Sisterhood Blog

Between Baalat Teshuva and Britney Spears

By Elana Sztokman

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When I was an 18-year-old yeshiva high school graduate from Brooklyn, one of the biggest questions on the minds of my female friends and me — right after, who will get engaged next? — was, who is going to “frum out” in Israel? You know, it’s what happens during that post-high school yeshiva experience in Israel: the skirts get longer, the bowing gets deeper during prayers, which also increase in frequency. The phrases “Baruch hashem” (thank God) and “bli neder” (no vow) go from a mere drizzle in one’s vocabulary to a full blown hurricane, and obedience to one’s teachers completely overtakes all ability to think independently, express flexibility and demonstrate a sense of humor. Yes, frumming out. I went through a somewhat modified version myself. I spent around 5-6 years wearing floor-sweeping skirts, spent my first four years of marriage wearing a head covering (baruch hashem, that’s over) and for a while actually believed that reward and punishment were readily apparent in everyday life. (A few good terror attacks relieved me of that notion.)

I’m about to turn 40, and I’m (baruch hashem) over most of that now, as are many of my contemporaries. I often talk with my friends over Shabbat lunch about our journeys back and forth between religion, God and self. Although the journey is enlightening, I wonder how much of the pain is necessary. Put differently, some days I’m angry at my teachers.

I thought about all this recently at a rather surprising place. I gave a talk about Orthodox feminism to a group of Americans on an Israel Women’s Network mission to Israel, headed by a Minnesota state Senator, a Reform Jewish woman whose three adult daughters all became ultra-Orthodox — or what is mislabeled “baalei teshuva,” or “returnees,” (as if people who are not Orthodox by definition need to repent, as if becoming Orthodox is some kind of return to authenticity). Turns out, the Senator was coming to Israel to visit her daughter who had recently gotten married in Safed, and she converted the visit into a feminist mission. Now that, I thought, was novel.

During my session, we discussed many of the troubling trends in Israel around religion and gender: increased pressure for gender segregation in public spaces, the frightening tolerance for violence against women who are deemed non-conforming, and of course the weary struggle of agunot. Following the session, the Senator approached me and said, “So tell me, please. What is the great attraction of Orthodoxy?” Her question was weighted with frustration. “I brought my daughters up with all the right ideas,” she said. “We always had gender equality in our community and in our synagogue. We raised them to be activists, committed to equal rights. I don’t understand why girls would turn their backs on this in favor of Orthodoxy.” Her pain was palpable.

Why, indeed. Returnee activists will undoubtedly use this as “proof” of the superiority of their lifestyle. But I don’t buy that. In fact, the polarized juxtaposition of Western culture versus ultra-Orthodoxy is at the root of women’s entrapment. As if it’s either one or the other: If you don’t want to be a superficial, mindless, materialistic sex-object, cover up and come to us. The returnee movement feeds on people’s dissatisfaction with what Beverly Gribetz calls “great, big, shopping-mall America,” with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as models of femininity.

But of course, there are worlds in between. It’s just not so easy for an impressionable 18–25 year-old sincere spiritual seeker to unravel the subtleties and summon courage to say, “None of the above.”

Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox “answer” to modern life is wrapped in an impregnable God-rhetoric. A friend of mine, a stay-at-home mother of six, once said, “I just have to remember that even when I’m picking up dirty socks, I’m doing God’s work.” Yeah, right, I thought.

“That’s the biggest crock I’ve ever heard,” I responded. But she didn’t like that. She was too exhausted, and too reliant on the rhetoric to keep herself happy amid her servitude.

I don’t have a good answer for the Senator or for my Orthodox acquaintances who want to know why (or whether) I’m still Orthodox. But I do, still, have prayer. And I pray that the Senator will find her daughters again.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an educator, researcher, writer and activist, who lectures at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies and works in development at Mavoi Satum: The Organization Helping Agunot. She blogs at

Jeremy Mon. Nov 23, 2009

Brilliant. The 'worlds in between' are the most difficult to live in as they are worlds of balance. Baal Tshuva movements are extreme and and extremists always have a following as an extreme idiology is all encompassing and does not like you to question. Growing up Orthodox I was encouraged to ask questions but only the 'right' kind of questions which always gave an answer that fit the Orthodox ideology. Its easy to sit on either side of a see-saw, very difficult to balance in the middle.

Michael Makovi Mon. Nov 23, 2009

> or what is mislabeled “baalei teshuva,” or “returnees,” (as if people > who are not Orthodox by definition need to repent, as if becoming > Orthodox is some kind of return to authenticity)"

First, "repent" is an extremely poor translation of "teshuva", right up there with "nomos" as a translation for Torah.

However, how could a traditionally observant Jew argue with the notion that "becoming Orthodox is some kind of return to authenticity"? A non-traditional Jew would of course dispute this, but that is because they reject that Orthodoxy is authentic Judaism in the first place! But a traditionally-observant Jew, by definition, believes that Orthodox Judaism is the most authentic form of Judaism (because it is traditional!), and so, by definition, they must hold that becoming Orthodox is a return to authenticity.

Of course, this depends on what the word "Orthodox" means. I am taking it to mean what is traditionally Toraitic. Perhaps you have a different definition of Orthodox?

Dave Marshall Mon. Nov 23, 2009

There was a saying among Jews in the Middle-East (my grandparent's generation) "G-d forbid, he/she is too religious". It sounds funny, but basically what they were trying to say was that they were religious/ traditional but that person they were referring to had overdone their religiosity.

Charnie Mon. Nov 23, 2009

And continuing Ben's thought above, it's almost become a regular occurance to find people trying to praise themselves by criticizing "Orthodox" Jews. I put that in quotes, because there wasn't such a term until the Conservative came up with it. First there was the giving of the Torah - witnessed by over a million people. About 250 years ago, there was the shrimp eating Reform convention, following by the birth of the Conservative movement, who thought eating shellfish was going a little too far.

While I'm familiar with the "frumming out" stage a lot of girls go through during their seminary year, I'll take 100 frummed out teenagers as opposed to those moving far to the left (and leaving, natch) anyday. And to imply that BT's are extreme is very unfair to the vast majority, who after an initial stage of finding their religious footing, most become fully acclimated members of their community (literal and figurative) of choice.

The Senator's response is a very common one. Most parents of BT's see their children's observance as a rejection of their own values.

What are the Jewish people without the Torah? Just a cultural group basically. Torah has been, and always will be, the glue that binds us.

Sara Tue. Nov 24, 2009

Orthodoxy is not "authentic" Judaism. It is just one version -- extreme, radicalized, cerebral, and often heartless -- among many equally valid interpretations of Judaism. The idea that Orthodoxy is some kind of genuine reflection of Maamad Har Sinai is absurd. As if Moshe Rabbeinu wore a black hat and gartel and Miriam wore a sheitel. As if Boro Park bares any resemblance whatsoever to Moshe's vision or to the Judaism of, say, temple times or Jews in the desert.

And frankly, I would much prefer 100 left-leaning, shorts-wearing, bubbly and outspoken young Jewish women who are committed to Love thy neighbor and tikkun olam and kindness and compassion over a bunch of super-obedient identity-less baby-machine haredim -- any time.

Gibson Block Tue. Nov 24, 2009

Good article. Well-written too.

But why can't socks be God's work unless it's a matter of everyone in the family dumping their maintenance on her.

And I don't have the 1st hand exposure to know how true this is:

"obedience to one’s teachers completely overtakes all ability to think independently"

New enthusiasts about almost anything (like vegetarianism or running) tend to be extreme. I wonder if that is the issue or if, as you say, the culture is simply one that makes conformism a supreme virtue.

j Tue. Nov 24, 2009

A great piece. Articulates what I've struggled with around women and Haredim.

Thank you!

zbird Tue. Nov 24, 2009

The author writes that "it’s just not so easy for an impressionable 18–25 year-old sincere spiritual seeker to unravel the subtleties and summon courage to say, 'None of the above.'”

On the contrary, I think a true spiritual seeker will always say "none of the above." That's the definition of spiritual seeking -- to go to the ends of the Earth if you have to in order to find the meaning of life.

The problem here is that most people are not spiritual seekers, but just want a community where they feel at home. No wonder they don't find an independent, "none of the above" lifestyle if they're just seeking conformity.

Ahavah Wed. Nov 25, 2009

I think part of the problem is your reference to motherhood as "servitude." Women don't want to sacrifice their children or marriages, their husbands or parents, their civic or community or religious duties on the altar of a career. I have four children and they weren't infants forever. While you are chained to a desk, my day is my own. While your master controls you 8-12 hours every day, I manage my own time, thank you. My kids were never dumped in herds to be raised by barely educated minimum wage workers who knew or cared little about them. My kids never ever have felt that they were last on their parents priority list - and no amount of "activism" changes the fact that kids KNOW they are just being dragged along to stuff that is more important to their mother than they are. Career women trade their children for money, and the children know it. That's why so many generation x-ers and y-ers are returning to a traditional (not necessarily UO or Chereidi) lifestyle - because we reject the way we were raised. We don't want our kids raised in herds, we don't want some jerk demanding overtime on the night of the kid's school play or the night we had planned to go out to dinner with our husbands, or visit our elderly relatives, or volunteer at a charity. Career women claim they are free but they are the ones who are chained. My time is my own, and I will not give it up.

Elana Thu. Nov 26, 2009

Ahavah -- Why the dichotomy? Why do you make it out to be one or the other? Who says that a woman who has a job is necessarily a bad mother? We don't say that about men, do we? That a man who works for a living is neglecting his children? When you say "we reject the way we were raised", you are blaming your mother for a neglect that was equally your father's, and that is just unfair. That's the servitude, right there. Women in service to their children's emotional needs and whims, in service to their husband's freedom, giving up all ambition and personal freedom in order for other people around them to have everything their heart desires. That is the servitude.

B'vracha, Elana

zach Thu. Nov 26, 2009

"And to imply that BT's are extreme is very unfair to the vast majority, who after an initial stage of finding their religious footing, most become fully acclimated members of their community (literal and figurative) of choice."

Unless their choice is an established chareidi, chassidic, or even yeshivish community, in which case they will more often than not never become fully accepted members. This is something that kiruv organizations never tell BT's; that they will always be suspect in the eyes of many FFBs. There are exceptions, of course, but this situation is certainly no secret within the shidduchim scene.

Channah Fri. Nov 27, 2009

"I would much prefer 100 left-leaning, shorts-wearing, bubbly and outspoken young Jewish women who are committed to Love thy neighbor and tikkun olam and kindness and compassion over a bunch of super-obedient identity-less baby-machine haredim -- any time."

There are a couple of problems with this, not the least of which is the calling of another Jew an "identity-less baby-machine"--if loving your neighbor is important to you, you might want to start by not saying things like that. The idea that Orthodox women are less kind, compassionate, and dedicated to perfecting the world than Reform women just because they are not "left-leaning" and wear long skirts is insulting. Observing mitzvot does not make you a more "heartless" person.

Orthodoxy is not monolithic--for every stay-at-home mom like Ahavah there's another one who wants to go to a PhD program for philosophy (me). The only thing that all Orthodox have in common is the performance of mitzvot like kashrut, Shabbat, and taharat hamishpacha. The liberal streams of Judaism do not recognize those mitzvot as incumbent upon them (according to their official literature, the Conservatives still acknowledge them, but I have been to Conservative congregations and watched the rabbi break Shabbat by turning lights on and taking photographs and such). Anything else is cultural: is it a mitzvah to wear a gartel? No, it's a cultural thing. Did Miriam wear a sheitel? Almost certainly not, but we learn that women are obligated to cover their hair when married; the way they do that is, again, culture. How much of your beef is with mitzvot and how much of it is the culture of some Orthodox communities?

Orthodoxy is Torah and mitzvot; nothing more, nothing less.

Ahavah Fri. Nov 27, 2009

Elana - men don't nurse, men don't carry the children, and they aren't going to. The relationship between a child and it's mother is not the same as that with their father. That's a straw man arguement. And who says working moms are bad mothers? The kids do - the only ones who count. I haven't given up a single ambition or dream, thank you. I have two university degrees, am working on a book, I blog every day, and I even work two hours a day doing bookeeping for a local charitable institution while the kids are in classes. The difference between me and you is that I acknowledge that children are not PETS. They have emotional needs - I brought them into this world and it IS my responsibility to meet their needs. And if these girls had felt their mother had met their needs: religiously, emotionally, or otherwise, they wouldn't have rejected their mother's lifestyle. She, and you, just can't take the fact that we reject your choices. You have to belittle our choice to give yourself some imagined moral superiority. I'm sure it makes you feel better to pretend that my days of 100% fee time are servitude while you are chained to a desk 8 hours are somehow "freedom," but you're lying to yourself and your kids. And they're not stupid, either. They know your career is more important to you. You admitted it in your post - meeting their needs is beneath you. And they know it.

Yossi Ginzberg Mon. Nov 30, 2009

"Orthodoxy is not "authentic" Judaism. It is just one version -- extreme, radicalized, cerebral, and often heartless -- among many equally valid interpretations of Judaism", you write. Gee, that sound's so American, so apple-pie, so correct, so egalitarian.

Only one possible response can be made without stepping on the politically-correct values you evoke: So where are all the descendants of the other "authentic" Judaisms?

From Moses on, there have been attempts to modernize Judaism. Sadducees, Karaites, Essenes, Samaritans, even Christianity, started that way. And where are all these people? Do you know many second-generation Reform or Conservative Jews? I don't- they've all married out and their kids are lost to Judaism.

So, bottom line, whether you approve of it or not, history has proven that ONLY Orthodox Judaism can survive for generations.

And history apparently doesn't care what's politically correct.

anonymous Mon. Nov 30, 2009

This post is incredibly offensive. Let's ignore for the moment the disrespect that it shows to women who choose to stay home with their children (and I do work full time), it's amazing that you call yourself Orthodox! You think head covering is silly, dovening unnecessary, and taking about hashem on a daily basis absurd. You thank Hashem that you are over being religous? Having company over for shabbat lunch does not make you religious, and either does paying dues at an Orthodox shul. And yes, I am a liberal Orthodox feminist Baal Teshuva. I don't advocate for extermisim, and am incredibly sad when woman don't have choices as in Charedi communities. But the teenagers who flip out in Israel do so because they don't see an authentic, meaningful modern orthodoxy at home. They see people like you who scoff at head coverings (and maybe tzanua in general) and mock people for dovening with any sort of outward kavvanah. If we can show our teens that being close to Hashem AND being modern AND liberal religiously is possible than we won't "loose" our young adults to the Charedim. As an advocate for modern Orthodoxy, and a wife of a rabbinical student, I am horrified at the anger you show towards other Jews and how you trivialize so much of Torah.

jake Mon. Nov 30, 2009

Yossi-you have painted yourself an interesting picture of Jewish History. The victory of the Pharasese over the Sadducees was a political and power one. And how can we even compare Judaism at that time to the Charedi Judaism of today. The issue is commitment to G-d, Torah and Judaism and yes I know multi-generational traditional Conservative and Reform Jews. If they show commitment to ideals, their children do as well. As an Orthodox Jew I would be weary of claiming that Orthodox Judaism has stood the test of time. There was no Orthodoxy just commitment to Torah ideals and belief in G-d.

Yossi Ginzberg Tue. Dec 1, 2009


While there certainly was political power- a lot of it- involved in the Pharisee/ Sadducee infighting, it was the Sadducees that were the more successful politically. They controlled the Temple and the Priesthood, testifies the contemporary-written Talmud.

And the issue certainly IS comparable. The primary difference between the two camps was whether or not the Oral (Rabbinic) law was binding, and that is certainly the primary difference between today's Orthodoxy and the other religious streams.

A phrase like "commitment to Torah ideals" is very nice, but as usual, the devil is in the details. Are the many mitzvot expressly spelled out in the Torah "Torah ideals"? Is keeping the shabbat? Kosher? honesty in trade? Can we differentiate amongst these, or the many others?

Picking and choosing is incompatible with belief in a God-given Torah, and substituting ones own opinion of what constitutes "Tikun Olam" isn't either.

Your second and third generation Reform Jews that "show commitment to ideals" haven't intermarried? They're a very rare group! Look at the statistics used to promote Birthright to see why we dare not mess with traditional Judaism. It simply doesn't work. It's a failed old attempt packaged in a shiny new box, and whether you call it Humanist or Reconstructionist or Reform, it's still Samaritan and Sadduceee and Neologue and all the other failed and forgotten sects that have been tried over two thousand years.

Wannabe Frum Wed. Dec 23, 2009

Ahavah, you took the words right out of my mouth. I fully agree with every thing that you’ve said and I myself am not even Jewish. I have studied the religion in depth and have many friends both secular and practicing Orthodox. It really bothers me when arrogant left-wing lesbians bark about how primitive baby making is. It is thanks to these righteous baby-making women that Jews still exist today! Maybe you should put your NY times and latte down long enough to try to heal the world - starting with your OWN HOME! Your “everything isn’t black or white” rhetoric is something you tell your spoiled self to justify your own actions. You either believe in G-d or you don’t. You can’t only believe in Hashem on Shabbat and high holidays and then deny his entire existence during terrorist attacks just like you can’t chose to love your kids solely when they’re good.

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