Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ko tomar

My daughters came home from gan wearing paper Torah crowns and eating ice cream. We put away the groceries together and milled around in the kitchen.

“On Shavuot night,” A.N. informed me, “The abbas and the boys who are bar mitzvah go shul and learn Torah ALL NIGHT!”

“Just the abbas and the boys?” I asked. Both girls nodded emphatically.

“What about the big girls? And the women who don’t have little kids?”

They thought about it. Y.B. offered, “The imas go to shul to bring cookies for the abbas and the boys.”

My face felt hot and my mouth tasted gross. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t want to contradict their teachers, but argh. Argh argh argh.

I tried.

“Do you know? Jewish people in different places do different things on Shavuot. Lots of women and big girls go to shul to learn Torah, too. I don’t go, because I take care of our family. But I learn Torah at home.

They thought about this. I got out a Chumash and read to them from the book of Shemot (Exodus), chapter 19, verse 3: “And Moshe ascended to God; and Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to Beit Yaakov, and tell to Bnei Yisrael.’”

“That’s Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu how to give the Torah to the Jewish people,” I explained.

“Who’s Beit Yaakov?” A.N. wanted to know.

“The Jewish women and girls. They’re mentioned first. Then the men and boys.”

“Why?” she asked. By this point, Y.B. had wandered off to nurse her babydoll on the couch.

Hmm. Good question.

“Why do you think the women are mentioned first?” I put the question back to her, Jewish-style.

“Because girls are more prettier than boys,” she posited.

“Um, maybe. But I don’t think Hashem cares who’s prettier. Let’s see what Rashi says . . .”

We looked for an answer in Rashi’s commentary, and then in the other classical interpretations of the verse in question. Y.B. brought her babydoll over and showed her the inside of the texts we were looking at.

“It’s like I’m bringing my baby to shul to learn Torah,” she said.

* * *

Just this morning, my friend was telling me how disconnected she feels from the kind of Torah learning she used to love—rigorous text study. I relate to that so much. Before I had children, I never understood why educated women would want their Torah pre-chewed in the form of inspiring classes with a tenuous connection to the source texts.

But these days, running a household and raising young children, I find I don’t have much time or patience for learning texts. I still do, but most of my Torah learning comes in the form of online classes that I listen to while I wash dishes.

And then, the girls brought home a vision of Torah study and gender roles that felt outdated and out of place to the reality of our family, and it shook me up. My first instinct with my children was to say, let’s go to the texts and see what they say.

* * *

My husband came home, and I told him what the girls said they’d learned. He said, “I need to have a talk with the ganenet.”

Of course, we’re assuming that the kids got the lesson right. These are not-yet-five-year-olds relaying information they learned in a foreign language. Perhaps some nuances were missed, or they misunderstood some crucial part.

And yet, it’s totally plausible that their ganenet said that. Because in some Jewish communities, that’s probably exactly what happens on Shavuot night. The men learn Torah, and the women send cookies.

* * *

Earlier this week, an essay on the site attempted to debunk myths about the intimate lives of Chasidic women and present a more positive picture. At my last count, there were well over 1000 comments on that post.

The responses among my friends from various streams of orthodoxy were all over the map. Some women were thrilled to see their reality described boldly in a public forum. Others felt that the author was sugarcoating the truth or describing something unique to her own religious community and experience.

I have so many thoughts about the piece and the responses, but I will hopefully gather them into another post. What stood out to me the most as I thought about Shavuot was this: Women in different Torah-observant communities have very different life experiences! My kids go to a gan that ostensibly reflects the religious values of our family, and even so, they came home with a conception of Torah learning felt foreign.

* * *

I once had to go to an IVF clinic for monitoring on Shabbat. It was very strange to be in the clinic waiting room on a Shabbat morning. I sat learning the parsha with Rashi, trying to create a separation between the scene around me and my inner life.

Another orthodox patient sat down next to me, a woman from the Satmar community. She looked with interest at my sefer, and asked what it was. I explained that it was the Chumash with Rashi’s commentary, and held it out to her. She waived it away and said, “Oh no, that’s for my husband,” and picked up a People magazine.

And yet, even that woman, a woman who belongs to the group with the most limited vision of women’s learning, is deeply and intimately connected to the Torah. She may have said that the sefer was “for her husband,” but she could have probably quoted me plenty of its content—even without knowing the source.

* * *                                                                                                             

Every Jewish person has a personal mandate to involve him or herself with Torah. The mandate is certainly, inarguably different for men and women. That difference is reflected in most aspects of Jewish life, including the night of Shavuot.

In our home, my husband will probably go to shul and learn Torah until dawn.

I will stay home with my sleeping children. Maybe I will learn a little bit of Torah on my own, maybe with my neighbor. In previous years, I taught Torah classes to other women. But whatever I do, I will not stay up all night. My responsibilities have shifted. I can’t pull an all-nighter AND create a warm holiday atmosphere in my home.

But Shavuot is not about that individual mandate so much as our national decision to reaccept and recommit to the Torah. And that is as true for the men in shul as for the women learning at home. Or sending cookies to shul, for that matter.

* * *

The last time I spent Shavuot night in shul, I was pregnant with twins. I remember the bittersweet feeling of soaking up the learning that night. I knew I wouldn’t be free to spend all night at shul again for many years. I was saying goodbye to a yearly ritual that I dearly loved.

Indeed, it’s been five years since then, and I don’t know when I’ll do it again. But in the meantime, I want my daughters to know that was an important part of my life. I want them to know the many ways that Jewish women to connect to Torah, not just by bringing cookies for the abbas and the boys.


shoshana said...

it's not just their gan. i haven't heard anything like that so far about shavuot, but in r's gan the boys get to be chazan and the girls lead the other children in dance movements!! in my nj day school, it was normal for girls to be chazanit in the younger grades

Risa said...

I love your post and totally understand your reaction. I have been thinking about it all night while cooking for YT (hah). The perspective I came away with is that our Torah, our primary Torah that is, is Toras Chessed. That always comes first. After that, each woman chooses the type of avoda that speaks to her own yeiush. Yours is textual learning and teaching -- others might be working within a mussar vaad, chessed outside the home, being a social activist for Torah causes, or other forms of connection to avodas Hashem. These choices are optional but Toras Chessed is not -- our families need us! For men it is not like that -- they are expected to fulfill obligations of davening with a minyan and Torah study as a primary obligation, and once that requirement is met,to pursue more individualized methods of avodas Hashem. I would hate for the gan to teach the children that mommies go learn at shul because I would never be able to live up to that in my current stage in life -- but would love to hear them say that some mommies, who have lots of koach (and maybe help from the grandparents), also can go learn. That being said, I have no compunction ending my kids playdates earlier on shabbos to drag them home so I can attend a shiur -- I tell them they are so lucky that they learn Torah all week and now its Mommie's turn. They get that I love it, and the message doesn't have to come from the gannenet! Good shabbos & YT holy chaver!

From the Trenches said...

Thanks for this important post. I find it distressing that in the 21st century our girls get such mixed messages about their roles. To Risa's point, the gan should impart the message that torah is for everyone--young, old, girls, boys. The kids will understand on their own that their Ima, and Abba, are sometimes too busy to learn, but they should be empowered to know that they CAN. Kids pick up on these subliminal messages at a young age. I hope your husband does follow up with the Gannenet, and let us all know what she says! Chag sameach.

Unknown said...

Shavuah Tov and thank you for this post.

I am very nearly an empty nester and am not tied to my home because of my son's sleep schedule.

The young teen and I studied at shul until 4:30 AM, then came home to sleep. I went back to shul at 10 for a children's service. (The adults started at 9.) 10 preschool and early elementary kids, boys and girls, davenned a few prayers and then we took turns wearing the Moshe robe, holding a walking stick, climbing a mountain (a chair) and teaching the others something about the mitzvot or Shavuot. They had the luchot with their illustrations of the mitzvot to refer to in their teaching.

Keshet said...

I love this post. This is my first Shavuos as a mother, and I was thinking how very different it is! Where are my hours of reading my favorite midrash study into the night? Very interesting and thought provoking.

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