This post is the ninth in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
The number one lesson I’ve learned from planning my wedding is: This is not my wedding. Sure, I get to wear the ivory gown and the invitations have my name on it, but the wedding is only a fraction about me and what I want. I’m not even sure how the Bridezilla creature was invented; whatever bride actually forced the wedding party to bend to her own personal will must surely only exist in the fantasies of frustrated brides everywhere.
It’s common to read (and receive, from well-intentioned or simply thoughtless friends) articles on why and how weddings should be limited in both expense and size. Every few months, it seems, newspapers regurgitate the topic with a selection of new words and ingenious ideas for cutting costs. But I don’t see the average cost of weddings — not to mention Jewish weddings, outsized only by Indian fares — getting glower, in spite of the plethora of brilliant suggestions published by every news-source ever. As a bride, I get it.
I spent half of my wedding-planning months scheming how my fiancé and I could elope. Not only would it be easier, we argued, but it would be so much cheaper. A quick trip to Atlantic City, a cute hotel on a beach, no fuss. When we presented the idea to our parents, half (but only half) jokingly, they played along. Sure, they said, why not? You’ll save us money and headaches! Inevitably one of the siblings would jump in: “But you’ll bring us along, too, of course.” They couldn’t imagine not being present at our wedding. And if they had to come, then our closest friends had to come, and if we were inviting our friends, then relatives would be hurt … and so it was just a case of giving a mouse a cookie — they’ll want milk and, eventually, a wedding invitation.
Over the recent (and somewhat endless) round of high holidays this year, I came to some disconcerting realizations about my attitude to shul-going as a woman and a feminist.
Coming from an orthodox background, I have realized that however much of a feminist I am, I still don’t feel comfortable in prayer settings of other denominations where real equality reigns. It’s a dismaying head-versus-heart dilemma, and I’m trapped by it. Why is it that I, a supposed 21st century feminist, still feel more at home in a segregated prayer service than at an egalitarian service where women are fully active participants, not just onlookers?
Again and again, I confess that I betray my feminist sensibilities by seeking out the comfort of orthodox shul settings. And I find myself squirreling away quietly behind the mechitza (the partition separating men and women) in the women’s section, instead of joining in the services as an equal participant, and as a real feminist should.
This year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, my husband and I chose to attend a small hasidic (“ultra-orthodox”) shul in our neighborhood of Riverdale, in the Bronx. We usually go to a more modern orthodox shul, which is very large and can be quite impersonal. But I yearned for a more intimate prayer experience — and also hoped the services might not drag on as long!
In spite of myself, and in spite of the huge mechitza looming up in front of me, and in spite of the old-world divisions between the sexes, I enjoyed the whole experience. There was this authentic chasidic warmth in the air. The rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) made a point of introducing herself and getting to know me. All the other women were very friendly, and the rebbetzin’s little grandchildren ran riot, creating a lively atmosphere. Not forgetting, of course, the rebbetzin’s delicious honey cake served during the kiddush at the conclusion of the services. The whole experience, was, for lack of a better word, heimish.
This post is the eighth in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
I got a text the other day from a friend: “Try not to become one of those mundane married people like everyone else.” He and I had been talking about marriage, vaguely, so it wasn’t necessarily out of the blue, but it really hit home.
I wasn’t so much offended by the implications of the message as I was worried about the potential accuracy of the prediction. Will I become one of those boring married people? The type of woman who never leaves the house and whose only Facebook posts consist of pictures of the food she made that night for her husband? I have too many Facebook friends blocked from my newsfeed for doing just that to think it’s just a stereotype. This happens. And I’m dangerously close to becoming That Woman.
I could already see it happening, and I wanted to take future married Simi and shake her by the shoulders and shout, “Go out! See your friends! Do something immature and stupid that you’ll regret in the morning, and for God’s sake don’t come home before midnight!”
Many of my friends are college students, and from their perspective even the most boring night includes visiting friends all over the dorm, so married life probably seems the height of dullness. Where was the adventure, the carpe diem that couples had before they got married? Why do married people all talk about cooking and new dishes and work? How could they be satisfied just curling up at the end of the day and watching TV when there was so much to do outside? (And then, eventually, the horror of becoming the couples who only talk about their kids!)
Not all married couples are like this, and even when they are, who’s to say they’re boring and not happy with the simple pleasures in life?
I remember the first time I tried on jeans. I was at camp in Israel, and I’d found a pair in some store. My friends urged me to try them on, and I did, prancing around the room, admiring myself from all angles in the corner mirror, glowing from their compliments. Eventually I slid off the jeans and folded them back up, wistfully slipping on my knee-length skirt instead. I didn’t look as good. It was a fact. But my soul was safe, shielded by a barrier of protective material.
As a Modern Orthodox woman, that wasn’t my first foray into the world of forbidden fabrics. Throughout my middle and high school years, my friends and I spent hours in the dressing rooms at Nordstrom, trying on prom dresses that showed off our shoulders and developing cleavages. Occasionally we’d even try on miniskirts, giggling about how naked we felt, wondering how other women walked around with so much bare skin showing. But there was always the envy, the smaller parts of us that whispered, “Why not? You look so good.”
It’s both easy and difficult for me to empathize with Judy Brown’s article about stockings. She wore what she was told to wear — yup, been there, done that — but she actually liked it. She wanted to wear skirts and pantyhose. She refused to like jeans when she tried them on. I used to wear pantyhose once a week to synagogue, and those few hours were enough to drive me crazy. I was constantly distracted from my prayers to surreptitiously shift my waistband around. I have nothing but admiration for a woman who finds herself more comfortable in pantyhose than out of them; that, to me, is the mark of a strong person. Even stronger, perhaps, is the woman who despises the feel of skirts, sleeves and stockings, and chooses to wear them anyway. I am not this person, but I envy her convictions.
Stepping into the dimly-lit studio in midtown Manhattan, Elisheva and Sarah shed their skirts and long-sleeve shirts, leaving only shorts and tank tops. They quickly take their places at two poles in the room and begin climbing and spinning as they wait for class to begin. For these two Stern students — both modern Orthodox women in their early twenties — pole dancing classes at Shockra Studios, located a few blocks from their Yeshiva University classrooms, provide an exhilarating, judgment-free way to release the stress of school and all the anxieties that come with it.
“We carry a lot on our shoulders as Orthodox women,” says Elisheva, who, along with Sarah, asked that she be known by her pseudonym. “To take a break from that without simultaneously breaking halacha is a wonderful feeling.”
Elisheva and Sarah are just two of many women joining the pole dancing fitness craze. No longer relegated to strip clubs, pole dancing has attracted a new crop of fans, thanks in part to fitness studios offering specialized striptease workouts as an alternative to regular exercise. (In a seven-block radius in midtown, I found five venues — all advertised as workout studios.) The collision of Orthodoxy and pole dancing is not as peculiar as you may think.
Like most young, engaged Modern Orthodox women, Tova decided to go on the birth control pill when she and her husband got engaged. Tova, who asked to go by a pseudonym, visited the gynecologist, spoke to her kallah teacher, and learned about the pill from her friends. As the most viable form of birth control for halacha-observant Jews, the pill was what she expected to take until she was ready to become pregnant. She never imagined that instead of enhancing her newly married life, the pill would come close to ruining it.
While Tova experienced some nausea and short-term irritability — both common side effects for first-time pill users — she also endured prolonged moodiness and a complete lack of sex drive (that is, after she married her husband).
“It was horrible,” she states flatly now. “My period was short, but the pill made me want nothing to do with sex. And not just sex — all touching and intimacy was gone.”
After seven months of stressful, painful sex, Tova tried something highly unusual for Orthodox couples: She stopped taking the pill and started using condoms.
When Tova opened up to her friends about her situation, she realized that she wasn’t alone. Turns out none of her married girlfriends who were on the pill enjoyed sex. In fact, they dreaded intimacy with their husbands, mostly because of the physical discomfort it caused. But Tova and her husband made the rare decision to use condoms rather than trying other birth control pills, and they didn’t even consult a rabbi before making the switch.
This post is the third in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex, and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.It’s not exactly revelatory that people tend to categorize one another. This isn’t necessarily malicious — honestly, it’s probably useful in some ways. Jews are no exception, Orthodox Jews included.
In Modern Orthodoxy there are myriads of ways to classify people, with clothing being an exceptionally easy one. There are the women who wear long skirts, the women who wear short ones and the women whose skirts are a bit above the knee. The more entrenched you are in the community, the more you make assumptions about how people will act based solely on their clothing.
Now that I am engaged, I have started to consider a whole new world of categories and how I will interpret them for myself. One of these is hair covering. While the decision might seem simple, I know it will be a chance for others to classify me and make assumptions about my religious practice, or character. And this scares me.
As the ultra-Orthodox leadership in Israel lurches ever rightward, we’ve learned that they don’t simply view scantily clad women or their images as unhealthily erotic. All images of women are out of bounds. Even the most modestly dressed woman, innocent little girl or feeble old lady is potential a potential source of sexual temptation for the men and therefore needs to have her honor “protected” by being covered up or erased.
Death, apparently, offers no exemption. In the weekly bulletin of the Jewish studies center Machon Meir, a publication distributed in synagogues across Israel, an advertisement publicizing a memorial service for the Fogel family, the family of five brutally slaughtered by terrorists in their home in the settlement of Itamar nearly a year ago. In the photograph of the family in the advertisement, the face of the mother, Ruth, was blurred beyond recognition. Her image was deemed too immodest for publication.
What was unique — and disturbing! — about this particular chapter in the ongoing “exclusion of women” saga was the fact that the target audience of the publication is not the ultra-Orthodox population. Machon Meir, is squarely located in the “knitted kippa, religious nationalist” camp — in other words, Modern Orthodox and highly patriotic, with strong ties to the settler movement. On its website Machon Meir brags that the Jerusalem center has “become the landing point for many new immigrants from all the countries in the Diaspora because of its value on full integration into Israeli society and the encouragement to be a part of the Israeli Defense Force.”
Women are banned from running for public office, according to Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement. In a startling regression to 19th century gender inequalities, Levanon responded to a query by a woman requesting permission to run for her local council, with a resounding “no.”
The first problem is giving women authority, and being a secretary means having authority. The second problem is mixing men and women. Secretary meetings are held at night and sometimes end very late. It is not proper to be in mixed company in such situations…..The husband presents the family’s opinion…This is the proper way to prevent a situation in which the woman votes one way and her husband votes another.
What is perhaps most astounding here is that the entire opinion does not even cite anything halachic. In a tone reminiscent of recent rabbinic debates about women’s ordination, this diatribe is purportedly a legal responsa about women’s roles. In fact, it resembles a personal rant.