Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Trouble With the Curtain: A feminist's adventure in Orthodox Judaism

(I'm writing this post for the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival, being hosted by from to to one. Check it out!)

I was a feminist first. Or maybe I was Jewish first. I was really both at the same time, but those days they didn't clash as much as they do now. In my little world, one didn't have to choose.

Growing up, I was encouraged to be anything I wanted to be. At 2 years old, I announced that I would be an astronaut. My parents encouraged that, and sent me to space camp, an engineering-specialized high school, summer science camp, and more opportunities on my road to the stars.

My family went to a conservative synagogue. Conservative Judaism (unlike most other applications of the word) is a middle-of-the-road sect. Unlike in more traditional Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit together, a girl has a bat mitzvah where she reads aloud from the Torah just like the boys, and men and women both participate in services. Conservative Judaism is egalitarian, making it easy to be both a feminist and a Jew.

Years later, when I had just moved to Houston, I was 1000 miles from home and feeling every one of them when the Jewish High Holidays rolled around in 2008. With the area still recovering from a significant hurricane, I did not have a chance to join a conservative synagogue in time to attend for the holidays. I ended up going to an Orthodox synagogue, something the feminist in me never expected to do. As egalitarian as the Judaism of my youth was, this was the exact opposite. In an Orthodox synagogue the men and women sit separately, with women behind a curtain or divider so men cannot see them (note that it is not required for women to be unable to see the men). The rabbi who leads the service is obviously a man and stands on the men's side, visible to us only through gaps in the curtain. Jewish law requires 10 Jewish adults to pray, and they will only count men, 13 and over. One of the highest honors of a Jewish prayer service is being called to the front for an "Aliyah" (literally means: to go up) to say the blessing before the Torah is read. This too is reserved for the men.

In the synagogue of my youth I read from the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah. I have read Torah portions and had Aliyot (plural for Aliyah) plenty of times without a man by my side. I sat with my whole family, men and women, in a row at synagogue and participated as an equal. This Judaism could coexist with feminism, Orthodox Judaism could not. I was at war with myself. If I allowed myself to feel comfortable behind the curtain, I was letting feminism down; if I could not make peace with the curtain, was I letting G-d down?

The Orthodox synagogue was not all bad. I had never seen people take religion so seriously before. I had never seen people love G-d so much. I left my first service with more invitations to holiday dinner than there are nights of the holiday. I felt like I was part of a family; maybe not the family I was born to, but they give me a place to go and always welcomed me. It is a result of my experiences at the Orthodox synagogue that I remain strongly connected to my faith, and for that I will always be grateful. But there was still the curtain, still the inner war. Feminist or Jew, which do you choose if both is not an option?

It was at the urging of my orthodox-raised ex-boyfriend that I tried the orthodox synagogue, but it is because of a conversation with him that I know I will take my future children back to the Conservative Judaism I grew up with.  "Why do you think the men and women should have to sit separately?" I asked him one day. "Well, because women are distracting," he replied. "It's easier to concentrate without them around." "What about the girls in your chemistry class? Are they distracting too?" "Yes."

This reminds me of when Christian feminist bloggers write about the modesty myth and how it forces women to take responsibility for men not being able to control their urges. If women are "too distracting" to be allowed in class with men, then many of the opportunities that I enjoyed as a child would be impossible. Nobody is going to do an engineering class for 4 women, when they could stick to giving a class to 70 men. Teaching young boys that it's okay to think of women as distractions goes against everything that I believe. My future daughters are not distractions, and my future sons will learn to rise above their urges and see women as equals.

Feminist first or Jew first, I have grown up to be both. Maybe it's not possible to be a perfect feminist and a perfect Jew at the same time, but Conservative Judaism offers a middle ground for imperfect people. There my children will learn about Judaism, celebrate the same holidays, pray to the same G-d. They will also learn that women are not distractions, that you have to be responsible for your own urges, that women do not need to be kept out of sight, and that girls can do anything boys can do. No curtains necessary.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Are you with us or against us?

(Alternately titled: "This is what's wrong with Jews in America" or "An open letter to 'that mean old lady.'")

Happy New Year! I had a pretty nice Rosh Hashana, right up until the end. Then an older woman at the synagogue invited a few of us back to her house for lunch after services Tuesday. Sure, I figured, it would make her happy to have guests. Maybe I had a dishwasher to empty and a tablecloth covered in wax to clean, or a million other things to do, but I could make time for a nice old lady who needed some company.

During lunch she and the other women commiserated about their wayward children- children who left home, who didn't call their mothers, who were no longer connected to their Judaism, who couldn't hold down jobs. They marveled that I was close to the same age as their children but so different, so much better...until I let it slip that I was marrying a non-Jew. Perhaps it wasn't so accidental. Maybe I felt like I shouldn't have to hide it (sometimes I think I should just for the sake of not getting into arguments), maybe I felt guilty for sitting there taking all their praise while knowing that I was secretly just as "bad" as all the other wayward children.Or maybe I wanted to stand up for my generation and to do so I had to take ownership of them and their "mistakes."

Whatever the reason, the reaction was predictable. It started innocently with "My fiancé lives in League City," and the usual chorus of "Mazel Tov!" at the news that I was engaged. They asked some questions about our wedding plans, and I spilled that he was Catholic. "Oy don't tell me that!" said our host. "Why not?" I replied, "it's not a secret."

No, he isn't converting, and yes, we are raising the kids Jewish. It's not like I think it's going to be easy, but it is what we're going to do. And there we get to what is wrong with Jews in America. You know who's making it hard for me? Not my own family, not my wonderfully understanding fiancé, not his family, not his church with the sweet Deacon who is helping us through pre-cana and coming to our wedding on the other side of town to bless the marriage. No. It's the Jewish community. It's the woman who proceeded to lecture me for a long time about how I'm making a mistake and the world has not changed and that I "can't" do this. I stayed as long as I could take, and then I left. I wish I could have put together a well reasoned response right then and there, but it wouldn't have helped my cause. She wouldn't even let me get much of a word in my own defense.

The world HAS changed. This study discusses that 1/3 of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying non-Jews, making 50% of recent non-Orthodox Jewish marriages (2006 to 2011) interfaith. Interfaith couples and their "half-breed" children are poised to become a huge part of the Conservative and Reform Jewish community in the next few years. It's interesting to note that this study focuses primarily on New York, still the largest concentration of Jews in this country. (If intermarriage rates are that high there, I imagine it must be higher in less-Jewish places! I would be interested to see a study done on that.)

You can't stop intermarriage. Well, you can, but you don't want to. Here's how: Don't allow your children to be professionals and go to secular college and participate in the wider community. Build walls, go back to the ghettos of Eastern Europe, the shtetls of Russia. Build a fence around yourselves and don't let Jews out or non-Jews in. Go back to Israel and huddle together on a tiny strip of holy ground. Jews in America, this is obviously not what you want. You want to be out there, in the world. You want your children to grow up and be anything they want, you want the American dream. Well, you've got it. Nobody said it would come cheap.

My generation, we are different from the last. It's not that we are color-blind or immune to religious differences or don't notice homosexuality. But many of us see (and G-d willing more and more of us will see) that black people, white people, Jewish people, Christian people, gay people, and straight people are all people. People you could be friends with, people you can learn from and teach to, people to share with, people to fly a space station with, people you could perhaps love and marry and build a family with. People are, first and foremost, just like us. Walls are coming down, and our differences no longer define us. Intermarriage is just one of many examples of that.

So you have a choice, Jewish community: You can write me off. You can tell me that no matter how hard I try, I can't raise Jewish children with a non-Jewish father. And if that's what you do, then you will probably be right. You'll be right for me and for the other of the 1/3 of Jews who will marry non-Jews this year. Or you could help me, welcome me, and let me stick around. Offer support- a rabbi to marry us (well, that ship has sailed for me, probably), a synagogue where we both can feel welcome, English in your services, education without pressure to convert. Do that, do all of that, and then we will succeed.

I have made my choice. I have chosen to marry a Catholic and raise Jewish children. Now you choose. It is not our own actions but the response of the Jews we encounter that will ultimately decide whether we succeed or fail... Are you with us or against us?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. We celebrate for 2 nights and 2 days, the last day of the old year and the first day of the new year. The holiday falls on the same day of the Jewish calendar every year, which is a lunar calendar with twelve 28-day months. As a result of these shorter months, the Jewish holidays shift around in the secular calendar, but a leap year with an extra month keeps things from getting too far out of sync.
This year Rosh Hashana starts at sundown on September 16th (tomorrow) and lasts until sundown on Tuesday. I've taken off work to go to synagogue for Monday and Tuesday, and will spend the weekend cooking for the first night dinner. It's traditionally a big family dinner like Christmas might be for you Christians out there, but my family is far away so it's just me and Dan and a couple Jewish coworkers. Here's the menu for Sunday night:
  • Soup: homemade chicken soup with matzah balls (I use a box mix for those, I'm not superwoman!)
  • Fish: Rosh Hashana tradition is to cook a fish with the head on (Rosh Hashana literally means "head of the year"). I've never done this before and am not even sure I can find a whole fish at my local grocery, but here's what I want to make.
  • Round challah: Round instead of braided is another Rosh Hashana tradition. Using a recipe I emailed my mom a few years ago and now can't find online. Luckily she sent me her printed copy, covered in her notes!
  • Brisket: my grandmother's (aka Lipton Onion Soup Mix's) recipe! Classic and can't be beat!
  • Chicken: Since apple is a part of the Rosh Hashana tradition, this sounded yummy and appropriate!
  • Salad: Pomegranates are another tradition, maybe this salad.
I'll basically be cooking all weekend. Luckily the soup and brisket are easy- set them up and let them cook for several hours (usually around 4)... that can be done a day in advance, then they can be reheated on the day of since extra cooking only makes them MORE delicious. Sunday I'll bake the Challah since fresh baked bread is way better than day-old-bread. This recipe makes a ton of challah so there will be leftovers. If you like French toast and you've never made it with challah you are missing out in a big way! This bread tastes as if it's sole purpose in life is to be egged and fried and coated in syrup.

My favorite part of making chicken soup from scratch? Making other things with the boiled chicken. I always shred a couple pieces of chicken to put in the soup, but freeze the rest for another day. I'm doing 2 whole chickens in the soup so that's enough chicken for Anne's Healthy Chicken Enchiladas and some chicken salad!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Disney Vacation

On my 26th birthday, we ran a half marathon:

Then we went to Disneyland (and California Adventure)!

The patch says Impala 13 rescue mission. So cute!
Happy Birthday to me!

It's a small, small world!

 After our longest run ever and 2 days traipsing around the parks, our legs were tired. We had initially planned to go to Universal on Tuesday, but decided to take it easy with Character Breakfast at the hotel and a day by the pool.

Me and Chip. Or was it Dale?
Trader Joe's poolside snacks!
I read on Happy Opu about a restaurant in LA so I grabbed a reservation. (Happy Opu is a food blog by actress Jewel Staite who I know of from the old Disney channel show Flash Forward, but she is best known in nerd circles as Kaylee from Firefly!) Even though we didn't go to Universal we made the trek across town for dinner and an evening at Griffith Observatory. It turned out to be a really cool location- right on the Walk of Fame and right near the Hollywood sign!
Apollo 11 has the whole corner of Hollywood and Vine- 4 plaques. Pretty cool!

View of LA from the observatory.

And we finished it off with a ride on Shamu!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Disneyland Half Recap- Part 2, the Logistics

Growing up only a few hours from Disney, and going to college as Mickey's neighbor in Orlando, I have always loved Disney! As I got older, I also have a lot of respect for Disney as a business. The way they can effectively separate you from your money (it's true, nobody makes you smile more as they charge you a ton of money for stuff than Disney!), the way they can become a brand rather than a surname in just one generation, the way they move massive crowds through long lines without anyone losing their marbles... just generally very impressive practices.
Tractor tipping is possibly my favorite thing from any move ever... So clever!
Aside from that, I have always associated Disney with fun (and my birthday- in college we went there Labor Day weekend at least 3 of the years)! So when I decided it was time to run a half marathon, and accepting that it might be awful and I would never run another, I decided it had to be Disney.

This race was, overall, very well organized. 17,000 people signed up,and almost 15,000 finished but I couldn't have told you that there was more than a few thousand out there thanks to the staggered wave start and the many corrals spread around the start.  The race did get crowded in times, but they never ran out of water, snacks, bathrooms, or volunteers. We stopped at 7 miles to use the bathroom, and since we were in the next to last corral most people had already gone by there... and they still had toilet paper and hand sanitizer in the port-o-potties. Color me impressed!

Best bling ever? I think so!

A few minor issues with organization:
We had some trouble at the expo. Having never been to Disneyland resort before (went once to the park for a day with my family 5 years ago, but we just went right to the park) we didn't really know where things were. There weren't signs leading to the expo so we just wandered around the nondescript Disneyland hotel buildings until we saw people with race packets. Then because we entered through the not-main entrance, there was no sign pointing us to go downstairs to the underground parking structure where the bibs were. We ended up weaving our way through the expo to the shirt table only to find we had done it wrong and weaving our way back out.

Likewise, no signs telling us how best to get to the start. We just followed some people in bibs and hoped for the best (it worked out ok).

When we got to the start area, there was major slowdown/bottleneck as people tried to get to the corrals, the bag check, etc. We got a little lost misunderstanding a sign pointing us to our corral too. When our corral moved up, a half hour after the official start time, there were still people on the sidewalk walking towards the entrance at the back of our corral.

One thing I was extremely disappointed with was the post-race snack. I've done a few races, some big, some small. All have had much better post-race snacks. Heck, our run 2 weeks ago at the city park had better post-run snacks. The box had a little bag of crackers, some raisins, some gummy energy things, some pb, and a mini candy bar. Where's the bagel? The pizza? The fruit? The BREAD? I just ran 13 miles, I didn't do it for a tiny box of raisins!

Overall it was a good experience. If it was any other company I probably wouldn't have noticed most of this, but as I said above, I hold Disney to a high standard and any little glitch seems magnified compared to how smoothly everything else goes.

Some things we did right:
For one, I'm so glad we stayed at a Disney hotel. We stayed at the Grand Californian, very beautiful, three big pools, and backing up onto the California Adventure park. It was expensive. Like, way expensive. But SO convenient. I had thought about getting a cheaper off-site hotel, but in the end decided to splurge in order to be closer to everything since we were unfamiliar with the area. It worked out... We were walking distance from the expo, the start line, the parks, and Downtown Disney. On the morning of the race, we could get up a little later and still make it with plenty of time. We could walk, rather than drive or catch the shuttle, and we could hobble home at the end. And afterwards, when both of us were so sore we could barely walk, we could easily hobble over to California Adventure or Downtown Disney and find a restaurant.

I'm also glad we took it easy the day before. The allure of the parks right there is hard to pass up, so I specifically planned our vacation so we got in midday Saturday and could hit the parks after the race rather than before. We were both sore and tired after the race, but still had a good time roaming the parks. (Hardest part? Lowering yourself into a ride you have to step down into with sore, tight legs!)
Best part? A well-deserved Mickey bar!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Disneyland Half Recap- Part 1, The Race

Whew! So this being my first, oh-so-exciting half marathon, I have a lot to say. I'll jump right into the race recap and hit logistics on a follow-up post:

After checking into the hotel to drop our bags with the bellman, we headed straight to the expo to pick up our bibs. Then we headed to Trader Joe's (a must-stop for me to pick up some more cookie butter!) and CVS for provisions. Chief among them was sunscreen- since I could only pack little 3oz bottles in my carry-on I had to buy a big bottle of sunscreen to last my super pale skin through the trip.

We headed back to the hotel, set up our clothes, and ate Trader Joe's wraps we picked up for dinner (falafel for me, tri-tip for him). The time change was in our favor (2 hours later at home) and with the early wakeup call we had no problem crawling into bed at 7pm. Party freaking animals!

I had terrible dreams all night long. In one dream, I overslept the race but decided that I would go run it anyways, so there is dream-me all alone running the race after it was over.  In another, I was being chased by scary riot-squad-looking sweepers (one of my main fears going into this race is that we would get swept on a walk or bathroom break if we didn't build enough early margin over the required 16 min/mi pace). When I told Dan, he told me it was Disney, so even the sweepers would probably be nice and wish us a magical day. I'm sure that's true but (spoiler!)  we never found out!

At 4am we got up, got dressed, and ate some bagels we picked up at TJ's with some chocolate Jif I brought from home. Then we joined a mass of other people walking through the hotel lobby, across Downtown Disney, and into an even bigger mass of humanity trying to get to the corrals!

We made it to the corrals around 5:00, and then we waited. And waited. And waited. It was 64 degrees, which is blissful when your Houston training runs started at almost 80 degrees. The race started at 5:45, but we were in corral F, so we waited another half hour before it was finally our turn!
I knew the early part of the race went through the parks so I planned to carry my camera in my hand until our first walk break. I was surprised that it wasn't annoying at all. I felt like I could carry it the whole race, but didn't want to press my luck so at our first walk break it went back in the bag.

The race through the parks was very narrow at times so we spent a lot of time dodging walkers and slower runners. At the 4 mile mark we felt pretty good, but stuck to the plan and took a walk break plus ate some shot blocks.

They did a great job of having on-course entertainment as we headed out into Anaheim, including cheer squads and dance teams from local high schools, boy and girl scouts, and Dan's
favorite: about a mile of classic cars!

I finally understand what people mean when they say they settle into a cruise for the mid-part of the race. Yes we were running, but we weren't hurting or panting, and through the long stretch of miles between the parks and the Angels stadium, we just plodded along. The course widened up to about 5 road lanes, so we didn't have to do much dodging either.

In training we had skipped a snack in the second walk break, but ended up feeling depleted after 10 miles, so we bumped our second snack to the 7.5 mile walk break- Dan ate more shot blocks and I had a chocolate Gu.

Finally, we hit the Angels stadium (the home stretch, pun intended)! It was pretty cool to run around the field, but the steep downhill/uphill to get us from road level to field level was a bit painful. I even slowed to walk on the steep downhill to give my legs a tiny break. Looks like I forgot to get my camera out for that. Oops! We got out of the stadium, right to mile marker 10... no-man's land. This was as far as we'd ever run before, and still a mile to our next walk break!

By this time, I was in a fair amount of pain, and it was all I could do to convince myself to run again when our half-mile walk break was up. Mile 12 was by far the worst- not only were we hurting, but it was all in a back-stretch of Disneyland, with no crowd support. We rounded one corner and another and another and still no finish line. I took an impromptu walk break at almost-13 miles, just couldn't keep running. At no point did I really think about quitting, though I definitely would have walked more if I hadn't been with Dan. He was running strong and I didn't want to let him down!

We picked it up again when we got out of the back road of the park. We turned another corner to find.... The finish!

(That this is a video is totally an accident. My camera got flipped from photo to movie mode in my waist pack. I was trying to take pictures and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't take. It's so short because I was pushing the shutter over and over to get pictures, but got a couple short videos instead!)

We crossed hand in hand, got out of the way, and hobbled through the drink station, the medals, the photo stop, and the snacks.  Half Marathoners!

The results:
This is a little slower than I would have liked, but that just means there's room to improve next time! And yes, I'm already thinking about when our next race will be. I thought for sure I would be immune from half marathon addiction... but nope, I'm totally hooked!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wedding Planning Update- 5 months to go!

Happy September!
This is a scheduled post because I am busy turning 26 years old, hanging out in Disneyland, and running my first ever half marathon. Busy day!

August was a big month for wedding planning stuff. From here on out they probably all will be. It was also a pretty busy month where we squeezed in visits from Dan's sister Emily and my BFF Ali, I worked an overnight shift, and we were in the home stretch of half marathon training including TWO 10 mile long runs. Eep!

This month we:
  • Got an officiant! (Oh thank goodness!) Finally I can say that we will actually be getting married at our wedding. 
  • Did our cake tasting. Yum!
  • Booked a hair stylist. Also I bought a cute hair flower on Etsy from Silverpencils to wear in my hair:
  • Set up our invitations- also included with the venue package (a really weird thing to be included, but whatever) but we had to go pick out a style and draw up the wording.
  • Booked a DJ- this was really just a formality, since this DJ is included with our venue package. He got good reviews on wedding wire though, so we went with it.
  • Bought ceremony shoes
    and two possible "reception" dresses (ordered online- need to pick my favorite and return the other). I will either wear it to the rehearsal or afterparty... I can't decide if I want to wear my big dress to a bar because it's my only shot, or if I'd rather have something more manageable...
  • More bridesmaid dress shopping! Here's BFF Ali in her dress:
  • I'm also pretty close to hiring a florist, we've picked one of the few we got quotes from, but they are closed this week so I need to follow up with them next week.
Things I've pondered this month:
  • Donate or sell my wedding dress? I am pretty sure I won't keep it (I don't harbor the illusion that my daughter will wear it one day) but I can't decide whether to donate or sell. Anyone have a recommendation for a place (or website) to sell or donate a dress?
  • Music for various things. Very conflicted on songs. What should we walk down the aisle to? (I don't plan to have my own special song, just one for the whole bridal party. But what if it's not long enough?)

To do list for September:
  • Set up rehearsal venue- bonus if we can include rehearsal dinner invites when we mail the invitations.
  • Still a few bridesmaids that need dresses.
  • Start working on guy clothes. We know we want to do suits not tuxedos, and Dan has asked all his groomsmen to send him their measurements so we can go suit shopping and use some bargaining to get all 6 for cheap-ish.
  • Hire a bus to bring people between wedding and hotel.
  • Knock out some little things: favors, welcome kit bags, decorations... stuff that has a 5 month shelf life!