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Beyond challah – finding common ground with Orthodox women

Posted in Life & Love, and Women's issues

Orthodox brideWith the corner of my eye, I saw the rabbi, standing on the side of the road, flailing his arms, trying to catch my attention. I stopped. It’s not the beginning of a rabbi joke – I was actually on my way to yoga, running slightly late and, truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have stopped for just any hitchhiker, but I figured the man in the black hat, with the fringes of the tzitzit dangling from under his jacket, who is not even supposed to shake my hand, was probably safe. As it turned out, his car was being repaired and he was waiting for a merciful soul to drive him down  the three-mile road to the center of town he would have otherwise had to hike.

I could feel his discomfort, in the tiny cab of my two-seater, so I did what I do to put someone at ease: I chatted mindlessly. By the end of the few minutes we spent together, he had invited me for Shabbat dinner (“any Friday you want”) and to take challah making classes from his wife. I know exactly where the Chabad building is in my small community yet, as tempting as it all sounded for about five minutes, I probably won’t be inspired to go. I tried that route and I was left with too many unanswered questions.

But, as fate would have it, the rabbi came back to linger in my mind when, only a few days later, I went to the screening of an Israeli movie titled “Fill the Void”, written and directed by an Israeli Orthodox Jewish woman, Rama Burshtein.

Fill the voidThe delicate story, set in an ultra Orthodox community in Tel Aviv, centers around an 18-year-old girl, Shira, ready for match-making, whose older sister dies in childbirth and whose mother pushes her to marry her brother-in-law, to remain close to the baby. The movie is all about feelings: hidden, budding, confusing and finally surfacing, in a way so diametrically opposed to the way we, in the secular world, are used to expressing them. The story is also about choice within a world that doesn’t seem to afford many choices, especially to women.

Yet, even after the Q&A session with the director, I left with more questions I was comfortable with. Ms. Burshtein was born in the States, of an American mother and an Israeli father; she grew up in Israel but came to spend 6 years of her formative youth in LA and New York, before going back and, eventually, choosing orthodoxy, a life devoted to God and a marriage to a man she met the whole of 7 times before tying the knot. Still, she experienced the secular world before making her decision. I respect that.

But what of all the girls who are born and raised in Orthodox communities of any kind? Purportedly, they have a right to choose their husband; but is it a real choice when a life is defined, in large part, by marriage (or lack of it)? Could they choose to pursue an education or even leave the community and still be embraced by family and friends?

As an Italian-American woman who had the good fortune to choose every step of the way, I always find the constraints that are imposed on women by religion, culture or customs, very troubling. If choice is what defines us as human beings, how can we choose to become who we wish to be if we are not afforded a clear vision of who we can be?

My questions come from an honest need to understand but, if I am truly honest, I am probably guilty of an underlying ostracism towards  anything I perceive detrimental to women, in my feminist-centric world.

Years ago, I was afforded a glimpse of the Jewish Orthodox community when some well-meaning individuals extended a reaching hand: they sent me books, literature and I even explored the idea for just a moment. It wasn’t for me. While I stuck to honoring the Sabbath and lighting candles for the entire time my step-children lived at home, deaf to the Friday evening refrain of “Why can’t we go out? why are you making me?”, I couldn’t really go past giving them an identity and then move on.

I tried to engage in a debate within the community I briefly frequented but my ears were probably closed to what I didn’t want to hear and theirs were muffled by what they believed. Nobody got hurt. We all chose what we thought was best for us.

But I can’t help wondering if, too often, too many women are choosing the only option they are presented with. Or is faith, devotion to a God so fulfilling that leading a life always a step behind does not matter?

The hitch-hiking rabbi might welcome my questions. Or, better still, his wife might.

“What’s your wife’s name?” I asked him, as he was getting out of the car.

“Dina” he replied.

Dina does not know what she has coming. Might be time for that challah making session after all.


Images from public domain and Wikipedia

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  1. Interesting post. I tend to agree with the paragraph “if I am really honest…” On another note–I read this the day you posted, just didn’t have time to comment. I also wrote a post about Challah on my FB page, on Greek Easter Sunday, comparing it to Tsoureki. Funny, synchronicity.

    May 11, 2013
    • I didn’t know there was a Greek egg bread. Will have to check it out. See? you are making me use FB

      May 11, 2013
  2. silvia

    I remember when that movie came out here – or maybe it didn’t yet – And I simply read about it somewhere and thought I have to see it. Especially because of the director background. Now you’re remind me of it.
    I think that certain decisions are uniquely heartdriven and it’s impossible to investigate one’s soul. In this case it is necessary to take a step behind and suspend judgement, as you pointed out respecting the director’s choice.
    I know you wouldn’t expect me saying this, but as far as those women who were born in a culture very different from ours are concerned – and I’m not only thinking Jewish Orthodox – I look at them and wonder what’s the deepest meaning of choosing. Are we sure that choosing is the evidence of a free will?
    But who’s really free? All our choices are conditioned by events that occur in our lives and maybe by those happened before we were born.
    It’s not that I’m loosing my mind and affirming that I’d rather have married a stranger or have preferred to live in a country where education belonged only to men or worst. This is too obvious.
    What I’m trying to say is that too often we tend to give for granted that we are the holders of the Truths, our culture, our values as the best possible compromise for human beings to live together.
    Only one thing is sure to me as you, once again, underline: only from questions, more questions, we might try to take into account someonelse’s choices, understanding is a complex matter.
    Another thing is sure: go practice Challah making so we can all benefit from it

    May 9, 2013
    • I do believe freedom of choice is at the basis of free will. As to whether our choices are conditioned by a million and one factors, there is no doubt about it (although I don’t care much for predestination – what would be the point of it all if our lives ran on a one track assigned at birth?). I am sure there is meaning in lives that are far from who you and I are: women who choose to cover themselves out of modesty, nuns who enter convents, women who stay in loveless relationships – whatever. As long as they have caught glimpses of other realities or have been offered the possibility to ask for help. And then chose. Far from me to superimpose what I think is right on someone else but, when I look around, too many female lives are still shaped by a man’s vision. And that bothers me.

      May 10, 2013
  3. It’s interesting that you use the phrase “had the good fortune to choose every step of the way” … we still think of it that way – as women. That fortune plays a part. As humans we have the right to choose. Every step of the way. I saw Graca Machel speak this week, Nelson Mandela’s wife. She said: exercise your right to do with your life what you want. And then take someone with you – another woman who needs a hand. I can’t wait to hear what Dina’s thoughts are – and check out the challah you two come up with,

    May 8, 2013
    • “And then take someone with you” I love that

      May 10, 2013

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