Melissa is a Wrap Star!

Post by Melissa

Post by Melissa

One of our new favorite blogs is Wrapunzel – a great resource for hair covering ideas and inspiration, and one of the regular features is interviews and photos of women who cover in different ways.

I was honored to be interviewed and featured as this week’s lady wrap-star so be sure to hop on over and check it out!

Andrea (the princess Wrapunzel herself) asked some great questions for the interview, and I did my best to give thoughtful and insightful answers. There are also lots of fun photos for your viewing pleasure. :)

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.

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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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.

Well wishes….

I recently had a dream that I wished someone mazal tov upon hearing that they were pregnant and she responded with “Isn’t it traditional to say b’saah tova?”

This stuck with me. Even in my dream state where I knew the “traditional” response, I opted for the one which feels right to me.

While obviously we want the baby to be born in the right time when it is fully developed and able to thrive upon its entrance into the world – why can we not also acknowledge that getting pregnant is a big deal too? I understand the superstitious approach which drives this greeting, but to me it also misses out on the moment.

For so many people, the road to pregnancy is fraught with challenges and them becoming pregnant (and reaching whatever milestone they have that they are comfortable sharing the news) is worthy of celebration. Perhaps having run a prenatal health education program is coming in to play here, or my vast personal circle of people who have struggles with infertility, but I just can’t ignore how pivotal a moment that is by rushing to say only “in good time” (and not saying mazal tov until after the baby is born). I think it is a great time that they have become pregnant!

Is there some middle ground possible? Something that both recognizes that becoming pregnant is also a wonderful, exciting, and miraculous thing? Perhaps we  could say mazal tov and b’shaah tova when first hearing? Mazal tov when we first find out but then only b’shaah tova for the duration of the pregnancy? Or perhaps we need a new phrase. Something which conveys that we are excited, but that the baby should have a very healthy nine months of growth.

I really don’t have an answer here and am hoping some of you will weigh in with your thoughts…. What resonates for you?

Orthodox Feminist: Not an oxymoron

If you Google Orthodox Feminism, or some derivative there-of you will be initially greeted by JOFA, but after that things get dicey. For some reason, even amongst many modern women, the idea of feminism and orthodoxy appears to be an oxymoron. I know women who learn text intensively (including gemara) who refer to it with a joking tone as though it were impossible that an Orthodox woman could also identify as a feminist.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to any of our long time readers (and even those who have only recently joined us) that I strongly identify as a feminist. I have written about many topics surrounding this in the past, including my support of JOFA, but it is time to be more direct.

I am an Orthodox Feminist.

I do not find these two things to be at odds with one another. Feminism to me has always been about opportunities being available for a women to make choices about how to live various parts of her life. Not having to be “equal” to a man, but in her own unique womanly ways. Not in any specific way, but in a way which is personally relevant and meaningful. I felt that way at thirteen wearing a talit and reading torah, and I feel that way at thirty wearing a tichel and learning talmud.

To loosely quote a rabbi I know here: if women can be brain surgeons, why can’t they lead kiddush? [Of note, a woman leading kiddush is totally ok according to the Shulchan Aruch (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 271:2).] I am sure that he is not the only Rabbi I know who has made an observation of this sort, but the analogy is particularly striking. In an era where women can follow their passions to be whatever they chose, be it a stay at home mom, work at home mom, or full time career woman in nearly any field – why can we not empower women in Judaism similarly? There is not one mold for us all to fit into, but lets figure out what the options are (and within halacha for those to whom that is important) and keep the conversation productive and proactive.

Photo posted to – Post by Melissa

Simply put, I have a unique contribution, and I want the opportunity to make it. I don’t want to be a man, but I want to learn, grow, educate, and inspire to my fullest capacity. I know that I can make an impact, I just need to be able to keep breaking down the mental barriers that even other women have around it.

We are our own best friends and worst enemies. If we do not empower ourselves and each other, we will never be able to find the happy balance where women are educated and empowered within the confines of halacha.

We cannot continue to find orthodoxy and feminism to be oxymoronic and dichotomous. We have to embrace them together if women are ever going to feel good about being themselves within a traditional/halachic experience of Judaism. So take some time to actually listen to the women around you, not just the words that they say but what they aren’t saying and what they are doing – you may be surprised how many Orthodox Feminists you really know.

{{Two important links: A  new Tumblr started by JOFA where you can submit your own responses about why you think we need Jewish/Orthodox Feminism, and a recent post on The Forward’s Sisterhood Blog where one woman shared her battle to find her footing as an Orthodox Feminist in America.}}