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Book Reviews January 28, 2016

RELEASE OF MY BOOK: Conversations with God

I think it would be fairly accurate to say that I’m feeling exhilarated at the release of my book. I’ve been birthing it for two years. I wrote on Mondays and airplanes. I consulted, rewrote, added, and obsessed. And now it’s out. It’s weird how writing is such a solitary act (as opposed to blogging) and then BOOM! It hits the universe and all of a sudden it’s not solitary anymore!

Uncategorized October 11, 2015

Movie Review: Apples from the Desert

I don’t usually review movies, because I’m not much of a movie-goer. But when the Jewish FilmFest comes to town, I sit up and pay attention, and usually try to attend something. Sadly, many of the movies paint religious Judaism in a negative light, and I’ve almost come to expect that in any movie made by secular Israelis. The religious/secular divide in Israel is palpable, as one movie-reviewer noted, and it’s no surprise that these themes will dominate many Israeli movies. Plus, how many religious Jews in Israel are making movies? So their perspective is rare.

Uncategorized February 3, 2015

Book Review: With An Outstretched Arm

Miriam Yudelson Katz was one of my first and is one of my most loyal readers.  Plus, she lived in Cleveland AND we’ve met In Real Life.  That makes her a VIP around these parts.  So when she asked me to review her mother’s new memoir, I made up my mind to put it at the top of my priority list.

I didn’t need to worry.  From the moment I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

Firstly, “knowing” the protagonists’s daughter and some of her life’s story, it was a sad and suspenseful journey to read about the backstory that led up the pivotal events of her life.

For me, it was also a precious insight into worlds I knew nothing about – the Reform community of the South in the 60s.  The Yudelson’s journey toward greater observance and deeper religious connection was fascinating to me.  The way that journey was framed by the Passover seders was a haunting and beautiful literary technique as well as a powerful Jewish message – that the linkage of our faith from one generation to the next is what it’s all about.


The stories of my native Cleveland and of the non-Orthodox Jewish communal life, a community that I was not a part of until my adulthood, was equally interesting for me at my juncture in life.  There were many other treats, like the ladder analogy of personal growth, one that I use regularly in my teaching.

But it was the account of the wrenchingly raw grief that the author chronicles that honestly kept me riveted.  I’ve experienced different types of grief and loss in my life, and the account of how the traditional Jewish shiva plays its part in the necessary psychological stages of this process was so real and so powerful.

This is an unvarnished account of one woman’s journey in her Judaism.  It describes without apology the successes and failures of various communities to meet the needs of a Jewish family seeking community and fulfillment.  Every educator should read this book to see what he or she can learn, but more importantly, every human should read it to deepen his or her understanding of the most basic human needs: for love, for life, for solace, for meaning.  You’ll thank me.

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized August 13, 2014

Book Review: Growing Up Amish

Quick poll: how many of you are endlessly fascinated by the Amish?  I used to think it was my Orthodoxy and my simultaneous identification/feeling of “otherness” that drew me to the Amish, but then realized that many of my fellow MOTs, Orthodox and otherwise, feel the same way.

I know how I feel when I read a book or see a documentary about my culture through the eyes of others (find me a documentary about the Orthodox, made by the Orthodox.  Bueller?).  Icky, that’s how.  They never really get it right.  So I’m wise enough to be skeptical when I see or read such stuff about other cultures.  I know they’re not hitting the nail quite on the head.

A couple of months ago, my husband and I were in Amish country checking out a bed-and-breakfast for a possible retreat weekend with our organization, and in the room was a book called “Growing Up Amish” by Ira Wagler.  I flipped it over and saw that it was a memoir written by a man who tried, multiple times, to remain in the Amish faith and ultimately left.  I wanted to plop right down in the rocking chair and read it, but understood the technical issues inherent in that particular choice, so I made a mental note to READ THAT BOOK.


Why?  I could tell, just from skimming that:


It was a first-person memoir.
It was about someone who, while he ultimately left the fold, did so without extreme anger or bitterness.
It was a beautiful portrait of the faith without a “tell-all” expose, tabloid feel.
And at the same time, it was honest about the struggles inherent in the culture.

So when a friend sent me a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble as a gift (props for people who know just what to get!) I straight up and ordered the book.

And finished it in two days (and was a rather ineffectual mother during said two days).

I can’t possibly convey all that I loved about this sad and beautiful story, but I will say this.  The whole time I was reading the book, I was comparing Amish life with Orthodoxy, and actually more, Hasidic life, which has more in common with Amish life.  There are so many similarities and so many stark differences.  I’m not really truly qualified to comment on Hasidic life since I’ve never lived it, but I do know more about it than your average Jew, so I’ll go out on a limb here.

(A word about the writing.  It’s sparse, even plain, like the Amish life it describes.  But that’s good, because the writing itself gets out of the way and is a transparent window.  The world of the Amish comes straight through the writer and is almost untainted by his own experience.  That in itself is a thing of beauty.)

The similarities are obvious, at least the external ones.

Distinctive dress for both men and women.
Restrictions in terms of modernity and mixing with outsiders.
A special, insider language.
Regular religious services.
Large families.
Clear roles for men and women.
Tight-knit, supportive communities.
Variations in rules and customs depending on individual community – where some are considered too strict and some are considered too lax.
Stigma toward those families where a child has “left.”
Clear expectations and protocol regarding dating and marriage.

But there are some pretty major differences.

One of the main ones is that it didn’t seem from the book that the religion had too many daily responsibilities.  Meaning, it certainly impacted daily life from the way you dressed to the way you transported yourself and to your profession of choice (farming).  But in religious Jewish life, you have religious things you do, on your own and not just communally, every day from the moment you open your eyes in the morning, to your meals that you eat, to what you eat, to prayer services (for men) three times a day.

It seemed from the book, and again, it could be the book just didn’t express it fully, that you had your prayers in the morning after breakfast, and then you were busy with your chores all day.  Sunday was church to be sure, and there was the weekly “singing” which was religious in nature.  I say a prayer the moment I wake up and every time I come out of the bathroom.  I constantly choose kosher food.  I monitor my speech to make sure it’s not disallowed for being mean or untruthful.  I say “please God” and “God willing” in my daily conversation.  I give charity every time I get paid for something.  I pray myself whenever I can – and it was actually Ira discovering this personal, spontaneous form of prayer that ultimately saved his relationship with God.  I’m not saying this is better or harder or anything.  It’s just a stark difference that I noticed.

Also, there was a huge difference in holidays.  The book didn’t mention Christmas or Easter or any religious holiday, even once.  I don’t know why.  But Judaism is pretty much always either recovering from a holiday or preparing for one.  There are the famous ones like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, and also the lesser-known ones like Shemini Atzeret, Shavuot, Tu B’shvat, Rosh Chodesh, and what-have-you.  There’s always a holiday, and it’s a huge part of our lives.

Schooling was another big difference.  In Orthodox Judaism, and especially Hasidic Judaism, school is completely bound up with religious life.  It’s daily, it’s long (dual curriculum) and it continues for a long time.  In Amish culture, school seemed to be just school and not tied to the religious system or community.  It didn’t seem as though the Amish attend school after eighth grade either, as they are needed for farming, but I could be wrong.  In Orthodoxy, school is so inextricable from the religious system that if a child has a bad experience at school, it almost always creates a conflict in that child’s religious identity. And religious Jews are expected to always continue their religious studies, no matter how old they get – boys and girls.  Whether it’s in the form of post-high school Israel programs, or less formal lectures available in one’s community, or lectures available online or over the phone, ongoing learning for all is a very prioritized value.  Outside of church, I didn’t pick up on any of that in the book.

One very difficult part of the book to read about was the stoicism that the author describes in his community.  When he experiences tragedy (no spoilers) and his parents experience the pain of their children leaving the fold, expressing one’s feelings is taboo.  While all families operate differently in any culture or religious system, it was indicated by the author that this stoicism was definitely inherent in Amish life.

Orthodox Judaism, and even more so Hasidic Judaism, does have some degree of communal protectiveness where it’s taboo to openly admit your problems and failures, but I was struck by the contrast between Amish living and Jewish living in terms of dealing with tragedy.  In Judaism, you have the broadest gamut of emotions built into the calendar and even into the prayers.  There’s Orthodox funerals, where everyone is openly crying.  There are Orthodox weddings where bride and groom are very likely sobbing in prayer under the chuppah.  There’s the wildly ecstatic Simchat Torah celebrations and intoxicatedly joyous Purim parties.  There’s Tisha B’av, where we cry for Jerusalem and for personal tragedies.  There’s Yom Kippur, where we cry in repentance for our misdeeds.  People get choked up when they speak at bnei mitzvah and weddings.  We get together for impassioned and tearful prayers for Israel.  Wow, it’s just so different.

On a sort-of tangent, one of the most depressing parts of the book was where Ira expressed his need to process his depression and about how therapy was absolutely off-limits.  I’m pretty sure it was like this in Orthodoxy till recently (but that’s true of the general world).  The stigma is receding in terms of accessing help, but probably not in terms of admitting that one needs help.  And we still have a long way to go because one of the features of Judaism is perfectionism.  Not just in the religious community but across the board – although religious and secular Jews perfectionize about different things.  Secular Jews perfectionize more about academics and religious Jews more about who they marry, but either way it’s a Jewish trait, so being imperfect and experiencing depression and seeking therapy are still far more taboo than they need to be.

Mistrust of the “outside” world is a theme that seems to be shared by both Amish folks and religious Jews, but there are important differences.  The Amish in the book shunned the outside world and modern conveniences because it is their policy to be plain and simple.  Anything fancy is by definition against their philosophy.  Religious Jews and especially Hasidim believe that modern conveniences are awesome as long as they don’t compromise Jewish values (and you can afford them).  Dishwashers?  Great!  Cars?  Fabulous!  But as soon as technology introduces concepts that are foreign to Judaism, that’s where we get wary – much warier than the secular community.  (It is true that materialism in and of itself is a problematic issue in Judaism, but we don’t carry it anywhere near as far as the Amish.)

Smartphones are a perfect example.  Smartphones afford unlimited access to the internet, with all the good, bad and ugly that that includes.  We are very mindful about introducing that kind of technology into our homes and into the hands, particularly, of our impressionable kids.  While smartphones have definitely made themselves comfy in many an Orthodox home (including mine), we are very conscious about its pernicious influence whether in religious philosophy, language, immodest images and themes, and music that is antithetical to spirituality.

So for us, it’s not modernity in and of itself that’s problematic, but rather where that modernity will take us in terms of Jewish observance, belief, and values.

In some ways I envied the Amish while reading the book.  Their plain and simple life without cars and technology, while gritty, seems far less complicated than mine, with my carpools and constantly pinging phone.  But the grass is always greener elsewhere.  Would I really rather spend my time churning butter?  Not so much.

More to discuss, for sure, like the marriage system, authoritarian parents, and kids who leave.  Read the book, and weigh in below.  I’d love to hear.

Uncategorized March 10, 2014

Book Review: Let My RV Go! How BTs Handle Fitting in… Or Not

One of the cool parts of being a rich and famous blogger personality mostly unknown Orthodox girl who started a blog is that people contact me to promote their stuff on my blog.  Some of it is absolutely not a fit for this blog (can you say Bible Revisionism? are people actually READING the blog before they send me stuff?) but some is just completely fun.  Like when I get sent free books to read and review.  Especially when they’re relevant, fresh, funny…and totally in synch with the blog.

Example: Let My RV Go, a new novel by Nicole Nathan.

The premise of the novel is two BT families, who, while trying to escape the cold Canadian weather as well as the pressures of organized Orthodox society, take two RVs down south to handle Passover their own way.  Alo
ng their journey they examine different attitudes toward fitting in, standing out, dealing with what they actually believe, and rejection of their secular pasts.  Rereading that, it sounds really heavy, but actually,
the light and funny tone makes the messages so much more palatable.

But what really stands out in this cute and interesting book is the honesty.  Most books written for Orthodox audiences, which this is, judging by the publishing house chosen and language and references used, excise all mentions of pop culture and women in bikinis and being okay with not fitting in and wistful reminiscences of previous secular pasts – for good reason.  If religious kids are going to read these things, we want them to encounter good examples and not be given ambivalent messages about religious life.  But here it totally works, and it’s brave.  And I like it.

At one point in the book, Pauline, the narrator, who just can’t seem to “fit in,” and is always trying to contain her curly red hair under some sort of head covering, sits in the laundry room of an RV park with her counterpart and foil, Julie.  She observes:

Looking over at Julie, I wonder if she and I will ever be close friends.  Julie is devoutly mouthing words written by King David some 2,800 years ago and I just can’t take it.  How can she be so devout and focused all the time?  How did she switch over to being religious so easily, so completely, without ever looking back?  She never talks about her past, but I’ve heard stories from Mike.  He once told us she used to be a dancer who leaped and twirled across North America and Europe performing raw emotion… and now, the only form of expression I can see are her lips mouthing the powerful, timeless words of King David. 

I wonder if she misses her dancing days, her travels, her freedom.  All these years, I’ve been afraid to ask because she may realize that I’m sinecure about my own beliefs….

This is a journey Pauline takes during the book, and at the end, says, “I’m pleased with myself for being so upfront about our incongruence.  I’ve always been aware that I don’t fit into the traditional frum box, yet now I’m actually being open about it and I don’t feel embarrassed.”

The Berkowitzes and the Shapiros, the two families on this little RV getaway, represent the two ways BTs handle organized, contemporary frum culture.  Way one: fit in at all costs, wear the garb, do as the frummies do, and you’ll be okay.  Way two: be yourself, be the best Jew you know how to be, fit in enough that you’re kids aren’t dying, but don’t check your personality at the door.  What’s cool about this book is that it doesn’t make the mistake of having these two families be stereotypes.  They are real people.  They and spouses are not always in the same place.  They are miffed by the “religious” folks questioning their kosher status, but the book doesn’t make those religious folks bad guys.  Julie, the “fit in” girl, hasn’t changed her name to Chaya Gitty.  See?

Here’s why the author wrote the book, from her website:

…I am ba’alat teshuva, becoming observant some fifteen years ago. Turning my life inside out and my kitchen upside down was not easy. It was deeply satisfying and meaningful, but it was often hard work. As I entered the religious world, I became aware that Observant Jews are cautious of the secular world, while secular Jews often misunderstand the Orthodox. We all bring our own perceptions and misconceptions. This results in the creation of two thickly lined boxes containing us and them. Becoming religious, I also became aware of the enormous rift between the two worlds. What does a ba’al teshuvah do? Should he simply break out of his box by forgetting his past and then try to mold himself the new box? Or, should he carve his own space outside of the box? …In the novel, I wanted to explore this rift in a way that readers on both sides could see each other in an honest and light-hearted way. And hopefully, they would be able to understand each other better.

My only critique is they have four little kids who seem remarkably easy to handle… it almost made me wanna RV myself one day.

If you are a BT, what has been your struggle with fitting in/maintaining yourself?
And if you’re a prospective one, has the prospect seemed daunting?

Uncategorized October 13, 2013

Sheryl Sandberg and Me

Oh, Sheryl.  I was all ready to hate your book.

But instead, on the heels of the Atlantic article
and the ever-brewing mommy wars, I think you’ve written an honest,
humble, and true-to-life assessment of women, work, and the will to lead
with your book Lean In. Bear with me as I dive all over the book to collect my thoughts and reactions to your words and observations.

YOUR JUDAISM

I was drawn in right away by what you wrote on page 12 about your Jewish roots, and how
education for girls was less important than education for boys.  To be
honest, I would have loved for you to talk more about how Judaism or
Jewish values impacted your trajectory in life.  Your husband has a
Jewish name but you don’t mention your faith much in your book.  Of
course, Judaism isn’t what your book is about at all, but since you
start off with it, I sort of hoped you’d come full circle.  Ah, well.

HIDING YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS

You
talk about modesty and being humble too, a subject about which I am passionate, since I teach 5 bi-weekly classes on ethical character
improvement (how’s that for a humblebrag?).
 On page 42, you describe keeping your award, becoming a Henry Ford
Scholar for having the highest first-year academic record at business
school, a secret.  You subtly lament your decision to do so, putting it
in a greater context that “as a girl, you know that being smart is good
in lots of ways, but it doesn’t make you particularly popular or
attractive to boys.”  Much later in life, you follow up with this,
recognizing that “if a woman is competent, she does not seem nice
enough” and that “defying expectations and reaching for those [academic
or corporate] opportunities lead to being judged as undeserving and
selfish.”  You conclude, however, that “owning one’s success is key to achieving
more success.”

Sheryl, from a pragmatic standpoint you
may be right.  I don’t work in the corporate world, although I sometimes
wonder if I might have been successful there (as corporate America
defines success).  But from a human perspective, you may be buying into a
false and wrong dynamic.  You may have learned to succeed in the
system, but the system itself is flawed.  What I mean by this is: how
does it benefit humans, men and women alike, when a beautiful, natural
personality trait (downplaying one’s achievements) is looked down upon
as preventing ascension in the academic and corporate sphere??  Quite
honestly, if I found myself in such an environment, where my positive personality traits were useless and even detrimental, I
would seriously question whether that was an environment in which I
would want to remain.

(Note: I do not speak of self-abrogation or martyrdom.  I speak of a healthy reticence to trumpet one’s achievements.)

BOUNDARIES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN

Your thoughts about men and women and how to draw
boundaries in the workplace resonated, since in Judaism, these are subjects that
are built into Jewish law and living.  It always fascinates me to see
how other systems have dealt with these challenges.  You write on page
72 and 73 that men and women may refrain from certain mentorship roles
in the workplace “out of fear of what others might think.”  Some
solutions you suggest are, for men and women across the board, having a
“breakfast or lunch only policy” so that dinner together won’t be
unseemly.  You conclude that “anything that evens out the opportunities
for men and women is the right practice.”

Personally, I’m intrigued that your main concern is of what it might seem like, rather than what might actually happen.
 You use words like “perceived,” “it would look awful,” “what others
might think,” “it looks like dating.”  But I’m sure in the workplace
you’ve seen that professional relationships often actually become
romantic relationships.  The boundaries you mention are designed to look
professional to others but not to prevent unseemly behavior, unless
you’re describing harassment (“everyone involved has to make sure to
behave professionally so women – and men – feel safe in all settings”).

In Judaism, the boundaries are set too, not only
because of how it will look, but also because of what might actually
develop.  Men and women who are not related leave doors open or at least
unlocked. When spending the night in the same home, minimum numbers of
other people must be present as well so they are not alone.  Even casual
touching is a boundary.  So I found your discussion on this topic very
interesting.  I wonder if any boundaries have been drawn to discourage
workplace romances in general and how romance in the workplace affects
the discrepancy in perception of competence between men and women.
 Maybe in your next book you’ll talk more about that.

WORK AND FEELINGS

I
loved reading about how you tried to be professional and organized and
keeping your personal life separate from work.  This interests
me, since I run a non-profit together with my husband.  On page 87, you
describe your weekly meetings with Omid, your superior at Google, and
how you would enter his office with a typed agenda and “get right to
it.”  But you got feedback from Omid that you should take a minute to
connect with him personally before diving right in to business only.

For
women like me who work with their husbands, this resonated really
strongly.  I am business-like and efficient, and this was a lesson I had
to learn too – that sometimes the right business relationship is
actually two parts efficiency and one part emotional connection.  As an
Orthodox woman, I would definitely have strong boundaries in a business
relationship with another man who is not my husband – I would not be
comfortable with the emotional connection, innocent though it is, that
you describe – but the concept is a true and important one otherwise.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN

You
continue on this theme of sharing your personal life with work with a
story on page 90 about your sister-in-law’s roommate whose daughter was
diagnosed with a serious syndrome, and how she would cry at the office –
with positive outcomes from her compassionate workmates.  But what
interested me here is a theme that you espouse throughout the book,
which, to be honest, I was surprised to read from you: that you believe
perhaps a rather old-fashioned notion (my assessment, not yours): that
men and women are inherently different.

I found this so
refreshing, because, duh that I, a religious Orthodox woman, would buy
such a notion, but coming from you?  Well, that was downright exciting. 
The way you put it here was almost in a by-the-way fashion, which made
it even more endearing, but it repeats itself periodically through your
book, like on page 145 where you describe the content of your TedTalk
about “differences between men and women both in their behavior and in
the way their behavior is perceived by others…”  You write that the
mom in the story knew “several men at my firm who have had similar
experiences with sick children, but they didn’t feel they could be as
forthcoming as I was,” she said.  “So, in the end, I think my female
manner of relating served me well.”

I just love that
you are unabashed about these differences and don’t consider the
admission anti-feminist or a step back for women.  You encourage women
to be aware of these differences and to use them in the most effective
way, but not to negate them or ignore them.

HUSBANDS

I
have to take issue with your use of the word “lucky” since I don’t
believe in luck, but rather in Divine Providence.  But be that as it
may, you talk about how “lucky” you are to have a partner like Dave,
your husband, and how you guys share the load roughly approximating
50/50.

In the Jewish marriage
classes I’ve attended over the years (October 18th is our 20th
anniversary) I’ve heard this bit of wisdom: don’t try to divide up the
job 50/50.  You try to give 100% and he tries to give 100%, and then you
will have not only equality but love.

You write about
your division of labor on page 112 as being rather traditional: Dave
pays bills, handles finances, provides tech support.  You schedule kids’
activities, make sure there is food in the fridge, plan the birthday
parties.  In our home, I handle bills, make sure there is food in the
fridge, and make all the appointments.  We both do carpool and diapers. 
My husband gives baths, does bedtime most nights and helps with errands
and taking the kids to appointments wherever possible.  The overriding
attitude in our marriage is that we will both do whatever we can to make
this family work and to show each other that we care.

I
don’t call this lucky.  I call it a blessing from Above combined with
hard work, focus and attention from us that comes from education about
marriage.  I used to think that while I have a very helpful husband,
because our family has traditional beliefs about home and family, that
perhaps liberal Jewish families would be more likely to include husbands
who are “liberated” to “lean in,” as you put it, to their families. 
More likely to change diapers, grocery shop, and do baths.  But I don’t
find this to be the case.  Husbands who rely on their wives to do more
around the house are a universal problem, and I don’t find that helpful
husbands exist more or less in “liberated” households.

Leaning in to your family for men, then, is more a function of being a mensch than anything else.

BEING AWAY FROM YOUR KIDS

Sheryl,
I’m hardly the CEO of Facebook and my company is significantly smaller
than Google.  But there is something you and I share: we both struggle
with leaving our kids.  There are speaking engagements I’ve turned down
and events I haven’t attended because I didn’t feel it was right to
leave my kids so much.  And there are plenty of things I have done and
attended that I realized afterward – I shouldn’t have gone so early or
stayed so late or attended at all.  So on page 135-136 when you quote a NICHHD report from 1991 about how
“children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not
develop differently than those who were also cared for by others” I sat
up straight and paid attention.

I don’t think me not
leaving my kids has anything to do with things mentioned in they study,
like cognitive skills, language competence, social competence, or the
quality of the mother-child bond (although I would seriously question
that last one as remaining unaffected).  I leave less than I would
otherwise because I want to have my finger on the pulse of their lives
and because I want to give my kids values.  I also don’t want my older
kids (19, 17, 15) to think they are responsible for my younger kids (13,
10, 6, 3).  I am the mom, and caring for them is MY job, and my
husband’s.  Of course, I expect all my kids to help around the house
regularly, but not because it’s their responsibility to run it.

Even
when I leave my kids with my husband, which is always our plan A, my
absence is fine until it interferes with my ability to have my finger on
the pulse of their lives, or until I feel I am sending a message that
work is more important than family (note: kids feeling resentful is not
an accurate signal that my judgment is awry).  It’s pretty impossible to
quantify what a chilled-out evening at home with my kids doing nothing
can achieve.  I also want to be their role model – so what am I
role-modeling to them in terms of how I spend my leisure time, what I
chat about on the phone with my friends, how I prioritize my calendar?

I
know that you, Sheryl, feel that leaning in more to work IS positive
role-modeling, especially to daughters, and on a limited scale I agree. 
But I don’t swallow that whole.  If the job of parenting is to give my
kids values, that should usually inform how I prioritize my time.

MERITOCRACY

“…Many
people believe that the workplace is largely a meritocracy, which means
we look at individuals, not groups, and determine that differences in
outcomes must be based on merit, not gender.  Men at the top are often
unaware of the benefits they enjoy simply because they’re men…” (page
150). In other words, the workplace SHOULD be a meritocracy, but, in
fact, isn’t.  Well, I believe it should be and I will fight for equal
pay for equal work in my field and any other.

This might
raise some serious eyebrows considering my view on women in the
rabbinate.  But see, I don’t believe Judaism is a meritocracy.  It’s not
either a democracy.  Judaism is a theocracy.  So what God says (and we
can certainly converse about what He did or didn’t say) goes regardless
of merit.  Do I have the skills to be rabbi?  A pretty good one, I’d
think.  In fact, I think I’d make a rockin’ good cantor.  Not the
point.  I also think I’d make a great dad.  But in religion I seek what
God wants me to do, and try to follow that as best as I can.  This is
why I wholly and fully agree with the meritocracy aspect of your
argument, Sheryl, and find it to be no conflict whatsoever with my views
on women in religion.

In fact, I find the gender bias
in modern times in the workplace even more egregious than gender
differences in the religious sphere because there is no viable
explanation for it.  One might argue that the “explanations” the
religious adherents espouse are wrong, outdated or historically
inaccurate, but that’s not really the point.  If you were to pinpoint a
male CEO and ask why more women do not hold senior positions, what would
he even respond?

And this is why, to your view, I am a
proud feminist.  You struggle on page 158 with calling yourself a
feminist, and ultimately embrace the title, since if a feminist is
“someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the
sexes” – then, yes, you and I wholeheartedly agree with every word,
along with 65% of my fellow women.  And my religious views are no
contradiction.

SOCIAL NORMS

You
recount a story where the students introduce their parents at school
parents’ night.  Your friend Sharon’s daughter Sammy pointed at her
father and said, “This is Steve [ouch, my ears hurt when I hear kids
refer to their parents by their first names], he makes buildings, kind
of like an architect, and he loves to sing.”  Then Sammy pointed at
Sharon and said, “This is Sharon, she wrote a book, she works full-time,
and she never picks me up from school.”  To Sharon’s credit, hearing
this account did not make her feel guilty.  Instead, she said, “I felt
mad at the social norms that make my daughter feel odd because her
mother doesn’t conform to those norms.”

You know,
Sheryl, I feel like that a lot.  Not mad, per se, because it really
doesn’t help, but I do feel annoyed at the social norms that make my
family and me feel odd.  I mean here the social norms of skimpy clothing
for girls, such that I can’t find appropriate clothing for them in
mainstream stores.  Norms of body image messages, such that I cringe
every time my kids go the mall.  Norms of men and women who are casual
friends greeting each other with a hug and a kiss, so that I’m the odd
one for saving those affectionate gestures for a spouse or close
relative.

I understand that sometimes, when we feel
like the oddball, it helps to realize that what is socially “normal”
isn’t always the right way.

US VS. US

To
me, one of the saddest parts of your book is highlighted on page 162
where you describe the media-fueled mommy wars.  From Marissa Meyer and
the backlash to her decision to work through her abridged maternity
leave from Yahoo (as CEO), to the Betty Friedan-Gloria Steinem rift, we
have always been our own worst enemies.  And, as you sadly note, the
media loves a cat-fight. 

Orthodox Jews are no exception.  Someone on this blog once referenced the “narcissism of small differences
and I haven’t stopped thinking about that since.  The more closely
aligned we are on political, social, or religious issues, the more our
small differences will appear enormously insurmountable.

Wouldn’t
non-Jews think that Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Jews have SO
much in common?  Wouldn’t Reform and Conservative Jews think that all
Orthodox Jews have SO much in common?  Wouldn’t modern Orthodox Jews
think that ultra-Orthodox Jews have SO much in common?  Wouldn’t
ultra-Orthodox Jews think that Chassidim of various sects have SO much
in common?

Can’t we quit the obnoxious narcissism of
small differences??  Women need each other badly to support our mutual
cause, and Jews of all stripes need each other badly for the same
reason.  And Orthodox Jews need each other badly too.  Yet our greatest
enemies are often those most similar to ourselves.  Frankly, that
stinks.  It’s time for us to stop thinking about superiority,
inferiority, insecurity, and jealousy.  We should be too busy making a
difference in this world for the good.

At least, I can hope.

LET’S LEAN IN

And
that’s why, Sheryl, I haven’t really taken your message head-on, as I
thought I might before reading it.  Because I realized as I read how
much we have in common.  How much our messages jive.  How your voice in
this book is honest, real, and humble.  So you keep leaning in, Sheryl,
and so will I.  I’ll lean in to religion and to my career and to my
husband and to my family, and you keep leaning in where you need to lean
in.  And let’s support each other in that venture – as fellow Jews,
fellow women, and fellow leaners-in. 

Uncategorized August 6, 2012

The Precariousness of Jewish Education

“We were always surrounded by books, there was always a high caliber of discussion at the dinner table.”  He said his father, a Lithuanian Jew who was first in his class at Harvard, approached things “with great intellect and great curiosity.”


Rome’s family name is notarikon, or Hebrew acrostic, for Rosh Mativta, or “Head of the Yeshiva.”  “Supposedly we’re descended from the Gaon of Vilna on my father’s side.”  Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Gaon – or “eminence” – of Vilna was an outstanding eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi and one of the staunchest Orthodox opponents of the Hasidic movement.  So David Rome could claim very serious yichus – Jewish lineage.


He was bar mitzvahed in White Plains, New York, and attended a Hebrew high school run by the Jewish Theological Seminary.  But despite this rich Jewish background, he turned to Buddhism after college.  

“I wasn’t really looking.  It just happened.  Hitchhiking in Europe with an old friend from high school who had an interest in Eastern religions.  He dragged me along to Samye-ling, the meditation center in Scotland that Trungpa Rinpoche had started.  That was in 1971.  There I experienced meditation for the first time.”

Rome found in meditation “a sense that something was right – just very much intuition.”  Powerful too was “the quality of discipline in Buddhism,” which gave “a way of working with yourself, a way of what Rinpoche called making friends with yourself.  There was a path… you could actually have this commitment and work with it, work on it and progress, explore, go deeper, clarify.”

The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz
As an Orthodox Jew perusing these lines, and the many other lines of first-person accounts of bright, capable, active and affiliated Jews abandoning their Judaism for eastern religions, or synthesizing the two, my overriding emotion is regret.
The Jewish experience I grew up with contained many of the ingredients David and his fellow Jubus (Jewish-Buddhists) didn’t even know they were missing until they found them in Buddhism.
A sense that something was right?  I felt it every time we learned something that just made so much sense.  Every time my family sat down to a Shabbos dinner.  Every time I attended a chuppah ceremony at a Jewish wedding.
Quality of discipline?  Every time I went clothes shopping.  Every time I refrained from breaking Shabbat.  Every time I bypassed heavenly-smelling food at the mall food court.
A way of working with yourself?  Every time we were called to introspection, whether before Rosh Hashanah, after a tragedy, or in honor of a happy occasion.
A path?  A commitment?  The word “halacha,” Jewish law, actually means “a way of walking,” or a path, if you will.  It is both a path, a way to navigate life, and, yes, a commitment.  What characterizes fealty to halacha in Orthodox Judaism is that commitment: it cannot be broken, unless halacha itself permits it.
Go deeper?  Clarify?  Oh my gosh, are you kidding?  This theme probably emerged in every Torah lecture I’ve ever attended.  Keep growing, keep striving, never stagnate.
Here’s the problem:  youth, and thus youth education, is largely wasted on the young.  I know there are Orthodox Jews reading these lines who will be like “where was all that in my schooling”?  And I’d like to tell you that it was there.  I’m sure of it.  But in elementary school and high school and even post-high-school, we are often immature, watching the clock, passing notes (or texting in class – I clearly have been out of school for awhile), paying very close attention to our rumbling tummies, or catching up on homework.  Everything but Paying Attention.
If we could, as adults, go back and receive that education, as newly motivated learners, I wonder what might happen.
One of my kids was at summer camp this year, and a friend of mine was giving a Torah class.  My child was very enthused, and told the lecturer how much it was enjoyed.  My friend asked my child, “Haven’t you ever heard these ideas?”  My child replied, no, not really, school’s not really like that, blah blah blah.  
But I taught in my kids’ school.  I know the teachers personally.  I know what and how they teach.  They ARE giving over these ideas.  I think the problem is that my child isn’t listening.  My child is probably thinking about what to wear tomorrow and what’s for dinner.
When we lose our youth to other religions, we have to ask ourselves: what do those religions offer that ours doesn’t?  If the answer, indeed, is “nothing,” that’s the saddest of all.  Because that means the education, the beauty, the depth, is not traveling all the way, that long, long, journey, into the ears and hearts of our children.  In no way do I believe the transmission is broken.  I believe that the children are simply immature.  We must continue to educate our children – one day, hopefully, the ideas will sink in.  But most importantly, as adults, we have to find and avail ourselves of that depth, that beauty, that path, that commitment, that call to action, to introspection, that way of working with yourself, that discipline, and most of all, that sense that, indeed, something is very, very right.