Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

February 11, 2013 by

The Challenges of Raising Jewish Daughters

Raised in a Modern Orthodox home, I have long struggled with the contradictions I have found inherent in being both a committed Jew and a feminist. I have managed to carve my own path, create my own rationalizations, and find a space that makes sense to me at the juncture of my religious practice and my political and personal commitment to gender equity.

I am the mother of three girls, G, aged 5, P, 3, and M, two months old. Parenthood changes and challenges so many things, not the least of which is self-identity. It also requires one to articulate and form a cogent explanation for one’s choices, choices that previously required no justification. Becoming the mother of three girls has brought into high relief for me the challenges of living a life dedicated to both Judaism and feminism, and forced me to reflect closely on my priorities.

When G was born, I was frankly relieved that there would be no bris and that therefore I would not to have to throw a party eight days post-partum. Yet I was also unprepared for the strong sense of exclusion I felt at the lack of a religiously mandated ritual welcoming my precious, perfect first child into the community. What did this say about her value and worth to the community I expected her to cherish as much as I did, and which, I in turn, expected to cherish her?

My husband and I carefully designed a simchat bat (a baby naming ceremony, literally translated as “joy of the daughter”) to welcome G, incorporating ritual with personal expression. We held it in our synagogue, we included the rabbi, and it felt spiritually fulfilling. Yet, I could not escape the fact that it was voluntary, not mandatory, and that it was not something she shared with all other affiliated Jewish females the way a bris binds all affiliated Jewish males together. And indeed, when our second daughter was born, we neglected to hold the same ceremony for her. I justified this by telling myself that it was because I suffered a serious injury just prior to delivery and I was not fully mobile for several months afterwards; but the truth is, we would have held a bris no matter what the circumstances. There is something about a ritual being obligatory that makes it…obligatory.

We have not, as yet, held a simchat bat for our newest daughter. I have a slew of excuses at hand (she was a summer baby, everyone was away; how could I make one for my eldest and youngest, but not my middle?), but I know these are just excuses, and that the real reason is that with three young children, I am barely keeping my head above water, and I am happy not to be obligated. At the same time, I feel I am betraying the realization of the feminist Judaism I wish for, as well as the daughters for whom I am trying to model religion and community. Even if I can live with this, how will I explain this to my girls when they are old enough to ask what we did to welcome them?

Earlier this month I attended the upsherin for the son of close friends (an upsherin is a ceremonial first haircutting of a boy after he turns three, marking the age of commencement of Torah study and formal education). It was beautiful and meaningful, and I once again felt a sense of exclusion that this lifecycle event exists only for boys (although unlike the bris, it is not obligatory). I felt this keenly as the upsherin is connected to education in general and the study of the Jewish text that defines us in particular.

My husband and I toyed with the idea of holding an upsherin for P, to make up for not giving her a simchat bat, but we both feel uncomfortable co-opting a male ritual for our daughter. Even this thought, which once would have been just a thought, I now feel the need to parse closely and arrive at a well-considered conclusion. For my choices and beliefs now extend far past my own needs, to the growth of my daughters into both committed Jews and committed feminists.

This blog will be dedicated to the challenges of raising Jewish daughters, from handling the male-dominated stories of our holidays and our texts, to setting priorities in choosing a synagogue and schools. What challenges have you faced? What solutions have you hit upon? Which choices are personal, and what responsibilities should be communal?

Image from Katie Tegtmeyer via photopin cc


  • AA

    “and that the real reason is that with three young children, I am barely keeping my head above water, and I am happy not to be obligated. ”  

    Elizabeth’s sentiment is shared by many parents regardless of they are feminists.  With our first daughter, we had a large simchat bat; with our second, the thought of such an event was exhausting (and costly, given day school tuition on the horizon …) – luckily by that point, we were active members of a partnership minyan, in which we both had aliyot and I named our daughter.  The whole minyan sang to our daughter and the blessing recited was one we had a hand in crafting.  I felt that nothing else was needed — what better way to be welcomed into the community. (But then so that child #2 would have pictures, we had a wonderful small brunch at my parents house for all those who couldn’t join on shabbat).  I wonder then if we should reframe the conversation so that these birth rituals  - for both boys and girls – can be meaningful, but not so exhausting, expensive, etc.So glad you are blogging about this. 

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Thanks for your comments. I agree with the importance of framing this conversation in terms of cost (financial and otherwise). I think this points to a larger issue of the costs of raising Jewishly-affiliated children, and what that means for our community. I look forward to addressing this in a future post.

  • st

    We had just moved to the U.S., my son was diagnosed with autism, of course we didn’t even think of having a simchat bat. Like you I was just keeping my head above water. When the 3rd child arrived, another girl, we did the same as for the first daughter. As they grew I made sure they could do as much as they could in our shul and their school to participate as fully as possible. When one school’s girls’ choir wouldn’t let fathers attend, it was declared a deal-breaker by my daughter and we agreed to switch schools where she could sing (with boys!) and  both parents could come to enjoy. I began to read megillah on Purim and when they became bat mitzvah they did the same. My advice would be don’t worry about front-loading all of these milestone events, you have a lot of time to work on building important rituals into your family life! My daughters (and son) have grown into wonderful, happy Jews who cherish their Yiddishkeit.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Thank you, ST. Having support, understanding, encouragement and perspective is essential to not falling all the way into the water! I do know, theoretically, that the things that loom large now will fade away as new events and milestones (the teen years!) come into view. It’s sometimes hard to maintain that perspective, and your reminder is an important one.

  • Suzy Greenberg

    Our eldest child, 9, is a girl, and we are now thinking about how to approach her bat mitzvah.  We align with Orthodox institutions, but we are very much in favor of her leining (reading) from the Torah to commemorate this lifecycle event.  The New York community in which we used to live offered the cream of the crop for this type of bat mitzvah tefilah.  Now that we live “out of town,” despite the fact that our community has organized women’s tefilah a couple of times a year, we are likely not going to have this type of bat mitzvah in our existing community.  For one, the women who gather are not terribly learned in women’s tefilah (their megilah reading was strife with halachic (Jewish legal) errors.  For two, it is most likely that at least half of the girl’s in DD’s class wouldn’t even attend such a prayer service due to their more right-wing Orthodox affiliations.  Luckily, our former community will welcome us with open arms, and we plan to have a small family Rosh Chodesh davenning.  ANy of DD’s friends who are still in the NY area will be invited (perhaps her camp friends), and we will return to our own community where she’ll have a “girl’s party” where perhaps she will incorporate a chessed project.  We have, however, instructed her to not talk about these plans much at her  community orthodox school since we’re not sure how well they will go over with the rebbes.  The sad part about it is that we know we won’t have to shlep out of town for the boys when the time comes.  I guess the positive is that we know we’ll have more choices of delicious caterers from which to choose, which isn’t such a small point since the one caterer in our community is sub-par.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Thanks for your comment, Suzy. I think you make an important point about the polarization of our community and the search for a resonant community, one that is both accepting and acceptable. These issues affect women deeply, since the role of women and girls is often a hot-button point for larger dialogues (or lack thereof!) about halachah, boundaries and identity. I think the recent activity involving Women of the Wall is a significant example of this.

  • AJB

    What is is like for a daughter when the day comes that she is no longer permitted to accompany her father on the Other Side of the mehitzah?  What do you tell her? What are her questions? What does it feel like if she has a brother who can remain there when she cannot? I observe a girl in our synagogue approaching this age and wonder how she is prepared for this day and how it would feel to be her. I was not raised in an Orthodox environment. Myself, I had a bat mitzvah, on a Friday night, and was permitted to read Haftorah only. Many many years later I had the opportunity to read Torah for the first time. It was a joyous day.

    • Suzy Greenberg

      I can tell you what it’s like because I’ve been there!  Well, I didn’t sit with my father in shul, but my modern orthodox day school taught all the children how to sing Anim Z’mirot.  It was and still is my shul’s custom to have a variety of pre barmitzvah age BOYS lead the congregation in this song.  Not the girls.  So, you can imagine how frustrated I felt when I wasn’t allowed.  Why, I ask, did my school even bother to teach the girls?  Whenever the various incompetent boys would attempt it, I always burned inside, thinking I could do it better.  Intererstingly, I attended a Chabad-run shul where both girls and boys were invited up to sing adon olam, which I thought was nice.  My emotions are mixed, actually, because I do subscribe to the notion that synagogue life is not the pinnacle of Jewish observance, and therefore it shouldn’t really matter all that much that Orthodox synagogues are separate but not equal.  I think there is a value and a beauty to all the women/girls sitting together in synagogue and all the men/boys, however the feeling of being a spectator is not a good one, and bothered me from a young age.  I would say to that girl to go to a college in a town where she can access a partnership minyan.  No longer relegated to the peanut gallery, women can actually participate in a halachic manner.  On the flipside, this halachic manner is not at all an across-the-board norm.  Partnership minyanim I can never imagine becoming the mainstream in Orthodoxy/haredi life, which has grown exponentially and has become the norm and is usually the entre for those rediscovering their Jewish tradition.  So, in order for a person to have access to this type of ritual, one has a very limited choice in geographical locations in which to live, and it is somewhat unrealistic, especially for a family who often times wants to move out the suburbs – the Partnership minyanim are typically in cities.

  • Rebeccah Movsky

    as part of a post partum ritual (with all my kids, but first with a girl bc i felt i needed to do something as immediate as a bris) i benched birkat gomel (prayer upon experiencing danger) with a group of 10 women (although not customarily done this is not a minyan based prayer – just needs ten to feel public – there is actually very little controversy with saying birkat gomel with ten women – just no one knows about it). I found this to be a very meaningful event for myself and the female relatives and friends who were there (most of whom had never been to any ceremony post birth besides a bris). We also made a point to have the simchat bat 2 weeks after the birth – bc I also felt like there needed to be something to celebrate the birth akin to a bris and waiting seemed to lower the energy level associated with it.