Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Actors in the Attic

We all got together because we loved this world and we wanted to grow with it rather than away from it. We all got together because there were things we didn’t understand about our world, and it was important that our world made sense. Because this world is hard to live in. Because we’re Orthodox women, and every day, when we wake up in the morning, we make the choice to be here, to remain Orthodox. And we needed to understand that. So we sat on floors and beanbag chairs and uncomfortable carpets and we thought about what made us what we were. And no one minded because we were just talking and talk is harmless.
Then we wondered who else thought this way. Because we can’t be the only ones. Because Solomon tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. So we could not be new. We could only be saying what others had already thought. So why hadn’t we heard it before? Were people scared? Did women believe, as we had before we began congregating in bedrooms and on living room floors, that they were the only crazy Orthodox women who wondered and questioned and contemplated and second guessed the decision they’d made when they’d woken up in the morning? And we thought perhaps we should write down these thoughts because they meant something. And no one minded because we were keeping to ourselves and, as long as we kept to ourselves, we were harmless.
Then we thought, perhaps we could contact these others, these women who thought this way. So we wouldn’t be alone. So we could all know that we all questioned the decision we’d made that morning. So that we could all know that we were looking for that answer together. And we thought that, perhaps, we ought to take these thoughts that we’d written down and show them to others. These stories of different women and different thoughts and new ideas that weren’t new because there is nothing new under the sun. Only thoughts that we’ve all had and are afraid to say out loud for fear of being told that no one else has had them. And we thought that, perhaps, we could let these ideas out. Make them a play. Make them a forum. Make them a movement. Let the thoughts fly out across a stage and attach themselves to new ideas in other women’s brains so that we’d all know that we weren’t alone.
And then someone minded.
Because it wasn’t just talk.
Because we weren’t keeping it to ourselves.
Because it wasn’t harmless anymore.
And people came to us. The good people. The kind, well intentioned people who loved us and didn’t want to see us hurt. They told us not to do it. They told us that, if we did, that we would no longer be welcome in the community. They told us that those of us who weren’t married ran the risk of never being married, and those of us who were married ran the risk of our children’s children’s children being pariahs forever and ever and our siblings not being able to marry because of us. They told us that, perhaps, not all ideas should be spoken of. They told us that, perhaps, it’s better for us to forget the other women who doubt the decision that they made when they woke up in the morning. They told us that, perhaps, it would be better if we went back to bedrooms and living room floors and kept this one tucked under our headscarves because the world in which we live is not quite ready for us. And then no one would mind because we would be harmless again.
But we live in this world and we are ready for us because we have all spent moments in our lives wondering if we are crazy for asking questions and wondering if we are the only ones. We live in this world and we have all spent time being convinced that we don’t, that we are not the members of this world that matter. We are of this world. We are in this world. We are this world. And we will say what we think. Because we love this world. Because we want to grow with this world, not away from it. Because we don’t want to second guess that choice we make when we wake up in the morning. We want to embrace that choice. We want to wake up and embrace this world of Orthodox women that we live in. We want to know that we are not alone.

Ghost Children

Hi! I'm a forty-something frum Mom, ffb, who is becoming increasingly worried about the state of frumkeit and its future if we continue down this road. I think that many of us are feeling this way, but we're afraid to speak.

I see ghosts.
Admit it; you see them, too; much as we all would like to deny them.
I’m talking about our children, the ones who have opted out of frumkeit. These are the sons who “went away” to Yeshiva and never seem to come home; the girls who are living “out of town,” who rarely visit. We use the deliberate ambiguity, because we are afraid to admit that our kids have strayed out of the land of frum living by going “off the derech.” Occasionally, we may catch a glimpse of these wraiths as they flit in and out of the “frumme velt.” They come out to haunt lifecycle events, weddings and funerals in particular. You can detect their presence by the knowing looks, the susurrations of scandalized whispers.
“Can you believe she actually went to B.J.J.?”
“I hear that he’s married to a shiksa.”
Used to be that the “oylam” claimed that these apparitions were a rarity- the atypical results of family failure, the begotten of Baalei T’shuva, kids whose backgrounds predisposed them to ”problems.” Can’t call it an aberration any more though. There are too many “at-riskers” with illustrious family names, high on the “yichus” ladder, day school education, yeshiva high schools, two-parent families, many of them with brothers and sisters who appear to function happily within the frum spectrum. I suspect that’s why the “powers- that-be” have finally created a nice, pareve label for it- “at risk youth.” How’s that for creative euphemism? Our kids are getting stoned, pregnant, living on the streets, getting into crime and rejecting Judaism in any form. Yeah, I guess you could say that they’re “at risk.” Don’t want the outside world to know how badly we are botching it here, so let’s minimize the extent of our problem. The hierarchy may have just deigned to notice what’s happening, but this problem been growing steadily for nearly twenty years now.
Want proof? Just stand observe the street corners where the “bad” kids congregate, m’dear. While you’re there, count the ratio of male “at-riskers” to females. Ten to one, maybe? A frum friend of mine in the psychiatric field told me that, from personal observation, she reckons that the frum drop-out rate for boys is about fifteen to twenty percent, for girls, three to five percent. That was nearly ten years ago. Fast forward to today and think about the current shortage of available frum men. Make the correlation. Our daughters' basherts have left the building, hon, and doesn't look like they're coming back.
Ironic, isn’t it? For all of our much flaunted self-congratulation about the flocks of folks who are returning to Yiddishkeit, we are dying of spiritual hemorrhage. Yet, it seems that so much of our communal resources are focused on bringing new people into the fold, not giving our kids the education and love of our faith that will make them want to stay. Our schools are failing badly, graduating an increasing number of kids who are spiritually numb or at worst, hostile to a religion that seems to be a cult of ceaseless strictures to them.
Remember the Mishna about the bed of Sodom? Seems that the folks in Sodom had bed reserved for those who wanted the community’s help. If you were too short, they stretched you to fit it. Too tall? They hacked off your legs until it was just right; the original one size fits all. It seems that’s the model for day school education today. If you’re a boy and you don’t have a “gemara kup” forgettaboutit. Girls who want to be other than a Mommy/morah? Well you won’t get a shidduch if you’re too smart/educated. Just get enough skills to support some young guy in kollel, but don't excel, or you’ll make him feel inadequate.
We seem to believe that by stigmatizing or amputating their talents, we can make them immune the outside world. Keep them ignorant, and maybe they won’t be tempted. Suppress the original, scorn the creative, disparage the gifted, then wonder why they abandon us to wander among the frumdead. We seem determined to homogenize our children into a generation of boors, barely literate and culturally inept. In a way, our ghetto is coming to resemble the inner city ghetto, where secular education is treated with contempt and actively discouraged. You think I lie? Compare yeshiva SAT scores today with those twenty years ago, even ten years ago. Ask long-term secular studies teachers what is happening on the other side of the desk and then stand back because you’ll get an earful. I guess it’s so much easier to put the blame on television and now the internet. Far better to attribute the decline to impersonal outside forces than to confront our own culpability.
Answers out there? I don’t have any. All I know is what I see. There are new faces out on those street corners all the time, friends of my kids, kids of my friends. I see the frum spiritual dead. They’re everywhere and we don’t want to admit that they’re dead. Still, I’ll play the game and keep on pretending. I won’t mention your child, if you keep quiet about mine.
No wonder Rochel is weeping for our children.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Outside-Inside World (a tad tighter)

The Outside-Inside World

So this is hide and seek. In this interplay I keep finding, not finding You. In modeh ani. In shehakol before the simplicity of a swallow of water. In the quiet ricochet of sunset. In my grandfather’s kindness. In the cavorting joy of l’cha dodi. In how simcha multiplies with social intercourse.

I encounter You in the in the least likely places, in the corners I’m told You do not reside. In the faces of oncoming drivers. In all kinds of music. In human genius. In technological interface. In the havoc-wrought marketplace and at the gritty street corner. It’s a grand surprise! Your image glows and these fleeting glances nourish. In the snapshots of a fragmented material world, I glimpse some of the wholeness, the source, the total connection. All together the frames blend and move to offer an approximate image of connection that I seek: devaikus, the big YES! I venture out and into difference.

Once in the wide outside, I see myself, my source, and other. Kadosh means separate, special in its difference. So I recognize contrast and create distinction that gives the world its structure. To reach new vistas, clamber outward, inward, upward on this growing trellis, there are seventy facets to the Torah, and infinitely more derachim. Kids are at risk of “going off the Derech” indeed if we make the mistake of seeing Torah as a single path alone. This view offers our youth a my-way-or-the-highway ultimatum that risks earning the hollow conformity of those who stay or collecting the dismissive spite of those who leave. I observe peers, my friends have abandoned the precious baby because the bathwater they encountered was so rank, so exclusive and uninviting.

It’s the gorgeous multitude, the subtle meanders of these pathways that we each have to forge and travel to arrive at a common destination that is Torah’s beauty and strength. Why reduce the dynamic vibrancy of yiddishkeit by paring it down to one method of living it? When did right-wing become synonymous with authenticity or rigidity? When did left-wing become synonymous with laissez faire or the freedom cause?

In the words of R’ Shloime Twersky, “We are not here to validate one another.” We are here to serve unified and distinct, together. We gotta move from tolerating to honoring difference: right/left, masculine/feminine, I/thou, where contrasts in interpretation don’t manifest as conflict, but compliment. Where you and I see one another and revel in the interchange of us that is greater than the sum of its parts. I want to integrate inside/outside, guf/neshama, body/soul, right brain/left brain, liberal/conservative, the mean/the extreme to the benefit of what is enduring and eternal. This bird can only fly with both wings.

In a world that did not honor the difference between men and women feminism raised a vital voice. But when the respect that the movement seeks is blind to inherent distinctions, when it devalues the very hallmarks of womanhood, we undermine ourselves. The honor and equity that we seek is lost fighting sexist fire with genderless fire with backfire as the sorry consequence. Giving voice is critical, but to create conversation, feminism needs to get out of monologue. Cause conversation is not one-way street. In partnership, in complimenting one another’s differences through shared vision, we can reach beyond ourselves to achieve wholeness, toward harmony, into shlaymus.

So I’m just the girl who wants to have her pie in the sky and eat it too: Integration. We have to diverge in order to merge, surge as one. Is absolute abstinence safer than a chancy moderation? For some, certainly. For all, temporarily. But when engaging for endurance, when seeking You, when entering into relation, when dealing with difference in this inside-outside world, to be m’taken and arrive at elevation, that’s just not gonna make the cut.

Questions, anyone?

Absolutely. All the time.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

We Need You

Shalom and love to all of you out there. We sincerely hope you are doing well.

A number of you have asked whether our blog is suffering a premature death due to lack of new posts. We wonder the same thing.

Our sitemeter says we're getting about 50 hits a day, not bad for a new blog, but thus far we have not succeeded in our raison d'etre, which would be generating stories from you.

If you are an Orthodox woman or ever have been one, if you want to share an amazing story about the experience of an Orthodox woman you know, or even if you just have a recommendation about the voices we are missing here, WE NEED YOU. If you don't like to write or don't have time to, send us the details of the experience and we'll try to form it into a monologue.

The bottom line is, we need you and your voices, as does the Orthodox community and Judaism in general.

We can't do this alone.


Monday, April 18, 2005

So What is This Thing....

A note on clarification. First of all, to those of you who have read and commented during the past week since this blog has been up, thank you so much for your kind, insightful responses and for the discussion you've started. We've been getting some questions about several issues, so here's the deal on our what and why:

We're a group of Orthodox women in our 20s. We've chosen to remain anonymous for the time being to not let our individual identities get in the way of the universality of what we're trying to say. Additionally, we recognize the fact that unfortunately, the controversial issues we want to flesh out here could brand some of our most potential valuable contributors by association in their Orthodox communities. As we put together our performance piece, we'll obviously be revealing our identities eventually--but we can't expect all of you to do the same.

We started meeting a few months ago to put together a show not unlike the "Vagina Monologues," in which a series of individual stories on a theme are expressed, showing a myriad of voices within a unity. Our unity is Orthodox womanhood--whatever that means. We've taken our own life stories and edited those of others we know. There are issues here that are hardly ever discussed within our communities, yet the experiences, the struggles, and the joys exist and should be acknowledged, even celebrated.

Some of you have commented on the fact that the posts seem to be written by one person. One of us did a majority of the work in putting these women's experiences on paper, and the rest of us have been chipping in.

But now we have to take it to the next level, and that depends on you. If you identify, to whatever degree, as part of the community we're endeavoring to create, then we invite you to email us your story. Tell us what your experience of Orthodox womanhood is, or has been. Tell us about a story that happened to your friend or family member. Send us a discussion on an issue you feel needs to be dealt with. We'll respect your confidentiality and won't post anything without your final consent.

We can't wait to hear from you.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

SuperJewGirl (Slam piece)

I am in awe of myself
you see, I stand here today not simply the mild-mannered schoolgirl you see before you, no.
there is more to me than meets the eye, for I am truly....

Super Jew Girl!
faster than a speeding matzo ball, able to leap to synagogue in a single bound!
I carry on my super shoulders the weight of a two-thousand year old traditionand a mission to bring heaven down to Earth.

sound hard? ah it's easy.
just a little Torah training, a little Jew Kung-fu, a nifty blue-and-white suit
and I'm set to defend liberty, honor, and the Israelite way,
every day, as I work to save the world from injustice and tyranny.
the whole world is watching me as I strive to be a constant symbol of everything from The Ten Commandments--the original, to "The Ten Commandments", starring Charlton Heston as Moses.
I work to break down the stereotypes, fight the forces of hatred,and still make it home in time for Sabbath dinner.

my calling, I'll reiterate,
is to educate others on what it can mean to be a Jew,
and what that means to all the "me"s and "you"s from Tel Aviv to Timbuktuwho think the Jewish thing's taboowho don't appreciate the innate exhilaration of their own truth.

I am the paradigm,
possessing every sign of the Nice Jewish Girl
keeping in line to be the Light Unto the World,
and given the high stakes of such a mission--mistakes?
no. mistakes are not an option

except...when they prove to be.
When I don't do what is "expected" of me.
and then, I feel the eyes of the world cornering,
imploring me to Explain Myself.

asking, who does this girl think she is?

I feel dirty, and small, not so Super after all, and I'm abad example,
scrambling to be too much at once,
and some would say it's time I turn in my Super Jew Girl cape,
just escape from the pressure,
leave it for whatever Sarah, Rachel, or Rebecca is next in line,
drive out to Middle America with no kosher food in sight,
go in hiding because I couldn't fill that role,
though I know my soul still moves toward the same goals,

and so I’m shocked when you accuse that I've boxed myself out,
and you're in doubt of my Super status,
you assume something's the matter.

and I say i've never felt better,
that I'm working to bring togetherwhat was never, in my mind, apart,
the secular and spiritual, one in my heart,
and that the only kryptonite that stops my plight from working out is my

because you've already turned and gone,
and somehow I'm wrong--see I can't be Super Jew Girl and Super Me at once,
and as such, I'm a walking desecration,
no matter what my revelations seem to be.
So I retreat.

Because, hey, maybe you’re right.
You seem to have this Jew thing down.
And I should be more grounded, see things as black and white

And I try....cuz what do I know about life?

But then I look around
And all I see is light.

And the strength it takes to say “I don’t know,”
To carve out a space to love and grow,
and althoughI may not ever be perfect,
I may shirk the superhuman thing for a fallible identity,
In this dynamic search, I create more through honesty.

So, I refuse to let you lead.
Cuz I’ve earned my cape, and wings.
I’m learning so many things.
And I’ll glorify a God Who’s far beyond any shell.
In awe of that Indwelling, within my self.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Pardon our Technical Difficulties

Anybody have any idea how to keep our first post, our raison-d'etre post, as a link on the side? Please help!

For now, newcomers just scroll down aaaaall the way.

The Outside-Inside World

So this is hide and seek. In this interplay I keep finding, not finding You. In modeh ani, in shehakol before the simplicity of a swallow of water, in the quiet ricochet of sunset, in my grandfather’s kindness, in the cavorting joy of l’cha dodi, in how simcha multiplies with social intercourse.

I encounter You in the in the least likely places, in the corners I’m told You do not reside. In the faces of oncoming drivers. In all kinds of music. In human genius. In technological interface. In the havoc-wrought marketplace and at the gritty street corner. It’s a grand surprise! Your image glows and these fleeting glances nourish. In the snapshots of a fragmented physical world, I glimpse some of the wholeness, the source, the total connection. All together the frames blend and move to offer an approximate image of connection that I seek: devaikus, the big YES! I venture out and into difference. Every time I walk outside, I see myself, my source, and other. Kadosh means separate, special in its difference. So I recognize contrast and create distinction that gives the world its structure. To reach new heights, clamber outward, inward, upward on this trellis in growth.

There are seventy facets to the Torah, and infinitely more derachim. Kids are at risk of “going off the Derech” indeed if we make the mistake of seeing Torah as a single path only. This view offers our youth a my-way-or-the-highway ultimatum that risks earning the hollow conformity of those who stay or collecting the dismissive spite of those who leave. I observe peers, my friends have abandoned the baby because the bathwater they encountered was such a turn-off.

It’s the gorgeous multitude, the subtle meanders of these pathways that we each have to forge and travel to arrive at a common destination that is Torah’s beauty and strength. All Why do we reduce the dynamic vibrancy of yiddishkeit becomes by paring it down to one method of living it? When did right-wing become synonymous with authenticity?? When did left-wing become synonymous with laissez faire?/

In the words of R’ Shloime Twersky; “We are not here to validate one another.” We are here to serve unified and distinct, together. We gotta move toward honoring difference: right/left, masculine/feminine, I/thou, where contrasts in interpretation don’t conflict, but compliment. Where you and I see one another, cherish the interplay of us that is greater than the sum of its parts. I want to integrate inside/outside, guf/neshama, body/soul, right brain/left brain, liberal/conservative, the mean/the extreme to the benefit of what is enduring and eternal. This bird can only fly with both wings.

In world that did not honor the difference between men and women feminism raised a vital voice. But when the respect that the movement seeks is blind to inherent differences, when it devalues the very hallmarks of womanhood, we undermine ourselves. The honor and equity that we seek is lost fighting sexist fire with genderless fire and backfire is the sorry consequence. Giving voice is critical, but to create conversation, feminism needs to get out of monologue. Cause conversation is not one-way street. In partnership, in complimenting one another’s differences through shared vision, we can reach beyond ourselves to achieve wholeness, toward harmony, into shlaymus.

So I’m just the girl who wants to have her pie in the sky and eat it too: Integration. We have to diverge in order to merge, surge as one. Is absolute abstinence safer than a failed moderation? For some, certainly. For all, temporarily. But when engaging for endurance, when seeking You, when entering into relation, when dealing with difference in this inside/outside world, to be m’taken and arrive at elevation, it’s just not gonna make the cut. Questions, anyone?


All the time.

Why Do Orthodox Girls Dance with Their Eyes Closed? (Ensemble Slam/Dance Piece)

Because I’m alive
Because I’m a flame
On a candle
That I light on Friday night
To keep away the evil spirits
And I’m moving
To keep away the evil spirits
The ones that wait to pray on my body
The desire to make myself disappear
Like so many girls do
When they don’t realize what a gift they have
In their undulating limbs

Because I want to move
Because I feel my soul connecting to the music
And at that moment I realize
That G-d created the world with a word
And the word had a tune
And that was why
Miriam had to sing at the sea
Because she saw the wonder of G-d
And she had to speak back in the same language
The language of prayer
That every child knows
Before she even learns to speak
When her mother croons to her
While she’s kicking in the womb

It’s the covenant
Between my body and G-d
That gave me my body on loan
And told me to enjoy it
To use it
I will not be embarrassed of this gift
I will not wish it away
I will move with it
I will celebrate it
I will spin and turn with holy words
Like the women who danced on Tu Ba’av
When they were so full of holiness
That they didn’t care who saw them
Because it didn’t matter
And that’s why the men fell in love with them
I am trying to regain that holiness
To swim back into the souls
Of those dancing women

Because I’m a woman
Because my body moves
Like no man’s ever can
Because no man knows
What it’s like to be in my body
They will never have that joy
No man knows
What it’s like to feel and smell life
Every month
When I remember
That my body is a vessel

Because it’s not about sex
And it’s not about who sees me
It’s about blessing
And spinning it around my body
Moving like water
To drink up the world around me
Swallow the words of G-d
Make them a part of me

I am together
I am a we
We are a continuum
We started with Eve
And we live through each other
Through every woman that has been
Through every women that will be
They are dancing with me
We are dancing

We know the moves
Because our bodies have moved them before
In a hundred lives
Of a hundred women
Who came before us
And came after us
And writhe
To a hundred different sounds
That say one word

I can’t see what you’re doing
And you can’t see me
And we can’t see who’s watching
So we don’t have to care anymore
And we can just pretend
That there’s nobody here
And we are the only ones

When my eyes are closed
I am alone with my body
And alone with G-d

Of Sealing Wax, Cabbages, and Kings

Every morning when we woke those first three years Yaakov would sing a song to my tummy. He never really came up with any words, just a bizarre lullaby of cuddly, deep ridiculousness. We would always laugh together while he sang to our new hope filled life within me. About Brussels sprouts that he or she would have to eat in the future, about how beautiful mommy is with those sleep marks from her pillowcase, about how floppy eared Abba is. I would wake up expecting to laugh with my expectation.
The morning after he found me crying in the bathroom over a home pregnancy test I was bracing myself to hear that now painful song about periwinkles and pansies. He just turned to me and kissed me on the cheek and got up to wash negel vasser. I missed it. His singing to my flat, hopeful, fearful stomach. But while it hurt not to hear about inny bellybuttons and smiles, the memory of what it had felt like the night before hurt more. I was so scared that we didn’t have anything left, without the promise of those silly lullabies.
I knew during our second date that Yaakov was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, to be the father of my children. We would talk for hours while we dated about the type of home we would build. How many kids we wanted, how we would teach them to love Hashem and torah. The middos that we wanted to stress. I wanted to stay home with the kids until they started school, and Yaakov would stop kollel once we had our little ones and get a job to support us all. We went to the zoo and he told me to look at how mommy lioness and daddy lion were licking their baby cub clean so lovingly. Everything to us was about children.
When he proposed after three months of going out, asking me to help him to build a bayis ne’man b’Yisroel, he told me that he had known that I was the one when I talked so movingly of the home that I wanted to build. He wanted to build that home together with me.
Under the chupa with a Talis wrapped around us, enveloping us together, I cried at the beauty of it all, our souls uniting, the shechina resting between us. I never knew that I could be so alive, so richly satisfied. All I wanted to do was to build something everlasting with him.
It only got better. He was so wonderful in a thousand different ways that I discovered. So careful with everyone’s feelings, never an unkind work from his mouth, even when my Aunt Zelda would make some biting remark about his family. Taking out the garbage without being asked. Loving me so completely and telling me in his little songs how much he wanted to grow with me. The more I knew him, the more that I was aware of the miracle that Hashem had created someone so perfect for me. He knew exactly how to make me laugh out loud, so hard that my sides hurt; he knew exactly how to make our private moments so alive and meaningful for me.
When shana rishona passed we thought, oh let’s not get uptight. Things will happen in their own good time. I would see all the little children playing in the yard of our apartment complex, which abounded with young frum couples and smiled that one day soon I would have a little person with tiny muddy shoes and a peanut butter smeared face. A little Yaakov and me combo. I thought of the butterflies that Yaakov had said were flapping around me that morning.
We had been the kvatir, you know the couple who passes the baby from mother to father, for the fifth time. It’s supposed to be a great segula for children everyone says. Chaim, Yaakov’s best friend was so kind to make us part of the bris. Chaim and Pessi had gotten married a month after us. It was their third child. I came home and cried. The next week was when Yaakov stops singing to my tummy. He could feel how much it hurt. Not soon after I accidentally overheard him on the telephone, telling another one of his friends that although he really appreciated the thought, he felt that it would be better not to be Sandig again.
All that I could think about was having a child. Teaching our baby, singing, rocking to sleep. I thought of going for a fertility examination but I was afraid of what the doctor might find. No one said anything, not our families, not our friends, especially not Yaakov. He didn’t want to make me feel worse. But I felt as if everyone was always silently asking. Every month I would hope, waiting for my period not to come.
I started to pray harder than I ever had before. Davening for other women who were having difficulties. I chose out special pirke tehilim which I would recite faithfully. I began to make my own challah, instead of buying it from the bakery, to get that extra mitzvah. I would make sure to light candles early, with special kavanah, accepting shabbis hamalka and the Ribono Shel Olam’s complete control over the world. As I stepped into the mikva each month I would concentrate, asking my creator, my father, my king, please next month may there be growth, let it be different.
But asking, praying, begging didn’t make things different. I asked others to pray for me, joined more chesed organizations, gave more tzedaka, tried to improve my shmiras halashon…trying to make myself a worthy vessel.
Yaakov was so supportive the whole time. He never once forgot to give a kiss in the morning …but I knew it was hard for him too, he never said so but I would watch him transfixed for a moment watching his nieces and nephews play. I knew that he wanted children just as badly as I did…but he never put pressure on me, telling me about expectations. He was what kept me going, what kept me from spending all of my time in our room with the shudders down and the lights off, crying desperately. And I was so afraid that I would lose him. What if I found out…?
But a Friday evening came when we were sitting together at our empty Shabbis table, that we had bought together years before with its extra leaves so that it could fit as many as we wanted. He was singing with his eyes closed. About me, to me his eyshes chayil he was saying. And how could I be so selfish I was thinking. How could I let this giving, loving man look at this empty table possibly forever, because I was too scared to deal with the unknown? How could I do that to him? How could I do that to us?
The doctor was wonderful. After giving me a thorough examination, she assured me that all was in perfect order. That moment was pure relief. I wouldn’t lose him, we could still build together. We would croon about cauliflowers and teddy bears again and again and again, I just knew it. The doctor told me that it would be best if I could try to relax, sometimes it is the pressure and stress that causes everything to get out of synch. Take it easy, it would come…but it didn’t. It didn’t come.
But I kept on taking it easy, trying not to break down at night anymore. Not allowing myself to be overwhelmed when we would go to people’s houses and they would say to their children, k’sarah’ k’rachel, k’ephriam. I would tell myself that it was possible. I told myself to stay calm for a whole nother year after that. Just relax. Take it easy.
When I told Yaakov what the doctor had said he asked me jokingly, but in all seriousness if I wanted him to serenade me again, if it still hurt? I could think of no better way to relax and kissed him to tell him so. But after another year of faithfully going to the mikvah each month, it started to be painful again. Maybe the doctor was wrong. Maybe I really was infertile. She was a top specialist, but who knows. I started to slip again, back into worry, depression; I was dragging us down again. Yaakov tried to comfort me, but I just couldn’t stop thinking that I would lose all of our dreams.
Then I came home one night. I came home and all the lights were off. I wondered, where is Yaakov? He was supposed to make chicken for dinner. I started getting worried that maybe something had happened. No, I said, get a hold of yourself. He is probably just running late, or helping someone out with something or other. Then I opened the door into our bedroom to change, flicking on the lights and there was Yaakov laying there. He had been in our dark bedroom with the shades pulled down. I had never seen him crying before. He looked so embarrassed, like I had just seen his mask slip off.
He kept on looking away, as if he could not bear to meet my eyes.
“It’s my fault,” he said softly, slowly. Not understanding I moved toward him, trying to find whatever I was missing. “You cry at night. You do so much and all you want is children. You’re so deep and good and beautiful. I see you watching them all grow and all this time I didn’t even think…All this time we have been believing it was you who couldn’t…but the doctor told me that this whole time it was me who was the problem….I just had a thought today to ask my doctor for a specialist during the checkup…I had been wondering and I…I’ll give you a divorce. A get, no questions. I want to fix it all, to make it right…I have been holding you back all this time, stopping you.”
His body was pulled inward, waiting for my reply.
I thought then of how I had felt that moment under the chupa…I thought of all the moments since then. I lay down next to him and sang softly that you Yaakov are so completely perfect for me and that I shall cling to your love no matter what because I know in the deepest part of my soul that was your name that had been called out with mine by Hashem before I was even conceived. I have never been so complete as when I am with you.


I’m coming.
Do you want to talk about sex?
What do you think about sex? Carnal acts? Quiet, forbidden things that we don’t talk about because it’s not polite? What do you think about it?
I’m coming.
What would you tell me about it if I asked you? Single girl, not engaged, never had a boyfriend? Good American Jewish girl raised on a steady diet of overly sexualized advertisements for Jeans and perfume that I don’t try to see but can’t quite escape?
I’m coming.
What did you think when you picked up a chumash the first time after you were old enough to know what things meant, and you read in Vayeitzeh, as Yaakov marries each of his wives “Vayavoh Eilehah Yaakov,” “and Yaakov came to her”. What do you think that means? “He came to her”?
I’m coming.
I remember when I was in tenth grade and a Chumash teacher who should have known better told a room full of girls who had spent their entire adolescence holding out against a bombardment of casual sex that, ultimately, sex, or “relations” as she called it, was not supposed to give pleasure. The highest level of sex was to create children.
I’m coming.
Hundreds of years ago, when women of the British aristocracy did not have a say in who they would marry, their mothers told them to close their eyes and think of England. Because sex was not an emotion. It was an act. An act that would create children and secure the future of the nation.
Is that what Yaakov was doing? Securing manifest destiny through the only act that could ensure procreation? Was he closing his eyes and thinking of B’nei Yisrael?
I’m coming.
When I ask you if you want to talk about sex, I’m not asking for the act. I’m asking you for what it really means. What is sex accomplishing? Is it a release? Is it what I’ve been saving myself for? Is it a benchmark? Is it an answer? Is it an end, a goal in and of itself?
I’m coming.
Because I don’t want to believe that all Yaakov had was an act. A moment of conception where he had done his duty. Like the love ‘em and leave ‘em act that characterizes the world that I live in, a world where woman and men exist for temporary use and then become as disposable as latex gloves or plastic flatware.
I’m coming.
We’re told that G-d created the universe with a word. Chassidic lore tells us that the words we say create angels that act against us or on our behalf when we pass into the next world. A word can mean so much. So when I ask you if you want to talk about sex, am I using the right word?
I don’t think I am.
Sex is not the word I want. Sex is…What is sex? Sex is organs and a series of body parts that may or may not be connected to a soul. Sex is that short, staccato word pasted on magazines in various permutations to sell Calvin Klein and makeup, the things that make us sexy, but not the things that create the something which that short, single syllable doesn’t seem to encompass.
I’m coming.
We’re told that G-d created the universe with a word. Chassidic lore tells us that the words we say create angels that act against us or on our behalf when we pass into the next world. A word can mean so much. What did you think when you picked up a chumash the first time after you were old enough to know what things meant, and you read in Vayeitzeh, as Yaakov marries each of his wives “Vayavoh Eilehah Yaakov.” “And Yaakov came to her”. Why “Vayavoh”? Why not “tashmit hamitah”? Why not “arayot”? Both terms referring to sex, relations. Why “vayavoh”?
What’s in a word?
Because “Vayavoh” isn’t sex. It’s a conjugation of the word boh, to come. Because sex isn’t an act. It’s a coming. It’s a step on a journey towards arrival. Not an ending place. It’s a journey towards the torah’s other word euphemistically signifying contact. To know someone. Abraham knew Sarah, Adam knew Chava. The goal is not an act. The goal is to know. To explore every aspect of another living being, another half. To know G-d because the relationship between a husband and a wife is the closest we will ever come to the relationship between G-d and creation.
I’m coming.
So I guess, in the end, my tenth grade teacher got something right. Because it’s not sex. It’s relations. We’re trying to relate. Trying to move deeper into the mind and soul, bring it up, bring it higher, bring it to the next level. Going on the journey. Something’s ahead, just beyond the horizon. Let’s go together because we can’t make the journey alone. We’re moving nearer, and we know that the something up ahead is a something that is part of what will make us complete, part of what will allow us to understand the wholeness that is G-d.
We are coming.

They Did it for Leah Klein

Now contrary to the nasty rumors her ex was spreading, Leah did not get what she deserved. She was the sweetest girl to ever graduate from our high school. Kind, soft-spoken, genuine. She loved who she was and all that she ever wanted out of life was to get married and raise Jewish children. She had an arranged marriage when she was seventeen and dropped out of high school. She’d met her husband to be once, but he was from a good family and he was very bright and very handsome. She thought she was so lucky, that she didn’t deserve such goodness.
We all went to the wedding and every one of us danced for her. We all loved her because she loved all of us. She really did. And we wanted to dance for her and shower her with all of the blessings for a happy life. And, for a while, we thought we had succeeded. She would call us regularly to ask us how we were doing and give us updates on her life. She was happy. She was pregnant. She’d had a son. The bris would be on Tuesday. They were buying a house. Then she sort of…fell out of contact. We assumed she was busy. The old group from high school would get together and we would relate our Leah sightings. Shira had seen her at a fruit and vegetable market. Daniela had run into her and her husband in the diamond district where he worked and they had been choosing out jewelry together. Then, one day, Davida called me. She’d seen Leah in a drugstore with a black eye, poorly disguised by heavy foundation. The group got together for lunch and Tzivia said she’d driven through Leah’s neighborhood late one night and had seen Leah sitting on the stoop in the freezing cold. One day, Shira called me at the office. Leah had called her from a women’s shelter. She was getting a divorce.
We went to visit her. We put her and her kids up in our various homes until we could find her an apartment of her own. We bought her groceries and watched her kids while she went to police to get a restraining order on her husband. Her husband was not taking it well. He said it was her fault. That she was a bad wife. That she didn’t care for the children properly. That she had it coming. That she asked for it. That the kids had asked for it. That she was sexually perverse and unfaithful. She was a witch. She was a whore. He wouldn’t give her a divorce. A get. He wanted the children. Not just every other week, but full custody.
Leah said no. She wouldn’t sacrifice her children. He said fine and would not give her the get.
Leah was broken after that. She’d spent her whole life wanting to be married and now, suddenly, she wasn’t anymore and never could be again. She sat in her apartment all day, waiting for her children to come home from school. She stopped eating. Every time we saw her, she seemed thinner and thinner.
Simma came up with the idea. Simma is Satmar. She’d gotten married about the same time as Leah and had shaved her head. She wore stockings with seams up the back and a tichel over her sheitel. She asked me to go out to lunch with her.
“I just came back from seeing Leah. She looks awful.”
“I know.”
“He’s killing her.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
“What can we do? Hire a hit man?”
“Death is too good for him.”
At nine o’clock a.m. on a clear Monday morning, a group of women in hats, snoods, headscarves, and sheitelach congregated in front of the 42nd Ave. diamond store owned by Leah’s husband. By 9:05, ten of them were holding up signs stating that the owner of this business was withholding a Jewish divorce from his wife. By 9:10, they were handing out pamphlets and had turned away two customers. At 10:00, the police arrived but informed the store owner that since the women were not on private property and were not being violent or interfering with traffic, they had the right to stay. And they stayed. We stayed. We stayed until he closed the shop at six. We made sure he did not have a customer all day. We were there again the next morning when he opened the store, this time with Aviva, a classmate who had gone on to become a fairly prominent divorce lawyer. She delivered him a subpoena requesting that he come to court for hearings on child support. She was doing the case pro bono. A husband in the banking business had kindly arranged that his assets be frozen until such time as he began to pay his child support. Aviva left and we stayed to hand out pamphlets and pray. As we said our tehillim, we held up signs saying that we were praying for the wife of the man who owned this business, a woman who was being denied a Jewish divorce. He did not get any customers that day either. Or the next day. Or the next.
By the second week, he tried to negotiate with us. We were ruining him. He was losing money. He was receiving threatening phone calls. Women were pressuring their husbands to refuse him an aliya in shul. He would take her back. He would pay us to leave him alone. We did not leave.
By the third week, he gave in. He had to. The husband in the banking business told us (strictly off the record, of course), that he had lost millions of dollars in those three weeks. His business had been reduced to nothing. He had to get rid of us. It was a matter of survival. We took down the signs and stopped handing out the pamphlets, but remained outside his store until the get was in Leah’s hands and Aviva, Leah, and Leah’s ex had their day in court to decide on the hefty sum he would pay in child support. We just wanted him to know that we were there.
I met Leah the other week for lunch. She’s studying for her GED and seeing a wonderful man, a widower. She’s not sure, but she thinks he may be the one. She glows.
A group of us were in a bus the other day and we saw Leah’s husband. He would not look in our direction. You never look at the women who screw you over.


At so many Shabbat tables that I visit it happens…They ask me, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, to tell my story. They want to hear about how I felt G-d’s presence at the Kotel and immediately ran off to some learning program in Jerusalem where I found “The Truth”, leaving behind my completely secular life of fast cars, men and conspicuous consumption, They want to hear about how I went to some seminar in college which proved to me that G-d exists, Jews are chosen, and Orthodoxy is the way to go, after which I dropped membership to my Buddhist temple, my career as a Broadway actress, and my non-Jewish fiancé. That is not my story. Hey I’m not denying that it works that way sometimes, the sudden epiphany effect I call it. That’s what happened to Tiffany, I mean Leah Malka, as she likes to be called now, her nom-de-frum, I always slip. She did the rapid jump into religiosity. Quite honestly it scared me silly. Here was best friend, college roomie, the one who I had literally dragged to the High Holiday services on campus, the agnostic who loudly opposed organized religion, and suddenly she was calling me from her Birthright trip which she had only gone on because it was free and I, as Hillel Vice President, begged her into to fill our body count quota. She says that she has decided to take off the next semester to explore Judaism. “Awesome! What are you planning to do over there, Kibbutz? I heard about some great classes at the Conservative Yeshiva, its right on King George Street, so convenient.” (Leah Malka speaks) ”Actually,” her voice crackled a couple of thousand miles away, “I got an offer to learn in this Orthodox school.”
“Oh.” Was all I could say. I tried not to sound overly negative, or let her know that my stomach had started to tighten at the thought. It was as if she had just told me that she had accepted a scholarship from the Reverend Sun Yung Moon to learn under his tutelage. It may sound like a gross overreaction to the circumstances, but you see, my previous experiences with Orthodox people had not been very good. In fact they had been down right nasty. I grew up traditional-conservative. You know, the type who walk to shul on Shabbat whenever possible, is super involved in USY, keeps kosher in the home, and is very proud her heritage. Yet, the Orthodox people that I met seemed to regard me as not good enough, not fully Kosher. When I attended those kiruv youth groups or on the occasion that I spent Shabbat at some outreach Rabbi’s home I would always come away feeling righteous in my rejection of Orthodoxy. That life seemed to me like a little absolutist, black and white box. Someone would inevitably denigrate feminist women, labeling them as angry, anti-family, misguided sad creatures, especially any female who had the audacity to want to devote her life to communal service and call herself Rabbi. Kids would stare cross-eyed at my Kippa. Practicioners of other sects of Judaism would be dismissed as uneducated lost sheep, or uncaring secularists who were said to think of the Ten Commandments as the Ten suggestions. Oh yah, someone would have to make fun of our fellow Tzelemeh Elokim, by telling a racist “shvartze” joke. It would all end with some well meaning soul assuring me that the “outside world” is immoral and that everyone is happier once they accept Hashem into their lives. In the end I would be in a snit and decide never to have anything to do with this dogmatic, sexist, racist, isolationist, elitist, cult again. You can imagine that the thought of Tiffany rushing headlong into Jerusalem syndrome made me a bit nervous. But I figured that she had every right to go soul searching. I told myself that she as a logical, thinking person would soon see the flaws in that world.
As I mentioned earlier, she now goes by Leah Malka, so you can guess where this story is headed. Two months into her program she proudly informed me that she had burned all of her jeans and Glamour magazines at a communal bonfire where students spontaneously decided to rid themselves of secular pollutants. She told me that she didn’t want society dictating how she perceives her body, that the laws of modesty protect against objectification and devaluation of the body as a holy vessel.
(Yell) “You are part of a crazy cult, who objectifies women to the point that people judge and throw stones based on what they are wearing! As your best friend, who loves you dearly I am telling you right now to get out of that brainwashed school!”

(Leah Malka steps forward facing her friend)
I wonder how it is that you do not see the beauty that I see. Why you scream out against this richness, it is so right, so true. I know what it must look like standing from a distance, but it is not what you think. Why are my choices dismissed to the realm of brainwashing. I am not joining a repressed female club. We are so much more than you see, so much more.

We are the ancientness of tradition.
We are the merchant ships, judging, choosing, bringing sustenance to our families from afar.
We are our mothers who cried and sang and laughed with hope.
We are strength and dignity, in awe of G-d.
We hold potential, partners in creation, vehicles for redemption.
We are free in our closeness to our creator and our connection to our sisters and homes.
We are the flames that burn steadily, both bringing in the light and keeping out the darkness.
Our candle does not go out by night.
To say that we need to be empowered is persumptous. We have the power already. We need to actualize it.

(Friend speaks)
How do you answer that surety of purpose, that righteous calm? She sounded so content. So high on G-d that it was terrifiying. Yet, I had to admit that while I was horrified, I envied her for being so certain. I grappled with my Judaism all of the time. Why do you think I went to the Kiruv Rabbi for Shabbat? I wasn’t completely in-synch with the whole kosher inside the home, but it’s okay to eat McDonald’s fries and chicken sub, no pork though, or if you have to drive on Shabbat to get to shul its okay thing. I wanted the completeness of a community where people put minyan as a priority, were religious, and learned. I wanted the Orthodox world without all of the esnaring strings that I saw as being attached. When Tiffany and I would talk I would feel this deep yearning the beauty that she had found, but her way was simply not my way. I had to find my own path. See what sort of synthesis I could create, if any. So I continued spending time in the Frum world, still just as uneasy as before. But finally one Shabbat I found the first step down the path upon which I am now happily, slowly, skipping. I met this wonderful Rabbi and his family and in so doing was exposed to a form of Orthodoxy which is comfortable, real, and livable for me. My path. Until that point I had been looking at Tiffany’s path all the time. Seeing the problems, conflicts, thinking that I could never shove my square self into that round hole. Then I am sitting at this Rabbi’s table and his d’var torah tells me exactly what I needed to hear, to think about. He said that all the tribes in the desert surrounded the tabernacle at the center of the camp. Each tribe had its own way to that center, sometimes very different, but as long as they were moving toward that center, no path was illegitimate. All of K’lal Yisroel is like that, he said. As long as we are following Halacha, walking on the path to G-d, whether it be more machmir or meikel, chassidish or litvish, modern or charedi, we are all going for that same center. We should not see our way as better or worse, because we each need to find our own way toward divekut. Differences or downright disagreements in halachic opinions, such as how we view engagement with the outside world, or women’s roles or Zionism, are completely allowed for within the halachic system and while certain things may not resonate with us particularly, we as a people need to remember to be accepting and loving toward both others and ourselves. I got into a long discussion with him and his wife after that, which led to many more such talks. And that is what I have been doing ever since, a lot of questioning and talking and thinking.

But the magic answers still have yet to simply appear. There are still issues and problems that turn me off. But it makes such a difference to know that to be part of the community doesn’t mean that I have to start taking on all sorts of stringencies and live in a much more narrow world than I am used to. I have realized that the absolutist black and white world is a whole lot broader and more open than I had thought previously. Not that I am knocking those who take on stringencies and are careful about exposure. Watching how Tiffany lives is really inspiring actually. And I have come to realize that the Torah world is broad enough for that path as well as my own. Both Tiffany and I are trying for that center. She lives in a Charedi neighborhood, with her Yeshivish Kollel husband and new baby. She has yet to finish up her bachelor’s degree but is so blissfully happy. You could say that I am pretty much modern Orthodox, even though I really don’t wish to label myself at this point or at any other point in the future.
So when people want to hear my story, I tell them that it is nothing too dramatic, pretty long and drawn out and that it is far from over.

Something I Couldn't Have

Have you ever wanted something that you couldn’t have? Have you ever been surrounded by something that you need more than anything in the world, but it’s just beyond your reach?
I kissed my best friend when I was thirteen. I’d like to blame it on chemistry class. Things were weird that year because, as usual, they couldn’t find enough teachers who were qualified and who would work for such low pay. So they figured out this system, you know. Low track had class during second period, the way it usually was. High track had class during lunch and got second period free. Miriam and I were both in high track. We’d eat lunch during class and then, during second, we’d find some abandoned classroom and we’d just…talk. We talked, oh G-d, we talked about everything. Music, books, philosophy, G-d, sex…Mostly sex, actually. When you go to an Orthodox girls school, you really don’t know much about sex and it becomes this huge mystery. We really were so naïve.
Sometimes I think that people assume that I’m some kind of pervert. That I chose her out and led her on. I didn’t. I really didn’t. Miriam and I, we’d been friends since first grade, before we even knew where babies came from. We grew up together and we were friends. Best friends. I never thought it was anything more than that. I only knew that there was no one else I ever wanted to be with and, when we weren’t with each other, I missed her so badly that it was almost like a physical pain in my body. Yeah, I used to dream about her sometimes and we’d both be in our underwear, but it never meant anything at the time. We’d slept over at each other’s houses a hundred times. We’d seen each other in our underclothes before. It didn’t mean anything. I told you that we were naïve.
We were in the classroom. It was a Thursday. I remember that it was Thursday. Isn’t it stupid, the little details we remember? I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but I remember that it was a Thursday and that she was wearing these long silver earrings. The kind that swing when you move your head. What were we talking about? I wish I remembered. It might make sense. I don’t know. I just remember that it was a Thursday and those silver earrings and her lips. She was saying something and it was like, suddenly, the world didn’t have sound anymore and all I could see was her face. Her beautiful, perfect, imperfect face with a little white scar just above her lip where she’d cut herself on a rock when we were eight. That scar just sort of…undulated. Like sunspots on the water. It moved when she talked. Like it was saying something all on its own. I don’t know what I was doing. I needed to hear what the scar was saying. So I moved in closer so I could hear. And then I kissed the scar. And then I kissed her lips and all I could feel was the softness of her breath against my mouth and those silver earrings resting up on my cheeks.
I would have stopped. If she had pushed me away, I would have stopped. I loved Miriam. I didn’t know at the time what sort of love it was, but I really did love her and I never would have done anything she didn’t want me to do. I’m not blaming her. It’s not any more her fault than mine. I guess it was something that we both wanted and we just didn’t know it. I don’t think either of us knew what was going on. It was like being tipsy on Shabbos wine. I was totally unaware of anything that was going on around me, only that I was so, so happy. Happier than I’d ever been before. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy since. Just happy and totally unaware. Which, I guess, is why we didn’t notice it when the principal came in.
In case you’re worried, I should tell you that he was great. Nothing like you’d expect a principal to be when he accidentally walked in on two of his students kissing each other in an empty classroom. He told us to come into his office. I thought he was going to expel us. I was positive. I told him that it was my fault and that I’d started it because I didn’t want Miriam to get hurt and Miriam was right next to me saying that it was her fault and that she should be punished and not me. I guess she didn’t want me to get hurt either. I never got to ask her.
He wasn’t angry, the principal. I can’t tell you his name. He has a position and if word got around…I don’t know if everyone would understand. Maybe some people would think that he should have kicked me out. Kicked both of us out. Told everyone we were sick perverts. Maybe some of you think that. I don’t know. Maybe he should have. But he didn’t. He looked so sad. And so understanding. Like he knew how it was. Sometimes I wonder if maybe he had the same problem or if someone he loved had the same problem. I asked him once. I call him sometimes, just to talk, and I once asked him whether he, you know, knew someone else like me. He just changed the subject. It’s a pretty raw thing to talk about. Believe me, I know.
He said he wouldn’t kick us out of school. He wouldn’t tell our parents, but he thought we should. He gave me the phone number of a rabbi who ‘dealt with this sort of thing’ and then he gave me his home phone. He said not to give it to anyone else but, if I needed to, I should call him. Whatever time.
I told my parents. I guess Miriam must have told hers too because I tried to call her that evening and, when her mom picked up, she told me to stay away from her daughter. They transferred Miriam to a different school. I never got to say goodbye. Sometimes we see each other from across the street on a Shabbos afternoon and we sort of half wave, but we never try to get together because if her parents found out, she’d get into trouble and…and I love her.
My parents…my parents did not take it well. They said it was something I had done because I’d been influenced by, I don’t know, books or films or music or something like that. I wanted to agree with them.. I asked them if I could call the rabbi that the principal had recommended. I think they said yes because they thought he would talk me out of it. I never had such a long conversation with a rabbi. It was just…intense. He asked me about everything. My dreams, how I looked at girls, how I felt when I was with boys, who I was attracted to when I walked down the street. That sort of thing. Lots of other things too, but it’s kind of embarrassing, so I won’t mention it, if you don’t mind. But you get the idea. He called my parents into his office and he asked my parents if they loved me, no matter what. They said yes and he said good, because I was a lesbian and I would need their love more than ever. And that was it. He gave me a card for a psychologist. He told me to give him a call if I needed him. We went home and all my parents wanted to do was talk to me. How long had I felt this way? Did I think I could change? Was it their fault? How had this happened? Then it was like they didn’t want to talk about it at all anymore. Like we could talk about anything else, but not that. They would tell me they loved me a hundred times a day and ask how I was doing, but we couldn’t talk about ‘that subject’. And we didn’t. I talked to my psychologist every day. I called my principal almost every night. But at home, it was like nothing had ever happened. Oh yeah, wait. One thing did happened. I got my own bedroom. I didn’t have to share a room with my little sister anymore. Funny, isn’t it? I’d been begging for my own room for years and I finally got it because my parents were afraid that I was some kind of sicko.
No one else knows. Not my friends. Not my teachers. They’ll say something in class about building a Jewish home and I want to cry. I want to burst into tears and run out of the room, because it won’t happen for me. My friends talk about when they’ll start dating or their sisters who got engaged. Never for me. I’ll never have that. I’ll always be alone.
Sometimes, I think that my parents still think it’s a phase. That it’s something I’m going to grow out of and one day I’ll wake up normal. I wish I could. Every night, I go to bed and pray that I’ll wake up and have a crush on some guy I see at Shul. And every morning I wake up and I’m still me. And every day, I have to go to school without Miriam. Every day, I’m surrounded by people that I want. The girls in school. The women who sit with me in shul. The people in the girl’s changing room at the pool. I’m a teenager. I’ve got all the normal hormones. They just got mixed up somewhere. And now I’m trapped with all of the people that I’m most attracted to. And there’s nothing I can do. Because no one knows. And even if they did, what could I do?
Have you ever wanted something that you couldn’t have? Have you ever been surrounded by something that you need more than anything in the world, but it’s just beyond your reach?

The F-Word

Brace yourselves. I am about to say the F-word. Feminism. I said it. Feminism. Feminism. Feminism. Feminism. Feminism. Dear G-d, that feels good. You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to say that. That’s me. I am the F-word. I am a feminist. Try saying that one is shul. Then they look at you like you’ve just told them you’re a cannibal and you’d love to have their youngest child over for dinner. But, you know what? I think you’re all feminists too. And the women who think I’m a cannibal. They’re feminists. We are all walking F-words.
So how did I become an f-word? Something must have gone wrong somewhere. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to nice, Jewish girls who go to Bais Yaakov. I did, by the way. Go to Bais Yaakov, I mean. Bais Yaakov, Seminary, the whole shebang. I’m certified Frum. Like the little plumba that they put on the chicken so you know it’s Kosher. I had all of the right qualifications. How did this happen? What sort of tragedy befell me that I became…an f-word?
It’s kinda hard to tell. Maybe it started about sixth grade when I began to realize that I was a woman and not just a person. You’re sort of androgynous before that, part of that large generalization that makes up the Yiddishe kinderlach. And then you start growing things and your body starts doing things and you begin to realize that there might be a difference between you and the person that sits on the other side of the mechitza in shul.
So, my body’s changing and I’m getting really weepy a lot and life is getting confusing and about then they started on the whole power of the Jewish woman thing in school and I got really excited because I’m thinking, hey, my body’s doing all this weird stuff and I feel like I’m turning into something and they say that what I’m turning into is a Jewish woman. Great! Now they’re going to tell me what that means. Except they didn’t. What they did was to tell me about men. They told me all about men. Every Chumash class was about Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov and Moshe. Every Navi class was about David and Shaul and Shmuel. There were a few women in there, but we moved through those ones really quick. I think we took five minutes to zip through Devorah and that was taken up by the teacher telling us that Devorah was allowed to be a leader because there was no man in her generation who was strong enough to do the job. Why did they need to tell us that? Why couldn’t Devorah be a great woman? Where were all the women? I knew they were there because the Chumash talked about Miriam and Rachel and Leah and Sarah, but why didn’t we learn about them? Were they terrible? Were they bad role models? What was so frightening about the women in Tanach that we weren’t allowed to learn about them?
Then they start with Tznius. Don’t get me wrong. I think Tznius is the best thing in the world for body image and woman’s sense of self-esteem. Except every teacher told me that the reason I had to wear long sleeves and skirts was because I didn’t want to cause inappropriate desires in a man. Because my body was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode and lead some man astray. Face it, my body was an act of sin waiting to happen. You have no idea how terrified I was of my own body. For years, I was afraid to even walk because my hips might twitch and send some guy the wrong message and then I would be the cause of impure thoughts. I’m still not fully comfortable in my own skin. I wondered about it. I wondered why G-d would give me a mitzvah that was wholly dependent on someone else. Tznius didn’t make me a better person. It just made sure that men didn’t become worse people and I couldn’t think of a single mitzvah like that which applied to men.
Around eleventh grade, they started with the whole “you are not anything unless you get married and have children” thing. Now you’re going to peg me as some kind of femi-Nazi. Hang on. This is going somewhere. I promise. Every class, they keep talking about Shidduchim and how important it is to find a man and have kids. That’s always the focus, you know? Getting married and having children. Does it mean that the wonderful old lady who lived across the hall from us and always gave me cookies was less than whole because she never got married and had kids? What’s wrong with me that I’m not worth anything unless I’m attached to other people? Can’t I be special for the things that I do on my own? Can’t I have accomplishments that aren’t attached to someone else? I mean, what if I never manage to find my bashert? Will I never be able to be a good Jew on my own?
That was really what it was all about, you know-being a good Jew. Because I very much wanted to love G-d and I wanted to love being a Jew. I wanted to want to be good for G-d. To be the best that I could be. But how could I be the best that I could if the best that I could was dependent on someone else who might or might not show up in my life?
So I sat down and made a list of all of the things that G-d had given me that made me special. Not as a unit. Not as a part of a group. But as an individual. And it kept coming back to the fact that I was a woman. The way my body worked, the way that it could reproduce, the way that everything fit with such function and form. And I decided that I needed to know more about this. I went to the library and borrowed a book on human physiology.
Do you have any idea how much G-d loves me? How much G-d gives me as a woman? How much my physical body is a manifestation of G-d’s love? My body can sustain itself without nourishment for an astounding amount of time. My body, which is so small and compact in comparison to a man’s, has space for everything. It has space to carry and nourish another life. My body has things that have no function other than to make me happy. You know that the female clitoris is just a bundle of nerves that serves no other function than to create sexual pleasure? If you believe in the random evolution of the human species, then you believe that every part of the human body is created for the sole purpose of functionality. I can’t believe in random evolution because of my clitoris. That has to be the creation of a benevolent G-d who wants me to enjoy the gift of human relationships. I came to love G-d through my clitoris. Through the miracle of my body.
So I’m reading these physiology books and getting completely enthralled and amazed by the wonder of it all, and I begin to think that I can’t possibly be the first person to have figured this out. I put down the physiology book and took out my Tanach. The one that I spent so much time hating because it had nothing to do with me. And I read it. Cover to cover. And I discovered the women. Tanach was full of women. Beautiful, wonderful, strong women who didn’t sit around doing nothing while their husbands changed the world. Half of them were childless. Half of them were medically unable to conceive and give birth. But not a single one let it stop her life. They went out and did their own things and when they had children, they thanked G-d for their good fortune and continued to be strong human beings in their own right. With some of them, we don’t even know who their husbands were or whether they had children. The passuk never says who Miriam’s husband was or whether she had any children. It only says that she saved her brother and led the women in the desert. That she was a servant of G-d. Some of them were strong in spite of their husbands. Look at Esther. Look at what she accomplished and who she was married to. These were the people who came before me. This was the genetic material that made up my DNA. These were women who had doubts and fears, but they did things anyway. These were women who got their periods and stained their best dresses and had cramps and nausea and headaches. No matter how different we were, I was connected to the women of my past by PMS. And by that feeling that I had in my gut every time I thought of them. That feeling of belonging to something. I never felt that before. I never felt it in school, but now I felt it every time I was around Jewish women. I had this crazy urge to hug every woman in shul and say “I know you. We both sang with Miriam at the sea.” I didn’t, of course. It’s not the sort of thing you can say in public. But I wanted to. I loved the way I felt around women. I loved that sense of belonging. I loved women. Which is another one of those things you can’t say in public without people accusing you of being all kinds of things. But I do. I really do love women. Because we are a miracle. We are a walking proof of G-d’s love for life and for creation. Because we are a continuum and because I never feel so alive and real as I feel when I’m standing with a group of Jewish women.
And that is the story of how I became and F-word. A feminist. It’s my favorite story because, whenever I tell it, someone always says, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re not a feminist!” and I ask them why not and they say “You don’t hate men” or “You haven’t burned your bra” or “you’re not pro-abortion”. No, I do not hate men because I married a very nice one who loves me for who I am and who does not look at me as an extension of who he is. No, I do not burn bras because I hate the smell of burning nylon and because, frankly, I need the support. No, I am not pro-abortion because I don’t believe in throwing away life wantonly. It’s not something that G-d would do and women are made in the image of G-d.
So how am I a feminist? Because I believe in the power of women to do almost anything. I believe that women have the ability to be great, with or without the aid of a man. I believe that women are the closest thing that the human race has to an embodiment of the qualities of G-d and that women are a living, breathing proof that the Almighty loves us fiercely and without reservation.
So I call myself a feminist, but what I really mean is that I’m a Jewish woman and I can’t call myself that because it’s not what I was taught a Jewish woman is supposed to be.

Bald in the Land of Covered Hair

I lost my left breast and my hair within six months of each other. Hasn’t grown back yet. You look under here, you’re in the land of no follicles. Zip. Same goes for this (indicating left breast). Pretty nifty, huh? It’s an insert. Just so that I don’t go around looking lopsided. Sort of like one of those “What’s wrong with this picture” things that shows up on the back of kids magazines in the dentist’s waiting room. What did someone forget to draw on this lady? It’s weird what cancer does to you. It’s even weirder what cancer does to you at twenty-eight. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk to you about my husband. I wanted to talk to you about my body and about the person that I thought I was and the person that I actually am. After that, I’ll give you my recipe for the only thing I could eat while I was in chemo.
I am a Frummy. I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I’ve been a Frummy my whole life. From day one. I think I was born with black stockings and an application to BJJ. That was a joke, by the way. I went to Ateret. But I really did do it all the way. Bais Yaakov, seminary, engaged at nineteen, married at twenty. I’m not saying I was brainwashed or anything. I really did want to do things this way and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. It’s just that I really could be a poster child if the National Organization or Frummies ever decides to start an advertising campaign.
Now you know the jokes they make about Frummies and clothes. That was me. I was machmir, not because I had to be, but because I wanted to be. I don’t want to tell you how many times I read Halichos Bas Yisroel. I had parts of it memorized way back before my kids killed my brain, but that’s neither here nor there. It just…it meant a lot to me. All joking aside, it still does. The funny thing is, though, that I spent so much time thinking about how I clothed my body and what my body said, but I never really thought about how I saw my body. I guess the first time I really thought about it was when I got engaged. I went to the Sheitel Macher with my mother to get my first wig and, wait a minute, let me back up here. I need to tell you that I’m a red head. Was a red head. Will be, if it decides to grow back. I also need to tell you that, when I was engaged, my family was going through some financial difficulties and it was more than my parents could handle to pay for my wedding. So I knew that my kallah stuff was going to be on the cheap side, which was fine. I was marrying the guy of my dreams. I was on cloud nine. But I came crashing down to earth and hit terra firma in the basement of a woman who sold overstocked sheitels that she shipped in from Boro Park. She looked at me when I came in and said, “Ooh honey, you’re a cinnamon auburn. They only make those in custom. I can special order one for you for three thousand.” My mother gave me this strangled look that said, “We can get you the sheitel, but only if we sell your youngest brother into slavery,” which is not what she said to the sheitel saleslady. Instead, she asked if we could have a look at the in-the-box stuff that was a little bit off my color. And for some reason, my throat started to close up and I felt like I needed to cry. So I asked the lady if she had a bathroom and I spent the next ten minutes sobbing on a stranger’s toilet with pipe sounds echoing around my head. I was standing by the sink, washing my eyes, when I caught a glimpse of my face in her bathroom mirror, and I started fingering my hair and wondering, why am I taking this so hard? At the time, I wrote it off as pre-wedding nerves, but I remember that moment, standing in front of that mirror in that little basement bathroom, touching my hair.
The second time I thought about the big it, was when I was seven months pregnant with my first child. I went out with a friend of mine to get some maternity clothing. There was some kind of big sale at Hecht’s and I picked out all of the extra-large skirts and hauled them into the dressing room. So I was in this dressing room at Hecht’s with a pile of the biggest skirts money could buy, and not a single one of these skirts made it down to my hips. They all kind of got…stuck in this region between the bottom of my bust and the top of my tummy. Now, I know that everyone looks ugly in a dressing room mirror. Dressing room mirrors are designed to make you look awful so that you’ll buy more clothes to make up for the fact that you’re hideous, but when I looked in the dressing room mirror, I saw, staring back at me, a misshapen beast of pregnancy with a stomach like an industrial sized mixing bowl, a rear end that was sticking out to maintain balance, and a skirt dangling just beneath where the bra ended. And suddenly, I was terrified. I was afraid of the image staring back at me under those harsh department store lights. I remembered the moment, that sick, sinking feeling of unreasoning terror in my stomach as I beheld the bloated figure in the misplaced skirt.
So that brings us to ten months ago when I found a lump in my left breast and my OBGYN confirmed that it was cancer. She gave me a number of a therapist that she referred to and told me to set up an appointment and then she told me, “It’s too early to say anything, but we’re probably going to need to look at the possibility of chemo.” And the first thing I said, first thing was, “Does that mean I’m going to lose my hair?” And she gave me this look. Just eyed my sheitel like, “does it matter?” And I laughed to show that I got the joke and, no, it didn’t really matter. But it mattered. It mattered so much. Then, a few weeks later, my OBGYN did another consultation with me and told me I would need a mastectomy.
“That means you’re taking off my breast, right?”
“All of it?”
She gave me another look. This one directed at my blouse, which was, I’m not afraid to admit, fairly shapeless. And, again, I laughed it off because it was kind of funny and she was trying to cheer me up. But I went home and I got into bed and cried. And that’s where my husband found me when he came home that evening.
“What happened?”
“My hair’s going to fall out. I’m, going to have to wear a wig.”
“But you already wear a wig.”
“It’s not the same.”
I started to sob.
“They’re taking away my hair. They’re taking away my breast. I’m not going to be a woman anymore.”
My husband put his hand on my cheek and turned my head so that I was looking at him.
“I don’t think it was your breasts and your hair that made you a woman in the first place.”
And at that moment, I remembered standing in that Sheitel macher’s bathroom crying over my wig. I remembered standing in that dressing room at Hecht’s, staring at my misshapen body, and I realized that it hadn’t been wedding nerves or hormonal imbalances. It was the fact that I saw my body as making me womanly. My red hair, that crowning glory on my head that I spent an hour a day straitening when I was in high school. It made me a girl. It made me know that I was a girl. That was why I wanted to cry as I looked through those boxed wigs that could never replicate the beauty of my hair. I was afraid that, the moment I put one of them on, I would cease to be feminine. I would lose that womanly identifier. The same thing with my fat body in the dressing room mirror and the prospect of losing my breast. Both identified me as a woman, a slim, femininely curved body, telling me that I was a woman, that I was something special and different. All this time, I’d been wearing the tznius clothing, but I hadn’t seen what was behind it, beyond self-respect and the decency of a bas yisroel. It was about identification. It was about seeing myself as a woman without needing to tie it all up in body parts, things that, in my case, would not stay. Things that can fade and disappear. Torah wanted me to identify myself as a woman by all of the things that were in my soul, all of the things that my husband saw as the things that made me female. Not the hair or the breasts or the body, the spirit. The binah yesaira. The neshama.
Do you know what my husband and I did that evening? We took out the electric shaver that I used to give him haircuts, and we shaved my hair off. Then he closed his eyes and kissed my naked scalp and told me I was the most beautiful woman he knew. Then, we went into the kitchen and had applesauce, which, as it turns out, was the only food I could eat during chemo. Take six apples, core them and boil them until they’re soft. Then run them through the food mill and stir them over a low flame, adding sugar, cinnamon, and cloves to taste. Then eat them with someone who loves you enough to kiss your naked scalp and remind you that he didn’t choose to spend the rest of his life with you because of the body parts you brought into the marriage.

Leaving Home

I’m out of here. The minute I turn eighteen, I’m out of here so fast you won’t even be able to feel the breeze as I run by. I’m done with you. I’m done with your rules. I’m done with the random things you make up to keep me down. I’m done with the pitying stares you give me in the halls and the fake overtures of friendship that you make because you think I need help. I don’t need help. I need you to get out of my face so I can help myself. I need you to stop telling me that my dreams aren’t real and aren’t allowed.
Was I ever a person to you? Was I ever anything but a number? Another Jewish woman of valor, saved so that she could produce the next generation of unhappy women with their dreams dropped onto the floor and ground into the dirt. Another soul for you to add to the little record that you keep so you can show it to G-d when you die and get admittance into whatever heaven you believe in. I won’t be there. I will be in whatever hell you believe in because it’s exactly where you know I’m going. And I think I’ll be happy there because I already have to spend my life with people like you and, if I have to spend my afterlife with you, you’ll probably find me in heaven’s restroom, setting off cherry bombs. If there is an afterlife, which I’m not so sure about. If there is a G-d who makes eternal judgments, which I’m not so sure about either. You can’t threaten me with hell anymore. Hell is only scary to the believers.
I used to believe in G-d, you know. When I was little, I believed in a lot of things. I believed the world was a fair place and that people cared about each other and that, if you tried hard enough, you could be anything you wanted. And I believed that G-d gave me talents so I could use them. I believed that when I put on little plays for my mother after dinner and I dreamed of being an actress. I loved G-d then. It’s very easy to love G-d when you’re young and everything’s allowed.
Then, suddenly, you get big and nothing’s allowed anymore. You grow these bumps on your chest and your legs get long and suddenly, you’re not allowed to walk the way you used to because you might turn some guy on. Suddenly, the male friends that you had when you were little are off limits, even though you’d sooner marry your brother than kiss one of them, and if you do talk to your guy friends, they call you a slut behind your back. Suddenly, the way you talk is too loud, your smile is too sexy, and your body is too shapely. Quick, whisper, stop smiling, cover your body with burkahs. It’s not proper to be who you are.
And that goes for your talents too. It’s all fine and good that you made those little plays after dinner. Tell you what, you can even be in the school productions once a year, as long as your character learns a valuable lesson about life and either: A. Becomes Shomer Shabbos B. Returns to the faith of his youth, or C. Makes a deathbed confession of religious fervor and leaves his money to a poor orphan boy who can now go to Yeshiva. It’s great that you have talent. Just so long as you give it up once you get out of high school so that you can be a mommy. Talent like that is dangerous, you see. We can’t risk you going out there and doing something with the gifts you have.
Then why did G-d give me talent?
It’s a test. He wanted to see if you would use it in a Jewish way.
But there is no Jewish way to use my talent.
There are school productions.
And after high school?
You can always become a teacher. There’s a lot of acting in teaching.
But I want to be a real actor.
G-d doesn’t want that.
How do you know?
This is a test. You know what’s right. Now go out and do it.
Go out and do it. Forget that you ever dreamed of something bigger. We don’t believe in dreams. Dreams are dangerous. Dreams lead you away from here into a world that we do not know and cannot control.
“You know what’s right.”
I don’t know what’s right. I only know what’s not allowed. Everything is not allowed. Everything is forbidden. Everything will get me half-an-hour with the principal talking about the role of Jewish women and how careful I have to be with my reputation. What do I care about my reputation? I’m not getting married to some frum boy in a black hat. I’m not going to be a baby machine and show up in some women’s showcase of talent once a year.
Isn’t it funny? You pushed my dreams aside. You made me swallow them down so they sat in my stomach and grew poison that rose up my throat and choked me. You put me to sleep every night with lullabies of what I could never be. Why? Because you were so afraid that I would go out there and see what it was and then I would leave you. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I would have. But maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I would have walked into that strange world with you on my left side and G-d on my right. Maybe I would have taken what I wanted from out there and come back here to raise happy, powerful daughters who loved G-d. Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know now because you’ve driven me out. You and your angry G-d who gives dreams that I can’t live. You tried to keep me here and you’ve only succeeded in holding me so hard that I slipped out from between your fingers.
I’m leaving. Just two more years and I’m gone. So fast, you won’t even hear me whisper goodbye as I run past you.

What Makes it Real

So during my senior year of high school, I broke out of prison. I had felt jailed for such a long time, stuck inside my head and my skirt and my ¾-length shirt, always wondering why, always feeling like everything I was doing was pointless.

Cuz it was for someone else. I’m not sure who, but it wasn’t me.

You could say my Jewish education is pretty good. Decent school, nice teachers, Zionist-feminist Modern Orthodoxy, the whole trip. But senior year I was taking a hashkafa course, and the rabbi who was teaching it was kind of making me hate Judaism.

My parents are baalei tshuvah. They made the choice that would decide my lifestyle, my beliefs, my identity. But I don’t mind. I actually love it. I love my Jewish community, Jewish studies, Israel, I love my shul. Seriously. See my parents always stress that the main thing is to be a mensch, no matter how many laws you keep. I know they respect me no matter what I do, so I’ve never felt forced, especially not about Judaism. Yeah, I have a lot of friends who can’t stand it. They’re on their way out now and will be long gone by graduation. Shabbat, kashrut, everybody judging you all the time, they can’t stand the rules and the hypocrisy they see, so they figure it’s all worthless and they leave. At first I was really sad about it, but after senior year, I couldn't really blame them.

So we’re sitting in hashkafa class, and this rabbi is talking about the Rambam. Only, just the Rambam. Like the Rambam is the only true path possible to Judaism. So that means that if you’re not an intellectual, or if you can’t fit God into a box inside your mind, you’re letting your emotions take control and not really believing in God. He actually said this, in so many words. But there’s more. He told us that hashgacha pratit only exists for, like, two tzadikkim in the world, and everyone else just isn’t on that level. So what does this say about God? Is God ignoring the suffering of those who aren’t smart or reasonable enough to believe in God adequately? If God’s all-powerful, then why should hashgachah be exclusive? Okay fine, I could disagree with the rabbi, but then he kept coming back with the endless refrain, “if you don’t agree with my rational interpretation, it’s because you have emotional problems.” I’m serious. He threw out all of Chassidut without even blinking. And this really didn’t seem to bother anybody else in my class.

I guess the last straw was the final exam, where we had to answer this question:

True or False: God loves us.

And the answer was false. Because if God loved us, God would have physical emotions, and God isn’t physical, and emotions are simply results of our limited, physical selves that can’t discern reality for the objective, rational system that it is.

I got it right, but only because I had stopped caring. Or believing in much of anything.

That night, I was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling of my pitch-black room. I usually addressed the dark abyss above my head, thanking it for things, asking it for things, saying it was one, and its’ name one. That night it was nothing.

As I began to doze off, something happened. I can’t really explain it, but suddenly I felt like I was standing outside of myself. Outside of my identity, my name, my life. It was like I was watching my life on a movie, not realizing it’s mine, that I’m the title character here. The real me was blackness. Emptiness. Nothingness…but so dense, so true, so filled with light. And then I was catapulted back into this life.

No, I wasn’t dying. And it wasn’t so dramatic. I just realized, in that moment, that there is so much more to life than the limitations of my mind, and my body. I have a soul, I am a soul. An immortal soul. So then it’s like there are no rules, cuz I can never really die. I am within God, a part of God even, and this world is my playground to create goodness and love. And it’s all of ours, cuz we’re all immortal. I realized that night that in the world I was living, God wasn’t really real to most people. Yeah, we davened and learned Torah and did mitzvot, and it was all beautiful, but God wasn’t a living reality. So our Judaism was about fear, or about rationality, but not about God.

That’s why I stuck with it, even after that moment faded away, even when I began to doubt again, cuz I knew the truth. God isn’t real to so many of us, and so where is the love in our community? Why does it all boil down to skirts and hats? Why is there so much lashon hora? In my high school, Judaism boiled down to God giving the Torah to Moshe, who gave it to the Zkeinim, who gave it to the Rambam, and then Rav Soloveitchik, end of story.

But I knew there was more to it than that. I know that Judaism has a deep, powerful, immortal soul too, containing all of us as we realize our incredible potential to create in this world, to daven to God outside of ourselves even as we find God within ourselves. To live, as Jews.

So yeah, here I am, still in this Orthodox community with its issues and problems and everything. So why do I stay, when I could be in a Buddhist ashram or New Age center somewhere? Cuz I’m Jewish, and God is real to me. And since I believe that a seeker like me can exist, then I’ve gotta be her.

But nobody ever told me to, and that’s what makes it real.

Confessions of a Mikvah Lady

Confessions of a Mikvah Lady

Okay. So this is not something you really talk about. Kind of a private thing. That’s what we’re all told. When you get married, they tell you that this is something private and you don’t share because it has to do with your sex life, which is no one’s business. Then you get this mikvah lady training and they tell you not to talk because people aren’t allowed to know when you’re going to the mikvah to help someone out. It has to do with someone else’s sex life, which is no one’s business. Except for mine, because I know everyone’s sex life, which is kind of funny when you think about it.
I am a guardian of secrets. I know the most sacred things about a woman’s life. What her body is doing inside. When she is going to sleep with her husband. When she’s holding the gift of life and when she loses the ability to hold that gift. I know more about wives than most of their husbands do. I know about women because I’ve seen every kind.
I’ve seen the woman in jeans and a t-shirt who walks in off the street. I’ve seen the Chassidic woman with the shaved head. I’ve seen young brides and old women who are going to the mikvah for the last time. Because, when you come here, it doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing. No one can tell where you came from because, once you’re here, you’re the same. You’re naked. Without any pretense. Without any secrets.
I have seen everything underneath a woman’s clothing. I have seen cesarean scars and stretch marks from the places that proudly bore life. I have seen women with cancer removing tubes and catheters so they could be naked. I have seen young, new bodies and women whose veins are scarred and destroyed from dialysis. Every so often, I see bruises and hateful welts and I want to cry for the beautiful woman who is going back to a husband who does not love her body the way that he should.
When you are here, you cannot hide anything. You cannot hide the signs that prove the mortality of the human body or the marks that show what sort of cruelty people can show towards one another. You are pure, unburdened, standing naked before G-d.
Sometimes new brides come with their mothers. Do I have to take this off? Can I please leave this on? They’ve never been naked before. No honey. It all has to come off. When you stand before G-d, you stand without covering. They cross their arms over their breasts because they’ve never been fully exposed. It’s too terrifying to stand there without the protections that they’ve always had. Come on honey. It’s all got to come off.
And it does. They stand on the edge of that pool without anything to cling to except themselves. Nothing to hide behind. This is your body. This is the body that G-d crafted for you because He wanted you to love it. To worship Him with it. Step into the water. Feel it surround you and wash away every part of you that isn’t real.
You can see it when they walk in. Whether it’s an old lady or a young woman. They feel it. They feel it reaching out for them.
I remember reading once that a soul is like a drop of water that has been separated from its ocean. It spends its life seeking to return to the wholeness of that sea. And when it finds it, it is as though it drop never left. It reabsorbs seamlessly, without effort.
Women’s bodies are droplets of an ocean. The ocean of every woman that came before you, all the way back to the first moment that Eve opened her eyes and knew that she was a creation, not of earth, but of flesh and G-d’s love. Every woman who ever lived is there. Every woman who beheld creation in birth or nursed the wounds after losing life. Every woman who danced at the Red sea to Miriam’s song and every woman who dipped their bodies in the icy waters of a Siberian stream because there was no other place where they could share their bodies with their Creator. Every dream that any woman ever had for herself or those who came after her. They are all there in that ocean. They are there in that small, tiled pool. And they reach out for you. They reach out to touch the wrinkles and scars on your skin, to seep into the openings of your body. I am you. I am your past. I am your present. I am your future. I know your sufferings and your joys. I know the secrets of your body that you will never share. I know every part of you because I touch every part of you, even the soul that you hide away so carefully. I know you because I was you a long, long time ago. Tell me your secrets. Tell me about the places you have been, the pleasures you have known, the moments when people hurt you or when illness ravaged you. It doesn’t matter. You’re not alone. I am here, even when others are not. I will surround you. I will protect you. I will block out the world. When you are here, I will hold you and you will hold me.
I always look at their faces when they come out dripping from that ocean. Did they feel it? Did they hear the voices? Did they feel the touch of ghostly fingers against their skin? I’ve always tried to identify the gesture that shows that they felt it. The Mona Lisa smile, the calm in their eyes, the relaxed posture of their bodies. I have never found it, that secret sign that indicates knowledge. I just know somehow, as they walk past me, with the smell of chlorine quickly evaporating from their bodies. I know that they felt it because I felt them. Somewhere, somehow, that small droplet that is me touched that ocean and felt the presence of another droplet coming home.