With 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.
The 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