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.
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.
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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