Faith

How Orthodox Judaism Elevates the Status of Women

When people ask me what it’s like to be an Orthodox Jewish woman, I find it hard to answer. Although I was raised in an Orthodox household, it wasn’t until college that I discovered a full Orthodox community. That helped me discover what my faith really means.

I was raised in an Orthodox household but went to a less-than-orthodox synagogue. My father was the rabbi of a little synagogue in an area that had been going downhill economically for some time. The members of the synagogue were not Orthodox, but the women lit candles on Friday nights and kept kosher in their homes, even though they ate out at non-kosher restaurants.

We kids used to play outside on the building’s steep stairs. I do remember that when I was a child the synagogue was packed and there were many children, but nothing lasts forever.

Little by little, the area changed. We still lived in the area, but there were fewer and fewer people coming to the synagogue. The older members passed away. Others moved to more affluent areas. The area became predominately black and when we finally moved, ours was probably the last white family in the area.

As an Orthodox child, I was an anomaly. My friends were both Jewish and non-Jewish, but even the Jewish friends questioned why I couldn’t go to the movies with them on Saturday. When I was ten, an Orthodox rabbi with two daughters came to Milwaukee and they became my friends. I was not the only Orthodox girl in Milwaukee anymore!

Finally at the age of seventeen when I entered Stern College, a Jewish woman’s college, I found that there were many other Orthodox young women as well. These elusive companions were both educated and from affluent families. It was wonderful. I met Orthodox young men and started to date. (I had never dated in Milwaukee and my parents hadn’t even allowed me to go out with other teens in a group.)

I blossomed. I was finally part of a group whose values were like those of my family. I found that Orthodox young men and women were like any other group: some were bright, some weren’t; some were nice, some weren’t; but we all had one thing in common — our Orthodox faith.

Since then, I have also found that I can go anywhere in the world as an Orthodox Jewish woman and find hospitality with other Orthodox families. I have traveled in many other cities and countries and have always been invited for Sabbath meals and even been invited to stay in Orthodox homes for the Sabbath. Orthodox Jewish hospitality is ubiquitous. As an Orthodox Jewish woman I have become a part of a larger Orthodox community.

There are many misconceptions about the Orthodox faith and how it applies to women in particular, and my experience with my fellows helped me respond to these false ideas.

From the outside, Orthodox women may seem subservient to men, but that isn’t true. Orthodox women come in all different packages. Some wear wigs or have their heads covered completely at all times; some wear hats just for the synagogue and not elsewhere; some wear different kinds of hats; some wear slacks, though most don’t; some wear short skirts, most wear longer ones.

We do not feel that we are lesser than our men — just different, with different roles in the family. Many Orthodox women have careers: some are attorneys, accountants, writers, or businesswomen. The majority work in education, either as teachers or administrators, so that they can be with their children and raise them.

One thing I have in common with all other Orthodox women is that we keep Orthodox homes. Most importantly, we keep the Jewish Sabbath when we do not conduct business, talk on the telephone, ride in cars, or cook — and we abstain from many things that we ordinarily do during the week.

Next Page: How the Orthodox Jewish woman’s role blossoms in Sabbath traditions.

From childhood on, I found that the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, gave me a vacation from worrying about things that had to be done during the week. Every week, I found it a mini vacation. I didn’t mind not being able to answer the telephone, and today it’s a respite from my computer and e-mails. I don’t open the mail on the Sabbath and thus don’t have to encounter bills and perhaps bad news.

I often feel sorry for those that don’t have the Sabbath and the multitude of holy days Orthodox Jews have. I look forward to the Sabbath, to the special meals, and to going to the synagogue. I feel the Sabbath is my social day, a day to be able to dress up and to greet other Orthodox Jews with “Shabbat Shalom,” or “Gut Shabbos” — Yiddish for good Sabbath.

On the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews have three meals, a large one on Friday night, another large one for Sabbath day, and a third for later on the Sabbath. A braided egg bread, challah, is eaten on the Sabbath and there are two loaves at each meal for the man of the house to make a blessing on, to commemorate the two loaves of mana that the Israelites received on their desert journey from Egypt. Many women make their own loaves of challah. I used to do this as well. Every woman is proud of her own recipe.

At the Sabbath meal on Friday evening the husband sings about his wife, “eshet chayil mi yimtzah,” which translates to “who can find a righteous woman?” from the book of Proverbs, to show his appreciation for his mate. The children are also blessed by the father.

For years as a married Orthodox woman, I have had the honor of bringing in the Sabbath to the home by lighting the Sabbath candles. It’s the custom to light one candle for every person in the household. I lit three: for myself, for my husband Avi, and for my son David.

I had always been Orthodox because of my upbringing, but there are many Orthodox women who made the choice to become Orthodox. It’s a lifestyle that brings a certain tranquility and peace of mind, and a raison d’etre in a world that may have lost its way.