I’m thrilled to introduce myself as the new editor of the Sisterhood blog. As the deputy culture editor of the Forward, I’ve been covering gender and Judaism for the past two years, writing about topics like halachic infertility, Hasidic feminism and transgender Jews.
But my path to the Sisterhood actually began long before my time at the Forward. In middle school English class, I was given an assignment to instruct my peers on a topic of my choosing. Initially, I thought I would “teach” my classmates why girls are better than boys. (My logic at the time was that girls can grow up to have babies, an argument that today strikes me as rather sexist.) But in the end, I decided to go with a less controversial lesson: How to insult someone in Yiddish. (“Gai kaken oifen yam” or “Go poop in a lake” is still my favorite.)
From a tender age, it would seem, I was ruminating on gender and Judaism and the interplay between the two. Now, some two decades later, I finally have the opportunity to share my views in the public sphere. (I guarantee they’ve evolved beyond “girls are better than boys.”)
Of course, I’ll be joined by a talented bevy of freelance writers who will share their personal stories, analyze breaking news and, in the words of founding Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner, “break ideas” on the blog. Speaking of Gabi, I have some big shoes to fill. Gabi and Abigail Jones, the immediate past editor, populated the blog with thoughtful prose and meaningful series, like “What Jewish Feminism Means to Me” and “Women in Mourning.” I am indebted to both of them — and their hard work and vision — as I helm the blog moving Forward.
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.
Asking if religion is good for women, as Moment magazine recently did, is like asking if music is good for men. There are no clear answers when asking about the relationship between an incredibly fluid concept with a rather broad category of living beings. Still, this doesn’t stop many of the contributors to the symposium from tossing off easy conclusions on whether or not religion is in fact good for women.
The three basic categories of answers are: no, it is inherently oppressive; yes, it’s always been good; and, the most common one, it used to be oppressive but is no longer.
In the first category we have novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, who calls religion “dreadful” for women due to its association between disgust and the female body. Also, writer and director Soraya Mire, who explains that in Muslim Somalia a camel has more rights than women. And Eve Ensler explains that until we have a religion where women are truly front-and-center, “there isn’t going to be a manifestation of true spirituality.”
Caroline Rothstein’s recent post, “Lost in Jewish No-Man’s Land,” made me want to write back. Yes, Judaism (and religion in general) is about “questioning and searching for meaning.” However, some of the comments in response to her post made another point. Rothstein recounts her journey as someone who has travelled and searched for Jewish congregations in a variety of places. She isn’t alone. Since getting married 15 years ago, my husband and I have lived in four cities and two countries. We have belonged to five shuls during that time and we’ve attended services at many more — in all varieties, as our family is some of everything: secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Lubavitch.
What we’ve learned from all this? Finding a Jewish community and home does not happen on occasional high holidays or when you have emergency kaddish minyan needs. In fact, attending a shul for the first time on high holidays is not really representative of the congregation’s personality the rest of the year. High holidays are like a Jewish version of baseball’s World Series! Very few would start out a relationship with baseball with World Series tickets. Instead, you might catch a minor league game on a lazy hot summer evening with a friend. Sitting in the nosebleed seats with a $5 ticket, you talk, watch the game, eat a hotdog, drink a beer and dance during the 7th evening stretch. The fourth time you go, you know what to do and how to do it. Before you know it, you might have season tickets and know the players’ names. You might build a relationship with your seatmates and enjoy a continuing experience rather than a single ball game.
Synagogue attendance is the same. No place “feels like home” the first time you attend. Every congregation, whether Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox or unaffiliated, has a slightly different service than you might expect. No place can sit static, waiting to comfort you with every prayer melody from your childhood. There are different customs and even different foods for kiddush. Attending a new congregation might mean that no one will know you and sometimes, you might not be personally welcomed at your first visit.
When my friend recently circled her husband-to-be, blindfolded by an opaque laced cloth, her mother and mother-in-law each holding a candle in one hand with her dress train in the other, I had a moment like many I’ve had throughout my life: I wished I were more religious.
My near envy had nothing to do with her wedding, or the seven circles custom, as many Reform and secular Jews do this while approaching the Chuppah. It had to do with my ongoing adult struggle to have a more defined sense of who I am as a Jew and what it means to be Jewish — something I presumptuously assume Jews who abide fully by Halachic law must securely know.
My religiosity is a hybrid of Eastern philosophy and Kabbalistic spirituality. Its foundation was built by the suburban Chicago Reform household and synagogue in which I grew up. The walls are sprinkled with Conservative experiences I have had and witnessed, and the windows peer into glimpses of occasional Orthodox fantasies. Most days I feel comfortable with this amalgamation. Some days, I feel like I’m not doing “Jewish” right.
The first time I fantasized about being Orthodox was in high school. My confirmation class went on a field trip to a nearby Jewish day school. I don’t remember why we were there or what we were learning, but I will never forget looking to my left and seeing a girl with long brown hair and a long red dress covering her knees, long sleeves covering her arms. I remember thinking, I could do that, I could wear long sleeves and long hems and feel closer to God. I remember thinking that’s what being more religious would do — bring me closer to God.
On a quest to explore the age-old Jewish tradition of finding a “nice Jewish boy” or “nice Jewish girl,” I recently wrote about my own partnership for the Sisterhood, as well as the experiences of a few single Jewish friends. But I wanted to understand, more deeply, how being with a Jewish partner — which feels so innate to me — is not an indigenous need for others.
What is it like when two parts of one partnership grow up in two different households with two different understandings of god or gods or neither? How do couples create one household with space for this plethora of ways in which to interpret both the tangible and intangible? To answer these questions, I turned my attention to interfaith couples.
Andrew and Jennifer Walen, of Baltimore, Md., are committed to building community, both within their relationship and beyond. Andrew, Founder and psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center, grew up in a reform Jewish family where religion was generally tossed to the side as something to be chuckled at. Meanwhile, Jennifer, who works in development at the Baltimore Community Foundation, was raised a Southern Baptist in Texas. Her church mentors taught her to think, which ironically prepared her to embrace the diverse world into which she was flung as both an undergraduate in Boston and a graduate student in Nashville, where she studied religion and the Hebrew bible — and ultimately met Andrew.
“I got really weirded out,” Andrew said about the first time he learned Jennifer was Christian. He had dated other non-Jewish girls in Nashville who broke up with him because he was “Jewish and going to hell.”
Resting on the butcher block in my Brooklyn kitchen are seven black and white napkins with the name “Caroline” written on them in a cloud of polka dots. I found the napkins — leftovers from my bat mitzvah — four years ago while combing through the attic as my parents prepared to sell my childhood home. My boyfriend and I used most of the napkins the following year. Two apartments later, we have seven left, all tangible remnants of the day I became a Jewish adult. Seven reminders my parents threw a kick-ass party organized by a top-notch party planner, who I didn’t realize was also a top-notch wedding planner until he kissed me on the cheek at my friend’s wedding.
I’m concerned that 17 years later, these napkins are the primary reminder of my becoming a bat mitzvah — the day I chanted 40 verses of Torah and led the service, an overachieving upgrade from the usual eight verses read, not chanted, at my Reform synagogue.
In the United States, especially amongst Reform and Conservative Jews, we all too often focus on the party and on ourselves, rather than the actual responsibility of becoming a Jewish adult. In the past few months, video invitations to Jorel and Daniel’s bar mitzvahs went viral on YouTube. While the videos are adorable testaments to the boys’ precocious playfulness, as well as their parents’ deep pockets, they epitomize the ongoing clash between American and Jewish values.
This post is the seventh in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
When my fiancé, Jeremy, and I were studying in yeshivot in Israel — at the same time, but completely unaware of one another’s existence — we each came to the conclusion that we wanted to marry someone we could learn with. In our extremely text-focused programs, floating on spiritual, religious highs engendered by months spent immersed in ancient and modern Jewish texts, we separately concluded that the ideal marriage would be one where our life partners doubled as learning partners.
By the time we met, years of college and life had changed both of us, and we no longer placed learning together as a major priority; in fact, we hardly thought about it at all. Much more important to us were similar life courses, respect for one another, a shared sophomoric sense of humor — the usuals.
But as the time of the new Daf Yomi cycle rolled around, amid all the controversy and hype surrounding the Siyum Hashas, I realized I wanted to pick up learning a daf (double-sided page) of Gemara a day. I had started this in my second year in seminary, and I missed the regular insertion of Jewish study in my day. I had always loved Gemara and its circular, extreme form of logic. When I mentioned my decision to join the latest Daf cycle to Jeremy, he immediately suggested that we learn it together.
And so began a completely new aspect of our relationship. We had been together for nine months already, and we felt like we knew each other as much as any two people could. (Anyone reading this article who’s been with his or her significant other for years, feel free to smile condescendingly at us.) Going through Gemara together — or, really, learning in any way — was something we hadn’t experienced, and it opened us up to an entirely new side of ourselves as a couple.