Life happens… Death too.

I have recently had many conversations and learning topics where death and dying in Judaism were discussed, and each time it comes up it becomes abundantly clear that I think about these things very differently from most of my peers.

One year, my only specifically requested Chanukah gift was “The Jewish Way in Death and Dying” and I read  devoured it over a few Shabbatot. And it had an esteemed place on my bookshelf for many years. In fact, even with our very limited space in coming to Israel, it was one of the books I initially wanted to bring. (Alongside all my mikvah books… I don’t even know what to say about that.)

The combination of growing up in a family where the “family business” is the local Jewish funeral home, mortuary, and cemetery and my first “grown-up job” being as a hospice social worker give me a very unique attutude and perspective.

I see death as inevtiable. Something to acknowledge is real and tangible and natural. Something not to pray to prevent, but to pray it happens in its due course and that everyone should live long and healthy and productive lives. I think death is an important part of the life cycle and teaches us all important lessons about how to live our lives in the moment.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe it is sad when our loved ones pass. Of course it is! I just also believe that it is important to support one another realistically when death is immenint so that we aren’t surprised. It seems counter-productive to the grieving process to delude oneself into thinking it won’t happen to them. It should happen to you. The normative life course is that children should bury their parents.

I’ve realized in processing this that perhaps this is a part of my life path I hadn’t really factored in when deciding next steps. I know and am comfortable with death and dying. I want to learn halacha (Jewish law) intensively for years to come. I want to work in the Jewish world. I want to combine my experiences in ways which are unique to me. And while I want to focus on one other topic in particular (if you have been paying attention for the past three years, it won’t surprise you), it seems that this subtle piece of my soul may need to find a place in the plan too.

My family has often said that I am my grandfather’s granddaughter, perhaps this is just one more way in which that is true.

 

(This post was supposed to publish in early February but didn’t for some reason. Sorry for the delay!)

Which identity has the most influence?

How do you define your identity? 

Does your feminism influence your Judaism, or does your Judaism influence your feminism?

These questions were posed by one of my mentors here in Jerusalem at a Shabbat lunch with a group of young women who are all trying to define our identities, and it really resonated with me and has stuck with me for months. (Especially with all the conversations which have been generated surrounding my not-so-recent post: Orthodox Feminist: Not an oxymoron.) I think the same thing could be said of many aspects of identity, activism, and engagement also, but I’m going to stay focused on the initial question because that is the one I have been ruminating on.

Personally, I don’t think I can separate them. I think they influence each other fairly equally. I cannot say that I am more a feminist than a Jew, nor that I am more a Jew than a feminist. Neither comes first and neither stands alone.

If I could separate them, I wouldn’t be the woman I am. I wouldn’t be learning at Nishmat this year, nor would I be exploring my avenues for future learning. I wouldn’t be writing this blog about the adventures and challenges of being married to a man who has decided to pursue the rabbinate. I would be trying to “redefine rebbetzin.”  I wouldn’t have the complex feelings about parenting and education I do. I wouldn’t seek out the kind of prayer spaces and people to learn with that I do. I wouldn’t be the woman I am proud to be.

As I sit here pondering this question (and have for months), I continuously find that if I attempt to make one more crucial than another my sense of self shifts. I can play around with the focus in other parts of my identity. In fact, I regularly move around amongst wife / sister / daughter / friend and social worker / writer / editor / marketer / educator freely. I think those are all important parts of my identity, but not as critical as being simultaneously a religious Jewish woman and a feminist. For some reason, I cannot disengage those two parts from being the joint core of who I am.

Despite the time spent thinking about this, I am no closer to having any resolution, so I would love to hear your insights….

Does one part of your identity inherently have to take on a higher and more prominent place, or is it possible that two pieces can hold equal weight in how you interact with the world around you?

Can Judaism and feminism equally influence our place in the world?

A Rebbetzin is not a Rabbi

I have been involved in a few conversations lately about a topic that really agitates me, so when I saw the premise used to prove the exact opposite, I simply couldn’t not say my piece publicly any longer.

A Rebbetzin is not a female Rabbi. Sorry Orthodox Jewry, but its just not reality.

While many Rebbetzins or Rabbanits  (not getting into the semantics on this one now, been there done that) do serve as leaders in their communities, many do not. While some have a high level of education, some do not. And on the flip side, while some women who want to be leaders in the community marry Rabbis, others do not. The premise is that all women who want to lead have to marry Rabbis, and that all Rabbis have to marry women who want to be leaders. This is not realistic and it is not fair.

In this recent opinion piece by Rabbi Dan Friedman posted on The Jewish Week, the author uses this assumption to reach a conclusion I agree with, I just wish I could agree with his process more. The fact of the matter is that there are indeed women serving in great leadership roles in the Orthodox world, there are women who are certified by programs in Israel and America to be religious/halachic leaders and there are those who have stepped up without a formal program backing them. That is a great thing to recognize and to share widely. The problem begins when we believe that reassigning a title or suggesting that one method should be good enough for everyone will be the solution. Its not.

For some women, that is the level of religious and communal leadership that works for them. However, that it is good for a portion of the population doesn’t inherently mean that it is good for everyone. We have to allow women to find ways to lead that are personally meaningful – be it a a Rebbetzin, Jewish educator, communal worker, yoetzet halacha, or full fledged member of the clergy*.

We no longer tell girls who dream of working in the medical profession than being a nurse is “close enough” to being a doctor, so why should those who dream of working in the religious world settle for “close enough”? If women are able to learn at the level of men, why limit their professional advancement to who they marry?

*I said clergy so as to leave the semantics question out of it. I don’t think what the title is matters as much as giving women formal training to serve in these functions.

How it all began…

As we celebrate the blog’s third anniversary, it seems an appropriate time to stop and reflect on where it began and where it has taken us.

We were having a silly conversation online (as we are apt to do) when Jessica showed Melissa a happy little image of a bird and a giraffe – the animals that we each have a particular affinity for respectively. It was so cute that it was determined that we had to do something with it. We threw around a few ideas and decided a blog would be fun – we both like writing and had some time on our hands. Ok, so that would be the project, but what would we write about? Well, both of our husbands were seriously looking at options for rabbinical school and neither of us felt like we  knew what that path was going to look like – for them or us, and so – we had a topic. We wanted a catchy name that didn’t seem to be in use… Thus Redefining Rebbetzin was born.

We had some inspirations in a few other fabulous Jewish female bloggers at the start, and many more we met along the way. We have formed connections with Rabbis, Rebbetzins, and a host of other amazing people. We have shared our ups and downs, twists and turns, musings and challenges – and have so much more to experience! We wondered if anyone would read our blog and how long it would last. We had no idea what the path was going to look like, but we thought it would be fun to explore. And if nothing else, it has definitely been fun.

At this point, we still have a long way to go, but isn’t the journey the fun part? Thanks for sharing our journey with us.

Headbands to Headscarves

As of this month, I have been covering my head in some fashion for five years! Those of you who have been paying attention are surely thinking “wait, Melissa hasn’t been married that long!” – and you are correct. Head covering was so important to me that I took the time to figure it out emotionally, spiritually, and physically in advance.

You see, I started the journey to covering my head once I knew we were going to get married. Though there was 18 months between the two, it was a very valuable time and growth experience for me. I always saw that one aspect of head covering was the visible distinction of being “off the market” for lack of better phrase. While no one would know that wearing a headband, ribbon, or wide headscarf  was for such a purpose – I did. The other driving factor was my propensity to headaches. I had to adjust to having something on my head and learn how to work that so that it wasn’t a headache trigger.

I started with cloth headbands and skinny fabric tied as a ribbon. Then I moved to wider pieces of ribbon and skinny scarves. Next was slightly wider scarves. Finally I reached the point where I was wearing scarves that mostly covered the entire top of my head or hats on a daily basis. The transition from that to a scarf which covered all my hair once I got my married was subtle, but vital. I had been building up my tolerance – emotionally, spiritually, and physically – over the past 18 months, and by the time I woke up and needed to cover it all, I was ready. I knew what I was getting into and was comfortable with my decision. Over the next 3.5 years. I experimented with how much hair I was comfortable having out and what sort of coverings worked for me. I’ve done chunky visible bangs to not a strand exposed, and everywhere in between. I wear hats, caps, berets, snoods, pre-tieds, scarves, and/or a sheitel. There is no one size fits all way to cover and my choice on any given day depends on where I’m going, what I’m wearing, and how I’m feeling.

I don’t know what headcovering will look like in another few years, but for now, I’m grateful for the past five years of experience and growth.

I now present a slideshow of a sample cross-section of my head covering styles over the past five years…

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Living History

I am still in shock over these experience, but knew that I needed to find a moment to actually write about it, so I am going to attempt to encapsulate two of the most amazing experiences of my life in words.

1) Maccabean Mikvah!

The 8th day of Chanukah, the women of Tochnit Alisa (the English language college and beyond program at Nishmat) had a lovely tiyul. One of our instructors live in Modi’in, just down the road from a relatively recently discovered archaeological site – a Hashmonean era site for Jewish ritual life. For those of you who might not be making the connection, the Maccabean revolt was in the Hashmonean era, so visiting the site on the last day of Chanukah was a pretty amazing way of connecting to history, both religiously and physically.

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

As we approached the site, it became clear that this was a unique find. The group gravitated towards the large space that was once the Beit Knesset (area where they prayed), however I was distracted by a series of steps leading into a hole in the ground. Could it be? Was I really seeing an ancient mikvah? Our guide began to speak about the space and referenced the mikvah and as quickly as I could, I scurried away from the group and back over towards the mikvah to investigate. I walked down the steps and just stood there – soaking up the moment. Here I was, standing the space where women (and men) had immersed thousands of years ago, in an era where ritual impurity had a meaning beyond what we can imagine.

I have a personal tradition to always think about my ancestors upholding the laws of taharat hamishpacha and immersing in the mikvah around the time of my own immersion. I always take some time in the waters to reflect upon their living nature and that of the history which they inherently tie me to. Now, that will take on a whole new meaning. I can connect to this phyiscal space as well and the emotions of really feeling that connection.

2) Holy of Holies!

Last week, Tochnit Alisa again had an outing. This time, we went to the Generations Center and on a Kotel Tunnel tour. (It was a nice touch that our guide for the latter was my Nach teacher!) One of the first things we saw on the tour was another ancient mikvah! Though this one was through a piece of glass on the floor because it was so very deep compared to where the “floor” of the tunnels is, it was still an amazing thing to see.

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

As we walked along and stopped to learn about the history I kept noticing religious women bustling past. At one point, we looked at the various archways and discovered that just ahead of us was an archway, directly underneath Wilson’s Arch – which is the closest place that men can pray to the Kodesh Kodeshim, the holy of holies from the time of the Beit HaMikdash, the ancient temple in Jerusalem. It turns out, there is a place directly under that in the tunnels where women can also pray. However, unlike the men’s area – there are always women there and anyone who knows how to get there can go at almost any time they want. We stopped in this place and our guide/my teacher allowed us some time to daven (pray) there. I stood in place and sung my favorite meditative line to myself and was almost in tears. I felt so connected to the history of the Jewish people and the plight of the temple eras and its destruction.

While I am the first to say that living in Israel is not an idyllic thing, these moments of being a part of the living history of the Jewish people is what makes the experience so important and profound. I am not going to start saying everyone needs to move here or make aliyah, but I do think it is important to take some time to get to experience the places which connect us all on a deeper level than we can cognitively undertand or expect.

Advice Five (Plus) Years In

post by Jessica

post by Jessica

In honor of a friend’s engagement (mazal tov!), I decided to write a post that I have been thinking about for ages, even before our five year anniversary. That’s right, R and I have been married for five years (and 4 months), and it’s been kind of a wild ride. Another friend, when talking about our marriage so far, said, well, you haven’t had a chance to get bored!  I think part of my reservation about writing this is knowing that not all advice is useful in every situation, and that my situation and relationship is different from yours. Not only that, this is clearly formed with the understanding that we are, as a family, very involved Jewishly. So, basically, your mileage might vary, but maybe this will be useful.

Dating and Engagement

You never know where you will find your person. And that person might not be exactly what you expect. We met because we were both Jewish students at school, but on the surface, we were not particularly compatible. We saw things in common that seemed to enable us to overcome our differences – one of which was our commitment to Judaism, living a Jewish life and raising a Jewish family. When we met, our definitions of those were different, but we knew it was important so we dealt with it – many difficult conversations followed. And once we decided we were going to go for it, we sought experiences that would help us become more like one another. Beyond our story, how many stories do you know that begin with “I never thought I’d marry someone who/like/etc.”

That doesn’t mean don’t be looking. Just be aware that it might not look like what you were expecting. Life is exciting and surprising.

I’m not sure if you “just know” that he or she is your person. But I did. I get this question regularly, and while being confident seems to be the norm, it doesn’t seem to be the only answer. But truly, the only person who can answer the question about your relationship is you. And it is a leap of faith. Lots of things in life worth doing are.

Engagement means things are real. Expect that the relationship will suddenly be much different very quickly. The stakes are much higher (even if the relationship was serious beforehand) and it will strain your relationship. Not only that, but it is the first declaration to the world and your family – which brings a lot of stress. Don’t be surprised, and don’t let it shake the foundation of your relationship – even as you are working towards understanding each other better.

Marrying Young v. Marrying Later

There is no magic age. R and I met ten years ago, and started dating almost eight years ago. Because of that, we have become grown-ups together. And that has had it’s difficult moments – we grow and change and have to figure out what comes next, together. We literally don’t know what our lives would be like without each other. And we’re okay with that. People who met later have to figure out how to mesh established patterns together. There is no magic age – just different issues and problems.

Creating Traditions

Understand where you both come from. Things that seem obvious to you can cause problems. For my parents, birthdays and holidays are something special – whereas, R’s family generally was much more relaxed about celebrating. Therefore, it was important for R to know what I expected, because it was so different from his family. And knowing what it meant in each family made it easier to plan joint events as well – fewer surprises for everyone.

Don’t wait, but don’t be afraid to change. That is, start figuring out your ways of doing things. For us, in particular, this means how we do Shabbat and holidays. This has changed with every year and every new living situation, but figuring out what makes us happy has really helped create meaningful traditions.

The Day-to-Day

Make time for each other. And choose to, again and again. Part of this “not being bored” thing I mentioned above means that our life together has changed a lot since we first got married. Each time, we have had to make the conscious decision about spending time together – either when we were working at Hillel and it was about making sure we had personal time and professional time, even as we were working together, or now, when we struggle through the difficulties of both being full-time students. More than that, it’s about making that decision every day, as new things come up. It’s always a balancing act, but an important one.