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A Riddle for the New Millennium

My eight year old son Asher was waving his arm, bouncing up off his seat. “Please call on me. I know the answer. Pleeeeze!” It was lunchtime at his Jewish camp, and while the kids ate, they played riddles.

This particular day the counselor told a feminist classic: “A boy and his father were in a automobile accident. The father was unconscious. The boy was also very badly hurt and rushed to the hospital. In the emergency room the doctor, already masked and gloved, looks at the boy and says, ‘I can’t operate on this child. He’s my son.'” Becca pauses dramatically, then asks, “Who is the doctor?”

If you haven’t heard it, the usual answer is “his mother.” But there was Asher waving. “Please…call on me.” Becca called on Asher. Asher proudly stood up and announced; “It’s his co-dad!”

I don’t quite know what to make of this answer. Jokingly, I refer to it as the triumph of diversity over feminism. On one hand, I feel proud. For the past eight years I’ve been serving gay outreach congregations. I’m glad my son can easily picture a family with two fathers. But I’m a bit disconcerted that the picture of a family with multiple dads comes more quickly to my son’s mind than that of a woman doctor. Remember, Asher’s mom is a rabbi! In fact, his doctor is a woman (and his aunt is a doctor too).

Here it is, the turn of the secular millennium. We’ve come a very long way in the 25 years of the Jewish women’s movement. Our synagogues and communities are far more accepting of alternative families. This acceptance is clearly a desirable result of the consciousness-raising and active organizing that we, Jewish feminists, have spearheaded.

It’s progress I see in my home, where my kids are comfortable with their multiracial cousins and lesbian godmother. My home is a haven where I don’t worry about the ever-present hum of gender politics. My [male] partner and I take for granted those early feminist insights about division of labor, intimacy and communication. My children still can’t really distinguish between “mommy” and “daddy” and use them interchangeably for both of us.

But there is a stormy world outside. The Jewish community hasn’t made quite the quantum leap in women’s equality that it has in diversity acceptance. Recently I was at a funeral at which a male colleague of mine (not much older than I) officiated. The son of the deceased, a congregant of mine for a number of years and a self-proclaimed “radical,”” came up to me after the funeral. “Now that’s my picture of a real rabbi,” he said. “He looks just like my zayde.” Just like my son’s picture of a doctor—that is, male.

Jane Rachel Litman is the Rabbi Educator of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California. She specializes in religious education for alternative families, and co-edited Lifecycles 2 (Jewish Lights).