Preaching to the choir

choirWhen I started this blog, I started it for an audience of one. I wanted to reign in the tangled yarn of my thoughts into one solid skein that I could hold, turn over, or unravel and rewind if I had to. Along the way, I’ve encountered those who vehemently disagree with my opinions and those who validate my viewpoints and make me feel like maybe I’m not as crazy as I think I am. Sometimes these assenting or dissenting voices come from the same person depending on the topic.

I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Sometimes I overstated my case, or was too quick to judge. Sometimes I felt that an injustice or some form of discrimination needed to be called out, and since no one else was speaking up, I would be the one to do it. Giving voice to the voiceless, and all that jazz.

I still don’t know which has more merit – being the one to bring attention to disturbing circumstances, or being the one who recognizes injustice, but sits back and waits for someone else to speak up. It’s much easier to merely click a like button than actually be held accountable for bringing the situation to light.

I do believe in the concept of what goes around comes around, because I’ve seen it and experienced it. You can call it karma, divine retribution, or less ominously, the world mirroring back to you what you have shown to others for the benefit of self-reflection. Recently I was shown that mirror through the trials and tribulations of social media, and I’ve taken heed.

For the most part, I’ve been preaching to the choir. While I’m very grateful that there is a like-minded choir to preach to, what I have realized, is that people only change if they want to change. Anyone who is opposed to my opinions will remain opposed, no matter how eloquently I attempt to make my case. People turn a deaf ear to viewpoints they consider treif. When an argument is dismissed as being born from secular culture, it is invalid, and therefore, no consideration for change is merited.

Additionally, many of us won’t practice what we preach when it comes to compassion toward hot button social issues such as child abuse, people going off the derech, homosexuality, the shidduch minefield, drug and alcohol abuse, inclusion of people with mental or physical health issues, women’s rights, etc. Words cost nothing, but actions can cost a great deal.

As fast as many of us are to step up on our social media soapbox and condemn discrimination and injustice in our society, many of us would be equally fast, for example, to squash a shidduch suggestion for our child with someone who has experienced sexual abuse, a chronic health issue, or a sibling who is gay. Sometimes an issue we can be tolerant about from afar, is an issue we can’t abide by close to home.

Conversely, continuing the shidduch example, there are sometimes valid considerations for not wanting a child to marry someone who, for example, has an extensive history of drug addiction and relapse, or a history of medical non-compliance for severe mental health issues. Not wanting a child to be subjected to that kind of uncertainty and tumult isn’t being discriminatory, it’s simply being a concerned parent. The devil is in the details, although such considerations might also be labelled intolerant by the social media peanut gallery.

It makes me wonder about our current culture of online lynching. Social media is the new Wild West, and frontier justice is alive and well. So many viral condemnations are started by the dissemination of partial truths and half told stories. There’s no doubt it’s entertaining to watch the sparks fly and the responses flood in at a dizzying pace in the name of public outrage. However, once the storm subsides and interest wanes, was anything actually accomplished? When the old outrages are buried under the weight of the new ones in our Facebook feeds, can we justify the harsh words read and written by claiming they promoted change? Most of the time, the only thing accomplished was machlokes and gossip.

Again, those who were already sensitive to the general issues being publicized will continue to be sensitive to those wrongs brought to light. Those who were unaware, and willfully so, will continue their backlash against those who try to shine a light on perceived injustices. Change has to be initiated by the individual’s own desire to change. Those who aren’t open to it won’t do an about face because of online shaming – especially if they feel that their position is God’s position. Adding religious righteousness into the mix only intensifies someone’s unwillingness to see another side, particularly if they feel that the other side is unquestionably against halacha or mesorah, which are one and the same in many Orthodox minds.

Since starting this blog and monitoring the Jewish news and social media, I have seen the same issues come up repeatedly over the past few years. Often, the same controversial spiritual and community leaders are called to task over their latest rantings or proclamations. Nothing really changes though – despite their detractors there are always more followers continuing to support even the most provocative of spiritual gurus. On an individual level, I’m sure some people have shifted in their thinking. I know I have. However, on a communal level, I haven’t seen a universal shift.

I know that change happens slowly. For example, there is a growing call to report sexual abuse cases to the police in Orthodox communities, even in communities where such reporting was practically unheard of only a few years ago. Rabbinic leaders are changing their minds on how to handle abuse cases in light of new information on how sex offenders often re-offend and how permanently scarring such abuse is to victims.

Another example of change is how women are slowly, albeit controversially in some cases, taking up leadership roles in Orthodox religious life. It is getting to the point where any Orthodox religious body that speaks out against advancements for women or scorns the idea of women in positions of spiritual leadership will be swiftly condemned, and so the language and tone coming from Orthodox clergy is getting tamer – even if the basic message of resistance is essentially the same.

Nothing happens overnight, yet that is exactly what social media users demand – instant satisfaction. I readily admit to subconsciously hoping for immediate resolution to the social ills I’ve dwelt upon. It’s not possible. Many of the problems that plague our communities took decades to develop. They won’t instantly disappear with the rantings of one angry person, or even several angry people, no matter how quickly a viral post spreads.

So this leaves me back to where I started – back to an audience of one – which is the only audience that really matters anyway. It’s appropriate that I should be examining my own heart, writing to detangle my thoughts, and thinking about where I stand on societal and spiritual issues. However, writing or ranting about my views online has a limited long term impact. It’s actions and not words that matter most. As 2016 approaches, I hope that I can have a greater impact by doing rather than saying. The audience might be smaller, but the results of offline actions have a better chance of yielding long term results. Words are important and have their place, but sometimes words come too easy. As they say, nothing worth having ever comes easy.


Tina Fey is my Steve Martin

bossyGrowing up, my Uncle Saul had a particular loathing for Steve Martin. It was strange, because Uncle Saul loved comedy and was considered something of a jokester himself. Steve Martin’s brand of silly slapstick humor (think “The Jerk” years) seemingly fell right into Saul’s comedy style wheelhouse, yet he hated the guy.

One day in the early 80s, as a commercial came on advertising yet another Steve Martin flick, Uncle Saul expounded on his dislike for the comedic actor. Apparently, in his younger years, Saul bore an uncanny resemblance to Steve Martin in both appearance and wit (minus the prematurely grey hair). His mother thought of him as a funnier version of Steve Martin, and apparently he did too. Naturally it was patently unfair that it was Steve Martin who got the big break on SNL, those big money stand-up gigs, and the blockbuster movie deals. Steve Martin had stolen his life! Of course Uncle Saul had cause to hate the man. It all finally made sense.

While the mystery of why Uncle Saul hated Steve Martin had been solved, it occurred to me as I grew older that jealousy or dissatisfaction with one’s own life isn’t a good reason to hate one more fortunate who managed to grab the brass ring and run with it. I patted myself on the back for surpassing Uncle Saul in this milestone of maturity, and was able to live with that quiet satisfaction until yesterday, when I started reading Bossypants. Tina Fey stole my life and I want it back.

In my defense, I’ve always been a big fan of Tina Fey, as well as her posse of female comedic cohorts like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, who are starring with her in an upcoming movie called, Sisters, which I am NOT going to see (she makes enough money without my contributing to her ticket sales like a GoFundMe campaign for needy comics).

Oh, you can bet that before the Bossypants betrayal I felt pretty self-righteous and proud that I was able to support this successful comedic writer and actress, despite the obvious similarities between us (similarities known only to myself, but she was 45 and brunette and I had read somewhere that she had spent some time in Chicago, so the connection should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain). However, only a few pages into the book, I realized that the similarities had gone from spooky to downright plagiarism!

Turns out that not only has Ms. Fey spent time in Chicago, she actually stalked (yes I said stalked) both my head and my hood. First, she talked about the misery it was to grow up during a time when the only standard of beauty portrayed in the media was blond hair and blue eyes when your eyes were Shih Tzu Poop Brown (my words, not hers) and your hair was the equivalent of an old Scotch-Brite steel wool scrubbing pad, turned brown from rust and old brisket (and Fey was the one they pegged for the head writer spot at SNL?). She actually mentioned the impossible beauty standards set by Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs, the only sad representation of brunettes being Janet on Three’s Company – examples that I jotted down for a possible future WordPress blog post only two weeks ago! Intellectual property theft much?

Worse still, she had the nerve to mention Rogers Park. Rogers Park! No, not the yuppified and frumified version of West Rogers Park that I now live in. The real deal. East Rogers Park. She talked about the Morse train station. The train station that I lived 1 ½ blocks from and used almost every day from the ages of 14-22. She had the ovaries to mention the Heartland Café and their sweet potato fries. Are you kidding me? I was best friends with the Heartland Cafe owner’s son from 1983-1985! She doesn’t know the Heartland Café. I AM the Heartland Café!

I could go on with more examples about how Tina Fey is a cheap imposter of the comedic genius that is me – did she go to the Lincoln Park Fine Arts School for the Emotionally Impaired like me? I think not! Did Tina Fey win the coveted title of “Funniest Girl” of the 1984 Eugene Field Elementary School graduating class like I did? It could never happen, even in her wildest dreams!

Of course, my situation is totally different than Saul’s. Based on age and geographic proximity to Rogers Park in the early 90s, I could actually be Tina Fey. Uncle Saul never had a shot at Martin. My loathing is justifiable, while his was just pathetic. I know pathetic, because it stares me in the face every day.

Like yesterday, as a nurse was trying to make small talk as she inserted an IV needle into my arm for a follow up MRI of the lumbar spine (lower back pain instigated circa ’98 with baby #2, and a constant reminder of my explosive 9 year reproductive run). As she prepped my upper arm for needle insertion, she peppered me with questions about myself. Very quickly, the conversation turned to what I did for a living.

The site of the IV needle

When I told her that I was a stay-at-home-mom, her face turned into a mold of embarrassment and apology, kind of like when someone asks a woman if she’s pregnant and she’s not (not that that has ever happened to me!). She asked how many kids I had and their ages, and after replying with a significant number of offspring, she began her patronizing backpedaling about how of course I couldn’t work and take care of that number of children – I was doing a harder job than her own. I have officially fallen into the category of pathetic. I’m betting no one patronizes Tina Fey, and she’s a mom too!

In any event, my pride in being a supportive “sisters 4 sisters,” kind of woman quickly evaporated as I perused the opening pages of Bossypants. In a mixture of indignation, self-recrimination, and unadulterated loathing for all that is Fey, I quickly realized that Saul and I were on the same stunted emotional level – being angry at people who accomplished what we would have, should have, and could have if only other people would have believed in us and propelled us toward the success we so richly deserved. Is it our fault that no one believed in the legends we were in our own minds?

However, I had to harken back to this past Shabbos. My husband and I were talking to our kids about friendship and the false god that is popularity. We told them that having a few valuable and loyal good friends is better than having hundreds of meaningless acquaintances. My husband quoted Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avos (The Ethics of the Fathers), “The truly rich person is one who is happy with their lot.” Basically, be content with what you have, and don’t waste time regretting the things that you don’t.

So, I am back to realigning myself with my former position on not hating on someone because they have something I thought I should have. At the end of the day, I am exactly where I am supposed be in this moment, and someone else’s success doesn’t take away from my own potential for achievement.

I’m still not going to see Sisters.

Leasing vs. Buying

LeaseBuyLately I’ve been asking myself a serious question – why do Orthodox women get married? I understand that women want long term monogamous relationships and children to satisfy physical, emotional, and maternal inclinations. However, given the pitfalls for women within the halachic legal institution of marriage, I am starting to question if the risks are worth it.

For example, there are those who argue against non-frum Jews having kosher weddings in order to avoid later problems with gittin and mamzeirut. However, these same issues also pose problems for frum Jews who have kosher weddings, so why not apply the same principle?

There are opinions that say a man and woman who live as a married couple, even without a legal Jewish wedding, are still considered halachically married. However, if a couple pointedly does not have a chuppah, does not marry in civil court, steadfastly don’t refer to each other as husband and wife, and consistently correct any misperception on the part of others that they are married, it would be difficult to say they are still married despite their diligent efforts to the contrary. No marriage, no get needed, no agunot, and no risk of future children with a new partner being classified as mamzerim.

Additionally, I have been wondering about the concept of a woman’s value being lowered halachically the moment she marries, while a man’s stays the same. Just as the value of a new car goes down the moment its new owner drives it off the lot, so the value of a woman goes down (ketubah-wise) the moment she loses her virginity. The man’s status remains unchanged – in fact no monetary value is put on his virginity or status as an unmarried or married man.

Likewise, if a woman gets divorced, this is a spiritual blemish upon her. Practically speaking, this blemish renders her unfit to marry a man who is in the priestly tribe of Kohen. A divorced man has no matching spiritual blemish that would make him unfit to marry certain women, including the daughter of a Kohen. The bottom line is that a woman’s halachic value is lowered as soon as she is married, which isn’t an issue if she remains married to her original husband, but comes into play if she divorces and wants to remarry.

While it’s true that a woman’s halachic monetary value is lowered and her ability to marry a Kohen affected even if she doesn’t marry, but enters into a sexual relationship with a man out of wedlock, at least she avoids the pitfalls of being an agunah or having her future children declared mamzerim if she decides to leave her partner and eventually enter into another relationship with a different man.

It seems as if some Orthodox women are living this new “single but attached” reality as much within the boundaries of halacha as such a relationship can manage. These frum single ladies aren’t necessarily avoiding marriage due to the possibility of a future messy divorce, but rather, because they haven’t found a man to marry. After a certain number of years of unsuccessful shidduch dating, there is only so long a girl can hold out for marriage.

Earlier this year, an article in The Forward by Hannah Katzman asked, “What Happens to Sexually Active Orthodox Singles?” The article describes the difficult conversations that are opening up between Jewish spiritual leaders and their constituents about premarital sex. While no Orthodox educator would encourage sex outside of marriage, it is becoming more difficult not to address this growing issue and pretend it’s not happening. Stories of tefillin dates (where the man brings his tefillin in anticipation of staying overnight at his date’s house) and single women keeping the laws of taharas hamishpacha and using the mikva have been swirling around for at least a decade. This is the orthodox singles version of kosher sex.

Practically speaking, the penalties for a single Jewish woman engaging in premarital sex with a Jewish man are no worse than the halachic and practical penalties for a married woman – even less so because she does not have the spiritual blemish of being divorced if the relationship ends, she has plausible deniability concerning her virginity since there were no kosher witnesses to her premarital activities (allowing her to enter into a future marriage with a clean slate as a “Besula” [virgin] and avoid being labelled a “Zonah” [harlot]), no risk that she will be legally chained against her will if she wants to leave the relationship, no risk of a husband dying with no children requiring chalitza with his brother, no risk of her future children being mamzerim, and no risk of being branded an adulteress.

Many car buyers who want the freedom to change it up every few years enjoy the benefits of leasing a car versus buying one. You can try out the model you think is best for you, and if you tire of it or realize it doesn’t live up to the hype, you can get out at the end of the term or utilize the option to buy if you like it. In marriage, men have the leasing option. Sure, they pay a penalty if they want to end the lease early, but it’s always an option and they can terminate the lease at will for any reason, and can select any new replacement model of their choosing. Women only have the buying option. Yes, buying a car affords stability and the ability to make changes and adjustments to the vehicle, but once it’s yours you’re stuck with it unless you willingly accept the depreciation costs to unload it, as the trade-in value has plummeted and no dealer will take the old car back in exchange for a brand new model even with a penalty fee.

Scarlett A

scarlett aEarlier this year my daughter had to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlett Letter. Published in 1850, it is written in sufficiently old-timey English to initially be a daunting read for the average American high schooler. The historical setting and speech patterns also give the impression that the plot portrays a dated cultural phenomenon of publicly shaming people for private consensual relationships.

My daughter had to write a paper about The Scarlett Letter, and one of her main themes was the double standard by which the persecuted protagonist, Hester Prynne, was treated as opposed to the father of her child, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who ultimately fell prey to the judgement of his own conscience. She wondered at the difference in character between Hester and Dimmesdale, with Hester braving jail and humiliation rather than exposing her paramour, versus Reverend Dimmesdale letting Hester take the fall for both of them.

The other day someone emailed me the link to a website that alerts the Orthodox community to women who are committing halachic adultery because, in the author’s opinion, they don’t have a kosher get. Apparently, some people think it’s a public service to warn the community about women who received a get under suspicious circumstances, and publicize the fact that any children from their subsequent marriages should be considered mamzerim.

There are probably other such websites out there, and I don’t choose to give them any publicity by linking to them, however, it’s a fine line to walk. On the one hand, I wonder if I should even mention these types of controversies, for fear of spreading further gossip. On the other hand, I don’t see anyone speaking up in defense of the women being named as (halachic) adulteresses.

I know there are people in my life who would say no one is speaking up for these women because they are willfully doing something wrong. However, as women subject to release from marriage by men (whether husbands or rabbis), are we doubting the validity of the get, the rabbis, or the women? If a rabbi releases a woman from marriage through get or annulment, why isn’t that sufficient, and why is it her fault if other people don’t recognize her status as an unchained woman? If she went through the proper channels, how can that not be enough?

Just as converts are sometimes put in the unfortunate position of being pawns in their conversion rabbi’s missteps, rendering other rabbis to pronounce his conversions invalid, will women who receive a get or annulment have to live in fear that their single status might be unduly revoked at any time – even after they have remarried and had children with their second husband? Will their children be condemned to the unfortunate status of mamzer because of politics, the backlash against feminism (which is seen as a driving force behind the movement to free agunot), or a recalcitrant husband with good connections?

It irks some prominent rabbanim that American Jewish women have the option of filing for divorce in civil courts. They feel that all custody and financial settlements should be decided by a beis din, and any settlement decided and enforced by civil law on a woman’s behalf is akin to blackmail. They feel that some husbands give a get under duress in exchange for their wives going easier on them in civil court. Therefore, some have questioned the validity of such religious divorces where the husband’s hand was forced in order not to lose custody, property, or pay exorbitant child support or alimony as ordered by a civil court. In fact, some men are encouraged to withhold a get until such matters are negotiated to their satisfaction or the wife agrees to renegotiate a civil settlement that’s already been decided in her favor.

In any event, there is a sense of irony that in 2015, Jewish women still face wearing a Scarlett A, just as women did in the mid-17th century Puritanical Massachusetts Bay colony that Nathaniel Hawthorne described. Interestingly, in the stories being spread about these willful Orthodox women flouting halacha by refusing to remain agunot (instead choosing to accept the release offered to them by respected rabbanim, who might later have second thoughts when pressed by their colleagues), we usually don’t hear a peep in their defense from their second husbands, nor is the second spouse usually implicated in the scandal. Of course, the first husband, who in most cases was a get-refuser, is portrayed as the cuckolded victim. It’s the woman who is the scheming vixen and the men who are the casualties of her wily machinations.