Browsing Tag

men and women

Uncategorized November 17, 2014

In Defense of Conversion Rabbis

by Amy Newman Smith 

“And then the rabbis come in,” my friend explained.

“WHAT?!?” I shrieked. I had asked her, a recent convert with the same beis din (rabbinic court) that was handling my conversion, to walk me step by step through the process.

The rabbis come in? To the mikveh? My thoughts were rapid and panicked. I had met and married a fellow Conservative movement convert. Together we had grown in a different direction and were on the threshold of finalizing our Orthodox conversions after 18 months of learning and living Orthodox Judaism. We had upended our lives in more ways than I can count, lost friends who thought we had lost our minds, moved from an apartment we loved to one we hated in order to be within walking distance of the synagogue. And now, my panicked brain thought, I’m going to have to call it all off. I had learned the laws of mikveh, the ritual bath, and knew nothing could be between my body and the water. I had gotten rid of my pants, raised my necklines, started covering my hair. And now I was supposed to be naked in front of three rabbis? Oh no. That was not going to happen.

My friend, seeing the horror on my face, rushed to clarify. What I had imagined wasn’t real. It was all going to be okay. And so, on the day of my conversion, I met with the three rabbis who made up my beis din. According to the rules of the Rabbinical Council of California, our sponsoring rabbi – the rabbi who for the last year and a half had mentored us, tutored us, and inspired us through the process of becoming Jews – could not be one of the rabbis, but I had met the head rabbi as part of being accepted as a candidate for conversion, and again when we met halfway through our learning to assess our progress. After some probing questions to gauge whether I had the knowledge to keep core commandments and establish that I had no ties to other religions, no ulterior motives, and had not asked to be converted under the promise of reward or any threat, we separated to meet again at the mikveh.

In the past weeks, since the revelations that Rabbi Barry Freundel allegedly watched women in the mikveh preparation rooms via hidden video cameras – not conversion candidates, but married Jewish women preparing to use the mikveh as part of a monthly ritual – the cries have come that men have to get out of the mikveh business. Blogs, public letters, op-ed pieces. One man’s alleged criminal acts opened a floodgate of criticism. It only got louder when it was revealed that Freundel had been reported for requiring conversion candidates to work for him for free and to make donations to organizations he headed.

“There are some places and situations where males, including rabbis, should never be present. One of them is a women’s mikveh. Period,” wrote Jennie Rosenfeld on The Jerusalem Post website. In a recent Times of Israel blog post, Shoshanna Jaskoll insisted that the same rabbis who required modesty of dress and behavior in Orthodox women could not take part in female conversions without being hypocrites and were likely having “indecent thoughts” about the conversion candidate. Jaskoll quoted unnamed rabbis, and took snippets from an open letter from the one rabbi she named – Rabbi Steven Pruzansky – that served her ends. The entire letter, if one takes the time to read it, tells a vastly different story.

At the mikveh, a gentle and genteel mikveh lady kindly went over step by step what would take place. Then she gave me a full-length robe, so thick that it would not be see through even when fully wet, to put on and left me alone to change. When I indicated I was ready, she walked me into the mikveh room and waited until I was in the mikveh, giving me time to make sure I had the robe adjusted so that I was comfortable and covered. The three rabbis summoned from the room where they were waiting stepped only close enough to the mikveh to see my face, to ensure I was the same Amy Newman Smith who had sat in their office earlier that day. No Leah for Rachel, as it were. 

Then they stepped back, able only to see the top of my head. They were close enough only to see my head go under, to hear the blessings a convert says, and hear the mikveh lady say “kosher” as I immersed each time, ensuring that every part of my body was covered by the waters of the mikveh. Then they left the room, closing the door before I emerged to dress in private, a newly minted Jew. The only other moment I have ever felt so much holiness surround me was the day my son was circumcised, entering the covenant of Abraham. At both of those moments, I felt a cord that tied me back to Sarah and forward into eternity. I did not feel abused, violated, mistreated, or vulnerable. To the contrary, everything had been handled in a way that was designed to make the process both b’tznius (modest) and b’simcha (joyful). 


Unfortunately, Rabbi Freundel’s circle of victims only continues to widen with the calls of those who say his individual misdeeds demand an overhaul of the entire conversion system. (Why is it only the rabbis who need overhauling? What about male doctors? What about auto mechanics – mostly male? Where is the outrage when they mistreat, defraud or abuse female clients/customers, demanding only women fix women’s cars and heal women’s bodies?)  More importantly, do the shouters for change realize the grave injustice they do when they say “no man belongs in a women’s mikveh”? On the basis of one man’s bad actions of misusing his power over converts and breaking the law by covertly observing them – for which he has been arrested and will go through a trial and sentencing unless he decides to accept a plea deal – every rabbi is being painted as a potential villain.

Rabbi Pruzanksy said it best in his explanation of why he was resigning from his position as the head of the Orthodox conversion court for Bergen County: “Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague [Freundel] for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din . . . I have no interest in living as a suspect. I refuse to have my integrity and character impugned, nor to be defined in the public eye because of one miscreant.”

Is Rabbi Freundel one of a kind? Almost certainly not. But is he the norm? The majority? Anything even close to being something other than an outlier? For this, the accusers bring no evidence. They besmirch the names of righteous, modest, caring men without evidence for their own ends. And that is an outrage. The hoped-for ends do not justify the means being used.

Let us think critically about what the hoped-for ends of these writers are. All the hoped-for ends. Only the deeply naive would believe that Jennie Rosenfeld, who is studying in a program for dayanot (female religious judges) and who calls for a system in which women would be able to oversee conversions, divorces, and other matters of Jewish law pertaining to women doesn’t have a personal stake in the outcome of this debate. If the status quo remains in place, her investment of time and money will have been for naught. Other writers have also previously laid out their objections to the current system of Orthodox conversions long before Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, and the disclosures that followed merely provided them with an all-too-convenient cudgel with which to attack a system they had already rejected.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Rosenfeld and her ilk seem not to understand that by saying the entire conversion system must be overhauled, she also implies that my conversion, that my friend’s conversion, that indeed the conversions of all women that have taken place under the current system are flawed. My conversion, the bloggers and pontificators say, is tainted. It is broken. It is in need of fixing. And to that I say, “How dare you?”

Fight for what you think is good and true. Write, write, and write some more. That is certainly your right. I am not asking for these voices to be silenced, nor am I debating that having men present in the conversion mikveh process makes some women uncomfortable, no matter how discreetly it is handled. (Mikveh with a female attendant is often uncomfortable, as well.) But I hope they remember that their stated goal is helping converts. And as a convert, I tell you honestly that their words – and the false suspicions they have put in the minds of many of those who have read them – imply that I, and women like me, entered the Jewish people within an abusive and immodest context. It is hard enough to be a convert without people who claim to be acting on converts’ behalf spreading the idea that converts have undergone something shameful or perverted. 

These articles (and this article you are reading now) are unlikely to change how Orthodox batei dinim (Jewish courts) handle conversions going forward. But they do stigmatize converts and future converts by spreading the mistaken belief that female converts have been party to something terrible rather than something transcendent. 

Writer’s Note: I have chosen to use my name on this piece because I feel it is unfair to criticize others by name without naming myself and also because I have done nothing that needs hiding. Please remember that the Torah is very clear on the prohibition of mentioning a convert’s former status, of reminding them of it, and certainly of asking intrusive questions about their past of their journey to Judaism. 

Links:Rabbi Pruzansky piece: Rosenfeld piece:
Shoshanna Jaskoll piece:

Uncategorized October 28, 2014

Elevator Pitch


No rush on this…but I’m curious if you can point me to one of your blogs (or someone else’s) to address this issue:

I’m at the airport today with co-workers, all of whom are very well-educated professionals.  Three of us are Jewish, three not (only one male).  Somehow the topic of Orthodox Judaism, kosher, etc. comes up and I overhear the other two Jewish people talking.  Then the woman says, “Well, I could never be Orthodox because they treat women as second-class citizens.”  

Then the guy starts talking about how his mother teaches secular subjects in an Orthodox day school and how before she was allowed to teach, they reviewed her text books and “ripped out most of the pages on Native Americans” because the students weren’t allowed to learn about their lifestyles and/or see pictures of women with their arms uncovered, etc.  Both were chuckling about how outrageous these things are.

Well, I’m sitting there trying to figure out whether to say something, and if so, what would I say.  I had just met the woman at a meeting the day before, and didn’t want to come off in the wrong way (and my boss was there too).  

So, I said, “Well, I study with an Orthodox rabbi and his wife and over the years I’ve learned that Orthodox Judaism really doesn’t feel that way about women.  While I know people may have that misconception, it is really not true.”  The other woman said, well, maybe I just don’t know enough and we left it at that.

Anyway, long story, but I’m curious – do you have a blog or something that “refreshes” my memory about what I might say in these conversations?  Almost like an elevator pitch.  While I feel confident in my belief that this view is not accurate, I would love to have a better handle on some good answers.  Over the years of learning, I know I’ve heard different answers, in different contexts, but when faced with the situation today, I suddenly felt almost at a loss for words. Or, maybe I shouldn’t say anything? 

 Any advice?

Dear Elevator,
There are really two questions, as you articulated.  One, what are the answers I should have at the edge of my brain and tip of my tongue that, while not the entire answer, is easily exportable to others who don’t have the access that I have to what Orthodox living looks like?  Two, when and under what circumstances should I export them?  And if I don’t choose to, what else should I do or say in that moment?
The Torah tells us that it’s important to have those answers at our fingertips – mostly for ourselves.  When someone mocks a group of people or an idea, and we only have a vague feeling or notion that it’s off, it’s really unsettling.  It should be a generalized goal of life to know truth and live by it.  Later, we have to decide how much and when to share those ideas with others – especially when negativity is the context.
So let’s first approach The Truth about the things that were said.
Whenever I or my kids are insulted by someone, the first thing we try to do is ask: is it true?  Meaning, no one – cultural or religious groups, professionals, irrespective of age – is immune to mistakes.  Sometimes the best change comes via unpleasant criticism.  What a great opportunity to use it to introspect and see if it’s true, and if so, what we can do about it.  In this way our greatest mockers become our best coaches (which is a good form of revenge, incidentally).
The Questions:
1. So, are Orthodox Jews anti-women?
2. And are we insular with regards to learning about other cultures and religions?
3. Are we overly consumed with modesty in Victorian ways?
The Truth:

1. Some individual Orthodox Jews are anti-women, but for that matter, so are some non-Orthodox Jews and some Christians and some Chinese people and some Muslims.  A better question is are MOST Orthodox Jews anti-women, or is the RULEBOOK of Orthodox Judaism (the Torah) anti-women?
And I honestly think the answer is NO.  Most Orthodox men that I know treat their wives and other women well. The Torah does teach different paths of spiritual fulfillment for men and women, which definitely highlights different public roles, especially in synagogues, but as I’ve written elsewhere, the great mistake is to judge Orthodox Judaism by what goes on in the synagogue, because what goes on in the synagogue is a fraction of what Orthodox Jewish life looks like. 
In the home, schools, and family, women play a huge role, and perhaps even a huger role than men.  In the Torah as well, we see many instances where husbands are told to listen to their wives in some of the most pivotal decisions to affect the Jewish people, and where the women kept the faith where the men wavered, insuring the continuation as a people.
I’ve noticed a double-standard.  Orthodox women are allowed to make fun of men in speeches, but Orthodox men are NEVER allowed to make fun of women in speeches.  Hmmm.
2. Insular?  Yup.  We believe that idolatry, adultery and murder are really, really, bad, so we avoid them in all their forms.  If I’m at an IMAX and there’s a scene of an ancient culture worshipping their idols, do you know what I do? I close my eyes.  That’s insular.  I don’t want to view something I believe is an affront to my God.  I want my children learning about Native Americans, but I don’t need them learning about the details of their religion where they conflict with Judaism.  All of us are insular, just about different things.  
Within the Orthodox world, you’ll see a big spectrum on this too.  I doubt the school in question was Modern Orthodox, for example.  More insular forms of Orthodoxy will be more likely to censor more strongly – which is good or bad, depending on your orientation.  Most people think the religious guy one notch more religious is a fanatic, whereas the guy one notch less is a flake.  Welcome to the human condition.
3. Well, that’s a toughie.  Who’s to decide what “overly,” what’s “extreme,” and what’s “Victorian”?  In the 1950s national TV looked wildly different than it does today.  In Namibia, for example, some people barely wear clothing at all.  When I see homecoming dresses on Facebook, I blush.  And when it comes to the education of our kids in their most formative years, most Orthodox people opt for a more sheltered culture in terms of how much skin they want their kids to see.  Public schools deal with where to draw the line, and so do we all.  We draw the line in different places, and we all judge each other on our misdrawn lines.  
How many times have I held myself back from commenting on the homecoming dress issue (ok, I just killed my streak)?  Many, because I know that no one is interested in me judging their kids for being immodest.  Just like I don’t want anyone judging me or my kids for being immodest.  There are all kinds of reasons why people will draw their lines in various places (literally) – Jewish law being only one of them.  But Orthodox Jews, and especially their men and kids, are also really sensitive to what they see – not just to what they look like.  Is it possible to see this neutrally?  Instead of negatively?
And, the Pitch:

1. “I’ve been fortunate to hang out with a lot of Orthodox people, and, as individuals, I don’t see that they’re any more chauvinistic than anyone else.  They do believe that men and women are different, but mostly only in synagogue – at home, school, and play, it’s a really level playing field.”
2. “I’ve been fortunate to hang out with a lot of Orthodox people, and I think the reason they’re kind of insular is because their main goal is to give their kids strong Jewish values, above anything else.  So they really try to filter out the noise in attempting this.  I guess we all do that in different ways, huh?”
3. “I’ve been fortunate to hang out with a lot of Orthodox people, and I think that they are really into modesty.  I mean, we all struggle with where to draw the line in raising our kids, don’t you think?  In that we all agree.  We should probably try to respect each other’s struggle – we’re kind of all the same boat there.  It’s a tough battle.”
The Moment:
Should you say any or all of the above things?  Sometimes just knowing them is enough.  The barometer is, are they interested and open to what you think about Orthodox people?  Will they feel enlightened or annoyed? Expanded or resentful?  That’s your call to make.  But knowing it for yourself is a really good feeling. Sometimes, that’s all we need.  And if the moment does not call for education, feel free to fall back on my favorite parenting word:
Personally, I think you did a fabulous job.
What would you say?
Uncategorized November 15, 2013

10 Tips for 20 Years of Marriage

Cross-posted from my other blog,
Mazel tov to us!  We’ve been married for 20 years.  Ironically, I still feel like that’s not all that much, that those older and wiser than us have so much to teach us.  But nevertheless, 20 years is a big milestone, and we certainly have learned plenty along the way.  Here we go.

1. Make yourself an easy person to apologize to.  When your spouse says, “I’m sorry for being moody” or even “I’m sorry for driving 500 miles in the wrong direction,” do NOT take that as invitation to say anything other than, “Thank you for that apology,” or, if you’re feeling really big, “I forgive you.”

2. Remember that what you think is the “right” way is simply “the way you’re used to” and may, shockingly, even be “the wrong way.”  So keep an open mind.  Weird is simply when someone else’s mishugas is different from your mishugas.

3. Never diss your spouse’s family members.  It’s wrong and pretty much never worth it.

4. Don’t keep anything important a secret.  Besides the fact that secrets usually leak, this will most definitely build barriers and walls between you and your spouse.  Whatever it is, it’s better off shared and dealt with honestly.  (Ladies, whether you deem a $200 impulse purchase at Nordstrom Rack “important” or not… is up to you.)

5. Learn that you will never, ever change your spouse.  If you married him/her, unconditional love means loving the faults.  Strive to get to the point where you love even your spouse’s faults, because that’s what makes her exactly who she is.  Weirdly, unconditional love often leads to people wanting to become their best them.

6. Never prioritize your kids over the marriage.  If you haven’t been away without the kids, at least overnight, for longer than you can remember, you are prioritizing the kids over the marriage.  Remember that a strong, close, and mutually supportive marriage is the best thing you can do for your kids.  Take their therapy money and use it for your vacation.  You’re welcome.

7. There’s nothing wrong if each of you eats something different for dinner.  It’s far more important that you eat at the same time, even if one of you has a full-on meal and the other sips tea, even if your kids are making normal conversation, um, elusive.  Hang out together over food and drink.  (I am aware that kids often make this difficult… see #6.)

8. Keep a list of things you need to discuss over the week (examples may range from “the washing machine is making weird noises” to “I think our child is bullying others” or even “I’m scared of dying”).  Then make regular time, at least half-hour once a week, whether in person or even on the phone, to discuss them.  This will prevent throwing upsetting issues out there at the wrong time.  And we all know when the wrong time is.  Hungry, tired, stressed, you said it.

9. Find couples who are happy and pump them for info.  Be on the lookout wherever you go.  Elderly people in long-lasting marriages often have great nuggets to share.  Maybe one day, you’ll be one of them.

10. My favorite: don’t each of you give 50%.  Each of you give 100%.  Then you will have not only a marriage, but a loving one.  Let no task be beneath you so that your spouse understands that giving is the most important thing to you.

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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.

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.


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.


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

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.

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.


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.

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?

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.


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


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

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.


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.

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.


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. 

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 4, 2013

Christian Modesty, Jewish Modesty

My fellow blogger Kelly Youngblood, an occasional commenter here, just wrote this on Christian modesty in terms of women’s dress.  Modesty actually includes a lot more than how women dress, but that’s what we’ll focus on for today.  I’ll wait for you to read it.  Hmm, hmm.  La la la.  K, are you done?  Good.

A number of similarities and contrasts struck me while reading it.

First, one of the main things Kelly laments about Christianity is “there is a broad range of what modesty may mean, and so the admonition to ‘be modest’ is generally unhelpful.”  Of course I found this interesting, since Judaism is VERY specific (to the dismay of many) about what modesty means.  Specifically, collarbones, elbows, knees, and everything in between, ought to be covered.  Nothing that is tight and form-fitting, or screaming for attention.

Next, she mentions that “modesty often tends to be about being covered up, but if that were the
case, then we should just all walk around in bathrobes.  I can’t think
of anything more covered up than that.”  I have learned in Judaism that women were created with the desire to look beautiful, and that this is a natural and honorable aspect of being a woman.  We should and must feel pretty, without being provocative.  So, clear one – no bathrobes.  Modesty is not just about covering up, it’s about allowing our inner loveliness and refinement to emerge without distractions.

She also discusses that “women are often told to dress modestly in order that they don’t cause
their Christian brothers to sin by causing them to lust after the
women.  Men are not warned in the same way…”  Interestingly, in Judaism women are warned more, although men certainly are as well, about HOW they look; but men are warned more, although women are as well, about WHAT they look at, and how they look at things.  In other words, men are cautioned more about objectifying women, and women are cautioned more not to allow themselves to be objectified.  In no way does this remove blame from the other gender – both are warned.  Of course, men could be objectified and women could objectify – but typically it goes the other way.

Finally, Kelly brings up the valid ideas that envy/objectification exists everywhere, so really, can you ever stop or avoid it?  The answer to that is that each person has to work on his own arena of fault.  If you tend to objectify people or be envious of what they show to the world, get a grip.  Could it ALSO be their fault, for flaunting?  Yup – that’s their arena of fault, not yours.

Thanks, Kelly, for getting me thinking about all these things.

Interviews, Uncategorized July 23, 2012

Meet Libby, my Chassidic Friend: an Interview

I’d like to introduce you to my new friend, Libby S.  Libby is a woman, a mother, and wife.  She belongs to the Vizhnitz group of Chassidus [Hasidism].  Libby has agreed to open her private life to all of you, in the hopes of helping me reach my goal on this blog: Jewish unity via mutual respect and education.  I am really grateful to her for this, and look forward to having you all learn from her life.

Please note that English is not Libby’s first language.  Yiddish is her first language.  I have added some translations and clarifications in brackets.