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, which includes essays from writers and submissions from readers, will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. —Abigail Jones
The following stories from Sisterhood readers are just a sample of the many we received. They have been edited for style and length.
I stand on the other side of the mechitza. I have no desire to do otherwise. So when my father passed away a few years ago, I would have been more than happy to shed my tears out of view and among the company of just other women — steadied by their collective strength, strengthened by the knowledge that afterward they would be there for me, bringing a hot meal and a solacing word.
But it was not to be.
A Reform clergyman was going to officiate at the funeral. I knew what that meant. During the eulogy, he would talk mostly about how my father loved ice cream and poker — which was true, but not the point. A Jewish hesped (eulogy) is a time to speak about the good deeds that the deceased has done — the mitzvos, the charitable causes they believed in and supported, the simple acts of kindness they did in a way that was uniquely their own.
I felt that someone needed to speak about that. So I did give a hesped. But inside — behind my inner mechitza — I was crying, both for my father and our traditions, whose wisdom and beauty have become buried under so many layers of misunderstanding and neglect.
—Libi Astaire, 59 years old
This is the third post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
I have always felt compelled to fast on Yom Kippur — just not compelled enough. Usually I either forget what day it is until it’s too late or simply give up at the first hint of dizziness. This year, I determined to fast properly. Well, almost.
6:00 a.m. I begin by cheating and drink some water. Water is not allowed on Yom Kippur. But Yom Kippur, as I’ve always understood it, is pretty good about recognizing the spirit rather than the letter of its laws. It’s clear that you do not have to fast if, for example, you are sick. I am not sick, but I know I will not be able to last 25 hours without a sip of water. (Come to think of it I might be sick. I could have some horrible disease that just hasn’t been diagnosed yet.)
8:30 a.m. There really isn’t any point in getting out of bed if you can’t have coffee, is there?
9:00 a.m. I realize I’ve been conflating fasting with all sorts of other Yom Kippur observances, such as praying and not showering. I feel much better when I remind myself that it’s acceptable to pick and choose. In fact it’s possible that Judaism and Jewishness in any form might not have survived if some picking and choosing was not inherent the start.
This summer journalist Amy Klein, a former Forward reporter, began chronicling her fertility journey in weekly posts for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. Klein spoke to the Sisterhood on why she decided to write about what was long a private struggle, the negative feedback she has received and the support she is, and isn’t, getting from the Jewish community.
THE SISTERHOOD: Why did you decide to write about your journey to conceive?
AMY KLEIN: Since I was young, I’ve been journaling my life privately to help work through what I’m going through as well as to catalog what’s happening in my life.
I’m a memoirist as well as a journalist, so I often publish stories about my life — I had a singles column about my dating life, I wrote about having a stem-cell facelift, and had a Modern Love story chronicling my visit to a Jerusalem rabbi who predicted exactly when I’d eventually meet my husband.
Regarding our journey to have a baby, the Times actually approached me about writing a weekly IVF column after I submitted “Baby Envy” to the “Motherlode” blog.
I think there’s so much that people don’t know about fertility — that I didn’t know about before I started this. Things like freezing your eggs to having trouble conceiving, to ovulation to IVF and miscarriage. It all seems so shrouded in mystery.
I hope that by sharing my story it will shed light for others who are contemplating having children later in life, or help people of all ages going through what I am, showing them that they’re not alone.
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 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 second post in that series. —Abigail Jones
I lost a friend a few months ago. Cheryl was only 52 years old. Cancer ripped her from us. It is all so unfair. She had so many years to go. In the intervening months, I have thought a lot about female friendships and loss. I watched myself from a distance speak at her funeral, an out-of-body experience where a small voice kept saying, “Sit down. This cannot be happening.”
I had a hard time taking Cheryl off my speed-dial. It was like ripping off a band-aid really quickly, but inside where it really hurts — a bruise to the soul that stubbornly won’t heal. We did carpool together, ate Shabbat and holiday meals together, raised our kids together. So often, I find myself just about to call and tell her something and then I remember, once again, that she is no longer here. That momentary re-living of loss becomes another small stab at the heart. As the writer Anais Nin once observed, “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it’s only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
Cheryl lost a close friend and neighbor a few years before we moved to the area. At the time, she said, ‘How come there is no shiva for friends?” And now I am asking myself that same question for her.
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 first post in that series. —Abigail Jones
When in the fall of 2003, I stood between my father and stepmother and recited what is, perhaps, the Days of Awe’s most haunting reading, Unetaneh Tokef — better known as the “who shall live and who shall die prayer” — I didn’t give much thought to the meaning of the words as they passed through my lips.
The coming days, the liturgical poem tells us, would determine who among us would live out another year, and who would die and how. Fire, water, sword and wild beast are among the terrifying options read aloud at High Holy Days services. Only repentance, prayer and charity could avert (or temper, depending on your reading) “the severe decree.”
By the time I stood for the prayer the following Rosh Hashanah my father and stepmother were dead. Murdered, during a home invasion, in a manner that the prosecutors called “especially heinous, cruel or depraved.”
This is the second post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
I have always been wary of Gefilte fish. It’s fish, but not quite. It lurks in jars in the supermarket, looking deceptively like delicious matzoh balls, only it isn’t. I have seen it defined as “the pescatarian’s meatloaf,” which is not exactly appealing, and “poached fish dumplings,” which is even worse. But unlike schmaltz or gribenes, which I am content to leave in the past, I felt as if I should at least try to make — and like — this dish that’s practically a byword for Jewish cuisine. So I decided to make gefilte fish as part of my quest to do more Jewish activities.
I should point out that my aversion to gefilte fish stems from nowhere. I like fish. The other ingredients, like eggs and matzoh meal, are at worst inoffensive. But for some reason, gefilte fish turns me into the little boy in the kreplach joke. Do you know the kreplach joke?
There’s this little boy and he’s terrified of kreplach. Whenever his mother serves it, he looks in the bowl and screams “AAAHHH!! KREPLACH!!” So his mother decides the boy should be shown each individual element of kreplach to prove how un-scary it truly is. She rolls out the dough (“See? Just like pancakes!”) and the boy nods happily. Then she assembles the meat (“See? Just like meatballs!”) and he nods happily. Then she folds it all together (“See? Like a little hat!”) and he nods happily. He is similarly unafraid of soup. But when the entire dish is finally placed before him, he takes one look and screams “AAAHHH!! KREPLACH!!”
This past summer was the first time I can remember — maybe since childhood — where I didn’t have to wear spandex, shorts, Spanx, tights or some other thigh-chaff-resistant garment. I’ve naturally lost weight since winter, about a pant size or two. Now, each time I wear a dress or skirt, I leave my apartment in shock that my inner thighs are actually touching, sliding against one another skin to skin, without pain.
And each time, I marvel at how I don’t have to dress around the material that would normally protect my thighs from sticking together and sprouting red bumps. Each time, I convince myself that this won’t last, that before I know it, all of the weight will weave itself back onto my legs and lower abdomen. I vacillate between joy at this newfound experience, and fear that said joy chastises my previously bigger thighs. As a body empowerment advocate and supporter of Health at Every Size, I even worry that by reveling in awe of my own thighs — which still, to my genuine delight, mush into thick, malleable dough when I sit — I’m somehow shaming anyone whose thighs do chaff or cause pain when left uncovered.
This paradox of simultaneously wanting to celebrate the body while also chastising it feels very… well… Jewish.
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.
I don’t tan. Actively or passively.
I mean, I don’t put on a bikini and spread myself out on a towel in the path of the sun, nor does my skin turn to bronze should it be exposed to the sun.
For years, for most of my life really, I saw this as a problem. A Jewish problem. Well, my Ashkenazi Jewish problem. Come summers end, I was always embarrassed by my pale legs. I felt as though they were so 19th century shtetl. So wimpy. The legs of a native Yiddish speaker, an introvert, or worse, a pariah. I looked like a girl who just didn’t know how to summer.
As legend has it, Coco Chanel single-handedly made tanning vogue. Up until then, tan skin belonged only to those who labored outside, so the posh, in order to emphasize class difference, stayed as pale as possible. (This is still the case in Asia and elsewhere.) Then Coco came back bronze after a summer in the French Riviera and the rich realized that, shucks, a tan doesn’t just say you spent all summer picking tomatoes as a farm laborer, but can also mean that you are part of the leisure class, the type who might summer with Chanel.
This is the first post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
Although I am proud to define myself as Jewish, that definition centers on what I care about and how I think, not so much what I do.
There are many traditionally Jewish things, like, say, swinging a chicken over my head at Yom Kippur, that I have no immediate desire to experience. But others, for some reason, I feel badly for not doing, the same way I feel bad about not regularly using eye cream. I wondered what would happen if I tried doing a few of these neglected Jewish things.
Would I somehow feel differently afterwards? Would I feel more involved or legitimate, like a “better” Jew? And why did I feel like I should do any of these things in the first place?
I decided to start with something simple, or so I thought: lighting Shabbat candles. I had done this a few times before, when living with more observant Jewish people, but it was a rare occurrence, and one that I’d never tried in a space of my own.
As it turned out, lighting candles is not as simple as touching a match to a wick.
First, I missed the Friday I had intended to light my candles. So I had to wait a week. Jewish traditions, unlike so much of modern life, can’t be shifted around for one’s own convenience. Given my unpredictable, work-at-home freelance career, it’s not at all uncommon for my “week” to last for 14 straight days before I decide it’s my “weekend” on a Tuesday. Shabbat candles, I felt, could not be lit on a Tuesday. So I waited.
When it comes to extreme parenting, it takes a lot to surprise me. I’ve spent a decade studying child beauty pageants and just published a book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, about 95 families with elementary school-age children who compete in chess, dance, and soccer. But while researching Playing to Win I was struck by something I had never heard of before: private Hebrew tutoring.
It really shouldn’t have surprised me. These days, private instructors exist for kids in almost every extracurricular endeavor (for example, if you play baseball you can have multiple private coaches, like one for pitching, one for hitting and one for fielding). And with families busier than ever, something has to give.
Increasingly, that something is Hebrew School. One father said about his kids, “They used to go to the Temple, but because of soccer — the commitment of two to three times a week — religious school was not in the cards. We feel they get more out of private tutoring anyway. I hated Hebrew School as a kid, so we have a Rabbi come over and work with them. For their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs the Rabbi does the service… It’s really much more meaningful.”
The internet brouhaha over Miley Cyrus’ fascinating and disturbing performance at the VMAs — the tongue! the teddy bears! the awful molesting of her backup dancer! — has reached maximum overexposure. My social media feed became a stream of long think pieces, most of them searing and brilliant. I don’t want to repeat what’s been said. But I will say that Miley’s performance can teach progressive thinkers to, as a friend of mine always says, walk and chew gum at the same time.
Sometimes in social-justice minded circles it’s hard to reconcile all the different issues and instances of wrongdoings in the world without wanting to rank them — to play “oppression Olympics.” Is it possible that someone can be right on one point and wrong on another: right on civil liberties and wrong on social justice issues? Right on social issues but wrong on foreign policy? This extends to culture. A pop star can do something troubling and exploitative that deserves reproach and discussion — and still be the target of too much criticism for her sexuality.
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.
People like to frame Women of the Wall’s struggle in terms of Jewish religious pluralism. That approach is mistaken, and a confluence of events this week reminds us of that fact. WoW’s fight is for women’s rights, civil rights and equal rights.
It occurred to me how important it is to regard WoW’s struggle in this light as I watched its chairwoman Anat Hoffman in her latest videotaped plea to supporters. She stood yesterday in front of the Kotel announcing a WoW sit-in in response to Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement of the completed construction of a large platform for non-Orthodox prayer at the southernmost portion of the Western Wall (in the Robinson’s Arch compound). Calling the platform a “sunbathing deck,” WoW denounced the plan to move all non-Orthodox prayer away from the main Kotel plaza.
WoW is fighting for women to pray any way they choose (including in egalitarian fashion, wearing kippot, tallitot and tefillin, and praying and reading Torah out loud) at the main Kotel area — which is where Orthodox Jews pray without being subject to violent taunts, egg and chair throwing, and arrest.
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.