On Being Frum and an Ally

marriage equality rings

Post by Melissa

I initially wrote this post about two years ago and it has lived in draft form with periodic edits ever since. At the time I wrote it, “gay marriage” was a hotbed issue in CO and was gaining national attention, I’ve edited it as it has been revisited time and again in CO and CA and now, with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hearing cases about whether or not both Proposition 8 (a CA state amendment which legally defined marriage as being between one man and one woman) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA – which restricts both federal marriage benefits and inter-state marriage recognition to opposite-sex marriages) are in fact constitutional.

In this moment, it feels like the time is absolutely right to finally post my very emotionally charged attempt at rationally explaining my views and how I reconcile being a frum (religious/Orthodox) Jew and a straight ally for gay rights.

I support the rights of all consenting adults to have a civil marriage which is recognized to the fullest extent of the law.

To explain what it really means requires a bit more explanation.

Quite simply, I have two separate marriage documents: a civil one and a religious one. The first was issued to me by the State of Colorado. It was signed by two friends in my synagogue on my wedding day, but it just as easily could have been signed in the city and county office building or on a mountaintop. This says that D and I are married in the eyes of the law. I can change my name to his, add him to my health insurance, get the tax benefits both on a state and federal level, and make medical decisions for him should he ever need me to. The second was issued to me by my religious institution. My ketubah was signed by two kosher witnesses (men who keep the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut) under my chuppah. This document recognizes my marriage in the Jewish community and affords me a few specific rights as such. So while it is very important to me that I have them both, neither has any bearing on the other.

So why does religion become a component of civil marriage? My best guess is that for many, it is harder to see this clear distinction. My two documents were signed by different people (spouses actually) at different times, and are handled in a very different way. My ketubah is also a piece of art which hangs on my wall and my civil marriage license (which is how we refer to it) is in a pocket on the back of it. (Ironically, we brought a copy of only the civil one to Israel with us.) I know that both are important to me, but neither one is more or less important to me. They grant me separate but equal things which I as a heterosexual, religious, married woman am blessed to be able to sometimes take for granted. To me, they are the quintessential statement of the separation of church and state.

Basically, my theory is that first part, the part I had to go to the courthouse to get and affords me legal rights, not only in the state I live in but also in any state I ever travel through or move to and also on a federal level, should be available to consenting adults – regardless of who they are marrying. (Lets not get too much into the nuances there.) That should be the only component which is handled legally, and in a way which carries inter-state legal weight also. Then if you so desire, you can have another ceremony and/or celebration with any religious, spiritual, or other special rituals which are relevant to you and your community. The couple can seek out a way to embrace it in their own way, with as much or as little religion as is appropriate in each unique relationship. I truly believe that this is the only way to secure civil rights for all, while also maintaining the religious freedoms so many in the United States of America cherish.


Melissa’s current profile photo

So yes, I changed my profile picture for these two days of the hearing to one of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) red equality symbol spinoffs and while I know it won’t actually make a difference to SCOTUS just how many of us did and they won’t make their decision for months – it makes a difference to my friends and family. For those for whom this isn’t a hypothetical question, for those who  are not able to have their marriages recognized, for those who can’t file taxes jointly or legally change their names, for those who want the chance to have what so many of us take for granted – to all those people in my life, it makes a difference that I stand with them. I am not in DC. I cannot stand up and share my thoughts at SCOTUS. But I can change my profile photo for two days (though, I think I’m going to keep it all week), I can publish this blog post, and I can continue to hope and pray that those in the position to make the change can see this as the civil rights issue it should be and not the religious issue it has become.

You may note that I did not address the “biblical issues” around homosexuality, and that is on purpose. I think it is very deep, dark, muddled waters which I am in no way prepared to address in such a public way. [And even if I was, who am I (or any of us really) to say that every American should be held to my understanding of religious texts? I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that is protected by the First Amendment.] It is because of this that I am turning off comments on this post. If you have something to say, you may email me directly and if you like the post, feel free to share it or simply “like” it via the built in WordPress function below.


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.

Q&A: Why Ask the Rebbetzin?

We were recently approached by the author of Coin Laundry, to respond to this recent post about the role of the rebbetzin*. I interpreted it slightly differently than Melissa, as this:

Why are they asking the Rebbetzin? Why do they think she’s qualified?

The simple explanation is that there is a cultural expectation that she will either be able to answer your question, be able to find the information you need, or be able to put you in touch with the right person, as well as that she will be discrete and competent.

Why this is the case is more complicated, of course. I’m going to try to focus a little bit on the historical development, since I think it sheds a little light and context on this. I also highly recommend a book, “The Rabbi’s Wife” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz, which is, as far as I know, the only work of it’s kind. It traces the modern development of the rabbi’s wife in the last 150 years or so. It’s not exactly the same as the communities you’re describing, but it does give a lot of useful insight.

The title of rebbetzin developed at a time when there weren’t a lot of educational opportunities for women, and what there was pretty much ended when you got married, which everyone had to do. These women, understandably, often married the men who were in the position they wished to be. Even in the liberal movements, there have only been mainstream female rabbis for just about forty years or so, which is a blink of an eye in Jewish history. So, interestingly enough, women in liberal congregations in the early 20th century were just as likely to be performing the functions described by the others who’ve answered your question as these Orthodox rebbetzins are today. Religiously educated women are becoming more and more common in the Orthodox world, however, and I’m curious what will happen in the future.

That curiosity is really what motivated me, at least, to start this blog. Partly it’s about feeling like I have something to say, but it’s also about the role of the modern rebbetzin, especially in the context of a tradition that is still very much battling over and with gender roles. For those in the communities that are more right-leaning than mine, it’s likely that they’re not facing these same issues just quite yet.

I’ll end with a story. A few weeks ago, I hosted a meeting of the rabbinical school’s wives club at our apartment. As the group of us squished into our small living room to hear the speaker, we all knew it was partially our own interest and partially our knowledge that if our husbands are to be congregational or Hillel rabbis, we will probably be involved in some way. And so, we learned about sexuality and halacha together, with that in the back of our minds. It was partially about us as strong, educated women – and partially about those future congregants, out there, somewhere.

As always, we’re always open to questions, comments and thoughts!

Rules for Raising Girls

post by Jessica

Courtesy of Facebook (where I seem to get most of my news, sports updates, engagement, wedding and birth announcements, etc), I read a series of articles that I have really found interesting about rules for raising boys and girls. Given some of my previous posts, I’m sure none of our readers are particularly surprised by that.

In general, I thought her rules were really good. For instance, for boys “Relationships are important and he needs to be faithful and monogamous.” and “Teach your son laundry, vacuuming, dishes and dusting.” My personal favorite though, was teaching him to dance…and letting him dance in a pink tutu if he feels like it. Her reasoning was great “Either he’ll grow out of it or he’ll never struggle with his identity.”  And for girls, they’re all fabulous, until, of course, you get to number 19.

 19.  Don’t let your daughter marry young.  Encourage her to get out and see the world, live on her own and figure out who she is and what she wants in a partner before she settles down.

I don’t think she meant it as an attack, but I think she might be reacting to something else.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand her fears. In general, I think people unconsciously have some old fashioned expectations about marriage, left over, I suspect, from a time when you started having sex when you got married and there was no such thing as birth control. If you get married, you must immediately settle down, buy a house (or move into a bigger apartment), and start pumping out your 2.5 kids. Yesterday, if not sooner. No matter how old you are. So, this reasoning goes, if you get married young, you’ll be saddled with all of that immediately. I have friends who did that – and it’s particularly hard on the wife. Just out of school, small child in tow, very little work experience and struggling to establish themselves in any kind of profession. Possible, of course, just hard.

But that’s not the only model of marriage. I found my partner early, and we understand this part of our life as exploring together. Figuring out who we are and what we want out of our lives. And we made a commitment to do it together. Is it hard? Sure! Is it harder than figuring out all of that stuff and then trying to find someone who fits into your 1200 routines that you’ve developed? I don’t think so. My husband and I have talked about this a lot. When we got married, he hadn’t thought about being a rabbi very seriously. I had a vague idea that I wanted to go back to school. So, we’ve been working to figure all of that out together. And eventually, in a while, we’ll probably start looking for a slightly bigger apartment for a slightly bigger family. Are my experiences different than if I stayed single? Absolutely. But I do think it was the right thing for us. .

Getting married young isn’t for everyone. But I think age shouldn’t disqualify someone from marriage. So, my rule 19 would read something like this.

19. Don’t let your daughter get married before she’s out of college. And encourage her to see the world and find herself before she starts obsessively looking for a mate. But, if she finds someone in college (like lots of us do), make sure they plan on having time together as a couple to live their lives before they bring children into the picture. And for heaven’s sake, make sure they’ve been dating for at least a year before they get married!

So, what do you think? Other rules that need changed? Rules you’d add?

A Simple Sukkot

Happy holidays, everyone! At this point in the cycle, I’m trying my best to continue to enjoy them, but it gets rough, especially as midterms approach.

pic from interwebs - post by Jessica

It’s been a crazy time in our household. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were spent travelling halfway across the country and back, but everything went off without a hitch despite my getting a horrendous cold the Sunday after Rosh Hashanah. Since we were with family, the day after Yom Kippur my mom held her birthday party. It was a few weeks early, but what better time to celebrate than when we could all be together? Besides, with turning 60, it needed to be special!

With all the travelling and staying a little extra for the party, we arrived home just 24 hours before Sukkot would start, and pretty stressed out. Sukkot had kind of fallen off the radar and now it was upon us, with no formal plans. I was worried it might turn out to be kind of a lame chag, but that’s not what happened. Instead, we were able to make it special, although pretty different from what we’re both used to.

Wednesday was rushed. I had made a meal plan the night we arrived home, but I was at school all day until almost 4pm. R, since the rabbinical school has Sukkot break, got the apartment ready for the holiday and went grocery shopping. With me still fighting the end of my cold and the weather report in NYC being pretty cold and damp, we planned to eat most of our meals indoors, hopefully after saying kiddush in the Sukkah at synagogue. We didn’t have guests or invitations.

So what made it so great? The simple things. First, we had a slew of new recipes to try out, all of which turned out wonderfully. From Thai Chicken Salad and Kashi Veggie Pilaf to Minestrone Soup, everything was delicious, and included a lot of fall vegetables, which helped us get into the “harvest” spirit, even though we were indoors and New York City doesn’t have a lot of fall foliage to speak of. Second, we spent the time to cook our meals together, enjoying the time as a couple, to reconnect after the hectic travel schedule and even just being away from each other for 10 hours at a time during our regular schedule. Third, because of the new recipes and the fact that we set the table the way we would if there were more than just the two of use, it felt special together and we made the meals last by talking or singing together, and teaching each other songs. I think it was the fact that we just took the pressure off. So what if dinner is at 9pm? We took our time cooking and it was fun, rather than a chore.

It was not the most traditional way to have Sukkot – afterall, there’s usually at least guests – but it was exactly what we needed.

Wives Club

post by Jessica

About a week ago, we had the first meeting of the wives club for the rabbinical school. Clearly the experience of my fellow wives is something that I’m interested in, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the meeting would be. It was a small group, mostly because there are only about 15 wives total, so miss just a few of them and it’s a small group. Still, it was nice to talk about the issues of the day, and especially to talk to the wife of one of the students who is farther along at the yeshiva, and get her perspective on marriage and family while in yeshiva.

It’s part support group and part discussion group, so there were actually a few questions passed around for discussion. They were really interesting, a sort of check-in with where we are and I thought I’d share some of them and my answers now that I’ve had a little while to think about them. The subject was religious differences, which is something that R and I have been navigating since we started dating.

1. Do you anticipate conflict between your own religious beliefs and practices and the expectations of that others (including your spouse) have of you?

Lately, there hasn’t been too much conflict between the two of us about religious practice/belief. Most of the conflict is me being conflicted about my own level of observance. However, my conflict is largely stemming from what I anticipate will be the expectations of me when we are in a community and he is the rabbi and separating that from what I feel committed to. I anticipate that conflict, and I’m not sure how it will play out.

2. Are R & I on the same page religiously? How are we the same/different?

We are probably more similar now than we have been in a while, but there are definitely areas of difference. We consciously strive to make sure that it’s not in areas of communal need (i.e. not interfering with one another’s practice), and in general it’s that I’m more liberal than he is. I do think that we’ve both been consciously getting back into some traditions that we got out of while we were being crazy with Hillel.

3. Are you comfortable having differences in belief and practices?

When our relationship was founded, we knew there were differences, and likely always would be. We’ve gotten closer and farther and closer again over the years, but it’s always been something to be talked about and understood together. I do know that when we have kids it’ll be something that we’ll have to be even more clear about – never mind figuring out what we want to teach them and how.

4. Do you think rabbinical school has had/will have an effect on any of the things mentioned?

I’m not sure yet, clearly. I sort of imagine we might end up incorporating things that he learns in school into our daily practice, or that as he learns things we may have more information to make different decisions in our lives. The thing I do know is that we spend a lot of time talking about both rabbinical school and NYU, trying to share as much as we can. We have really different experiences on a day to day basis, and I think it’s been important to really actively keep those lines of communication open. Hopefully those will help us if any of these issues come up.

On another note, it was really great to meet a few wives and get to talk about these things for a few hours. I’m looking forward to doing it again soon, and I’m grateful that the school supports these kinds of things for us!