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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a story about Bernie.
Bernie turned 14 this year. He’s loud, and smelly, but we love him anyway. He’s our Toyota Camry: the requisite newlyweds’ POS car that has close to 190,000 miles on it, and is constantly teetering on the brink of death. The driver side window broke years ago and never fully closed again. The car was loud to begin with, but just before we got married Bernie also started making that noise — the one that tells you the muffler has gone to hell. We can’t drive the car on the highway and play the radio at the same time, because the noise is so damn loud.
Bernie is a manual. I spent a few weeks of our engagement teaching Jeremy how to drive stick; the car was my father’s first, and I learned how to drive stick at 17. Now Jeremy’s a pro, and Bernie has a place in both our hearts. Never has a car huffed and puffed so much.
I took Bernie to the car shop recently. The noise was finally giving me enough of a headache, plus the left-hand turn signal refused to light up. At the local Midas, a mechanic lifted Bernie over my head and showed me the muffler — or at least, where the muffler used to be.
“It’s all rotted away now,” the gentleman explained. “The whole pipe needs to be replaced.”
The price? $1,000. Approximately half of what Bernie is worth in his current condition. We paid the $12 to fix the blinker and passed on the muffler. So what if we would breathe a little extra carbon monoxide because of it? We’d been doing that for months, apparently, and we’re just fine (so far). Hard as it is for me to admit, Bernie is going to go one day soon, and we’d rather not throw $1,000 into him right before that happens. So our car still sounds like a death rattle as he passes everyone, and I still duck to avoid the curious-slash-frightened looks of pedestrians.
We went to dinner at my in-laws the night after my Midas trip, and Bernie came up. We lovingly explained all his quirks — the noisy window, the lack of a muffler, his curious odors that change based on the weather. Jeremy’s parents looked at each other indulgently.
“Remember those days?”
“That’s young love.”
I guess it is. It didn’t quite feel that way until it was pointed out to us — before that our car situation just felt thrifty and practical, as our financial situation required us to be. Speaking of thrifty and practical, half the reason we were at my in-laws’ house for dinner was to steal their frozen meat so I could make brisket and cholent for Shabbat. (Don’t read this part, Mom and Abba. We came just because we love you.) But I guess, in part, this is the stuff we’ll look back on in 20 years and smile about. Remember when Bernie smelled so much that we took to driving with the windows open in January? Those were the days.
“One day you’ll be paying for tuition for your kids and remember these days and feel like you were rich,” someone said to me recently.
And it’s true. We may not be pulling in hordes of cash (the freelance lifestyle is not all rock and roll, kids) and we may be putting our health at risk to save an amount that Lena Dunham recently paid for a pair of shoes she can’t even walk in, but it is a wonderful time when our responsibilities are limited and fun ways to spend Tuesday nights are limitless. And maybe we’ll just blow that $1,000 on a summer vacation, just because we can.
When I first got my driver’s license, I was sure a cop would pull me over at any moment, demanding to see I.D. I have always looked younger than my age, and I couldn’t imagine the policeman wouldn’t be suspicious that I was a 12-year-old out for a joy ride with my mother’s car. It never happened, and by the time I was 21 I looked about old enough to be driving, so I stopped worrying.
Now I’m married, and while a cop can’t exactly pull me aside and demand to know why a teenager is wearing a wedding band, I’m still waiting for someone to laugh when I mention my husband. In this recurring daydream, the other person arches their eyebrows dubiously. “You’re married?” they ask. “How old are you?” And then I explain that I’m 23, and yes I know I look about 16, and my husband is 24. And while that’s a fairly average age to get married in the Modern Orthodox community, this inquisitive stranger might still think it’s weird that someone so young is married.
When I was engaged, I wrote a blog post about the strangeness of saying the word “fiancé.” I was engaged for six months, so by the time I was married I was used to the word — just in time to stop using it, of course. Now I’ve got a whole new word with its own, more significant weight to acclimate to. “Husband.” The word evokes all sorts of serious things, like financial finesse and responsible decision-making. It makes me feel like I’m posing as someone my parents’ age, playing dress-up with grown-up words like “husband” and “married,” when in truth I still giggle over words like “doodoo.”
But what about the word is so weighty? It doesn’t seem like marriage is such an incredibly huge deal. The legal age for marriage in almost all 50 states is 18 — that means the law considers a sip of beer more significant than a husband. You need three whole years of maturity and brain development between getting married and having champagne. (Or more, actually. With parental consent, you can get married even younger.) But this is just another example of the law being nonsensical. Because getting married is much more serious than taking a shot. Getting married is one of the most serious things a person can do. And that’s why the word carries so much gravity.
A husband isn’t the same as a boyfriend, or even a fiancé. And not just the word “husband” — I need to get used to hearing myself referred to as a wife. “Husband” implies long-term commitment and dedication to working on the same relationship for the rest of my life. “Husband” implies all sorts of other things too, like family and children. “Wife” means all those things too, in addition to jokes about whether I cook and clean well. Being husband and wife means we have to be willing to sacrifice, and be responsible, and above all, be emotionally mature. And that’s pretty serious stuff for anyone, especially a 23-year-old. But the truth is, I don’t need to be 30 to be ready for a husband. Age doesn’t equal maturity. And while I find scatological humor, and the word scatological, hilarious, I can be surprisingly (to myself, most of all) mature.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t stand taller when I say “my husband,” trying to look older than I naturally do. It doesn’t mean I don’t look behind me every time he calls me his wife, checking to make sure that he’s actually talking to me. Those words are a lot to get used to. But along with the weight of the words is the wonder of marriage.
So, yes, the word “husband” overwhelms me. The word “wife’ makes me do a double take. But I’m also fully ready to take them, and everything that comes along with them, on.
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