As a child I rarely helped my mother in the kitchen because I was always too busy reading. My bedroom was at the top the staircase and my mother used to holler up, “Ilana, time to set the table,” or “Ilana, I need you to peel the potatoes.” My response was invariably the same. “I’m in the middle of the chapter, one minute.” But one chapter led to another, one book to another – and generally it was one of my siblings who ended up completing my chores in my stead. Somehow I managed to leave home with hardly any basic kitchen or household skills, and much to my chagrin, I can’t say all that much has changed with marriage and motherhood.
For as long as I can remember, I have tried to avoid any tasks that can’t be completed while reading. I never properly learned how to thread a needle or drive a car, because I was always holed up in my room with a book. Alice Shalvi writes in her memoir that as a child she was such a good reader that her teachers would make her read aloud during sewing class, and as a result she never learned how to sew. I can relate. One of the only jobs I could be counted on as a child was to bring up the right chicken soup from the basement freezer. My mother made chicken soup only twice a year, and then froze it in weekly batches which she labeled by parsha. Each week I enjoyed the blast of cold air as I stood before the open freezer sorting through plastic containers labeled “Beshalach,” “Yitro,” “Mishpatim,” until I emerged upstairs triumphant bearing the batch for Bo.
I tend to think that I grew up with very little mimetic tradition, and that all my learning as a child was text-based. But now, as an adult, I can appreciate how much I subconsciously imbibed from my parents even with my head in a book. My parents’ way of practicing Judaism defined for me what was comfortable, familiar, and natural, and set the standards for what I would regard as normative religious observance for the rest of my life. Our family kept Shabbat and kashrut. We walked to shul every Shabbat, drove twenty minutes to the nearest kosher butcher to buy our meat, and checked all food items for a hechscher before adding them to our supermarket cart. As a child I would have said we observed halakha strictly and fully; it is only as an adult that I came to recognize the inconsistencies in our practice.
In my hometown there was no Eruv for many years, but we nonetheless carried books and snacks to shul, and those who traveled from farther away brought umbrellas when it rained. I did not know there was any problem with opening an umbrella on Shabbat, let alone carrying one to a shul with no Eruv, until a friend with a sense of humor in the egalitarian minyan at Harvard ordered a custom-made umbrella with the words “This is not an Ohel” printed on the fabric. My parents also turned on lights on Shabbat, in keeping with a Conservative movement teshuva. I never questioned why it was all right to flick on a light switch whereas the television and dishwasher were clearly muktzah. In my family it was all right to turn on lights on Shabbat, and nothing I was told in school would convince me otherwise. Physicists use the term “stable equilibrium” to refer to the state that a system always returns to, even after small disturbances. A ball may roll around the sides of a bowl, but it will always return to its stable equilibrium point at the bottom of the bowl. My parents’ religious practice defined my stable equilibrium. Now, in my own home as an adult, we set timers before Shabbat, but if a light needs to be turned on and none of the kids are around to see me, I will turn it on, much to my husband’s consternation – not because I consider it a minor infraction, but because no matter how hard I might train myself to think otherwise, it simply doesn’t feel assur.
My parents’ religious practice also defined my stable equilibrium with regard to feminism and egalitarianism. I grew up in a Conservative shul in which men and women participated equally in all parts of the service. As a child I did not sit with my father in shul, but that was only because he was the rabbi so he sat on the Bima. We children sat in the shade of our mother’s various wide-brimmed hats, playing with race cars underneath the pews while nibbling away at cheerios packed in plastic bags to keep us quiet. There was no question that we would sit through all of shul even years before we learned to read or daven, and though we weren’t following the service, we quickly absorbed its rhythms – we knew when the ark would be opened, when it would be time to kiss the Sefer Torah, and when we could run up to sing Adon Olam next to Abba.
In our shul women leyned and wore tallitot, and so for me these practices have always felt completely natural. They are traditional, to my mind, in the sense that they are the traditions I grew up experiencing first-hand. I continue to feel most comfortable in shuls without a mechitzah because this is the prayer environment that seems most normative to me. The presence of a mechitzah distracts me because it concentrates all the men in one place and tells me exactly where to direct my gaze. I have davened in partnership minyanim in which men lead dvarim she’bikdusha and women leyn and lead the other parts of the service, and I find it distracting as well – to my mind, prayer is about people vis-à-vis God, and not about men and women. In some ways I would find it easier to concentrate on my davening in a fully-Orthodox shul in which women are essentially invisible behind a mehitza, because at least there the focus is on men vis-à-vis God, rather than gender dynamics.
My husband Daniel, who grew up in an Orthodox shul, has a different stable equilibrium. Daniel often tells me that he completely agrees with me intellectually that women and men should have equal roles in shul – but he just can’t bring himself to feel comfortable enough truly to daven in synagogue without a mechitzah. I tell him, in response, that I don’t think people should turn on lights on Shabbat – but I just can’t bring myself to stop doing it. We are too comfortable, each of us, in our stable equilibrium.
In the shul where grew up, it wasn’t just my father who was the communal leader. My mother taught classes and ran a learner’s minyan in parallel to the main service, until her own professional commitments left her too busy to take on so much volunteer work in shul. I grew up thinking that women could do everything men could do, both in the wider secular world and in the synagogue sanctuary. My mother raised four children and then, at age 35, earned her PhD and launched a meteoric career at UJA-Federation. We used to joke that my father saved the Jews in our town on Long Island, while mother saved the Jewish world.
Given this egalitarian milieu, perhaps it comes as no surprise that I did not grow up hearing the blessing shelo asani isha. In my father’s shul, and in Camp Ramah where I spent my summers, and at the Harvard Hillel egalitarian minyan where I davened as a college student, both men and women said she-asani b’tzalmo, thanking God for making us in His image. These days I rarely get to shul in time to hear birkot ha-shachar, but not long ago, I was at minyan early on a Thursday morning for my nephew’s bar mitzvah. It was an Orthodox shul and I stood behind the mechitzah with my three daughters, who were happily amusing themselves with a keychain while I davened. I head the shliach tzibbur say “shelo asani isha” and I nearly burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. I wanted to holler out, “She-asani isha!” Thank God for making me a woman! My religious life has been so deeply enriched by roles that I would not have been able to take on had I been a man. My most spiritual experiences of all time were pregnancy and childbirth. In carrying human life inside me and bringing a child into the world, I felt closest to God as creator. I davened with the most kavanah when I was pregnant, conscious of how much was beyond my control even as it is was taking place just millimeters beneath the surface of my skin. The experience of bringing life into the world has been my Holy of Holies – it has been my most profound experience of intimacy with God, and I am so grateful to God for having had this privilege.
Part of what I found most meaningful about pregnancy is the way in which time became my ally. With every passing day that nothing went wrong—please God, may nothing go wrong, I prayed constantly—I was one day closer to having a new child. Even when I was doing nothing at all, the baby was growing inside me. I found that when I was pregnant, I was less bothered when I had to wait in a long line at the supermarket or the doctor’s office, because I knew that even while I was waiting, so much was progressing – like a taxi driver racking up the meter while stuck at a red light. This was true, too of my experience of daf yomi. When I learn a page of Talmud a day, time becomes my ally. With every passing day, I am guaranteed that I will have learned one more page. As someone who likes to feel productive, both pregnancy and daf yomi have shaped my relationship to time in ways that I try to carry over even to those periods in my life when I am not bearing children or studying Talmud. I feel so fortunate to be a woman and to have had both experiences.
Perhaps it is because my experiences of being a Jewish woman have been so positive that I feel no anger when I encounter the Talmud’s misogyny. Most of the women in the Talmud are identified in relation to their husbands or fathers; very few have independent identities. The Talmud’s women seem to spend most of their time sorting lentils, traveling from their father’s home to their husband’s home, and gossiping with other women by the moonlight—and when they talk to the rabbis, it is generally in querulous, hectoring tones, like the woman who yells at the resh galuta for stealing her sukkah, or like Yalta rebuking Ulla. These dependent, disgruntled shrews are hardly suitable role models for girls and women studying Talmud today. And yet when I encounter the women of the Talmud, I do not take offense. I regard them as historical curiosities rather than infuriating provocations, because their experiences are so far removed from my own. The women of the Talmud seem like extinct creatures, not like victims of the same patriarchal society that has oppressed me. I have never felt oppressed, and so I don’t identify with these women in their oppression. Rather, when I encounter Talmudic women—many of them nameless and voiceless—I feel so grateful for how far human history has come. Baruch she-asani isha in the twenty-first century, and not in the first! Shehachiyahu v’kiyimanu v’higiyanu lazaman hazeh!
People often ask me, when I speak about my book, how my religious practice has changed since I started learning daf yomi. I think they expect me to say that I’m so much more frum now that I’ve learned scores of Talmudic pages about muktzah and dinei ta’arovet. But the truth is that my observance has not changed very much at all. Yes, in front of my children, I try to cover up my inconsistencies. I don’t want them to see me turning on lights on Shabbat, because I’d like them to have a different mimetic model when it comes to these lapses. But when it comes to my own practice, it is hard to believe that they are truly lapses.
I suppose one way in which I’ve become more frum since I began studying daf yomi is that I’ve stopped reading secular literature in shul. I have always brought books with me to shul to keep me busy in between aliyot and during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah (and yes, I confess, occasionally at other times too). Whereas I used to read novels in shul, now I only learn daf yomi. It makes sense to me to learn in shul because I think of learning as an act of devotion not unlike prayer, much the way Dr. Soloveitchik describes the role of learning in the traditional world: “The purpose of study was not information of knowledge but lifelong exposure to sacred texts and an ongoing dialogue with them. Learning was an intellectual endeavor and an act of devotion. Its process was its purpose.” I could not describe my attitude toward daf yomi more aptly.
That said, I do think my daf yomi study has had a practical impact on my life, even if not primarily in terms of my religious observance. Above all, my study of Talmud has taught me to be a better parent. I have known, for a while, that I am a much better parent in public. When I am home alone with my children, I am quick to anger and slow to forgive. When my son spills his water for the second time during dinner, I grow exasperated and yell at him instead of helping him find a better place for his cup. But when we’re in the playground, playing around other children and their parents, and my kids spray water from the fountain on each other, I merely exchange eye-rolling glances with other parents and let the kids work it out. Somehow the knowledge that I am being watched enables me to hold myself in check, to restrain my frustration and anger, and to judge my kids favorably.
Not long ago I came to a story in Masechet Berakhot (28a) about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed blessing to his disciples. He told them, “May it be God’s will that your fear of heaven be as great as your fear of flesh-and-blood human beings.” His disciples were taken aback. “Ad kan? Is that all?” Their master responded, “If only it were so.
Know that when a person transgresses, he says, ‘May no man see me.’”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that it is often much easier to act properly in public. When we do something wrong, we are much more likely to hope that no one else witnessed our act than to worry about what God observed. But as we learn in masechet Hagigah (16a), “Anyone who commits a sin in secret – it is as if he or she is bumping against the legs of the divine presence.” The rabbis quote a verse from Isaiah: “The heavens are my seat, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Chazal imagine God sitting on a divine throne up in heaven with legs dangling down to earth. Any time we sin when we are alone, we are in fact bumping up against God’s feet. These sources remind me that while it is all too easy to sin when alone, it is in fact when we are by ourselves with no one else around that we have the greatest potential for intimacy with God.
There is much talk these days of helicopter parenting, but after learning the story about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai on his deathbed, I have found it more instructive to think not of parents who hover, but of those who hover over us as parents. I’ll admit that it’s hard to imagine the legs of the divine presence dangling down into my living room – this is the true yirat shamayim that Dr. Soloveitchik writes about experiencing as a child in shul during Neila on Yom Kippur, and now, as an adult, encountering no longer. But I do find it helpful to imagine that a friend or neighbor has stopped by and is sitting beside me as I feed my kids dinner or read them bedtime stories. And so I’ll sit reading there Goodnight Moon, following along as my daughter points to the pictures, but all the while I am thinking of the little old lady who sits there watching. Just when I’m about to lose my temper, she rocks back and forth and whispers hush.
It is often at bedtime that I try to share my love of learning with my children. I leyn at least one Aliyah from the parsha to them every night, trying to get through all seven by Shabbat. Before they fall asleep I leyn them the three paragraphs of the Shema and sing the full Anim Zemorot, hoping that this will train them to recognize ta’amei hamikra (I learned to leyn by matching the te’amim to the Shema I already knew so well) and to lead the congregation in prayer. During the day, while we are waiting for the bus or sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I take advantage of the down time to teach them verses from the Torah or sayings from Pirkei Avot that I’d like them to internalize. No pasuk is too mundane, and I have a preference for those that can be metrically scanned and therefore easily set to music: “Oto v’et b’no lo tishchatu b’yom echad,” I once sang repeatedly to my toddler, who then belted it out on the Jerusalem light rail to dismay of our fellow passengers. I thought they would kill us both.
When we are in shul, I struggle to find the right balance between focusing on my own davening (thereby trying to model a serious davening practice) and keeping the kids occupied and engaged (look at the Torah go up, up in the air!). I leyn regularly and always bring one child up to the Amud with me, usually one of my daughters – she stands on a chair next to me and I let her hold the Yad between Aliyot, so that she will also grow up feeling ki karov elayich ha-davar meod. We daven in a shul where women wear kippot and tallitot, but my children also often go with their father to daven in an all-male minyan at the Kotel at dawn. I wish my children watched me daven in the morning, but I never open a siddur until they are in preschool; I daven outside the schoolyard after dropping off the last of the four. I’m not sure if they know I daven in the mornings, and this gives me pause. I am conscious that what we model and expose our children to when they are young and impressionable will define their standard equilibrium, and I feel the yoke of this responsibility in much the same way I feel ol malchut shamayim.
And yet even as I’m constantly trying to model for my kids, I’m aware of how much of my own learning remains text-based rather than mimetic. My idea of preparing for Pesach is attending as many shiurim and reading as many new haggadot as possible so that I have insights to share at the Seder – my sister-in-law does all the cooking, as I couldn’t cook for Pesach to save my life. Sometimes I get creative in the kitchen, but if so, it’s generally to make a parsha-themed cake like a Sulam Yaakov made of licorice strands with marshmallow angels that don’t quite stick to the cake, since I’ve never been very good at icing. I am still the girl who was always too busy reading to pick up any practical life skills, except that I can’t call myself a girl anymore. I’m a woman, and I’m living at what is arguably the most exciting time to be a woman in Jewish history. As a twenty-first century Jewish woman, I hope I will succeed in merging the mimetic and the textual – modelling for my children a commitment to engaging seriously with Jewish texts. My daughters will probably not inherit any recipes from me, but I would like to imagine that one day, at least one of my daughters or granddaughters will be excited to inherit my volumes of Talmud, covered with all my handwritten notes. Today’s commentary is tomorrow’s text. Perhaps, if I should merit to be so lucky, she will read through my marginalia and scribble her own.