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The First—and Last—Time I Wore Tefillin

I used to think that being a feminist meant doing whatever men did. Now I’ve found my own place as a woman in the Orthodox world.

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The first time I laid tefillin, I was 15. I wrapped the straps around my arm conscientiously, coached by one of the teenage boys in my Jewish youth group. Reading the blessing from a prayer book, I followed it with the Shema, expecting to feel the same pleasure I received from doing other mitzvot—lighting candles each Shabbos, reciting prayers, sharing the Passover Seder with my family. Not necessarily a frisson of holiness, but the feeling of connection to generations of Jews that had come before me.

Instead, it felt like I’d borrowed someone else’s jacket—a wool jacket that itched.

My reaction puzzled me. I was already a staunch feminist, raised by generations of staunch feminists. After my mother divorced my father, she returned to using her maiden name. During my preschool years, she worked at the local women’s support center, surrounded mostly by ex-hippies. Mom dressed my twin sister and me in blue and yellow more often than in pink and purple. She gave us baby dolls, but we also played with Legos, Lincoln Logs, and action figures. She steadfastly refused to buy us Barbies.

Both of my grandmothers worked outside the home before it was fashionable. My father’s mother worked for the military during World War II and then became one of those secretaries who types faster than most people can think. My grandmother on my mother’s side operated her own employment agency. She was also strongly pro-choice; while working as a candy-striper during the 1940s, she had witnessed the aftermath of a coat-hanger abortion.

The men in my family challenged traditional gender roles, too. My mother’s father always helped with housework—we called him Mr. Clean—and he and his wife raised their sons to do so as well. (They also excelled at babysitting once my sister and I came along.) It wasn’t until I hit college and talked to my friends about their families that I realized how “liberated” my grandfather and uncles were.

While we occasionally attended synagogues or celebrations with mechitzas and the like—we had Orthodox relatives—the synagogues my mother chose for our family reinforced our feminist upbringing. Although she had not been taught Hebrew in childhood, my mother made sure we learned to read it. At religious school, the girls were treated no differently than the boys. After my sister and I mastered the blessings over the wine and challah, my grandfather often invited us to recite them at his place for Friday night dinner.

Upon Free To Be… You and Me’s release on VHS in 1983, when I was in third grade, my teachers began to play the video during rainy-day recesses instead of Mary Poppins and Really Rosie. Well-primed by my family background, I immediately accepted its message that males and females were exactly the same, wanted the same things, and could accomplish the same things. I strongly identified with Atalanta, the princess who wanted to see the world and would let no man get in her way.

Teachers pushed me to take the most rigorous coursework possible, and to compete in academic tournaments. If my grades dropped, they told me I was a slacker. No one excused my failure or explained that “of course” math was hard for girls. My family and my teachers fully expected me to complete not only college, but graduate or professional school, as well. After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, I decided to become a real-life, female Indiana Jones, knowing that to do so, I’d have to earn a doctorate.

When my sister and I reached the age of bat mitzvah, we read from the Torah in a halting Hebrew. Our grandparents bought us each a tallit. I wore mine only a handful of times after my bat mitzvah—but not because I felt like a girl shouldn’t wear one. The stiff nylon fabric was hot, and the tendency to slip a nuisance.

By high school, I rarely wore a skirt (even to synagogue or a formal dance). I swore like a sailor and generally handled my nervousness around boys by answering any attempt at conversation with a scathing retort (unless I thought the boy was cute—then I blushed and mumbled). As a member of the Conservative youth group USY, I frequently organized and led the prayer services.

I called myself a feminist, and I could do everything the boys could do. But the one thing I never did was lay tefillin. After all, they cost several hundred dollars a pop. It was hardly worth the investment unless the owner wore them frequently, if not daily. Even most of the Jewish men I knew didn’t own a pair.

However, there were several USY boys who did own tefillin, and most of the male advisers did, too. And all of them, being liberal-thinking guys, encouraged the girls to borrow them. And so, that fateful day, when a good friend offered the opportunity to lay his tefillin on the Sunday following a Shabbaton, I jumped at the chance.

My heart raced a little. I felt quite excited, really, as my friend handed his tefillin to me. But then, as he helped me wind the leather straps around my arm, I felt a visceral revulsion to their presence on my body. Looking at my sister Rachel in the next row being coached through the process by another boy—like me, she was a feminist who was wearing tefillin for the first time—I noted the smile on her face. Yet it was hard for me not to rip the tefillin off. I had to force myself to say the appropriate prayers first.

Later that day, Rachel told my mother, “We put on tefillin today!” Mom approved. Remaining silent, I didn’t share the strange feelings I’d had. But from then on, I noticed something: As much as I hated wearing tefillin, I found it appealing when boys did wear them. The black boxes and straps had a certain macho quality, rather like a leather jacket. When I mentioned it to my sister, she giggled.

***

While still in high school, I started keeping kosher, to some degree, and continued to do so when I entered a small liberal arts college in a rural area. Surrounded with few exceptions by non-Jews, I found myself obstinately clinging to Judaism more. Each Friday night, I lit candles to mark the beginning of Shabbat, even after my candlesticks were stolen from the dorm kitchen. (I lit candles in my room after that.) I schlepped to relatives’ homes for holidays, did Passover shopping during spring break so I would have plenty to eat during the holiday, and made Shabbat dinner for my friends, most of whom were not Jewish. Baking challah turned into a hobby, although it would be a few years until I really mastered it.

Halfway through college, I greatly reduced my driving on Shabbat. I started reading more about Judaism, and the more I read, the more I felt drawn to Orthodoxy, which seemed to me a more truthful and authentic expression of Jewish heritage and God’s will than the Conservative Judaism of my mother and the Reform Judaism of my grandparents. But reading about traditional gender roles in Orthodox life, I had mixed feelings.

On the one hand, deep down, they appealed to me. I’d always been particularly drawn to the mitzvot most associated with women, such as candle-lighting, and looked forward to following the laws of family purity from the time I first heard about them as a teenager. I’d also become very disenchanted with the “feminism” I read about in classes and witnessed on campus. The feminist scholars I read generally offered flimsy, one-sided arguments about the evils of institutions like religion and marriage, and treated “unliberated” women as pathetic victims. I watched peers pursuing casual hookups (because “enlightened women” could behave “just like men”), then dissolving in tears after the liaisons ended, because only at that point did they realize they’d really wanted relationships after all. A few of them ended up having abortions, which they often regretted later. How was any of this actually good for women?

On the other hand, throughout history in the vast majority of cultures around the world, men had indeed victimized women. When the early and second-wave feminists felt indignation at the status of women, they were reacting to real phenomena: violent attacks, like forced marriage and marital rape, and subtler ones, like labeling a girl a slut for behavior that would be praised in a man. If I left the fold of “feminism” as I knew it, would I be endorsing those individuals and institutions who oppressed women?

I had another fear: By accepting for a “feminine role,” would I be settling for second-best? After all, that’s what my role models had told me: If I wanted to excel, I had to do it on male terms. When my sister enrolled in a Conservative rabbinical school at the end of college, I cringed inside, but on the outside, how could I object to her fulfillment of the feminist agenda?

***

Moving to a large city, I joined an Orthodox synagogue, but I still wore pants and had not yet fully committed to the observant life. When I visited my sister, I let her friends count me in a minyan or a zimun but went without a yarmulke, tallit, or tefillin. I straddled the fence between the worlds of Orthodox Judaism and the liberal movements, thoroughly befuddled, until one day in my second year of graduate school, when I sat down to complete my weekly reading for a course in Eastern European anthropology.

My professor had assigned Slavenka Drakulić’s feminist essay collection How I Survived Communism and Even Laughed. Drakulić wrote that despite the supposedly equal status of women and men in Communist societies, feminine needs and desires were ignored if they departed from masculine ones. Women in Communist countries couldn’t even get their hands on decent sanitary pads or tampons. Visiting feminists from the West told their Eastern European colleagues that they shouldn’t wear high-heels or makeup, but to women who had been deprived of their feminine identities, wearing these things felt like resistance to the communist state.

Drakulić suggested women could be equal in status with men if people accepted them as essentially different, but of equal value. The needs of women and girls must be met, and their unique strengths must be prized. Most importantly, each woman had to choose her path herself. Neither a misogynist ideology nor a self-described “feminist” one should limit her choices.

Reading Drakulić’s essay comforted me. If I chose to be a woman in the traditional Jewish mold, I wouldn’t be selling out. In fact, for me to don a pair of tefillin just because men did or because a feminist told me to would be the real sell-out. Since I respected other women’s autonomy, I could also accept women who chose a different path for themselves, including my sister and her classmates at rabbinical school.

To me, there could be no greater expression of feminism than to value each woman as an individual created in God’s image, with the ability to choose her lifestyle. But many of the feminists around me—former role models, friends, and classmates—opposed my choices, sometimes vehemently and sometimes with little condescending smiles. When I eventually eschewed the label “feminist,” it wasn’t because I disowned them, but because so many of them scorned me.

Over the next two years, I would become fully Orthodox. In my new community, feminine roles like mothering and homemaking were prized. Female intuition, the binah yeseirah, was praised. The tears shed by a woman while murmuring psalms were considered more powerful than the tefillin-clad formal prayer of a man. By immersing myself in an environment where women were separate, but elevated, I felt for the first time truly free to be me.

I was blessed to enter the Orthodox life in a community where my neighbors and friends never pressured me to take any step—from wearing exclusively skirts to no longer singing in front of men—before I was ready to do it gladly. A decade and a half later, I never lay tefillin, I don’t get counted in a minyan, and I don’t learn Gemara. But I have a vibrant spiritual life, dressing in a way that makes me feel dignified and feminine, praying daily at home or in the women’s section. Now that my children are a little older, I learn Torah, Jewish law, and mussar, Jewish character development, on a regular basis. I connect to God through blessings, verses of psalms, and caring for my family throughout the day.

My husband prizes the influence I have on our home, and I treasure his. Throughout my school years, I always felt in competition with male classmates. Today, my husband feels like a partner. We teach our daughters and sons that women and men are on the same team, and both their roles are necessary for each other’s mutual success. We define those complementary roles by Jewish custom and law, not by pop culture.

***

Drakulić tells a story in her book that speaks to me: Sharing my mother’s feminist sensibilities, she refused to buy her daughter a Barbie. And then, she writes, “only a couple of days before her twenty-second birthday, when I asked her what she wanted for a present, she told me she wanted a Barbie doll.”

Raising my children in the Orthodox world does not guarantee they will follow the path I’ve chosen. Someday, my daughters might choose to lay tefillin. If they do, I will accept their decision, because it is ultimately their choice, not mine. My job is to love them unconditionally. I’m not sure if most people would consider that the stand of a feminist, but I think that’s as pro-woman as a person can be.

***

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The First—and Last—Time I Wore Tefillin

I used to think that being a feminist meant doing whatever men did. Now I’ve found my own place as a woman in the Orthodox world.