Sisterhood Blog

On Passover's Role in Fostering Female Friendships

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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I hadn’t realized how significant Passover has been in forming friendships in my life. Two different friends reminded me this week about how the holiday was significant in the creation of our relationships. They both bave had such big influences on me that I thought it is worth talking about them both.

Dr. Chaya Gorsetman started as a virtual friend. It was March 2003; I was pregnant and living in Melbourne, Australia, and Chaya was living in New York and working on the JOFA Bible curriculum. She contacted me by email to discuss issues of feminism and Jewish education, but before long we were talking about pretty much everything else — motherhood, community, work, family.

At a certain point, we were writing several times a day, sharing struggles and challenges, and looking to one another as kindred spirits, for camaraderie and counsel in the journey. For that first month, as we discovered our bond, our conversations seemed to revolve around Passover, which was imminent. The family Haggadah that I made that year, inspired by her ideas and worldview, has remained one of our greatest Passover projects. We talked about the challenges of making the holiday about education rather than about cleaning, and of not falling into the trap of becoming a woman defined by the efficiency of completing household chores. Our dialogue became a pillar of support for me, and it continues today. Although it was nearly a year before we met in-person, when we did, I felt like we’d known each other forever.

Chaya, a professor at Stern College whose doctorate is in education and whose passions include early childhood, mentoring, and feminism, is a generation ahead of me, and perhaps the relationship is counter-intuitive in that way. In some ways she is my mentor, someone who has been through it all before me and survived. I find her descriptions of her relationships with her children — who are mostly around my age — comforting, wise, and remarkably healing. She also treats me like an equal (even though I wonder if she should claim her rightful place as the elder stateswoman). This is her way of demonstrating what education, parenting and friendship are all about: respect. We are now working on a book about gender issues in modern Orthodox schooling, and our text is filled with this spirit. It is built not only on our research and scholarship, but also on eight years of deep friendship.

Ilana Teitelbaum Reichert, an exceptionally gifted writer whose first novel I await with bated breath, reminded me that we are friends because of Passover. I actually hadn’t realized it, but she said that she contacted me after reading a column I wrote a few years ago about the connection between Passover, food and body image in the Orthodox community. Lucky me, I thought. We share more than a first name (our husbands have the same first name as well, which is just eerie). We share an entire journey, a struggle to create a strong, meaningful identity as women while grappling with religion. We get what the other is going through, even if it’s sometimes hard to explain.

And before we had met (with her, too, it took a year for an in-person meeting to happen), the relationship had been powerful and healing. She’s a decade younger than me, and her compelling voice has yet to fully emerge. (Actually, Anne Rice tweeted about her Huffington Post article this week, to which I commented that some of us already knew that she’s a great writer.) I think Ilana sometimes wonders why our relationship is so important to me, as if finding someone who really understands and appreciates you, who is a real equal and almost a comrade-in-arms, is an everyday occurrence for me. Even if it were, it wouldn’t make the relationship less special. Ilana’s friendship is a gift, and apparently I have Passover writing to thank for it.

The truth is, writing has connected me with many wonderful women over the years, some of whom I still haven’t met in person but feel like I know intimately. Others I knew long ago and rediscovered after some meanderings. One day I’m going to write about the long lost cousins with whom I’ve found new, meaningful connections because of the writing. Some of this has been truly remarkable, and I’m sorry for not describing all of you by name now. (But you may find yourselves in a future column yet).

It’s not always easy to be the one speaking out and making sometimes-unpopular arguments. But when I think back to these relationships formed with others who are also on the journey, it feels great. So I guess this is a good time for me to take a moment to say thank you. Thank you to all the readers out there who have connected with me and who share ideas and struggle; thanks for the conversation and for the mutual support. And anyone who wants to be friends or share experiences is welcome to write to me anytime. I really enjoy that.


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