This is one of my favorite seasons of all time: Olympic figure-skating season. For me, every other sport, in or out of the Olympics, holds a very distant second place, if at all, on my scale of interest. When I read in Gia Kourlas’ New York Times piece that she is always met with laughter when she tells people that she is a former figure skater, I was incredulous. After all, if I were to meet a professional figure skater, my response would undoubtedly be, “That’s so cool!” while inside I would be thinking, “I’m so jealous….” I cannot imagine anyone laughing.
Figure skating is among the many professions that seem like they will never be open to an Orthodox Jewish girl. It’s not just the outfits that reveal far more thigh and shoulder action than the average day school dress code. Although, interestingly, the lovely Israeli pairs’ team, Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, tried hard to transform Orthodox attire into an ethnically intriguing skating costume; they did not quite pull it off, in part because all the above-the-knee skin made it a bit inauthentic and in part because it’s hard for me to idealize so-called “modest” women’s attire as something quaint, like a an Indian sari or Sioux headdress. Mostly, though, it’s simply hard to imagine an Orthodox Jewish couple dancing with such ardor. It’s of like trying to imagine President Obama knitting, or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef doing yoga.
There are certain aspirations that are pretty much unacceptable for Orthodox girls: Broadway actress. Astronaut. Cellist with the philharmonic. President of the United States. University president. Surgeon general. Bus driver. Sanitation worker. Police woman. Pilot. Mohel. Shochet. Rabbi (though that may be changing). Sure, there are lots of seemingly reasonable excuses given: Some professions demand working on Friday night, some demand “indecent” clothing, some are too “physical”, and some are just, well , pas nisht, or not done.
There are moments in my life, though, when I get that pang. That sort of “what if” melody rising through my chest. What if I had grown up in a world when these ambitions were acceptable for religious girls. I was not allowed to take dance or gymnastics because it’s not for religious girls (although today that has changed). I was also told that girls are not supposed to jog or run, though the reasons given were never spelled out. (This, too, has thankfully, changed, although the sight of women jogging in long skirts is still jarring.) I remember being completely enchanted by Broadway musicals when I was in my early teens, and my experience seeing Kevin Kline and Treat Williams in “Pirates of Penzance” has stayed with me all these years, and I still sing the score to my (mostly embarrassed) children. But I can also recall the times when I, in my naïve youth, would dream about trying to pursue drama and being told, “It’s not for religious people – there are performances on Friday nights.” Sure, I was probably being saved from the fate of discovering the hard way how terribly I sing (a minor obstacle in the mind of a 14 year old!). Nevertheless, there are pangs. The same pangs I have when I watch the figure skating and fantasize about spinning, leaping, and floating on the ice to glorious music as the cold air rushes around me. When I watched Kim Yu-Na in her gold-winning performance, I found it so beautiful that I actually cried.
When these stultifying conversations take place in religious homes, I think there is a profound impact on the lives of girls. It’s about passion. The subtext of all these conversations is that passion, creativity and drive to absolutely pursue a personal dream – a dream, that is, other than that of being a nice, sweet wife and mother – is simply not for a religious woman. Our dreams, we are told, are selfish and self-serving. Dedicate your life to serving others and your life will be meaningful. Religious girls internalize this to the extreme, squashing passion and desire, and redirecting our need to excel into excelling at the home. Create the best Shabbat meal, have the most children, have the cleanest home, be the thinnest and most beautiful, be the best mother, daven with the most kavannah, most successfully balance everything, like super-woman. Our passions go anywhere but towards ourselves.
I think about my friends, so many women spending huge portions of our lives on cooking, mothering, chauffeuring, dishes and laundry. I think of all the dreams that are set aside during all those hours of labor. Sure, we all love our children and would not trade them for anything in the world. But a life that requires, say, 8-10 hours a day of ice skating — or sculpting, or writing an operetta — sometimes feels so out of reach. Many religious men manage to love their children and still pursue their dreams. But religious women? Not so much.
So I watch these amazing figure skaters with swelling awe and envy and think about all the passions of women I know, and wonder what will be with them.