Talia Liben Yarmush and her family
I always imagined having a large family. I was the middle child of five, and although I can’t honestly claim to have loved every moment I’ve had with my siblings, I feel immensely blessed to have them. Growing up, they were always my biggest role models. I emulated the way my older brothers spoke, I listened only to the music they listened to, and I even wore their hand-me-downs. My younger siblings were my most treasured playmates; we climbed trees in the front yard and played make-believe in the basement. My brothers and sister were allies against our parents, they were my confidantes and they were my refuge. Today, they are my closest friends. And when I need advice on something, I know just who to ask for each problem.
Six years ago, when I was hit with the shock of infertility, and I knew it would be difficult to have children, my expectations of family size changed dramatically. A little after a year of marriage, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, one of the leading causes of infertility. I had two surgeries to remove the growths inside of me, but they grew back with full force each time. My doctor was clear: in vitro fertilization was the only way I would get pregnant. I went into my first cycle of IVF without a clue I thought, This is it! I’m about to grow the family I always dreamed of! I suffered through the daily injections and the blood drawings and the vaginal ultrasounds, because I knew that in the end, I would have my baby. But after two full cycles, I was left alone with just another negative pregnancy test and I thought maybe I was asking too much. I stopped dreaming of a large family.
Frimet Goldberger’s children, Shloimy, age 9 and Rachel, age 7.
While the daughters and sons of America are celebrating their fathers, I am spending my Father’s Day celebrating my husband, the man who raised us — our family — and stood by me through the tumultuous journey to help me build a new foundation from the ground up.
My husband, for those of you who don’t know him, is an unlikely match for a woman like me. Where I am loud and willing to share deeply-personal stories, he is a fiercely private man who loathes publicity. (He asked not to have a photo of him appear with this blog post.) Where I am the gregarious half interested in meeting others, he is the homebody who prefers to spend time with his loved ones.
When I spoke to Jennifer Senior, author of the new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”, I told her that my experience reading her book felt much like the state of being she describes in the title. As a mother of 15-month-old, I am still in denial about the long term struggles inherent to this whole parenting thing and it was often painful to accept her smart analysis of the topic.
The book looks at all the reasons we are less happy than we’d like to be, or at least thought we would be. Some of these, like the fact that toddlers are incapable of rational thinking, we can only battle through acceptance, while others are things we can actually do something about. The one that stood out to me was the decline in community, best known as the “bowling alone” phenomenon, and how the resulting isolation only works to make parents’ lives even less fun than they need be.
I spoke with Senior about why parents are so much lonelier these days and how Shabbat dinner might save us all.
Can we please stop pretending that stay-at-home-dads are a viable, large-scale solution for gender equality? Fifty years after Betty Friedan encouraged women to get out of the house, men have not, in any statistically significant way, come to take their place. And yet, the stay-at-home dad continues to live on in our cultural imagination as a feminist success story when really it’s hardly anything resembling a trend.
The New York Times ran a story yesterday about the stay-at-home husbands of Wall Street in which we got a glimpse into the lives of the men who make their banker wives’ lives possible. Writers Jodi Kantor and Jessica Silver-Greenberg looked at the domestic arrangements, and masculine malaise, of the men who tend to the kids and home while their wives work 14 hour days reeling in serious dough.
In the past 40-some years domestic skills have been pretty low on the totem pole of things young people should master. Why bother with grocery shopping and cooking when you can summon something just as good through your Seamless app?
Because you really can’t, says Ruth Graham in an article on the Boston Globe. Graham makes a case for the resurgence of home economics, or Family and Consumer Sciences as some of its modern-day enthusiasts call it, as a solution for our country’s inflating waistlines and deflating bank accounts.
Many young Americans now lack the domestic savvy that it takes to thrive. The basics of cooking, shopping, and “balancing a checkbook” — once seen as knowledge that any young woman, at least, should have—are now often not learned by young people of either gender, even as we’ve come to understand their major societal implications. And for adults, these skills have receded as well.
Not so long ago, there was a time when all young women learned how to shop, cook and then balance their checkbook while the chicken and potatoes roasted in the oven. Then second-wave feminism came along and said “uh-uh.” Eventually these classes disappeared from curricula all over the country, giving women a chance to learn more of the stuff that would prepare them for a career outside the house.
Fast forward to today — with ⅓ if Americans under 19 obese, 70% of kids living in a home with two-working parents, and a good portion of young adults in an unprecedented amount of debt thanks to a crappy economy and student loans — and teaching teenagers, girls and boys, how to balance their checkbook while the chicken and potatoes roast suddenly makes a tremendous amount of sense.
I’m very into this idea of young men and women learning, as my grandma would have put it, how to keep house and home. I have gone on the record, and been criticized, for my coming out as a proud modern-day balebuste. As I wrote a few years ago, I find great pleasure in the domestic arts, if we can call them that, and love feeding my family and even fluffing up the pillows on my couch. (I know. But can I at least get a few points for admitting this?) Luckily I married a man whose feminist mom made all her kids prepare dinner once a week, which not only taught him the importance of home-cooked meals, but also that men can cook too. Now as an adult, he doesn’t quite fluff the pillows, but he does his fair share of chores.
Earlier this month, my social media feeds were full of comments about the recent Pew Study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Even more than the actual study though, it was the New York Times article about the findings that generated the most conversation, with its telling headline, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews.”
While the results emphasize that American Jews are proud to declare their identity, the more negative takeaways were captured in the second paragraph of the Times article:
The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
I found this especially interesting because at the time I was reading the just-released book “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” by Paula J. Freedman. “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” follows the spiritual and social journey of 12-year-old New Yorker Tara Feinstein as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah (or Bas Mitzvah as her Yiddish grandmother and Indian-born auntie refer to it).
And therein lies the rub: Tara likes to embrace both her Jewish and Indian identities, complete with chilis in matzo ball soup and a converted sari synagogue-party dress. But this also creates problems, as she deals with classmates who say she is not “really” Jewish, even though her Indian mother converted to Judaism before she was born, and that she is worshipping idols because she keeps an elephant statue from her grandfather in her room. As Tara wonders, when it comes to her Bat Mitzvah: “Was I about to become more Jewish, or less Indian?”
A little over a month ago, I began an experiment in what I thought of as Doing Jewish Things. I wondered, if I observed certain customs or ventured into areas of Judaism I had previously ignored, would it have any discernable impact on my life? Would I feel better, more engaged, less inexplicably guilty about not doing stuff no one was pushing me to do anyway?
As the weeks went by I lit candles on Shabbat, made Gefilte fish, fasted on Yom Kippur, and bought my first ever tanakh. Then I tried to come up with a unifying theory of Doing Jewish Things and what it all meant.
The candles unexpectedly made me wish for an idyllic and meticulously scheduled family life, a life that was not only the opposite of my own but probably not even attainable outside of mommy blogs and Instagram feeds with deceptively shiny finishes.
The Gefilte fish was an enjoyable foray into traditional cooking methods that I do not particularly want to repeat. The fasting got me thinking about whether I should try that new 5:2 diet plan and, in retrospect, provided a mental connection to other Jews across the world. The tanakh, which I haven’t sat down and read any of yet, remains an important book I’m eager to peruse when I have the time. But how all of that fit together, I couldn’t really say.
But while I was contemplating this, the Pew Research Center came out with a study of Jewish Americans, and it seemed every Jewish American I knew was talking (and writing, and tweeting) about nothing else.
A year and a half ago, when I found out the man who caused my brother’s death had died, heavy emotion flooded my body. Not because it made me miss my brother, Josh, who was hit by this man’s car and killed in October 2002. Not because it made me envision the rendition of the accident I’d constructed by hearsay: a teenager’s illegal U-Turn prompted this man — described in his obituary as “ethical to his core” — to swerve. And not because it made my grief suffocate my throat.
This elderly man, although responsible for this tragic accident, had oddly become, at least for me, one of my brother’s many legacies.
It was as if the man’s being alive meant part of Josh was still breathing. He was the last person to engage with Josh before his head hit the side of a building. He sustained a traumatic brain injury and became unconscious; his heart stopped the next morning. It’s almost like this man had the last conscious communication with Josh. And now he, too, was gone.
In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the fourth and final post in that series. —Abigail Jones
The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.
Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.
My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.
In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the third post in that series. —Abigail Jones
Many of the essays in this moving series about Jewish women and mourning are about exclusion. I have a story about inclusion.
It begins in early February 2005. Just two weeks earlier, our family had celebrated the bar mitzvah of my nephew, the youngest grandchild on that side of my family. My parents were both quite ill by then, but still with us, and our small tribe of relatives gathered close in the way that lingers inside for sometime afterward.
Which is why the call from my cousin was so jarring. I can’t recall the exact words, only the horrifying message: R. was dead.
In Rosh Hashanahs past, I focused on changes that required adding a new practice to my Jewish life. Nine years ago I bought a second set of dishes. Eight years ago I committed to weekly Torah study sessions with a partner. Seven years ago I began using the mikveh. I’ve made less daunting changes, too, like promising to light the Shabbat candles closer to the proper time, which worked well in the winter months, then not as well the rest of the time. The list goes on and on. Some “resolutions” stuck better than others. (The mivkeh lives on; now that I have four kids, the study sessions not so much.)
This year I’m taking a break from the tangible actions; I feel as if I am due for some harder-to-measure emotional work. So I’m dedicating this Jewish new year to what I want most from people I know (and don’t yet know): giving the benefit of the doubt. Or in more “Torah-language terms,” I’m dedicating the year to judging others favorably.
According to Rabbi Mordechai Wollenberg, Chasidic tradition teaches:
that when it comes to myself I should be very critical, always looking to improve my behavior and never being satisfied with weak excuses. When it comes to somebody else, I should go to the opposite extreme and seek to ascribe positive motives or good justifications to their actions, however far-fetched this may seem.
I’m not Chasidic, but it sounds like wise advice. Unfortunately, I suspect that giving people the benefit of the doubt will prove more challenging than making time for weekly study sessions and following the rules of using the mivkeh. The benefit of the doubt is a state of mind, a way of thinking that’s easy to ignore. Too often I assign intentions to other people’s behavior that simply don’t exist. It’s an ugly habit I’ve allowed myself to engage in for too long.
This Tisha B’av I joined a few colleagues and about a hundred Muslims and Jews for an interfaith break fast at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY. As I sat at the table and ate the delicious halal and kosher food that was served, I realized that the two religions share much more than most care to understand.
This realization is nothing new. I’m always finding commonalities between Islam and Judaism; everything from similar language to similar religious ideologies, codes of dress and, of course, food. Who makes the better falafel? This is a war we should be fighting.
So it didn’t surprise me that an article on the Huffington Post’s Islam page caught my attention during the holy month of Ramadan. “Converts to Islam May Face a Lonely Ramadan” opens with a story from a gentleman who converted to Islam five years ago. He tells the author about the efforts he’s put into being a good Muslim: He hired tutors to teach him Arabic so he could read the Quran, attended a new convert’s class and works diligently at being active in his community. Yet last year on Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, he found himself breaking fast alone and longing for a community.
Recently, there was a tragedy in Winnipeg. A mom and her two young children died, possibly because of postpartum depression. The news unfolded slowly, in a compassionate way. The children, found dead, were the beginning; several days later, the mother’s body was found in the river. In the days and weeks that followed, Winnipeg jumped into conversation about new moms, mental health and what we should do better.
It’s no surprise that many moms suffer from blues or feel isolated after giving birth. Some new parents have family to lean on, but not all of us do. Our families may be thousands of miles away or unable to help. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. But the conversation about new mothers mattered to me.
When I learned I was pregnant with twins — while living far away from my family — I saw the wider Jewish community as an extended family. Perhaps I could find help. I asked the Jewish Child & Family Services office for advice before I gave birth. I asked two different synagogues if they had any kind of “helping hand” committee in place that might offer support after the birth. What I discovered was that in Winnipeg, the Jewish community had nothing in place to help expectant or new moms. I was disappointed, because I’d hoped to find a caring, supportive Jewish community in my new city.
I’d felt that support elsewhere. When my mother-in-law died, I was in my mid-20s. I was teaching an adult education class at a Reform congregation in Durham, North Carolina. My husband and I attended a Conservative congregation. My students called to offer us condolences. The rabbi at the Reform congregation (not our own), did a shiva call. We were struggling. It was an awful time, but these gestures made me feel less alone.
As if back-to-school season and the High Holidays weren’t enough to command our attention and energies, here in New York we’re anticipating mayoral primary elections (slated for September 10). Last week’s campaign developments, as noted in Kate Taylor’s “Trailside” column in The New York Times, included the following: “Two Democratic front-runners, Bill de Blasio and Christine C. Quinn, on Wednesday got into an ugly dispute over whether Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, had suggested that Ms. Quinn could not understand the problems of parents because she did not have children herself.”
Of course, there’s more to the story — including corrections to the Maureen Dowd column, also for The Times, in which McCray’s comments appeared. Regardless of McCray’s original remarks or intent, the situation spotlighted something familiar to some of us who don’t have children: the claim that we simply don’t understand the lives of parents. More important for The Sisterhood’s purposes, it has provided an occasion to counter that claim: In truth, some of us are childless (or childfree, or however you choose to describe the situation) at least in part because we understand the lives of — and the pressures faced by — contemporary parents.
We understand quite well.
Women. We can’t do anything right, can we?
Choose not to become a mother, like the Sisterhood’s Chanel Dubofsky, and others view you as selfish. Chose to become a working mother and you are seen as selfish. Or, choose to become a stay-at-home parent and, yep, you are seen as selfish.
Over the past few years Chanel has written about her desire to be childfree. She has, rightly so, challenged the idea that motherhood is inseparable from womanhood — a notion that goes far, far back to Eve, whose name, given to her by God, means “mother of all things.” So from, like, biblical days until the latter part of the 20th century (i.e. basically forever), women have been valued based upon their ability to make and raise children. This has been especially true in Jewish communities where the ancient commandment to be fruitful was perceived as all the more urgent following the Holocaust. In short, not having children was, and still largely is, a major no-no.
Okay, so this must make me one of the good girls, right? Because I have a baby. A son! And I love him, so, so, so much.
If only it were that easy. You see, theoretically women having kids are good, but in practice, not so much.
I actually must thank Sam-the-Bar-Mitzvah-video dancer and his family for their voyeuristic and strategically-posted video of the burlesque dance routine that’s been making blogosphere news. They have certainly given us Rabbis fodder for our high holiday sermons.
But while many of us are busily typing up diatribes against the excess, the lavishness, the expense and the lack of Jewish focus, and while we are all right in our musings about so many of the wrong messages Sam’s scantily-dressed dancers gave off, I hope we don’t miss seeing it through one more lens: the feminist one.
Imagine you are one of the 12- or 13-year old girls watching the performance, whether live or on the video. What do you see?
You see a riff on all those music videos with hot girls shaking everything they’ve got around a male lead singer (this time a Bar Mitzvah boy). You see a 13-year-old boy hungrily adored by female dancers the age of older sisters, or worse yet, mothers. You see that “women” — in the form of the Ritual Rockettes — want that boy. You see that one guy can satisfy 20 girls. And that they all desire back. You see a boy being welcomed into a gaggle of females vying for his attention. They wait for him and on him. And you no doubt imagine yourself, the skinny, awkward, gawky tween, hoping to be one of those women soon — hoping to have a man to allure the way those women are not-so-subtly alluring and admiring Sam.
I didn’t want to write about Amy Sohn’s story “Modern Mothers’ Turn to Scratch an Itch,” in the New York Times’ Sunday Style section. Any “trend” piece about a handful of wealthy women whose idea of work/life balance is leaving their kids with their husbands at the summer vacation house during the week as they frolic around the city in “metallic lace and satin mini” or “[rack] up a bill as big as it would have been for a family of four” while eating alone at a sushi restaurant seemed like it just isn’t worth thinking too hard about.
But then the story continued to gnaw at me for the rest of the weekend. I found myself increasingly annoyed by the, albeit seldom employed, model of parenting exalted by this piece.
As Sohn points out, spending the week alone in the city and the weekend with family up in the country used to be the norm for men. This was particularly true for Jewish families who spent their summers in the Catskills. Now I don’t think these moms are necessarily “bad mommies” just because they enjoy a little time off. Nor were the fathers necessarily bad dads if they did too. What gets me is how they justify their enjoyment.
It seems as though all of these mothers have absorbed an all-or-nothing attitude towards parent-rearing, one that dictates that kids should always come first and the only way to escape it is to escape them completely.
I am pro-vaccine. Very. And I think you should be, too, as a parent, a Jew and a fellow citizen.
For this reason, I find myself increasingly baffled by the anti-vaccine movement that seems to be gaining steam even as study after study discredits any harmful side effects from vaccinations and children — babies! — unnecessarily die, which I am sure we can all agree on being pretty much the worst thing ever. (Quickly, vaccinations don’t just protect, or not protect your child, but also protect other people’s young children because of a thing called herd immunity.)
In a recent oped for the Los Angeles Times, professor and doctor Nina Shapiro writes about how in wealthy enclaves in cities around the country, parents are increasingly forgoing vaccinations. At a Malibu elementary school, just 58% of kindergartners had all their vaccinations, and some private schools in California report rates less than 20%. As Shapiro put it: “Yes, that’s right: Parents are willingly paying up to $25,000 a year to schools at which fewer than 1 in 5 kindergartners has been immunized against the pathogens causing such life-threatening illnesses as measles, polio, meningitis and pertussis (more commonly known as whooping cough).” Furthermore, a recent report for the Center for Disease Control shows that there continues to be a nationwide rise in children who aren’t vaccinated, and anti-vac’s most famous face, Jenny McCarthy, just landed a spot on “The View.”
Looks like anti-vac is officially the new black.
When women stay home with the kids, men may start to view them differently. That’s one of the many takeaways from Judith Warner’s revelatory second look at the “opt-out generation” a decade later, published this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. A particularly noteworthy quote came from the spouse of one of the women profiled, seeming to indicate that his wife’s self-esteem was not a value he cared for. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself,” said Mark Eisel of his ex, Sheilah O’Donnel, a housewife who had opted back in, “and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”
Bryce Covert neatly unpacks the hidden thesis in Warner’s article at her blog at the Nation, writing “that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional …” both at home when they expect a level of caretaking their partners may not have signed up for, and at the office where research has confirmed their views, colored by their own family structure, “take a turn for the sexist.”
The question I always ask at moments like this is what came first, the chicken of women spending more time at home, or the egg of home-based caretaking work being devalued by society? This attitude also explains why domestic workers and health aides aren’t treated as the hard-working, skilled laborers they are.
Judith Warner has a new New York Times magazine piece on the opt-out fallout. She looks at the lives of women who, armed with prestigious degrees and high-powered jobs, decided to leave their careers behind in order to become full-time caretakers a decade ago. (Many would call them stay-at-home-moms but I won’t, because I find the term, with it’s passive “stay,” pejorative. As much as you might like to, you never “stay” anywhere when you are home chasing kids all day.)
I recommend you read Warner’s piece in full because the reporting is excellent, as are the issues she raises. Still, like all good writing on work-life issues, it left me with more questions than answers. The one nugget of insight Warner took away from looking at these families is that husbands need to do more to demand work-life accommodations from their bosses in order for our work culture to change. She says this is no longer so much a gender issue, but an economic one, because these days parents need two salaries to survive, but they also need two jobs that allow them to parent.
Otherwise, we are left with the inconvenient truth about life in a world in which both men and women want a career and a family. This is the fact that someone needs to watch the kids and, in most circumstances, it is probably best that at least a quarter of the time that person is a parent.