6.06.2007

Equitable Distribution of Ritual

Being in California with my grandmother, mother, aunt, and sister for Pesach and Shavuot was lovely. It really was. A whole houseful of women is a very rare occurrence these days, and it's all the more special when all of the women are related and they span three generations. Over Pesach, my grandmother told some stories about what my mother was like as a little girl ("adorable"), and my mother and aunt told some stories about what my sister and I were like as little girls.1 I can see how a group of guys getting together would be nice, too, especially if they were all related. Football on the front lawn in Hyannisport or something.

However, an odd ritual vacuum has existed in my grandfather's house since his death in February 2004. Before he died, my grandmother lit Shabbat candles but my grandfather did everything else--in their case, mostly kiddush and hamotzi, but he was also the regular shul-goer and when he was younger sukkah-erector and seder-leader. After he died, beyond the usual grief over the loss of a very special man, another sadness descended upon the house, which was that my grandmother, growing up as she did in the 1920s and '30s, was never given a Jewish education and doesn't even know how to read Hebrew. She knows lots and lots of davening and brachot and things, but all by heart. Who was going to make kiddush and hamotzi for her? It was unlikely that, at 75 years of age, she was going to learn to say kiddush, but she already knew hamotzi by heart, from hearing it for so many years, so she says that for herself every Shabbat after lighting candles and before eating Shabbat dinner. But nobody makes kiddush unless the kids or grandkids are in for a visit.

When all of us women congregate in the house (often over Yom Tov), sometimes punctuated by visits from an uncle who is not versed in Jewish ritual and a brother who is although prefers not to be, there is no obvious person to take care of these rituals. The head of the household, my grandmother, couldn't do it. Of the four of us there besides my grandmother--my mother, aunt, sister, and I--three of us regularly recite kiddush and havdalah for ourselves and are equally qualified. (My father does those things for my mother, while she makes hamotzi for him. I always thought of hamotzi as a "women's thing" because of that. I thought it was weird and vaguely gender-bending when I went to people's homes and the man of the house made hamotzi.) When some of us had gone to shul and already heard kiddush, that helped. Otherwise, however, there was no clear ritual-performer. I like making kiddush and don't mind making hamotzi, and if it was up to everyone else, maybe I'd do it all the time. However, I didn't want to be the only person who performed rituals in this household other than candle-lighting, and, five kiddush-recitations in five days over Pesach was a bit much, even for me.

So every meal became a sort of free-for-all. Who's making kiddush? And who's doing hamotzi? Clearly two different people, but who? (The latter is sometimes accompanied by mute hand motions post-washing.) After Shabbat, who wants to make havdalah? You? You? Anyone? Bueller...? It sort of gets passed around like a hot potato, which doesn't seem to me to be the most respectful way to handle the situation. (It was better over Shavuot than over Pesach, perhaps because we'd all gotten used to the idea of performing rituals for each other over Pesach. It was the same four of us there both times, plus, of course, my grandmother, to whom we always offer first dibs on hamotzi, since that's the one she knows how to do and does herself when we aren't there.)

My feeling, as noted here, is that you (the generic observant woman) shouldn't feel like you can't do these things. I especially mean kiddush, which my fellow women seem more hesitant to say than hamotzi. I say, "Here's a siddur, you've heard it hundreds (Shabbat kiddush) or tens (Yom Tov kiddush) of times. Go for it!" My older sister, especially, has a nice voice and should really be the one to make all Yom Tov kiddushes ever.

I don't think that this "free for all" is necessarily the best way to run ritual things on a permanent basis, but I do like the idea of taking turns with Jewish ritual. It's really nice. I think a free for all is acceptable for short spurts, as at my grandmother's house over Pesach and Shavuot. I think it's good for everyone to get a chance to sanctify the day over wine (or grape juice), rather than have it sanctified for them.

Someone I once dated declared that he felt for women and their desire to perform Jewish ritual, but it was important to him that he be the only one to make kiddush every Shabbat for his wife and kids and to learn Torah with the (future potential) kids, which floored me. I never thought about it before he said that, but of course I imagined myself making kiddush for my future family and learning Torah with my kids. Why would I ever agree to permanently abdicate those things to someone else? I've been making kiddush for Shabbat guests and for myself for years. It's beautiful. I love it. It makes Shabbat into Shabbat. And, really, what's the point of having kids if you don't get to give them Torah? It's like saying, "Oh, by the way, I'm going to pick out all of the birthday presents for our future kids." I honestly don't need everything ritual-wise to be precisely 50/50--I have no assumptions that it could ever be that way--and I also wouldn't want a "free for all" every Shabbat and Yom Tov, but I would hope that any permanent relationship that I would enter into would feature what felt to me like a fair and equitable distribution of ritual.

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1. Apparently, we were pretty damn cute. Is anyone surprised?

7 comments:

mbarr said...

Interestingly, until i was bar mitzvah'd, i did the kiddush in the house, and my mom did motzei. Then, my dad finally learned it, and so he did kiddush, while my mother did motzei.

( Since my mother learned to read hebrew right along w/ me in kindergarten, i'm pretty sure she didn't know it either, and probably didn't feel comfortable doing it. Me - what did I know?)


Of course, this was after actually making the challah in question, each week, by hand, so it felt quite right.

(This was only friday night, though. we never did shabbos lunch, until much much later.)

I get such strange looks when i offer motzei to female friends- even when I know they have no issues leading it, etc.

I don't normally offer out the kiddush to females, though. Guess it's just all that ingrained sense of rightness.

smoo said...

I experience similar issues in another circumstance. I am divorced and have found myself very far behind in my capabilities of preparing meals for my children. I was raised in a home where mom cooked, period. Basic life skills that I could have easily acquired then are laborious to learn now but I am making progress (as I pray that I’m not burning the chicken as I write this).

An even more difficult challenge I face is socialization for the children. Usually the moms are arranging the play dates, shmoozing with each other thereby keeping each other up to date about the latest happenings and activities out there for the kiddies. As a man, I do not have access to that group and feel that I am in some way failing my children in this area. And even if you counter that I should just hang out with these women, reality is that the close bonding that women have between each other takes on a suspicious or weird ring if a male is let in (unfortunately, but that’s what I have seen).

So I agree that our roles should be shared in many more areas to allow not only more independence or self-reliance but also to enhance our personal or spiritual experience.

Avi said...

I can understand why that date envisioned a home where he says kiddush every shabbat. It's tradition. It's the very same reason it was "vaguely gender-bending" when you saw men make hamotzi at other people's houses. I don't see anything wrong with holding on to traditions. Just because a woman CAN make kiddush doesn't mean that she should 50% of the time. As I'm sure you've heard before, a woman can be equal to a man without being the same.

Avi said...

By the way, nice job on keeping the recent posts personal and interesting, instead of boring us with lessons based on ancients texts. Keep it up!

ALG said...

Yes, but Avi, men making hamotzi was traditional until women appropriated it. Because I was raised with a woman making hamotzi, it seemed vaguely gender-bending to see a man make it.

I'm not sure this guy was all that traditional in terms of gender roles. He expressed a desire to stay at home and raise the kids after they were born. He was willing and eager to be non-traditional in that respect.

In any case, thanks for your comments.

alg's dad said...

You wrote "an uncle who is not versed in Jewish ritual and a brother who is although prefers not to be," but I think the uncle, also, is more accurately described as "is although prefers not to be." He went to Hebrew school until he was 16 (I was at his Confirmation), and he is (or once was) perfectly capable of reading a haftarah if he wants to, for example.

ALG said...

mbarr,

I don't know if it is halachic or merely sociological, but I think it's fairly deeply ingrained that the baal or baalat habayit makes kiddush for all assembled. If there is a baal and a baalat habayit (or any combination thereof), I think it would be most normal for both heads of household to do kiddush/hamotzi, rather than giving it out to a guest. Living, as we do, singly or as singles living as roommates, I think it's still more normative for the host/ess to make kiddush and give out hamotzi. I feel like that's faintly halachic, but maybe not. In any case, it doesn't strike me as the least bit sexist for the rule to be that the head of household or host/ess makes kiddush and either also makes hamotzi (I've done both) or gives hamotzi out. I usually give it out to the person who brought the challah, if someone did, or to the opposite gender of the person I expect to lead birkat hamazon (which depends, at my meals, on if there are three men and/or three women present).

smoo,

I feel for you. I was also raised in a household where mom cooked, period. I once babysat as a teenager and had to figure out how to make pasta on the fly. When I left home, I learned how to boil hard-boiled eggs and make rice. Both took a few tries to get right.

avi,

One more thing. I am pro-tradition, possibly to a much greater extent than you are. I'm just not pro-tradition when tradition butts heads with other values that I hold dear.

Thanks for all of your comments! I didn't think that this was such a hot topic!