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My Life in Talmud Torah (With Emphasis on Talmud): Loss (Part 2)

Part 1 here.

It was July 1997.

I had just turned eighteen years old and had spent at least twelve years working my ass off in day school so I could get good grades and get into a good college. I had gotten the good grades (mostly), been accepted to the good college, and was about to take a year off to go and study in Israel. First, though, I worked full-time in June and August in Boston, so that I could spend July in New York City, living with a lovely couple with three sons on the Upper West Side, and studying Torah full-time.

I couldn't get enough of Torah. Torah had been like a drug for me towards the end of high school, which was a bit of a rocky time for me emotionally. It was some sort of panacea or a life raft. I clung to it with all my might, in the belief that it, and only it, had the power to save me by righting all the many wrongs that I identified in the Orthodox Judaism in which I had been raised.

I was young and idealistic. I had had a young (far younger than I am now), idealistic, male teacher in high school who had promised me that women learning Torah on a high level would remake the world of halacha and cure all that ailed The System. I believed him. (See this and this for more on that youthful vision, particularly as it relates to Orthodoxy vis-a-vis feminism.) I loved learning Gemara, in particular. At the summer program for high school students that I attended in July 1997, I learned from the best teacher I had ever had, a recent graduate of their unique "I can't believe it's not smicha [rabbinic ordination]!" certificate program. (Yes, it was called that even then.) All the cool people--the thoughtful people, the people who cared about the things that I cared about--seemed to be professional learners and teachers of Torah. I thought I might study in Israel for a year, go to college, and return to this institution or another to collect my own "I can't believe it's not smicha!" certificate. I was the cream of the Modern Orthodox intellectual crop; I was hope for the future of Modern Orthodoxy. I was told that it was for people like me that the founder of my day school had created it. I had questions, of various theological sorts, but they were taken seriously and I was promised that, in time and with enough learning, I would find answers.

And then I went to Israel. And there, in what I always thought of as yeshiva, they told me, "The world is not ready for women to learn Gemara five days a week."1 I knew that this was not true, since I had been learning Gemara five days a week since I was twelve years old, and had just done it for the entire month of July--five mornings a week and one or two evenings a week of night seder--and the world had not said, "Boo." I was not the only one who wanted Gemara five days a week. Several of us, in the highest Gemara class available to us first year students, petitioned the administration for more Gemara, and they said no. We gave them a very logical reason for wanting more Gemara, namely, that with Gemara on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we spent each Monday reviewing the complicated material, especially the ever-convoluted rishonim, especially as taught through the not-always-textually-accurate-although-it-claims-airtight-logic Brisker method, from the previous Wednesday, since it had all but been forgotten in the intervening four days. They told us that if we stayed in Israel for a second year, at their esteemed institution, that we could have Gemara five days a week.

None of us took them up on the offer. Instead, we went back to the US, to our Ivy League institutions, were nobody told us that we could not get the same education as men because "the world wasn't ready for us." (I did get permission to skip regular Sunday and Thursday morning Jewish thought classes to learn Talmud with another student who had joined the petition for additional Gemara.)

I was not in Israel in isolation. I was there with my male classmates. I spent the Pesach break at a male yeshiva, witnessing, firsthand, while the men were gone, the facilities that were dedicated to men's Torah study. I saw the organic community (no need to import a minyan of opposite-gender people in order to daven as a community!), the beit midrash (large and well-stocked!), the dining hall (three meals a day! no need to take time away from Torah to go grocery shopping and cook!), and the library (well-stocked!). I saw what I suddenly knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would never, ever have.

That year, as I learned more about halacha, I believed in it less. Based on what seemed to be to be hard and fast, intractable problems in halacha--including but not limited to the fact that women could never form their own autonomous prayer group, saying dvarim she'bikdusha--it didn't look like I would be able to get the kind of intense, all-consuming yeshiva-based Torah education that I craved, and that even if I somehow managed to acquire the learning, it didn't look like I would ever be able to have or live a Judaism that would be, well, truly, if I was utterly honest with myself, intellectually palateable. I would also be on the sidelines, unable to really daven the way a person should without the importation of a minyan of men, and never truly respected for my opinion.

I came back to the US without a vision for a future for myself in Jewish learning. The pain I felt at the time is still palpable today. I wasn't sure that I wanted to keep Shabbat or kashrut. I started off my college career attending minyan three times a day, then gradually reduced to once a day, and pretty soon, I was only going on Shabbat, and not too long after that, I stopped going to shul on Shabbat. (I never stopped going to kiddush or Shabbat meals at Hillel, even though I sometimes left them early. Thank God for my unhealthy food issues!) I never really even tried to learn in college.

Oh, that's not quite true. I didn't want to give up that all-consuming vision or dream that I had had, so I went to New York, back to the institution of which I had so many happy memories, for a week of learning over Christmas break. I felt nothing inside. It was boring, empty, and meaningless.

Then I went back to Israel and studied for a few weeks at another institution at which I had been happy during my year in Israel (not the one that denied me full access to the Torah to which I clung). It was an unmitigated disaster. I found Gemara boring and halacha pedantic. Someone told us that the Rambam said that it was not assur, but merely inadvisable, to hug one's brother/sister (of the opposite gender). The teacher made some kind of big deal out of the fact that the Rambam had not outright forbidden hugging one's sibling, as if that was some kind of prize to cling to. That pretty much sealed the deal: This whole Jewish learning thing--heck, this whole adherence to the formalism of halacha thing--was absolutely not for me.

But, I needed the community. I never stopped needing the community. When I no longer cared about learning or davening, I went to shul for the community. I was lucky to have friends who learned and davened and made Shabbat meals, and that kept me in. The world is too huge and lonely a place without Shabbat and the community that traditional observance of Shabbat automatically creates--of people who live within walking distance of each other, of people who play Taboo and Set and Trivial Pursuit together, of people who sponsor seudat shlishit in memory of their dearly departed.

In college, I immersed myself in the study of history and gender, and recognized that the rabbis were all right--feminism was a dangerous thing. Sojourner Truth spoke to me in a way that no rabbi I had never met or whose words I had ever read had. I found my voice, in college, as a writer, a journalist, and student of history and gender--the voice that had been so clearly denied me within the organized Jewish community. I articulated, sometimes only to myself and sometimes to others, a position of suspicion of halacha and halachic practice based on my studies of history and gender, and I felt the pain of generations of women who had come before and been denied full participation in society, in democracy, and in decision-making bodies over the centuries. I tried davening at the egalitarian minyan, but it felt like someone was putting a bandaid over the gaping wound of Jewish history's relationship to the role of women, and, anyway, I liked hanging out with people who knew and talked Torah and got my mishna jokes, and that was, unfortunately, not so true in the egalitarian community, despite it's relatively high level of Jewish education.

I left college alienated from the organized Jewish community and the learning of my youth. If I learned Torah at all (and of course I did--what else are you going to do when you're bored and sitting in a place with sefarim?), it was despite my year in Israel four years earlier, not because of it.

1. This is a direct quote. It was seared into my brain instantly and has never left. If people only knew the impact of their words, especially their words of discouragement, maybe they would think before they spoke....

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"Understanding the Anxious Mind," New York Times Magazine article

Thought this was interesting.

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One-room schoolhouses, American adults who have never heard of Alfred Hitchcock, and other oddities

I am away on vacation. It feels like the first time in awhile that I've traveled, but, of course, it is not. I spent last year in Israel, and traveled outside Jerusalem quite a bit. I was down in Washington, D.C. for Rosh Hashanah, and before that, I spent a week in New Hampshire at the National Havurah Institute. But none of those things is really traveling, because none of them put me into actual human contact with The Other. People I don't talk to or gchat with everyday.

This trip is reminding me why I love to travel--and why I hate airplane travel in this post-9/11, post-fee-for-each-checked-bag, small-airplanes-due-to-high-gas-prices age. First the former. Maybe I will post about the latter separately.

I flew out West, for the first time since I was at shiva for my grandmother in July 2007. That's a very long time for me to not be on the West Coast. From 2000-2007, I went 2-3 times each year. This trip reminded me of my dear, departed grandparents a lot, for some reason. I kept thinking of things that I wanted to tell or show them, especially my grandmother, who has only been gone for a little bit over two years. It sometimes feels easy to remember that people are gone until you are in the place--or on the coast of the country--where you expect to see them, and then it hits you all over again.

Part I. Airplane Tales

That wasn't what reminded me that I love to travel. It was the woman sitting across the aisle from me, in my super-deluxe, miraculously free exit row (plus bulkhead) seat with an empty seat between it and the person in the window seat. She was quite chatty, and was mostly chatting with the flight attendant who was sitting and facing her in the jump seat. She had some interesting tales to tell, and it is unlikely that I would have met her in my normal environs.

She lives in rural Montana, with her husband, although she did not grow up there. Her children and grandchildren live nearby. Her grandchildren attend a one-room schoolhouse, where there are twenty-two kids, ages four to thirteen, with three teachers. It's not how she grew up, but she thinks it's fantastic. Her four-year-old loves it. She is doted on by the older kids, and the older kids learn a lot from helping with and interacting with the younger kids.

I wasn't sure what to think. My first thought was, "Cool!" but my next thought was, "What are those kids missing out on by being in that environment?" I guess that they make up for a lot of those things when they get to high school and have extra-curricular activities and more kids to hang out with. I wonder what happens to the kids in that school who don't have or make friends there. Does that happen, or do they all just turn out to be nice and friendly with each other? What about the kids who would really flourish with extra-curricular sports and a newspaper and a play? Do they have those things on a regional level in middle school? And then I thought, is it so different from kids who go to small Jewish day schools or are home-schooled? Perhaps not, and those kids often turn out okay, I think. Anyway, I still think it's cool, and gave me things to think about. I don't think I've ever met anyone whose grandchildren/children/self went to a real one-room schoolhouse before.

Later on in the flight, we experienced some turbulence. I don't mind a little back-and-forth turbulence, but am not a huge fan of that free fall dropping kind of turbulence. We had some of the latter, and the same woman told me that she was traveling in Africa, and she was supposed to fly somewhere. She got to the airfield and couldn't believe the plane that they wanted to fly her in--it was an old World War II plane of some kind. She said that they used anything that flew. She got on, and she and the other passengers sat down, and there were no seatbelts. And this was a plane where you need one! The turbulence we experienced on our airliner was nothing compared to that plane in Africa.

On the flight back East, I sat next to a woman who told me her whole life story in about 35 minutes. Most of it was boring (medical technologist, then taught chemistry at a community college), but she then told me about her granddaughter, Grace, who was named Grace for an interesting reason. Her mom (this woman's daughter) needed a liver transplant when she was in 11th grade, due a rare genetic disorder that her parents didn't know was even a possibility until it showed up and shot her liver. She got into Brown and some other fancy-pants colleges back east, but decided to go to school locally, possibly because she had such rough years in high school. She got married and after a high-risk pregnancy, had her daughter, whom she named Grace, after the grace that God showed her in letting her live and have a child. Her liver is still functioning beautifully. I thought that was lovely. (The woman telling the story was wearing a prominent cross and her white cotton blouse was adorned with Disney characters.) I don't know if I've met the parent of someone who received an organ transplant before.

This woman was also extremely lovely, even though I was very, very tired and eventually begged off to go to sleep. (It was a four-hour red-eye flight.) She was extremely enthusiastic about my chosen profession of being a writer and editor, and said that it was so impressive. She was happy to be sitting next to a writer and would look for my picture inside the back of a book jacket someday. She was really so lovely, although a bit too talkative for the hour.

That was Part I of my "This is so much fun. I never would have heard these stories if I had not chosen to get on these planes."

Part II. Strangers in a Strange Land

So, I was in this medium-sized Jewish community on the West Coast for the first two days of Sukkot. The last time I was there, I was shocked and appalled when, at a Shabbat meal, the Orthodox male head of household (a man in his 50s with three adolescent-to-young-adult kids) said that he was shocked and appalled that a university in some midwestern state had not hired a biologist due to his creationist views. That is, he thought that such a professor should be hired, and should not be discriminated against for his "religious beliefs."

So I already got that this was a kind of anti-science, hareidi-ish, black-hat community. Furthermore, I had gathered that many of these anti-science-in-the-name-of-"Torah" people had baal tshuva backgrounds.

A few vignettes:

We are sitting around the table, and the topic of actors who get typecast comes up. One of the guests, a married-and-pregnant woman of about 22 or 23, says that the man in Psycho got typecast in such a way. Then she mentioned The Birds, and I said, "Alfred Hitchcock," because, you know, that's one thing that those two movies have in common. Her husband, also in his early 20s, born and raised in Denver, Colorado, says, "Oh, is that the actor in it?" His wife, to her credit, says, "No, the director," but I remain appalled that someone wouldn't know that, and not for any discernible reason.

Now, there's lots and lots that I don't know. But I expect people to know the stuff that I do know. Like the Secretary of State. The hostess of that meal had to think for three or four minutes to remember who the current Secretary of State is. And she said, "Is it a girl?," fishing for a hint, before she finally got it. A girl!

The young wife, who knew who Alfred Hitchcock was, lost points for her answer when I asked her what she did in life: "My husband's in yeshiva." "Oh," I said, "That's nice. What do you do?" It turns out that she works in graphic design and tutors women at a nearby seminary. That's pretty interesting, in my mind, and I don't know why she didn't answer that first.

The other thing that ticked me off at that meal was someone's comment that, "My husband worked so hard to put up this sukkah. He spent eight hours on it! It's so interesting that the men do all of the work for Sukkot [putting up the sukkah] and the women do all of the work for Pesach [cleaning]." I responded that, most years, I helped to build a sukkah [although not lately, except for last year], and she said, "Yeah, but most women don't." The moment was saved, though, by her husband's question to her: "How many hours do you spend making each Shabbat or Yom Tov meal?" Counting inviting people, planning menus, shopping, cooking (8 dishes! who makes eight things for a meal? she does), setting, serving, clearing, and washing, she and my aunt figured about 12 hours of work per meal. He pointed out that she was therefore the one who did far more work than he for Sukkot and every Shabbat and yom tov that they had ever had. Yay, husband!

The other nice thing about that meal was that one of the women of the family was speaking about something they learned in a Torah class, about how aveirot [sins] are like little dings made on the soul, and how they can never be truly erased, because they affect others whom you might never even meet. Another woman asked if teshuva was therefore never really possible. They were stumped. I suggested that teshuva was possible but that even it did not take away the dings, which are how we learn from our past mistakes (even those for which we have done teshuva). We see the dings and remember to do better next time. That was met with approval.

What else? Oh, at another meal, which included the host and hostess, their 22-year-old single yeshiva bochur son, two male guests, and me and my aunt, the bochur began to sing songs for yom tov. Nobody joined in. We all just listened. His dad joined in once or twice, but otherwise, it was a solo concert. Awkward. Strange. I wasn't about to sing--didn't want to create problems or be offensive--but the other two male guests didn't know the songs. I guess. His mother talked over his singing a few times, so as to have some pleasant conversation in the sukkah, but that was a little bit weird, too. And one of the (need it be said? strange, single, older) male guests kept trying to ask me what he considered provocative questions about my supposed desire to become a rabbi, even though I told him that I didn't really want to be a rabbi.

We had one meal at a Modern Orthodox family that is more my style. I may have shocked them (okay, I guess I did, but mostly because I honestly forgot that one shouldn't discuss these things as the Yom Tov table) by mentioning the word "niddah" amongst "Shabbat" and "kashrut" as topics that my program covers, but otherwise, it went smoothly. They were very interested in my studies and freelance work, and supportive of both. It was really nice to have people interested in what I do.

At both yeshivishy meals and the Modern Orthodox one, the men purposely sat between the table and the wall of the sukkah, and as far away from the door as possible, so that the women would be able to sit where they could help. The men--including the male hosts and their male sons--sat throughout the entirety of the meal, while the women--including the female guests--served and cleared each course. Clearing plates and bringing out plates seem like the classic thing that even a man who "doesn't know his way around a kitchen" (as I do not) could do. Especially in his own house! It was bewildering. Now, my mom does all of that at home, for the most part, because that's how she wants it. I help if we have guests, though! And I've been places where the host and hostess do all of the serving and don't let any guests help. I've never seen so many hosts sitting and doing nothing while their hard-working wives, who already did all of the shopping and cooking for the meal, also do all of the serving, aided by the female guests. At only one of those three meals was I even thanked once for anything (by the male host). I'm sure I could have sat and not helped, either, but that didn't seem right, when other female guests jumped up to help. I usually offer to help. But it seemed strange to offer to help the female hostess when her husband and son were just sitting there, doing nothing. Am I missing something here?

While walking to another meal, I overheard a little boy, maybe three or four years old, ask his father, "Why is the....?" "How do the...?" He was excitedly looking around and tugging his father's hand to show him whatever was interesting him so much about the world around him. The father's answer was: "Because the Borei HaOlam made it that way. We don't know why or how. We don't ask questions about those things." I both could, and couldn't, believe it. How can anyone not encourage that kind of curiosity in children? How can anyone not want to know how or why the "Borei HaOlam" made it so? His answer, "We don't ask questions" was heart-breaking and deeply anti-Judaism to me.

In contrast, at a final meal we were at, the kids were asleep, but their dad told a story about their three-year-old, who, seeing someone using a leaf-blower, asked his dad, "Does it blow the leaves back onto the trees?" The father said, "No, it doesn't." The kid worriedly asked, "Then how does the trees get its leaves back?" afraid that the trees remained bare forever. The dad said, "It gets new leaves in the spring." "Where do the leaves come from?" "The tree's DNA tells it to make more leaves in the spring." The kid was satisfied. I was satisfied. That's a Jewish answer if I ever heard one.

Now, the truth is, as I find myself less and less inclined, as the years pass by, to attach the label "Orthodox" to myself, this sort of thing annoys me less. (I tend to say that I'm "observant," leaving open the real-and-occasionally-chosen option of davening egalitarian.) It's like right-wing evangelical Christian educational mores don't really bother me, even if I disagree with them and would do otherwise. They are separate from me and affect my life very little. (When they start to affect my life, that's when they bother me.) It's like I never understood why people got mad at people like the Duggars, who have far more children than anyone really should. What's it to you (unless you think that the children are endangered or mistreated, which I have no reason to believe they are)? Nothing.

Still, these are people I davened with over yom tov. They're my people. On the whole, they probably accept me as one of them. But their outlook on life and aspects of their lifestyle--everything except their hachnasat orchim, from which I benefited greatly and which was really very, very nice--was totally anathema to me.

Still, I am glad that I met them. This is probably what most of Orthodoxy is like, and I need to remember that. Actually, I am quite sure that that's the case. I mean, I assume that
yeshivish + chareidi > Modern Orthodox
in terms of pure numbers and even some Modern Orthodox people are remarkably misogynistic and anti-science.

It's good to meet people I normally would never meet, except possibly in the dating trenches, even (or especially) when I find it troubling, because it reminds me of what's important to me about my lifestyle and my way of life. (Every time I meet these men in the dating process, I think they are the anomaly, but clearly, they are not. There are whole communities of people out there who distrust science, are ignorant of classic American culture, and think that women should be silent and always in the kitchen.)

I may be sometimes lonely and occasionally lacking in community, which these people certainly are not--they were all so warm and welcoming!--but at least I know about Alfred Hitchcock and DNA and can sing at most Shabbat and yom tov meals that I attend.

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