Monday, July 28, 2014

A Woman's Lot

Let me first of all establish that I have no complaint against Hashem and His Torah. I am not a feminist – certainly not in any political or sociological sense of the word – and I am very content with the role that He has given me – but there are some societal attitudes I find very disturbing. Let me bring you a couple of examples…

Why am I invited to a Shabbos tisch, with fervent assurances that “it is for women too — you are going to love it!”, only to arrive in the synagogue (a very prominent and respected one, at that) where there is no “it” to love; the women’s section is in complete darkness, no refreshments – not even a bottle of water – are provided, there are not enough chairs available, and the mechitza consists of floor-to-ceiling pegboard, where a few of the infinitesimal peep-holes have been marginally enlarged, so that if I give up the chair I managed to claim for myself, and stand close to the plank, I might press my eye to the aperture and perhaps – or perhaps not – catch a fraction of a glimpse of the proceedings. As for hearing anything – well, it is more a question of eavesdropping. Is this dignified? Is this how you treat invited persons of any gender? This is not a matter of “equality” – it is a matter of common courtesy.

Why am I sitting at a Shabbos Sheva Brochos where the (male) speakers are all pointedly addressing the men’s section, their backs firmly to us women. Since no microphone can be used we need every possible sound wave we can get our way, but the speakers make no effort to be heard by the female guests; yet we are shushed and told to be quiet – so that the men should be able to enjoy themselves unhindered? “Put us in a separate room then!” an irate fellow guest said to me, “We can’t hear a thing, and then we are not even allowed to talk among ourselves.” And I had to agree with her: sitting at a party, unable to follow the “entertainment”, yet not being allowed to talk for long stretches of time feels more like a punishment than a simcha.

And let me stress again: this is not Hashem’s fault…

Isn’t our holy Torah known for its respectful stance towards women, granting us societal rights and human dignity far beyond the norm of the surrounding nations? Where did things go wrong? Is it just a bad case of bad manners? How come certain men think they don’t have to behave respectfully towards women, and that it is okay to send an eight year-old boy around the simcha hall to shush the female guests? When and where did it become acceptable that a child should admonish adults? Not in the Torah MiSinai that I learned from.

The proper segregation of men and women at all religious and/or social occasions is non-negotiable. Aside from the necessity of keeping the men in line, there is tremendous holiness in the separation; it preserves not only the purity of our actions and behavior, but the purity of the very simcha itself - it is not tainted by the giddy rush of impropriety. However, the separation must be done in a manner that ensures the comfort and dignity of both men and women.

As a frum Jewish woman in a frum Jewish community, I often feel that I want to encourage and empower the women around me. The Torah doesn’t treat us like second-class citizens – why should societal conventions do so? My frum sisters who uncomplainingly accept these above, and similar, scenarios – do they do so because to protest would mean being branded as “modern” or “feminist”; or have their brains been so thoroughly washed that they no longer react to - or even perceive - disrespect?

I would make the case that it is because of my uncompromising loyalty to Torah values that I want to see its ideals of championing the dignity of women implemented and perpetuated; it is because I refuse to be “modern” or “feminist” that I insist that the men around me should treat me and my sisters with the consideration and sensitivity that the Torah mandates. All you men – Rabbis as well as laymen – who boast about how much you respect women: let's see you live up to your professed ideals!

And if you do - I'll respect you right back!

Shalom Uv'racha!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Our Rebbetzin

Around Shavuos time this year, my husband and I spent two weeks in Eretz Yisrael. “Not a vacation”, he keeps pointing out, because to him a trip to the Holy Land is an avodah – a word that can mean both Divine service and labor; for Divine service is oftentimes laborious. Particularly if, like him, you are a devotee of sunrise davening. For me the Divine service is less laborious, but even so I agree – much as I love the Israeli food, the shopping, and spending time with my friends in caf├ęs, it is essentially a spiritual undertaking, drastically different than lounging on a beach, assuming you would be interested in doing so.

There are many things to attend to in Yerushalayim, but the first and most preeminent is to visit our Rebbetzin in Meah Shearim. My husband has known and worshipped her since he was a young man in his twenties; I was introduced to her when we went to Eretz Yisrael as a fairly newly-married couple in 2005.

I had thought – taken for granted! – that the very first thing to do upon arrival would be to run to the Kosel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall, but my husband insisted that we must go to the Rebbetzin first. I argued that it didn’t make sense – wasn’t the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, by the Wall; shouldn’t we greet the Shechinah first of all? “No,” he maintained, “first the Rebbetzin – you’ll see…”

And I did see. In a little house in Meah Shearim we were welcomed by the wholly holy Rebbetzin who embraced us (figuratively, in my husband’s case), with such indescribable love and radiance that the experience was wholly transporting. The joy with which she greeted my husband, whom she hadn’t seen in over twenty years, made him laugh and cry like I had never seen him laugh and cry. As a young yeshiva student he had been a ben bayis (literally “a son of the household”) in her home, developing a close relationship with the Rebbetzin, her husband, a renowned Sofer (Torah scribe), and their whole family; but beyond that, when their youngest son became dangerously ill a few years later and they traveled to America for medical assistance, my husband went out of his way to be supportive and helpful in every way that he could, thereby forever earning a very special place in their hearts.

When the laughing and crying had subsided a little, we sat down in the red velvet salon to talk and I was properly introduced. With a mixture of Yiddish, German and English with a few words of Hebrew thrown in, we managed to have an interesting conversation. Born in Vienna, the Rebbetzin came to Yerushalayim as a toddler with her family, narrowly escaping the horrors of the Nazi era, and to this day she still lives in the house that was once her parental home. “My father was a king, and my mother was a queen” she told me – and it seemed to me that the condition must be hereditary; for her own bearing, with all its warmth and sweetness, is truly aristocratic. Additionally, her cheek bones are to die for. Graceful and vivacious, full to the brim of love for her Creator and all His creation, Rebbetzin Chanele inspired me that time – and every subsequent time – with such a desire to be like her, to have emunah like her, that I am entering a whole other spiritual level every time we meet.

As I was to experience myself, every Shabbos she and her husband would feed the multitudes, the salon and the dining room both set beautifully with candles and flowers. Depending on whether there would be more men or more women at each meal the bigger crowd would get the salon, while the smaller group would squeeze into the dining area. Since that first trip, I have had many Shabbos meals in both rooms; both settings are festive and dignified, and the food is fine, but the ikar, the main point of the experience, is the atmosphere; the regal, yet humble, radiance of both the Rebbetzin and her husband. The singing of zemiros, holy Shabbos songs, is no mere sing-along in this house; it is an elevated avodah, reminiscent of the singing Levi’im on the steps of the Beis Hamikdash. Sadly, for the past couple of years, the Rebbetzin must preside with the assistance of her sons, since her beloved and saintly husband now keeps Shabbos in Gan Eden.

As we walked along Meah Shearim on our way to the Kosel that day I said, “Now I understand why we had to see the Rebbetzin first; this was the necessary preparation to get us in the right frame of mind to greet the Shechinah.” Then again, the Shechinah also lives in a certain little house in Meah Shearim…

*      *      * 
This year, in an unexpected and unprecedented sequel to our trip, the Rebbetzin arrived in America a few days after we did, in order to attend a number of family simchos. She was kept very busy between all the special events, but one day we managed to abduct her in between appointments, and brought her home with us for a brief visit. “We have a red velvet salon too*" we coaxed her, "you have to come and sit and make a brocho in it!” And she did – she came and sat and made many blessings. It was a strange and wondrous, almost unreal, feeling to be able to entertain the Rebbetzin in our home – a person so indelibly connected to Meah Shearim, a personification, if you will, of all that is holy in Yerushalayim; suddenly sitting in our living room in mundane America. It was like a collision not just between planets, but between galaxies. Twilight zone!

My husband has been completely overexcited ever since. He managed to get her to pose with him – at a proper distance! – in a few photos that he now runs about displaying to all his friends. “Guess who is in a photo with the Rebbetzin!” he boasts to all and sundry. They are all terribly envious of him. Or so he says.

Shalom Uv’racha!

*If you have any interest in interior decorating, you may want to take a look at my red salon here.