Guest post by Julie Rosenzweig
I enter the familiar building via its unfamiliar other entrance. I usher my little daughter into the staff room for her “interview.” Wait for her to emerge, then sit down with her in the principal’s office. Introductions; a few age-appropriate questions for the little girl, bashfully answered; then administrative matters between me and the principal.
“Ah, you’ve had sons in the boys’ school,” she murmurs, looking up from the forms I’ve just filled out.
Smiles all around. I do value this place, and feel comfortable here.
Still I wince as I broach the question whose answer I’m not sure I want to know:
“I’ve heard the girls’ curriculum is different from the boys’ — “
The principal heads me off.
“Things have changed since the new administration took over.” A pleasant and sensible-looking woman in her middle years, her demeanor and style of dress are of the precise type to put me at ease. “The standard’s been raised, the girls learn Mishna now from Grade 2 …”
“Er … how about Gemara?”
“No, that would be too revolutionary.”
I gaze earnestly into the principal’s face, trying to read her expression. Was that a flicker of irony, or did I imagine it? Was she being sarcastic or serious when she said “revolutionary?” I don’t know her well enough to tell.
But I’ve already made up my mind that I’m sending my daughter to this old-guard, stick-to-our-guns religious school in the heart of Jerusalem — the school with the Dress Code — with or without Gemara.
How did I get here?
I was never a young mother. Having married when I was well into my thirties, I was at best a not-old mom to the trio of boys who, sparing me much anxiety, appeared in quick succession during the years after the wedding. The boys will remember, if dimly, the face I like to remember myself by. The girl, who came along much later, long past any expectation that there would be a girl, or even another boy, will know that face only from photos.
I had thought myself a seasoned parent, but the girl launched me on an entirely new learning curve. The rigors of caring for an infant at midlife humbled me; even more humbling was the awareness of being a role model to a child of my own gender — I who had had no close female relative in her life for three decades.
Issues that I had once been passionate about but that had ceased to engage me, or that I had come to regard as closed, suddenly resurfaced.
For instance: had I been told that, when faced with the choice, I would choose the Dress Code over Gemara – Talmud study – for a daughter of mine, I never would have believed it.
According to the sanguine scenario whose relevance I never questioned from the late 1990s until quite recently (and which I’m starting to suspect was really my own invention), Orthodox Jewish women were going study Gemara – traditionally open only to males – in ever-larger numbers, and great things were going to happen … slowly.
We knew the mantra; it was common sense. Today’s women are out there mastering brain surgery and rocket science: how can you exclude such prodigies from entire arenas of Jewish erudition? What’s more, women — prodigies or no — tend to like textual study; that’s why so many of us are English majors. If you’re a literary type, and Jewishly-committed, how can you stay away from Jewish Texts?
According to the mantra, these advances in Jewish learning were going to lead, eventually, to participation in the halachic “process” — ruling on matters of Jewish religious law. The goals and aspirations were deliberately kept vague, as the endgame was thought to be far, far in the future. Would women be ordained as Orthodox rabbis? The idea simultaneously fascinated and repelled (the way images of women in mannish garb fascinate and repel). Would some other kind of title or role organically evolve that would draw on women’s abilities and insights, but in a way that was both authentically Jewish and authentically feminine, not a copycat role? We knew something would be worked out.
We weren’t inclined to rock the boat too hard. We had a heritage to preserve, one that was dear to us. Some of us had been introduced to that heritage only as adults, which made us even more protective of it.
While the future was being left to take care of itself, we Orthodox feminists (a label I embraced easily at the time) could proceed with the everyday business of giving birth, raising children, earning money, cramming some Jewish learning in here and there, going to shul once in a while, and building/maintaining traditional Jewish homes. We would have fun, and not be too pressured.
We would live fine-grained, complex lives. We would let time happen.
We would have faith.
In retrospect, of course, I can see the narrowness of my perspective on Orthodox feminism. What to me was a matter of equal intellectual opportunity — access to the Jewish Bookshelf — to others was more about doing concrete things with that access: not 20 or 120 years from now, but today. What to me was a deliciously slow evolution, a revolution of mind simmering tantalizingly on a back burner, to others was a starvation diet.
What to me was a garment that pinched here and there but generally fit fairly well, to others was, apparently, a vise.
Some will say it’s about fairness, and others will say it’s about pluralism. But I wonder whether it isn’t about identities, and their persistence over time.
I had just about scrambled through to the light of day, knuckles grazing the rim of the tunnel, when the birth of my daughter plunged me once more into the timeless languor of the nursing dyad and the home whose walls make a world. It was, ironically, like being sucked backward through a birth canal. When I finally emerged, for good and all, everything had changed.
It was a new generation of religious moms out there. I was old enough to be their mom. They eyed me warily in the playground, not sure what my relationship to that tiny creature was.
But they knew who I was.
Their jeans, the thin bandanas embedded within their halos of hair said: I defy you to identify me.
But they had me pegged.
I was what they did not want to become.
Last year I attended an open house at the religious school closest to my home — a school where boys and girls aren’t separated, and where no curricular differences between genders would in fact be tolerated.
I knew in advance that I wouldn’t send my daughter there. I didn’t go in good faith; I didn’t give them a chance.
The school had recently been established, or re-established, in the image of the young, Modern Orthodox or quasi-Orthodox families that were now gentrifying an old and somewhat stigmatized Jerusalem neighborhood.
I knew the movers and shakers of the school — they were the bandana moms from the park. Though “bandana” is just shorthand: the term doesn’t do justice to the individuality and uniqueness that these women express through the way they dress, including what they do with the tops of their heads – a part of the body that, per the Orthodox Dress Code, is supposed to be covered.
I know I sound like I’m ridiculing these women when I say that, but the fact is that I admire them. Once we get past the inter-generational awkwardness, they are all very good-natured. They are eco-conscious, community-minded, and health-oriented. Much more so than me — and more power to them. I certainly can’t blame them for having their own, generation-specific way of addressing Judaism’s modesty requirement; their own swing of the pendulum.
It’s just that their mass championing of individuality — which paradoxically obscures any differences between them and their non-religious peers — elicits an opposite reaction from me: an affirmation of the Dress Code way of doing things.
They do make great eye candy. I like to look at them, to put myself in — as it were — their head-space.
Some sport large, colorful kippot of the kind that my sons wore in the early elementary grades, with long hair hanging down underneath. That’s a look I could dig. My own hair is still that long. They would be amazed.
Others wrap scarves around their skulls but with the tops of their heads left artfully uncovered. One mom likes to put a cowboy hat and boots together with a peasant skirt — a style I find particularly pleasing. And there are the bandanas.
They all look different, and would seem to defy stereotyping; I guess the common denominator is that they don’t look like me.
I do find it interesting that, distinctive as these women are in their manner of conveying, or not conveying, religious observance, their husbands all look the same. They all look like easygoing college guys, in jeans and T-shirts (summer) or corduroys and flannel shirts (winter), with a Modern Orthodox twist in the form of knitted kippot. They apparently never feel the need to define a unique style of dress or head-gear for themselves. They never think about looking distinctive, or making a personal statement, or avoiding categorization.
Apparently only women do that.
So I went to the school open house with a schadenfreudian smirk on my face.
The principal, who looked about half my age and whose particular fashion statement would probably be untenable for anyone over 40, didn’t disappoint. Though I’ll admit: had I found her personal style more relatable — had she been a baggy-jeans intellectual type — I might have wiped the smirk off and tried to find something about the school to like.
Maybe I was jealous.
Here’s how I spent the better part of an hour this morning: rifling through an old collection of tichels – headscarves – to see whether I could still make a credible appearance with any of them.
A couple of years ago I found a certain kind of beret that pleased me. It seemed like the solution to 15 years’ worth of fussing and fiddling with knots, folds, and fringes. How much to let “show.”
The problem is that I’ve grown bored with the berets and am not sure this is the me I want to be for the rest of my life, like I thought I did a couple of years ago. But I’m not a tichel woman anymore. My face has changed since I last wore one, and my inability to recapture that look unsettles me.
Really the problem is this aging face, this greying hair.
I could wear a different kind of head covering every day, but I’d still look like a middle-aged woman. From afar (from up close, too), you’d still see a middle-aged woman before you saw me.
Every woman has a beauty of her own, that she cultivates. Not beauty in the sense of objective aesthetic criteria, but rather in the sense of a coherent individual style. It might not actually be “beautiful,” but it is the woman’s personal, inalienable beauty nonetheless — what works for her.
It is this that we lose as we age.
There’s a woman I admire, whose name I won’t mention: she became famous several decades ago, when she was in her twenties. Her fame was based on her activism on behalf of an entirely worthy cause; but her looks also had something to do with it. It’s not that she used her looks in any kind of cynical way, or indeed in any conscious way (though some did, I’m sure wrongly, accuse her of this).
More than representing a movement, she embodied it. She was an icon. For a brief historical moment, her smooth, placid features, soulful eyes and slender, vulnerable form personified a political cause.
She was maidenly, not in the sense of being unmarried — she was married — but in the sense of projecting a kind of inviolate personhood that characterizes women before they become mothers. Before their bodies are fissured from within, turned inside out. A Joan of Arc figure, pure of purpose.
The cause won, the woman dropped out of the limelight. The little I know of her subsequent life consists of the fact that she raised a family. I imagine that, over the years, she engaged in some kind of meaningful paid or unpaid work, in addition to being a mother. I imagine she lived a fine-grained, complex life.
Some recent pictures of her surfaced in the media. I must admit I was shocked. Of the icon, literally nothing remained; she was altogether unrecognizable. What did remain was a woman in her middle years (rather farther along than me), pleasant and sensible-looking, of the precise demeanor and style of dress to put me at ease. She even wears the same berets as me.
She is me. We are what one becomes when one’s individual style is stripped away. No longer actors in high-flown personal dramas, but rather — collectively— the matrix out of which a shared life emerges.
Maybe my problem with Orthofem has to do with attitudes toward “matrix.”
Somewhere in early middle age, in response to various features of my living environment, I developed an interest in urbanism: the art of building walkable cities and lovable places.
It’s not a topic that seems to interest many Orthodox Jews, in Israel or elsewhere. For me it’s a lonely preoccupation. Yet I plug on, behind my closed door, behind my unremarkable middle-aged-lady facade. (By facade I don’t mean some kind of exterior fakery, just the interface, in my case a fairly bland one, between the outside world and my inner world.)
This preoccupation has shaped my approach to all sorts of things that have nothing to do with urbanism.
First and foremost it has given me an appreciation of incrementalism — gradual, small, low-risk changes and developments.
In the urban context, incrementalism calls up a range of associations and terms: urban fabric, “fabric” buildings, fine-grained, granularity, small scale, human scale. Complexity. Incrementalism conjures up images of traditional main streets with mom-and-pop stores, buildings of different ages and sizes that somehow fit together like a puzzle, creating a coherent streetscape.
This kind of fine-grained, complex streetscape accommodates differences and the occasional striking feature, but disfavors the “iconic” in its modernist, starchitecture sense. It isn’t glamorous, which is to say that its charm — its meaning — isn’t assimilated and exhausted in one glance, like a billboard. You can form a quick overall impression, of course, but to know it, you can’t just be whizzing through at 90 kph; you have to linger. It takes time.
Building it takes time. You can’t plan it all in advance. It’s like what they say about writing — you have to trust the process. You can’t decide beforehand what shape it’s all going to take. You can’t get hung up on one word, put your all into one sentence, like money into a megaproject. You have to plug on, word by word, building by building, and have faith that the whole will be more than the sum of its parts.
In the weeks before my wedding, back in the sanguine late 1990s, I came home to my shared apartment with all sorts of hats, scarves and other head-gear to try on for my roommates.
They hated them all. To them I was the long-haired hippie girl, and nothing else would do.
“That scarf makes you look like you’re 40.”
What they meant was that adopting the Dress Code had an effect akin to aging. They didn’t merely resent the obliteration of Iconic Julie; they were troubled by the sudden inkling of a connection between the religious identity, and aging.
I guess it troubled me, too — but then I was busy; I had all sorts of wedding details to sort out. And then I was married, and preoccupied by the minutiae of my new life. Caught up in a fine-grained, complex existence, I came to look back on Iconic Julie with bemused affection, only occasionally tinged with longing.
With every family Shabbat meal, every shared holiday, every hectic morning hustling the kids out the door, every milestone achieved and done fittingly — with love and decorum — Iconic Julie recedes ever farther into the past.
My daughter can catch up on her Gemara later on. But there are things I would like her to absorb, gradually, incrementally, starting now. Even before she gets to work forging that beauty that will be entirely her own, for a time; that deployment of features that are as familiar to me as my heartbeat but which she will transform into something wholly new, distinctive, and ephemeral.
To see the world that lies behind the unassuming facade. To appreciate the complexity that arises out of unassuming facades working in concert. To live a fine-grained, complex life.
To let time happen.
To have faith.
Julie Rosenzweig is a Jerusalem-based translator, librarian and mom. Her work has appeared/is forthcoming in Literary Mama, The HerStories Project, and the Times of Israel, among others. Visit her at https://julierosenzweig.