The other night at 9:00, Jeremy’s phone alarm went off. He looked down and glanced back up at me. “It’s time to take your pill,” he reminded me. Despite three alarms on my own phone, I have a tendency to forget to take my birth control at the same time every day.
A friend was surprised and impressed when she heard that Jeremy sets an alarm for me. “That’s so cute that he has an alarm for you!” she said. And it’s true that it’s both sweet and helpful. But more than that, it’s the way it should be.
Birth control is not a woman’s responsibility. Unfortunately, at this point in time, the pill version of birth control — and, according to many rabbis, one of the only halachically acceptable versions of contraceptive — is available for women only. But that doesn’t make fertility a woman’s-only issue. I would be the one who would get pregnant, but it would be our child. Ultimately I’m the one swallowing the pill, but he can and should be just as responsible for reminding me to take it.
Leading up to marriage, this thought didn’t occur to me. I simply added the pill to my daily regimen of meds, and took it on time as often as I could remember. The pill was mine; it didn’t even cross my mind that Jeremy would take it on as an equal responsibility. When acclimating to the new hormones made me an emotional wreck, I felt terrible for Jeremy; he shouldered the burden of his new, crazy fiancé and told me I shouldn’t have to go through the process alone, that he wished he could do it for me. Then when I started forgetting to take it at the right time — and then when I kept forgetting, and it became clear that I needed help remembering — he didn’t hesitate before setting an alarm on his phone.
Unfortunately, the fact that the contraceptive is usually taken by the woman — at least when it’s not a condom, which for Modern Orthodox women it usually can’t be — means that the entire responsibility of birth control often falls to the woman. That might make sense when the woman is not in a committed relationship, when she might actually end up being solely responsible for raising any resultant child, but in a marriage, birth control should be equally shared by both spouses, as much as that’s possible. The child belongs to both, why not the responsibility for birth control?
I was on the plane home from our summer vacation when I saw something disturbing. After landing, the lady across the aisle from me began throwing up into a plastic bag. Fine, so she gets sick from turbulence.
The disturbing part was how her husband responded: he didn’t. While she sat hunched over her bag, everyone around her darting looks of pity, her husband stood in the aisle staring straight ahead, waiting to take down the overhead luggage.
I had the sniffles throughout the flight, and my husband was practically fawning over me, jumping up to get me tissues when I sneezed and checking in every so often to make sure I was doing alright. That was how I would expect any husband to react to a vomiting wife. Why wasn’t he comforting her, offering her water or tissues?
At this point, you might be thinking, “Gee that husband is a jerk.”
Or, if you tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, perhaps you’re thinking, “Maybe he didn’t notice she was hurling.” (He did.) Or, “Maybe she likes to be left alone when ill and he was simply respecting her privacy.”
But what if I told you that they were both Hasidic? That her skirt went down to the floor and his beard and peyes reached his chest? Would you, as I did, jump instead to the conclusion that his lack of response was a result of them being Hasidim, because their marriage was likely arranged and they may hardly know one another?
I saw this all take place, and my knee-jerk conclusion was, “Of course he’s ignoring her. This is what happens when you don’t know your spouse until you’re married, when you don’t marry for love, when the only point of marriage is to bear children, not for companionship.” I pitied the woman and harshly judged the husband. I felt superior since I am Modern Orthodox and not Hasidic, since our kind marry for the right reasons and theirs the wrong ones. In the course of five seconds, I zipped through a hundred unoriginal prejudices, smugly concluding that those who claim marrying will lead to love even if it doesn’t begin with it are just lying to themselves. Hasidim are backwards, I decided.
And then I realized what I was doing. I pulled back. I was using one incident, to which I was an outside, uninformed viewer, to judge an entire group of people. The same situation could have easily taken place between a secular, or even Modern Orthodox, couple, and I wouldn’t have judged them in the same way. Jeremy, after hearing my reaction, gave it a fancy-pants psychology name: “out-group homogeneity effect,” the tendency people have to see members of other groups as all the same while seeing members of one’s own group as diverse.
This is something people do instinctively, but it’s completely irrational. Maybe she really does like being left alone. Maybe he gets violently ill when he sees vomit, and she’s okay with him ignoring her. Or maybe, yes, they do have an unloving marriage —not because they’re Hasidic but because sometimes that just happens. I have no doubt that there are many Hasidic couples out there who love and care for each other.
And what if, as I initially thought, their marriage is more about halachic obligations than love —that they were in niddah, and therefore wouldn’t touch each other? Maybe they’re very strict about it. Maybe he wouldn’t even bend down next to her because that would lead to a comforting touch, which they perhaps believe is forbidden. Just because I wouldn’t want my husband to take the obligation of niddah more seriously than my need for him to tend to my feelings doesn’t mean that living a highly halachic life is a bad choice. They might see love as secondary to the Torah. Does that mean I’m right and they’re wrong?
It’s easy to judge a group of people based on one person — but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for representing all Modern Orthodox women, or all young people, or even all Jews. Why should I place that responsibility on others?
Huma Abedin is, depending on which papers you read, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, hanging in with her husband, Anthony Weiner, because of her future political aspirations, a product of a Saudi Arabian childhood, or under the delusions caused by Nice Jewish Boy Derangement Syndrome.
These are just a few of the reasons suggested for why a woman would stand by her sexually shamed husband. I offer a simpler reason: Love.
It’s a naïve suggestion, maybe, and no one can know what goes on inside another couple’s marriage, but it’s the only reason that makes sense to me. When Jeremy and I watched the clip of Weiner explaining himself and, along with most of America probably, completely ignored whatever he was saying to watch Abedin force smile after shaky smile, I thought, “I can’t imagine being in her position.” I couldn’t imagine being married to such a well-publicized shmuck, whose brainlessness about the whole lewd scandal was even more disturbing than the acts themselves, and having to stand next to him, smile blithely and, even worse, go home with him after.
But then I thought about it and I realized I could. I could imagine being in her position. Not because, God forbid, I can ever imagine Jeremy doing anything of the sort, but because I can imagine standing by him, no matter what. Perhaps it’s not the most flattering aspect of my personality, but it’s true: I would stand by Jeremy before my principles. My love for him — our relationship — is the single guiding aspect of my life. Without our marriage, I would flounder, and I can’t say the same about anything else in my life at this point.
Isn’t it possible, then, that Abedin feels the same way about her husband? Isn’t it possible that she simply loves him and doesn’t want to leave him because, whatever else he his, he’s her husband and the man she married, presumably out of love? Not to mention the fact that they have a child together, which I would imagine makes a marriage even harder to break. Is it really so ridiculous to think that this is the reason for her loyalty?
No, I’ve never been in her position, and no, I have no reason to think that my outsider’s opinion is any nearer to the truth than anyone else’s. But, were I ever in her position, I think I might make the same decisions that she had. I know that I would put my love for Jeremy before so many other things, possibly even including bizarre sexual proclivities. I love him; it’s that simple.
Usually, when gender equality is discussed, it’s often in the context of how women can obtain equal rights and opportunities in society and in the workforce as men.
I’m married to a man who wants that, sure, but his objections to gender inequality go further: Jeremy wants a world where men get the same opportunities as women. Where men are not held to a standard of masculinity, where they hold equal sway in the home and in child-rearing.
As a child, I declared myself an ardent feminist and took the whole women-are-equal thing to the next level: I decided women are actually better than men. I enjoyed the holier-than-thou feeling of finding sexism and outing it: Letters should be addressed “Mrs. and Mr.,” not the opposite; women should propose to men instead of giving in to social expectations of the reverse; women should be able to lead various blessings that are so often presumed to be the man’s domain, and so on.
These were all fairly peripheral and unsophisticated concerns, but my righteous indignation matured with my age. I read articles about the pay difference in America, lamented the brief length of maternity leave in America. At a certain point, my focus on feminism faded in passion and simply became something I would be interested in discussing if raised in conversation. But until I was married, I never found real reason to challenge the notion that despite all the advances in modern society, women are still handed the short end of the stick.
Then, of course, along came Jeremy. While he would consider himself a feminist, and believes in gender equality, he began pointing out to me the unfairness that sometimes comes with being a modern man. While women have the right to demand not to be seen in a certain way simply because of their gender, men should be able to do so too. Sometimes we would get into philosophical discussions about gender equality that would make me think from his perspective; other times it was Jeremy’s own desires, so different from what I expected a standard husband to want, that showed me that women aren’t the only ones handed unfair expectations.
It started as early as the wedding. I, of course, despite my avowed feminism, had incredibly princessy ideas of what my wedding should be. I would get a pretty gown, pick out pretty flowers, and my husband would show up under the chuppah. Instead I got stuck with the one man who actually cared about all the decisions that go into making a wedding. Jeremy wanted to be involved in every step of planning the wedding, from flowers to tablecloths; he thought his tuxedo should be just as personalized and unique as my gown was, that, at the beginning of the wedding when bride and groom are separate, the room he’d be in should have an equally extensive selection of food as I did in my room, though that’s usually not the case. Why, he insisted, should a wedding be all about the bride? Why is that fair? I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for that, other than I wanted it to be that way.
Suddenly, the excuse “because I’m a woman” didn’t hold the power it used to. If you want equality, Jeremy’s determined attitude taught me, it has to go both ways. Paternity leave should be just as equally available as maternity. The husband should get a say in decorating the apartment, picking out wedding pictures, all the things I thought I would hold natural dominion over as the wife. Sure, I cook, but he cleans. He does the laundry.
Being married to someone like Jeremy has not only affected how our marriage works, but has also made me more open to the notion of reverse sexism in larger society. When I read an article about how being a stay-at-home dad can be so difficult, I no longer roll my eyes and think, “Whatever, it’s way harder being a woman.” Instead, I give the theory some weight. Feminism is a necessary movement, but paying attention to gender equality — equality that goes both ways — is just as important.
Jeremy and I both read the recent New York Times article on women in college — well, at Penn — and their approach to sex and relationships.
When we discussed it, we realized we both found one of the quotes from a woman in the piece troubling: “I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together.’ That sounds terrible. I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.”
I had also always heard that phrase. You meet someone you love, you marry, and you change and grow together. And while that sounded a bit intimidating — what if we didn’t grow together but apart? — it never sounded terrible. If scary, it was also sweet.
Over the years, as I thought about it more, I realized something important: I don’t think I’ll ever stop growing or changing. And if I waited to marry someone until they’ve stopped growing or changing, I’d never get married. Inevitably, we would have to change together.
Since we’ve been married, we’ve already both come to recognize changes in ourselves and each other. Some of them happen naturally, like his growing comfort with morbid humor or my acclimation to philosophical discussions, and some have taken time and effort and many conversations and even a few arguments, like his comfort with my publishing a blog about our personal lives, or my slow recognition that disagreements don’t have to be fights. Though we’ve been married less than a year, we’re already changing and growing together.
We also both agree that, while it certainly isn’t for everyone, getting married young has helped us specifically because we can both still change and adapt so well. As similar as we may be in some respects, there are still moments of friction, little contentions that have to be ironed out so that we can live happily together.
If we had gotten married years from now, we might not have been as willing to accept, or as capable of reorienting our comforts and discomforts around another person. We might be too stuck in our own ways—a definite downside to marrying someone who’s already changed to become his or her own person.
It’s possible that I’m wrong, that eventually people do stop changing and growing and can thus get married without worrying that the spouse will ever change any part of themselves; but that’s not what I’ve heard. And perhaps even if they do stop growing, they can readjust to another person in their lives, intruding on the space that they’ve become accustomed to being just theirs.
Having gotten married young, it’s impossible to know what would be otherwise.
I’ve written about the changing nature of finding friends post-college, but I’ve not yet written about how friendships themselves change, particularly friendships with men.
My friendships with men shifted before marriage, back when Jeremy and I were still dating. In fact, it was one of the indicators that our relationship was becoming more serious: I had a tendency to flirt with my male friends, and that aspect of my friendships died down as I grew closer with Jeremy. The flirting had been harmless — silly teasing — but its absence indicated a certain removal of myself from the dating scene. In a way, I took myself off the market.
But my female friendships remained more or less the same throughout dating and engagement, and probably even during the beginning of my marriage. I’m a naturally candid person, preferring open conversation to cloaking personal or embarrassing matters beneath manners and discretion. When I began choosing what I revealed and to whom as opposed to sharing anything and everything with anyone and everyone — in other words, thinking before I spoke, a heretofore foreign concept — I chalked it up to Jeremy’s influence on me. Jeremy preferred privacy in private matters, and since my private life had become our private life, it was only fair that I not blurt out all the details of it with all my friends. Steadily, though, I came to realize that there were times I didn’t share things simply because I didn’t want to.
Instead of settling down with my best friends and spilling everything, opening up all the inner workings of my life like I used to, I felt boundaries come into place. I could actually feel myself bumping up against these boundaries like physical borders, as if some more mature version of myself had placed them around certain personal tidbits without my noticing. I would share some things but keep others to myself. I didn’t need friends to be privy to all private thoughts and incidents. And, surprisingly to me, my friends didn’t seem to mind. They respected my occasional decision to deny an answer to a question or hold back. There was always something else to talk about.
Marriage gave me someone with whom to share all my thoughts, from the most trivial to the most shameful. Where I would text a friend previously, I now confide in Jeremy. Above that, though, marriage also gave me reason to be private. I want there to be a certain sacredness to our union, and opening it up to others would, somehow, reduce the intimate to the smutty, the private to mere gossip fodder. Our marriage deserves more than that.
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.