May 31 12

I actually don’t even know how I stumbled upon the article.

Actually, I think it’s more accurate to say that the article found me.

That’s the way, after all, with being Jewish on the internet. Jewish-related things just seem to find me. I mean, you guys, that’s how I first met Metalia. Bound together for life because we both celebrate a holiday that essentially forces us to eat cheesecake and our inability to participate in “I LOVE BACON!” discussions. Yesterday, I was minding my own business, busy minding my actual business, editing away, and found myself down a chassidic Jewish wormhole that I absolutely did not expect, and certainly did not have time to fall down. “What’s that  you say, children? You want me to feed you an actual dinner? Alas, I cannot. I have to sift through over 1200 comments on this initital article and then I need to read Deborah Feldman’s rebuttal and then I need to keep digging and find more. Don’t you see, children? One article is not enough. NOT ENOUGH!”

They may or may not have had Nestle Drumsticks for dinner. 

Here’s a nifty little disclaimer to give you a bit of detail into who I am. Read: NOT AN EXPERT. I grew up in two households—one set of my parents are modern orthodox jews and one set of my parents are agnostic/Christian. So, it’s an interesting mix to say the least. The majority of my time was spent growing up modern orthodox, which is to say that my mother doesn’t wear pants, but she also doesn’t cover her hair or wear a wig. My family kept a strictly kosher home and was Shabbat observant, meaning no electricity from sundown on Friday to when three stars come out on Saturday night. As adults, my husband and I have chosen to live our lives a little differently, as Traditional Jews, and we choose to focus on and celebrate our cultures and customs and heritage instead of ritual procedure and rules we disagree with. We choose to celebrate what is wonderful about Judaism—to teach our children about who we are and where we came from and have lovely Shabbat meals together and, of course, eat cheesecake on Shavuot.

I do use electronics on Shabbat and I don’t eat bacon. This is my choice. And I’m incredibly happy.

So. Obviously not at an expert of any kind. Also, not judging any way you want to live your life. If you are chassidic, orthodox, traditional, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, whatever you want to call yourself, if that’s how you want to be I will respect it. I hope you are living your life as the best possible person you can be, because to me, that’s way more important than what label you give yourself and what rules and regulations you do or do not follow.

Because I grew up modern orthodox, there are things I know about Chassidic Jewish women.

Because I grew up modern orthodox, there are things I know absolutely nothing about Chassidic Jewish women. 

So, I first read Chaya’s article about Chassidic Judaism. Her post was, basically, in a nutshell, that she feels like Chassidic women are painted in an unfair and untrue light. She feels free to make choices. She loves her bearded husband, finds him sexy. She is accomplished and happy; not oppressed. She loves the mikvah. My first instinct was…GOOD FOR HER! She has chosen to live her life a certain way and she sounds incredibly happy and certainly fulfilled in the bedroom. And she likes the mikvah…which is 1000% not the case for me, unfortunately. (I almost drowned in one, once.)

But then I started to worry. This may possibly be the only article people are reading about her brand of Judaism, and I worry that she may be painting in her world through her personal rose-colored glasses. I think a big problem is that some people are going to read this article and not dig any deeper. They are going to ignore that there are some big issues that Chaya is not discussing, because for her personally, HER LIFE IS WONDERFUL and, clearly, full of sex. I have no doubts that what she speaks is true.

But I have a gut feeling that while this may be true FOR HER, it may not be the case for many, many women who didn’t choose to be born into a life like this. The most important words I took from Chaya’s article are the words that SHE CHOSE THIS. She didn’t grow up this way and actually made a conscious choice to live her life this way.

And I’m sure there are many out there who are just like her. I’m positive, in fact. There are many.

But what about those who aren’t? Do we really want her speaking out on behalf of those who have no voice?

What about the girls who are married and babied several times over before the age of 20? What about the women who are not allowed to get degrees or jobs? What about the women who are not happy? What about the women who don’t even know that they are unhappy because questioning anything has never been an option? What about the women who don’t find the mikvah to be a spa-like experience? What kind of freedoms do these young women have? For many women who are born into this sect of religion, I fear that they do not have the same feelings of CHOICE that Chaya here has.

People who are reading this may not be aware of the intricacies of how the ultra-orthodox community works; of how restrictive it actually is to women. It’s a lifestyle that clings to the social and family structure of medieval Europe. Many advances we have made in terms of social rights and women’s rights have been shunned and oppressed by this community in order to protect their religious beliefs and identity.

I think that if Chaya’s article is what the media needs to know about Chassidic Judaism, the media is going to get it wrong.

The media needs to dig a little deeper.

And then I read Deborah Feldman’s rebuttal.

If you aren’t familiar with Deborah, she is the author of UNORTHODOX: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Her book is about being raised Chassidic and about how she felt trapped in a cult-like existence. She was married at 17 to a man she barely knew and wasn’t allowed an education. I haven’t read the book—I have it downloaded, ready to sink my teeth into it. Obviously, she is on the opposite side of this coin. Where Chaya was blissfully happy; Deborah was not. She speaks, in her rebuttal comment, about what her life was like. And it was very different than the life Chaya chooses to lead.

And then I started to worry. This may possibly be the only article people are reading about her brand of Judaism, and I worry that she may be painting in her world through her personal angry-colored glasses.

I think that if this is what the media needs to know about Chassidic Judaism, the media is going to get it wrong.

The media needs to dig a little deeper.

The bottom line is, it’s so important that people are talking about this—good and bad.

It’s important for people who know nothing about Judaism to know that when they pass a woman walking down the street with her elbows covered and her knees covered and she’s not touching her bearded, suited and black-hatted husband, she may be the happiest woman on earth. She may love these rules. She may embrace a lifestyle that is filled with much celebration and holidays and good food and family and happiness and children and days that are spent unplugged. She may love it…and who are you to judge?

But it’s also important for people who know nothing about Judaism to know that when they pass that same woman, she may be unhappy, and completely and fully trapped inside a religion that dictates her life for her. She may want something different—she may hate the mikvah, she may hate the concept of not touching her husband for two weeks out of every month, she may not find her husband sexy, she may not feel like she has a voice. Or a choice.

Dig deeper.

It’s fascinating what you will find.

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  1. Great post. You articulated exactly what I wanted to say but couldn’t nearly as well as you could. People do have a hard time digging deeper and trying to see all sides of something before picking a side or judging.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Kathy on May 31, 2012
  2. I read both articles, but stopped short of the 1200 comments. :) Thanks for writing this – I find religion so very interesting, and you and Metalia have taught me SO much about yours. And yes, people should dig deeper, but sadly, I think they rarely do.

    [Reply]

    ali replied on

    You *should* read the comments, when you have time. They are super fascinating and important too!

    [Reply]

    Comment by pgoodness on May 31, 2012
  3. This is an outstanding post, and it puts into words what I’ve struggled to say to a friend about her voluntary embracing of her Muslim rituals, rules, and restrictions.

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    ali replied on

    Wow. THANK YOU. I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Avitable on May 31, 2012
  4. My first comment is that the “(I almost drowned in one, once)” should have been hyperlinked to THAT post <—hint, write it please!

    And also this (which I've shared with you already): Thanks for writing about this. I am fascinated 1. by the conversation it created 2. am fascinated by how HARD these conversations can be for some people to engage in without drawing swords 3. am reminded once again of what I don't know!!

    Your post is great Ali, I find your honesty refreshing, and I look forward to the conversation it generates!

    [Reply]

    ali replied on

    Thanks, Marci. I’m looking forward to the conversation too. I just hope it stays respectful, yanno?

    [Reply]

    Comment by marci o'connor (@BeingMarci) on May 31, 2012
  5. This is intensely interesting, though I have an outsider’s perspective. I really want to read that book now!

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    Comment by the grumbles on May 31, 2012
  6. Wow. Epic post. Well done.

    Isn’t the thesis of your argument though true of ANY woman ANYWHERE? And for that matter, ANY PERSON. What we see externally (be it blissfully happy or depressingly sad) doesn’t even give us a clue of that person’s reality. When I see a 100% secular woman walking down the street in a skirt and blouse holding the hand of her boyfriend, I also don’t really have a clue as to whether she yearns for a more spiritual life and sees her days as vacuous and empty or whether she’s a self-actualized high-powered ultra self-confident happy mother of two.

    Don’t judge a book by its cover. ;)

    [Reply]

    Lisa replied on

    I was thinking the exact same thing. What we see as an outsider is not at all the complete story. Even people who know us well do not know the complete story. The only thing we know for certain is our own feelings – and even those are complex and nuanced.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Ed Prutschi on May 31, 2012
  7. I found your reactions on Facebook and went on to read both articles too. I totally agree with you- both pieces are how those women perceive their relationship with religion and choice. Thank you for making me feel a little more informed this week. :)

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    Comment by Brooke on May 31, 2012
  8. It’s very fascinating. I grew up with little Jewish education. I had a Bar Mitzvah where I had to memorize my everything because I still can’t read Hebrew. We did not grow up eating Kosher. We still don’t. I want to keep a Kosher house though, but my wife isn’t on the same page. I would still eat shellfish outside of the house. I grew up in Maryland and could peal and eat a Maryland Blue crab before I was three. But I want to community to feel comfortable eating in our home. We do observe Shabbat. I won’t drive unless it is an emergency. We don’t do transactions. But I’m on my iPhone and computer. I’ll post to facebook and even blog. But it is a day of no running around. Spending it with the community and good friends. Since we started doing that, I actually feel like I have a weekend. And I play loosely with shabbat times. Shabbat starts for me when I get home from work, which in the winter is usually to late. My wife and I are in slightly different places. She won’t walk if it is too hot or cold. So she drives the kids and I walk, on those days and we both make the choice to our comfort. Thankfully our community is very open and accepting. But you are right, there are a lot of intricacies to Judaisms and various forms. I don’t think they are understood well by the outside community but even more sad, I don’t think they are understood within Judaism itself. Great post Ali. Thanks for putting this out there.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Corey Feldman on May 31, 2012
  9. I love this post, Ali. I am fascinated by religion in general and specifically Judaism thanks to a novel my dad bought for me when I was 20ish. I’ll bookmark the article to read in case my child ever decides to nap for longer than 40 minutes.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Rhi on May 31, 2012
  10. I grew up in a non-traditional Christian home…went and ate doughnuts after church…that’s what I remember from my church experience..as an adult I’ve learned to appreciate all religions…in fact my college degree was in cross-cultural studies….

    During college I lived and nannied for a Jewish family in NY for 3 years…went to Temple, jewish camp, got to observe Holidays….darn it, I really wanted to marry Jewish! :) It is a fascinating faith and I love the traditional side of it….so many great things about this article…I will have to check out Deborah’s rebuttal. Thanks for posting!

    [Reply]

    Comment by Amy Purvis on May 31, 2012
  11. I grew up reform, am raising my child reform, and yet still, find this article fascinating. I saw a woman at the pool this weekend reading the book and thought I have to read that. I, like you, am so glad we are having these conversations.

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    Corey Feldman replied on

    I agree. very important conversations to have.

    [Reply]

    Comment by jodifur on May 31, 2012
  12. This, at least as an outsider, is super super interesting. I kind of want to read the book, now.

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    Comment by Just Shireen on May 31, 2012
  13. As my All Things Judaism teacher, I’ve learned SO much about respecting choice of religion. Whether it be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or any other belief, the choice to believe and the respect to educate oneself is what is most important.

    Also, did you see the Oprah on OWN a few months ago where she interviewed a group of Chassidic women? It was FASCINATING.

    [Reply]

    ali replied on

    I didn’t see it! Wonder if I can find it online somewhere.

    [Reply]

    Cheri replied on

    It’s there somewhere, I went searching for it after reading both posts and found it. Looking forward to sinking my teeth into DF’s book and glad you posted. Respect for one another is so important and shame on us for forgetting that.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Angie [A Whole Lot of Nothing] on May 31, 2012
  14. This is fascinating!

    [Reply]

    Comment by Kristen @ The Chronicles of Dutch on May 31, 2012
  15. Love this article and your thoughts. Everyone should read it!

    [Reply]

    Comment by heather... on May 31, 2012
  16. Fantastic post, Ali! One of the many, many reasons I am so glad to have you in my life is that I have learned so much about Judaism. I would never have otherwise. It fascinates me. I love learning about other religions and I love that you and your family have welcomed me openly into your homes for Jewish holidays.

    I am not religious and I don’t judge others, because as you said, it’s all about being the best person you can be. And to be as knowledgeable as you can.

    You should always dig deeper before rushing to judgment. With everything, really, but especially religion.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Kristabella on May 31, 2012
  17. I love you. That is all.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Sharon on May 31, 2012
  18. Ali – beautifully written. Thank you!

    [Reply]

    Comment by Heidi on May 31, 2012
  19. Incredible post! I totally agree that people need to question, and dig deeper and not judge the book by the cover. Oprah did a wonderful Lifeclass on a Chassidic community but the families that she spoke with gave a very narrow view on judaism. She too spoke with women about their lives which was enlightening and one woman who “chose” to go from being a house dj to being religious. Although I loved her episode people again might judge all of us based on what they saw. Unorthodox is up next on my reading list.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Renee on June 5, 2012
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