With and Without (Part 1)
At the heart of it all is a story that these days, I rarely tell. Most of the time, when I offer the stories of my past lives, they’re about my mother and grandmother, the resourceful, opinionated women who raised me. It was from them that I learned self determination and independence–feminism, actually, although I didn’t know the word for it until high school.
My mother’s life as a single woman was desperately difficult. She and my father divorced when I was seven, the same year she was diagnosed with the breast cancer that would kill her twelve years later. She was the lone provider in my house, and worried about money more than I will probably ever be able to comprehend. Looking back, I’m surprised she could sleep at night, knowing how much anxiety plagued her. She searched for safety and security, both within herself and within the world which she saw as consistently cruel and unstable.
I often wonder what she would think of my life now–31 years old, college educated, reasonably traveled, living in a big city, unmarried, yelling about gender politics, grappling with this concept of inevitability that seems to be everywhere around me. I was socialized to be outspoken, to have opinions, to believe I could do anything, but I was also expected to get married and have children. Once I told my grandmother that I wasn’t interested in either husbands or babies, and she said, “Oh, I didn’t want those things either, but then, you do it. You’ll change your mind.” It’s this idea–that as women, we will capitulate, whether it’s because we’ll realize that we want it, or because at some point, it will be impossible to avoid it, but either way, we will accept marriage and child rearing into our lives because that’s what happens. There are simply no other choices. It happens to everyone.
For me, honoring my mother means living a fuller life than she was able to. That means owning the privilege I have to be honest with myself, that I like being alone. It feeds my soul, it feels genuine to me. It’s hard for the Jewish community to hear that–because we remain entrenched in a sexist world where women don’t know what’s best for them, where they must be attached to a man to be see, because we as a Jewish people need women to perpetuate ourselves, because on a purely practical level, being alone is complicated and scary.
The pressure to couple and reproduce comes from everyone I know–my friends on J-Date, my friends who ask me about my relationships, my family members who make jokes about me being over thirty (!) and single, people to whom I speak about feminism, readers of my blog, my friends outside the Jewish community (I have some), media, etc. At the same time as I dismiss questions about wanting to meet someone, inquiries into my sexuality, the obvious ratios of single men to single women at parties or meals, it hurts. What this persistent questioning and marketing whether it comes from inside the Jewish community or out, says is “You are not enough, no matter what you think.”
It hurts me the most when it comes from inside the Jewish community. As long as I remain single, comfortable and true to myself, I will never be a full member of many Jewish communities. No matter how fervently I love Judaism and Jewish communities, the truth is that if I do not produce Jewish children, I will always be thought of as on the margins.
“The Jewish community,” as if there were such a monolith, has a responsibility to listen, and to hear, it’s not just theoretical, it’s in the daily liturgy-three times. We might listen, but what truths will we really hear? Only those that make us feel good? Only those that we consider to be valid or real? When will we listen to each other and value what we hear? When will we welcome our whole selves and our realities in, instead of insisting that we change to accomodate comfort?
As women, admitting to ourselves what we want and don’t want is like dropping a raw egg from a height and watching it break, the yolk spreading everywhere, messy, unwieldy, impossible to tidy. Telling our own truths has the power to level our daily lives and the lives of those around us, but no matter what, we have to tell them, live them, and work to build communities that value them. In the words
of Muriel Rukeyeser, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”