me in the private waiting room. I ended up sobbing on the floor, calling Jeremy to calm me down. Suffice to say it wasn’t all that pretty, and certainly wasn’t what I expected to happen. My mother, who had brought me for my first time, came in to hug me and tell me it would be okay. By the time I went in the water, I was calmer, and the experience wasn’t so bad. I didn’t feel reborn or closer to God, but I survived and I did it right on the first try.
The next time I went wasn’t ideal either. I was in a different state, and wasn’t able to go to a mikveh that I was comfortable with. I cried again, yadda yadda. By this time, I was sure that it was just how I would do mikveh runs for the rest of my life: I’d cry, go in, and be done.
But this time, for the first time, I was excited to go to the mikveh. As the niddah time was coming to a close, I looked forward to the end. Jeremy was taking seriously the suggestion from our chatan/kallah (groom/bride) teacher to romance me on mikveh night, and I’m quite happy to be romanced. I still didn’t fully believe that I wouldn’t end up crying beforehand, because clearly that’s what I do, but at least then it would be over.
Finally, though, I didn’t cry. In fact, the mikveh was, if not a rejuvenating, spiritual experience, at least a neutral one, even leaning toward the more positive side of neutral. I prepared for the mikveh with anticipation, not dread. I knew this time what was required of me, and though I was slightly apprehensive about doing it in my community mikveh for the first time, the knowledge that I will be doing it in that mikveh for many years to come helped assuage my nerves. I dunked eagerly, still slightly worried that I would mess up. But it was over quickly, and as I showered and dressed to leave, I was excited. I felt the nervous excitement that I used to experience when I would go meet Jeremy for a date; I was tingly and happy and nervous all at once, and above all, I was happy that niddah was once again over, something that always feels so frustratingly long.
In fact, the analogy of the mikveh night to the wedding night was not perfectly apt but much more understandable to me. I felt a bit like a blushing bride. The mikveh may not have given me the opportunity to reach higher spiritual planes, but it inserted a spark into our relationship. It made the night exciting and thrilling, and the prospect of coming home to my husband was infinitely more electrifying than it usually is.
Back when I was engaged, I wrote a blog post about covering my hair. In it, I wrote that I was planning on covering my hair with hats, which puts me in a separate category from married women who wear wigs, and yet another category from those who don’t cover their hair at all.
But how women decide whether to cover their hair — and how I decided — comes down to more than just categories or identity; behind each version of hair covering are centuries of rabbinical interpretation, discussion and disagreement.
Since I wanted to choose for myself how I was going to cover my hair, instead of simply asking a rabbi or doing what my mother does, I decided to do some research. It’s actually impressive I was able to come to any conclusion at all, considering how many opinions are out there.
Cover all your hair. Cover just the top of your hair. Cover none of you hair. Cover your hair outside the house. Cover your hair all the time. Use a wig, a hat, a scarf, a burqa (okay, not really).
And that’s not even considering the reasons for covering the hair, which affect which way you end up covering it. The decision-making process became more and more frustrating and arduous as I printed out more and more articles and essays on the topic, trying to sort it all out.
And then there was the husband. Or fiancé, at the time. It’s fairly common for a Modern Orthodox woman to make her own decision when it comes to this particular religious practice, because of its personal nature. But Jeremy and I like to discuss everything, and we also like to disagree a lot. This topic was no exception.
Even though Jeremy would not, in the end, pressure me to practice hair covering one way or another, we discussed the topic in depth at the time, and we realized that we disagreed on the tradition so much that we disagree on the very origins of the practice, as well as how it manifests today. While I believe the law has biblical origins, Jeremy does not. I think it has to do with a married woman covering her hair in public simply as a symbol of marital status; Jeremy believes it’s sourced in teachings around ervah, or nakedness, in covering up sexual parts of the body. I think covering my hair is required whether or not times and societies change, and whether or not hair covering is meaningful to the public at large; Jeremy thinks that since hair is largely considered non-sexual, and society doesn’t see covering hair as modest, it is no longer necessary to practice it.
A few weeks ago, Jeremy and I were at a lunch hosted by one of our friends in our community. There were 11 people there, all around our age, and all more or less Modern Orthodox. I was the only person there who is not in graduate school.
This is a phenomenon I noticed soon after finishing college. While I was, fortunately, shifting immediately into the working world, most of my friends were either in college still, in graduate school, or applying to graduate school.
Less than one in 10 Americans has a graduate degree. Put another way, only about one-third of college graduates continue on to get graduate degrees. Yet among my friends, I’m the one in the minority. At Yeshiva University, my alma mater, 89% of graduates go to graduate school within a year. And that number doesn’t include my friends who take a few years off before they apply to graduate programs. I’m guessing that even among my friends who didn’t go to Y.U., the number is similarly high.
There’s a big difference between my life and my friends’ lives. While my friends spend all day among their own friends and classmates, I spend all day in my office, and while I love my job, it’s not quite the same social experience as school. When my friends get home, whether it’s to their spouse or to their roommates, they sit down and get busy with work. I have hours of free time that I try to fill with cooking, television, and running, especially those nights where Jeremy is sitting at his desk writing papers.
Jeremy and I were speaking with two friends of ours — a couple— who mentioned they know another couple in the same (well, reversed) situation: he’s working and she’s in grad school. “It’s really hard for them,” our friends said. The fact that they knew others who felt the same way was so validating for me, and only then did I realize just how hard the situation can be sometimes.
And that’s only talking about my relationship with my husband. When I’m in groups of friends, it’s almost harder sometimes. The entire crowd will begin commiserating about teachers or workloads or being in school forever, and while I am eternally grateful to be finished with school — that cannot be stated emphatically enough — I have nothing to add to the conversation and I feel separated from some of my closest friends. Our common ground has shrunk. Occasionally I even feel like I’m not as smart as they are, or that my lower education level makes me inferior. I feel, in other words, like I’m not as good as they are.
Believe me, I’m not complaining that I’m working. I’ve read the news. I know enough people looking in vain for jobs. I know how hard the economy is, and how lucky I am to have a job straight out of college. But there’s still an aspect of being in the working world that makes me feel like an outsider, that I can’t really empathize with my friends about some of the most basic aspects of our lives.
The good news is, there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way I do. The better news is, in a few years the reality will change entirely, as my friends and my husband leave school and enter the workforce. The situation is temporary, as I keep reminding myself, and in the meantime, at least I don’t have exams anymore.
In case you haven’t read my last blog: I’m not pregnant. Nor do we intend me to be anytime soon. But of course, as everyone likes to remind me, “Man plans and God laughs.” Or “You might change your mind and want kids sooner.” Or “birth control is only 99% effective, you know.” (We know.) So when will we have kids?
There was recently a Jezebel article about the problem with the idea that there’s a “right time” to get married. Her point, which I agree with, though perhaps not in the same angry way, is that each woman has to decide for herself. We don’t need people telling us the correct age to marry. (And, I would add, finding the right person to marry isn’t exactly something you can schedule. Or, in other words, man plans and God laughs). We have to make that decision for ourselves as individuals. The same thing applies to having children.
Telling a woman when she should have children is like informing a stranger that he or she should really buy a house now, because the timing is perfect. So many factors go into such life-changing decisions that even if, statistically speaking, one age is best in general, that in no way should affect how each individual plans such a thing. Assuming that individual wants to have children — or buy a house — at all.
For every big decision, a Modern Orthodox person or couple is saddled with the friction inherent in being both modern and Orthodox. The first commandment in the Bible is to “be fruitful and multiply.” It’s not only part of our religion, it’s essential to its continuation (no pressure). When Orthodox couples date, they never ask each other whether they want to have kids. They ask each other how many. I, for one, grew up knowing I would have kids before I knew how to make them.
But then there’s the modern part of being Modern Orthodox, which means we don’t feel pressured to have kids right away. Do we push it off until I’m settled in my career? Have them young while I’m still in a flexible entry-level position? The news is full of answers, of course, and I read those articles with curiosity, but never with the goal of making a decision, because our decision is our own.
So what have we decided? We’re going to wait a few years. The main question, now, is how many kids and how many years. And we don’t know the answer to that yet.
I’m sure by pushing off having children a few years, some Orthodox people will question the rightness of my decision to wait. I’m sure whenever we do have kids, some secular people will question my sanity for being in my 20s. But it truly is a very Modern Orthodox approach to take.
We need financial security. We need to feel comfortable paying for our babies’ diapers and still be able to put money away for their college tuition. We want time with each other before devoting ourselves to our kids. We’re not having kids right away because it’s a mitzvah to have kids, and we’re not pushing it off until we’re 35 and have the perfect jobs. We chose a time frame that works for us, or at least seems right to us now. That can change, of course, but I’ve learned never to make plans and assume they’ll work out perfectly.
I’m not entirely surprised that I’ve been getting pregnancy jokes — and less jokey queries — ever since it’s been halachically possible for me to be pregnant. After all, I used to be one of those girls who would stare down a newly married woman’s belly, itching with curiosity to know when it would swell. In the Orthodox community, the sequence of events really does follow that childhood rhyme: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage — in that order and in short order.
Jeremy didn’t believe me when I told him that I would be getting questions about babies — even if they were mostly teasing questions — as soon as we got married. But that was back when we were engaged, and now he sees that I wasn’t exaggerating. Sure, most people mean it in good fun, but it’s like being from Baltimore when “Hairspray” came out: The first person who sings “Good Morning Baltimore” to you is bearable, but the 20th person is being annoyingly repetitive. You don’t want to be rude, so you smile along with the joke.
I had some sort of stomach flu over Pesach, and I couldn’t eat much for a few days. I turned down wine. I even threw up. So you can imagine how many of those pregnancy jokes I heard. And I didn’t mind them, really, individually. But taken as a whole, it was overwhelming to deal with. A married woman can be nauseous without being pregnant! My sister mentioned a time she was sick in high school and I had a bizarre twinge of envy — remember the days a girl could just be sick and not be suspected of imminent motherhood?
It’s not the personal nature of the topic that bothers me. As anyone who knows me has figured out, I’m not a very private person. It’s the underlying — and I’m sure unintended — pressure behind the words. “Are you pregnant?” really means “Are you pregnant yet?”
It’s true that the Orthodox philosophy of marriage centers around procreation, but it’s also true that the Modern Orthodox community emphasizes the importance of love, and healthy relationships. For myself and many of my peers, this means spending time together before having children, not only to build a strong foundation for the future family, but also to establish careers and financial stability with which to provide for those children.
No one is sincerely requesting intimate information about when I plan on having kids, but the implicit pressure in the lighthearted jokes make the humor dissipate before the questions reach my ears. So, no, I’m not pregnant, and I probably usually think you’re funny, but please stop winking at me when I turn down a cup of Kiddush wine. We’ll have kids when we’re good and ready, and in return for your prudence and respect for our personal space, I’ll probably even let you touch my stomach when the baby kicks.
A few weeks ago, one of my engaged friends was asking me for marriage advice and I told her that she should allow her husband to have his own opinions and respect him for them. Also, she should be able to give in every now and then.
This advice isn’t something I came up with out of thin air. It was based on a conversation, almost a fight, I had the night before with Jeremy with regard to an article I had read about teenage criminals.
In short, Jeremy and I disagreed over whether or not teenage criminals are to be pitied because their crimes are part of their permanent records. I believed that if they did something heinous, then they got what they deserved. Jeremy took a kinder approach; he thought if they did something terrible, they were not to be forgiven, but the fact that they were young means they probably didn’t fully understand the ramifications of their actions until it was too late. He felt bad for them.
I was livid. These teens are guilty. So what if their lives are forever altered? That’s the cost of doing something atrocious! I couldn’t understand Jeremy’s perspective, and I should have walked away and cooled off. But instead I sat at my desk fuming, wondering how I could be married to a person who didn’t feel that way.
It took me a few minutes, but then I reached into my own brain and stabilized myself. I told myself that this reflected really well on Jeremy, actually. He didn’t condone their actions, but he didn’t think they were terrible people either. As someone studying school psychology, his ability to see these teenagers as people who did something bad — instead of intrinsically bad people — was actually an admirable and necessary trait. So I took a few deep breaths, went back over to Jeremy, and told him so.
I’ve mentioned before that Jeremy is usually the first one to end our fights. By usually, I mean about 90% of the time. And this wasn’t a fight, nor did he have anything to apologize for, but it took a lot of courage for me to go over to him and admit that I was wrong, and in fact I respected his opinion, even though I didn’t agree with him. It was a heady feeling, in the end.
Too often, we get trapped in our own stubbornness. We won’t actually care what our opinions are, just that we prove the other one wrong. We get caught up in the rush of the argument and refuse to see the larger picture: that we love each other, and being right isn’t nearly as important as maintaining respect in the relationship.
I have no doubt that we’ll disagree again, and I’ll need to be right again. In fact, it will probably happen before this article is even posted. But now I know what it’s like to admit to being wrong, and not just because I wanted a fight to end, but because I was able to force myself to see things his way. And that’s a game-changer.
Ideally, the Jewish holidays are supposed to be about deep religious symbolism, usually something to do with surviving and being saved by God. But in reality, each holiday comes with its own baggage and modern-day choices.
Pesach should be about freedom from slavery, but in truth it’s often about cleaning and cooking, unless your family is lucky enough to be going to a hotel in Florida or Israel.
Now that I’m married, the holidays have become overwhelmingly about family; the family that is our parents and siblings, the family that is Jeremy and I and even the family that we hope to one day have.
Our foray into our first Pesach together as a married couple began with a conversation about where we would spend the Sedarim, or the Seders on the first two nights. As all Jews know, the first Seder is the real focal point of the holiday, but for Orthodox Jews, the holiday extends for another seven days beyond that. The last two days are also significant, and this year there’s even a Shabbat in between the “first days” and “second days,” so Jeremy and I had to split up the holiday as evenly as we could between our parents. As any newlywed or married couple can tell you, this is not easy or fun. We tried to skirt the whole issue by suggesting that we go to a friend’s family for the first two Seders, but let’s just say that made no one happy. So we were back to square one: three sets of holiday days (the Sedarim, Shabbat and the last two days of Passover) and two sets of parents. The math didn’t look good.
On the plus side, Jeremy and I made the decision, to our relief, that we wouldn’t be in our own apartment for the entire week of Pesach. That meant no cleaning and no scouring our floors for misplaced crumbs. We would probably be help out with the cooking at our parents’ houses, but we decided it was a fair exchange for their hosting us.
What this did mean, though, was that we would spend our first true holiday together not so together. Instead, it would be with loads of siblings and parents and grandparents and even a couple of (adorable) nephews. But Pesach is a holiday of family, and while we cherish our alone time, it is exciting to spend a meaningful holiday with family —especially since we would get to miss the stress of preparing for it.
We finally decided that we would spend the first days, and therefore the Sedarim, with Jeremy’s parents. In exchange, Jeremy suggested, we would spend Shabbat and the second days with my parents. Which is where our future family comes in.
I’ve realized that this holiday is no longer just about me and Jeremy, or even me and Jeremy and our families. As I anticipate the coming holiday, I also am wondering about the future. In my mind, I’m planning how we will celebrate the holiday when we have our own kids one day. How will Jeremy and I run our Seder? How will we involve our children and make them look forward to the Seder?
I’m enjoying the present with Jeremy, and looking forward to this holiday with family. It’s a difficult thing, to approach such a stressful holiday with a mindset of the intended message of it all. But by focusing on who I’ll be with, I find I’m able to see a glimmer of something meaningful amid the hubbub.
The other day, I whined to Jeremy that we spend too much time watching television together and not enough time doing interactive activities.
“Let’s get a puzzle!” I suggested, already picturing us sprawled out on the floor, putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle, nonexistent fireplace warming our nonexistent Golden Retriever by our sides.
“I don’t like puzzles,” Jeremy immediately vetoed. Well, we didn’t have a fireplace anyway. I could give up on that dream until we do. “But we could do my Star Wars lego set together!”
“No,” I grumbled. “That’s boring.”
We agreed we should do more things together, but were stuck on the precise activity we’d engage in.
“Let’s see if we can count the states!” I exclaimed, thinking of the Friends episode where they all try to name the states. It looked fun when they did it. Jeremy protested that I would be competitive about that too, but I insisted. We got 46 of them and immediately and forever felt ashamed of ourselves and our college degrees.
The next suggestion was Jeremy’s. “Let’s try and guess the heights of different celebrities.” It sounded dull, but we gave it a go. And that game carried us through the evening.
“Keira Knightley,” one of us would say, and we would each give our guess. Then we’d look it up. It was fun, and it didn’t really feel all that competitive because we were both equally bad at it.
It’s become our game now. We’ll be sitting reading and Jeremy will say, “Jon Stewart.” “5’10””,” I’ll reply, and Jeremy will give his guess. Then we’ll look it up, and it will start a conversation about how Jeremy saw him live and that’s how he knew Stewart is actually quite short.
Okay, it does sound silly, but we both find it fun and that’s all we care about. It gives us something that’s uniquely ours, and it gives us something that isn’t just a shared appreciation for a television show. There’s something nice about being able to enjoy each other’s company without outside stimulation.
I read so many articles about marriage advice — how to have a happy marriage, how to have a successful marriage. And much like diet advice in glossy magazines, it seems to me if there really were one true trick, we wouldn’t keep writing about it. But a constant refrain is to communicate. And while usually that means talking about the bigger things, I think it means talking about the little things too. To share the silly thoughts and the nonsense games and to be friends as well as partners. So to me, our game represents that. It means that Jeremy and I are weaving in friendship as we stitch our lives together. And I think that’s just as important as sharing our goals and dreams with each other.
And in case you were wondering, Jon Stewart is 5’6”.
Before Jeremy and I got married, the rabbi who performed our ceremony asked us to make a list of three things that excited us about marriage and three things that scared us. We both said that we were scared of living together and perhaps coming to resent certain aspects of each other’s personalities that didn’t bother us or didn’t come up when we lived apart.
Maybe one of us would be messy; maybe the other would get anal about messes. These were things we couldn’t know about each other until we’d lived together, and we both were smart enough to know those were things that could nudge their ways into our happiness and make us squirm with exasperation.
“When you get married, you vow to love your spouse for better or worse. Most people think this means you support each other through the big things in life — getting sick, going broke, or your dog throwing up all over the house. I think what it really means is you need to love your spouse for their better habits, along with their worse habits,” writes Leslie Rasmussen, creator of Marriage-Project.com, in The Huffington Post.
I couldn’t agree more. I can easily envision devoting myself to Jeremy should he, God forbid, fall ill. But occasionally I come home to find the bathroom sink dripping, and that drives me berserk.
And he would support me emotionally and otherwise if I lost all our money somehow — but it makes him crazy to know that I’m going to assume he’s the one who left the sink dripping.
Baboo is my grandmother. She’s one of those tiny Polish women whom you can’t picture without wrinkles, who dotes on her grandchildren with all her heart and spare cash, and who occasionally makes inappropriate jokes and then giggles at her own audacity. In short, she’s great. So it’s easy to forgive her for her occasional sexist comments, all of which stem from growing up in a veritable shtetl in Eastern Europe, where women were expected to run the home.
Baboo calls me a “balebuste” and she means it as a compliment. Balebuste is Yiddish for “housewife.” A great balebuste keeps a nice home by cooking, cleaning and looking after others. But as a young girl learning about feminism, I took offense at the implication that a woman should take pride in her ability to keep a clean home. I didn’t want to be a balebuste.
As I grew older, I came to realize that I like cooking. I love to feed other people, especially my husband. And I definitely take pride in my ability to cook well.
But I sometimes feel like a feminist failure — or as the cool kids would say, #feministfail — when I eagerly pop dinner in the oven, timing it to when Jeremy gets home from his evening classes so it’s hot and fresh when he steps in the door. And I feel like even more of a failure when I get a rush of pleasure while doing this.
I confided this to a friend who is a role model Orthodox feminist; she’s in medical school, married and is involved in multiple clubs on campus. She also told me she hasn’t cooked a single dinner in the years she’s been married. I told her I was ashamed of how excited I get about cooking dinner and preparing for Shabbat.
“That’s silly,” she said. “It’s not anti-feminist to like to cook.”
Unlike many women in my position — that is, married — I never spent any time debating what last name would follow my own personal Mrs. Unlike Sisterhood blog editor Abigail Jones, I was never “paralyzed” by the last name conundrum and all the baggage that comes with it, because for me it wasn’t a conundrum. I always knew that I would take my husband’s name.
That’s not to say the last name debate seems trivial to me. On the contrary; I grew up with my own last name dilemmas, and they started way before I began thinking about marriage. My father died when I was three, and my mother got remarried before I turned five. My siblings and I all took on our stepfather’s last name — but not legally. We were raised Eisenmans — in school, to our friends, even on our doctor’s files — but to the government, and on all our legal documents, we were Lamperts.
This disparity didn’t really matter when we were younger, when our only real legal documents were our passports. I resisted choosing between my legal last name and the one everyone knew me as for as long as I could — through high school, I continued to be known as Simi Eisenman, despite the “Lampert” clearly printed on my driver’s license. But then I went to college, where my legal name was on file and on all the class rosters, got confused, and took my Simi Eisenman Facebook account, added a Lampert, and became Simi Lampert Eisenman.
When people asked me my name, I would feel overwhelmed by the options. Do they know my parents? Are they trying to play “Jewish geography”? If so, which last name will they know?
“Is that a hard question?” they would joke, not realizing just how confusing it actually was. Who doesn’t know their own name? I secretly wished I could get away with just having one name, like Cher or Beyonce.
When I was growing up in Baltimore, my family used to gather together every week to read a column in a local publication about weddings and relationships. We often found them very silly.
My favorite one was the story of a woman who had composed a list of 95 things she wanted in a husband, plus 10 bonus items that were optional but preferable. These weren’t general things you’d expect to find on such a list, like “good with kids,” or “tall,” but things that seemed rather arbitrary, like “was a counselor in a Jewish day camp.” She met her now-husband and was ecstatic to find he matched all 95 items plus a few of the bonuses. She thought it was true love; I thought it sounded like a Westminster Kennel Club grading system.
The Forward’s recent article about Amy Webb, the woman who “gamed” JDate to find her husband reminded me of that wedding column. Not because she manipulated JDate to eventually be contacted by the man she would marry — that to me seems pretty clever and impressive — but because she had a list, and encourages other women to have one, too. “Make a list of what you want. Even if you don’t score it, stare at it. It’s a really revolutionary thing,” she said.
I, in fact, found the exact opposite to be true when I was dating. I didn’t have a written list of what I wanted in my husband — though things like “would be a good father” were of course important to me — but I certainly had a mental list of things I did not want in my future husband. And Jeremy and I laugh about that list now, because he pretty much matches all those things I so heartily opposed.
I feel cheated.
I was in the ninth grade when I first learned that when I was to get married, I would only be able to touch my husband for about half of each month. I had known about sex for about eight years at that point, and no one had cared to mention to me that, oh by the way, you know how you’re supposed to wait until marriage to have sex? Right, well even then you can only have it two weeks a month. I went into shock, and I insisted that my classmate repeat what she’d said. As time went on, hilchot niddah — or the Jewish laws pertaining to marital ritual purity — were explained to me.
Essentially, a woman enters a state a ritual impurity when she starts her period, and that lasts for as long as the period (at minimum, five days) plus an extra seven days. After that, the woman goes to the mikveh and cleanses herself ritually, thus completing the niddah time. Not only is a married couple not supposed to have sex during that time (excuse me, have “marital relations,” as my teachers called it) but the couple can’t touch at all. It felt like a total scam to me. Every month? Two weeks a month? That’s half your marriage, until you hit menopause.
“It’s difficult,” my teachers admitted. “But it’s actually a beautiful mitzvah.”
We were taught that those two weeks a month were days when we would be able to communicate with our husbands on a higher plane, without the complication of touch. Niddah would help our relationships grow stronger, and plus, coming back from the mikveh at the end of every niddah cycle would be a magical night. Our husbands would do something special — sprinkle the bedspread with rose petals, say — and it would be like the wedding night all over again.
“This is actually wonderful for marriages,” we were told. “Most couples get tired of marital relations after a few years. But by not having it every two weeks, you appreciate it much more, and it never gets boring.”
Basically, niddah was depicted as a boon to marriage. Not only that, but the rabbis somehow must have known about ovulation, because the niddah cycle corresponds with the ovulation cycle, easing conception. So yes, it would be hard, but there were so many positives as well. At the time, I was shomeret negiah — I didn’t touch boys at all — and the lack of touch in my life altogether made it a lot easier to believe all that I was told.
Maybe it really is that way for some people. Maybe some couples experience two weeks a month of harmony and communication and meaning. But so far, I’ve discovered that niddah is incredibly difficult.
Thankfully, I don’t have niddah every month; my teachers neglected to mention the wonders of three month birth control pills, in which I have my period just four times a year. But niddah, for me and Jeremy, is not a meaningful experience, and it’s all the more disappointing and difficult for having been told otherwise. We were told by a rabbi that sex should never be used to resolve a problem, and for us that’s never been an issue. In fact, when we fight we each need our own personal space; we don’t want to touch. Then we talk about our fight, working towards resolution and understanding, a compromise. At the end, we kiss, like we’re sealing the deal; we feel united once again. We don’t use touch to solve our problems, but it helps us feel close once the problem is solved. And during niddah, we can’t have that.
Everyone told me that niddah would help us communicate with words what we usually communicate with our bodies. But there’s no way to communicate an understanding touch on the arm, a sympathetic squeeze of the hand. There’s no way to say what touch can say; it’s why we have touch, to communicate in ways that words cannot. People made it seem like niddah was a way to both rise above sex and appreciate it all the more when we had it; they neglected to talk about hugging or holding hands.
No one told me that being unable to hug my husband would make me feel as if he was angry with me. No one mentioned that after reconciling after a fight, even the smallest kiss would help me feel comforted — and that its absence would make me unsettled. No one mentioned that those 12 or so days would be tense and feel endless. No one told me that, more than anything, I would miss curling up next to him at the end of each day, our bodies fitting around each other as we read our own books, that I would wake up and miss putting my arms around his sleepy body so we could wake up together.
As Jeremy said, keeping niddah only helps you communicate in that it helps you communicate during niddah better. At no other time would I need to tell my husband, standing right in front of me, “If I could, I would hug you right now.” Keeping niddah helps us keep niddah better.
Maybe I feel this way because we’ve only done it once so far. Maybe I won’t always feel like a woman who’s sworn to cut chocolate out from her diet, only to spend all day with a delicious fudge cake right in front of her.
We intend on keeping niddah in spite all the negative aspects of it. We’re not keeping it because it builds our relationship or helps us communicate or whatever comforting reasons we were told to make us feel better about it. We’re keeping it because it’s halacha, and it sucks and it’s hard and I could very much do without it, but not every halacha needs to feel good. Knowing how hard it is won’t stop us from doing it in the future, and it wouldn’t have stopped us from doing it to begin with.
But it would have been nice to know.
Simi Lichtman is documenting her first year of marriage as a young Orthodox woman for the Forward. Follower her on Twitter @SimiLichtman.
I wasn’t happy for seven years of my life.
It wasn’t so much that I was sad; it was more that I simply didn’t let myself be happy. Sure, I had fun and had friends and went on trips, but the pervasive feeling in my life was one of guilt; If I was watching a movie, I’d be thinking “I should be doing something to make the world a better place right now.” If I was studying for a test for one of my seven college classes, I’d think “I should be getting better grades.” I was never truly happy.
Instead, I had an eating disorder.
If you’ve ever had an eating disorder (which I hope you haven’t), then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, I’ll try to explain it to you: Eating disorders destroy you. They take over your life and your mind, and if you’re not busy feeling guilty or anxious or depressed, you’re thinking about your next meal, your next workout, your next purge. Your brain is constantly working, and it’s not full of pleasant things. On top of all of that, you hate yourself for always thinking about yourself. You want to be able to spend all your time making everyone else happy, your own happiness be damned.
When you have an eating disorder and your mind is always working, always calculating calories and workouts and how to eat in private, it’s impossible to be truly present at any moment. You can’t really give to another or even take from another — in other words, you can’t be in a full relationship — because your mind is always elsewhere. Marriage, though possible, I believe, would never be as fulfilling or successful when one of the partners has an eating disorder.
A classic eating disorder personality is someone who’s spent most of her life caring for others, whether it’s siblings or children or strangers in a homeless shelter; caring for yourself seems selfish, and that’s part of why we don’t get help — taking the time to focus on ourselves seems like an unworthy task. After all, there are starving children in Africa. Let’s help them first.
Long story short, I finally got help, thanks to some wonderful friends, more wonderful doctors and nurses, and my exceedingly wonderful family. It’s been almost three years since I’ve experienced an eating disorder symptom, and it hasn’t been an easy journey. But by all accounts, I’m a success story; I’ve recovered from an eating disorder with no relapses (yet), and I’ve made it to a healthy enough point that I’m able to not only be in a healthy relationship, but even get married.
And now, I’m happy.
This, for me, is an astounding fact. Ask any eating disorder patient, and they’ll agree — being happy seems impossible. So when I come home from work to an apartment that I feel at home in, to a man that I love, and all I feel is simple joy — that’s a miraculous feeling. I don’t feel guilty when I spend my nights reading on the couch with my husband; I’m allowed to spend time on myself. And I’ve discovered that spending time doing things I enjoy makes me truly, deeply happy. It’s the type of feeling that makes me want to dance around my living room in my PJs. And sometimes I do just that.
When I was in the hospital being treated for my eating disorder and I saw men who came to support their wives, girlfriends and fiancées who were going through treatment, I was always in awe. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could or would love me enough to do that for me. I felt, simply, unlovable, except perhaps to my family who more or less had no choice but to love me. I spoke recently with a young woman struggling with an eating disorder, and she agreed — part of having an eating disorder is always thinking you’re not good enough. It follows that no one could truly love you, because you are not perfect or worthy of that love. Being in a healthy relationship wasn’t possible with a thought process like this. Now, almost three years later, I know without a doubt that if ever I had to go through something like hospitalization again, Jeremy would be by my side throughout the entire thing. I am loved, and I feel loved.
When I had my eating disorder, I was afraid I would never be able to get married. It seemed impossible to me that I would ever stop being caught in the miserable cycle of my eating disorder. Marriage, to me, meant having a family, and I was terrified to raise children; I was afraid that if I had kids, I would inevitably give them eating disorders too, when they saw how unhealthy I was. I didn’t want that for anyone. The fact that I’m married today means that I believe in my ability to stay strong and fight my eating disorder permanently, that I believe I can raise happy, healthy children without worrying about scarring them with my own pain.
I used to think happiness was doing something fun. Going to a concert, going bungee jumping, traveling to Ireland — these are all fun things I’ve done, and they made me happy. But now happiness is being with someone I love. Jeremy and I are far from the most exciting couple of the year. If we get out of the apartment one night a week and do something other than go to a movie, we feel fancy. But every moment I’m with him, and even when I’m at work texting him, I’m happy. Watching TV with him seems exhilarating for the sheer bliss it can give me. It’s simple, but it used to be the hardest thing in the world for me.
I revel in that bliss.
Marriage brings out the best in me and it brings out the worst in me. A commenter recently remarked on a blog post of mine that I painted too much of a “fairy tale” picture of marriage:
Although I understand that you are only sharing your impressions of married life after a month, you paint a distorted picture of marriage. As you noted, marriage also takes work. It is not “one big sleepover” nor is every night is “exceptional couch potato living”. Sometimes, it can be frustrating and disappointing. You wont always want to just “watch movies and eat all night together”.
Your single and married friends and many others will be reading this blog. Marriage is about compromise, communication, and mutual respect. This takes hard work. Your fairy-tale portrayal is not only false; it’s dangerous. It contributes to many of the difficulties couples have adjusting to married-life and recent trends of newly-weds separating because their marriage is more work than they expected. Also, what about the friends of the newly weds? They deserve to know that after the wedding, when you forget to call back it’s because not every day is a honeymoon.
So for the record, I agree: Marriage is hard. Not exactly mind-blowing, I know, and you’ve heard it before, but that doesn’t change the truth of the statement. Marriage is not easy.
I can feel Jeremy making me a better, stronger person. Even in small ways — when he’s standing next to me, I feel fuller, more confident, more sure of who I am and what I want to say and do. He truly is my better half. But being married is also a constant struggle not to give into the smallness of my worst self. Jeremy and I fight. We always have. It’s part of our relationship, and we always try to fight fair and to communicate afterwards.
But sometimes you just wake up earlier than the sun, and you’re grumpy, and he moves a smidge too slow for your snippy mood, and suddenly you’re deeply, strongly pissed for a reason you can’t really articulate. And you don’t want to be mad. You know there’s no reason to grunt at him when he tries to talk to you, but you can’t help it.
And then there are the real fights, the ones that take your perfect blissful first-year bubble of love and shake it, hard. The ones where you can’t see there ever being a resolution, and you’re both right, and you’re both trying, and it just seems like everything is wrong and maybe this marriage won’t work, because who’s to say we’re smarter than everyone else who gets married and ends up splitting up?
But then one of you takes a breath and invites logic back into your emotional turmoil — usually him — and you can suddenly think calmly and lovingly. He’s not the enemy, he’s the partner, and you need only to remember that to figure things out. And you might disagree, in fact your track record shows you probably will, but you can respect each other and make up and feel your love even more strongly because of it. And then he’s brought out the worst of you and the best of you all within a half hour, or even three times in one day, and you know you’ll be okay.
Marriage is not a fairy tale, though it is wonderful and beautiful and with my whole two months of experience, I find it utterly fulfilling. But it’s not simple by any stretch of any imagination.
Marriage is hard. It’s messy and sticky and there are bumps and tears and real, scary moments where you look deep into your soul and you’re not sure you like what you see. But it’s worth it.