I remember well the first time I flunked a final exam. I was a 25-year-old graduate student in the Jewish education department at Hebrew University. I had also given birth to my second child a mere four weeks earlier. I have this vivid recollection of sitting at the Jerusalem pool with my baby in the bouncer next to me, trying to master the material of what I considered to be an irrelevant, unnecessarily complicated, ridiculously mandatory subject—Statistics. There I was, naturally dressed in my modest attire of long skirt and hat, in the 100 degree heat of late June, early afternoon Jerusalem —while my husband and toddler waded in their bathing suits in the kiddie pool—and I feigned studiousness. My consequent failure should have come as no surprise considering the circumstances, although at the time I still subscribed to a certain naive, simplistic religious outlook that believed that somehow, everything always works out for the best. Despite the silly fatalism, my anger and insult at actually failing prompted me to take the exam in second rounds, and this time I actually studied, passing, albeit by the skin of my teeth. Although this event had its happy ending, and I eventually received not only my master’s degree but a doctorate as well, that particular moment sticks with me, perhaps as an embodiment of that pull many women feel between motherhood and personal achievement, a moment for me when, for the briefest of intervals, I was fairly certain that my studies were a complete waste of time.
My son is now ten, and I have since added two more children to our family. But this story keeps recurring for me as I observe my students at the religious teacher training college where I work. This is a place, like many others in Israel, where young religious women in their early twenties come to receive their bachelor’s degrees and teaching certificates. A large portion of the student body is already married, as evidenced by the abundance of scarves and other forms of head covering around the school. In fact, many of them have babies as well, and often bring them to class. Indeed, babies are everywhere at the school—in class, in the hallways, in the cafeteria, and even in the library. The idea of “quiet” in the library does not extend to infants, whose presence is accepted in every corner at every time. One of my students missed the first two months of class because she was on shmirat herayon—literally “pregnancy watch” which refers to bed rest in pregnancy, a loaded term described by Susan Sered as the excessive medicalizing and problemetizing of pregnancy by making women—often unnecessarily—immobile for months at a time. This student eventually came back to class, baby in sling, and told me that she is 25 years old and that this is her third child. I’m not sure why I was so surprised—after all, was I that different at 25? I’m just not sure how she will be able to complete my course. I suppose I should believe that if I could master statistics in Hebrew, she can master educational theory.
I have long since removed my hat and skirt, and in fact my entire world view has shifted several times since that day I tried to study statistics at the pool with my new baby. I have been involved in my own process of deconstructing layers of religious cultures of gender, a gradual and perhaps never-ending process of wrestling and reconstructing as I have renegotiated a whole series of issues in my life including prayer, marriage, Shabbat and my attitude towards Jewish law. And thus, I find myself very torn when I encounter these young religious mothers who, just like I did, are trying to get their degrees within very challenging circumstances.
My first inclination is to be sympathetic to their situations. After all, when all is said and done, I am glad that they are studying despite the challenges of sleeplessness and breastfeeding, and I would certainly rather see them trying to study than the alternative. Encounters I have had with religious women and girls who no longer consider studying important, for whom studying, reading and mind-expansion are considered male realms, make my heart ache over the souls needlessly sacrificed in the name of religion. As a feminist, I am grateful that the college allows these spaces for women—as religious mothers—to inhabit, to continue to pursue their studies without having to leave their complex lives at the door as if they don’t exist. I can’t even count how many workplaces I’ve been in where the sound of a child or a baby is greeted with anger and resentment, seen as a chutzpadik interruption by a careless mother who obviously does not take her professional self seriously.
When I was a fellow on a prestigious program for educational leadership in Jerusalem, for example, a female participant who took her newborn to class from the age of two weeks was told that she had to either leave the baby at home or leave the program. Even with a nanny in the public “coffee” area, she was told that the baby was “disruptive”. Despite the sexism and unfairness inherent in such an ultimatum, my colleague promptly considered her options. Eventually, a staff-member—the only female member of the academic staff— stepped in and offered her office as a place where nanny and baby could hang out freely. Although the resolution was that my colleague stayed on the program without compromising on breastfeeding, the assumption that babies are distractions from the sacred goal of professionalism remained unchecked.
In that sense, I am grateful that my college is a place where babies are welcome, along with their nursing mothers, who are not seen to have smaller brains but are rather reminders that life is complex and dynamic, and that there are goals more valuable than sterile individualism. Moreover, I like when babies are in my class, because I take it as my mission to keep the mothers educated.
That said, I can’t help wishing that these women would wait to finish studying before starting their families. I find’ myself angry at the sight of all those scarves, skirts and baby slings. Too much baggage for such young women, I sigh. They are missing out on the opportunity to just be students, to have that carefree existence where they are taking care of nobody else except themselves. They are thrust into roles of caretakers before they themselves have finished growing up. I would like to see them have a few years to breathe before entering that mad rush of 24/7 parenting.
More than that, though, I would like to see the religious community encourage girls to put themselves first rather than always coming last. Young women—especially religious young women—need spaces to think critically, to engage with and challenge the material they’re given, material that dictates how they live. I want intellectual pursuit and career ambition to be as vital a part of women’s identities as having babies. Perhaps this will help build a religious culture that is not so intricately tied to female servitude. I fear that, despite many compelling advances for women in orthodoxy, the message that women’s desire and comfort are irrelevant remains a powerfully entrenched force indeed. Women learn early that in the scheme of things, their needs are lowest on the totem pole. When I heard, for example, a high school friend with seven children who put off her own studies for many years tell me that her father-in-law does not let her get cleaning help because it is her job, or when another woman told me of her advice from ‘teachers’ that in order to cope with the drudgery of looking after five children and a husband she should remember that she is doing divine work, I recoil at the thought of the oppressively servile positions into which religious women are constantly put.
My fear is that even at the bachelor’s level, religious girls are dumbing themselves down in disturbing ways because they understand that process to be vital to their identities. This impression emerges especially around a frustrating issue: learning to read English. Israeli universities are now getting quite strict about requiring students to read in English, for good reasons. Reading in Hebrew alone leaves one’s breadth of information limited, not to mention one’s choices of career paths. The staff was told early on that we are required to have at least two English items on our syllabi, and that students must have three to four years of English under their belts in order to get their degrees, so that reading these two articles in English should not pose a problem.
I was thus quite surprised when, assigning a choice of three articles to read over the course of one month, I was greeted with an uproar. During that month, every class discussion was interrupted with annoying whines of “Why do we have to do this?” and “I can’t do it, there’s no way, I don’t know how,” and “No other teacher is making their students do this.” I told them that this was a requirement set not by me but by the college, and if I happen to be the only teacher enforcing this, they should consider themselves lucky to be acquiring such an important skill. Plus, I reminded them that there is no such thing as “I can’t” and that the teacher’s most fundamental belief must be that everyone can, because their job as teachers will be to facilitate the learning process. I also told them that I would help them along: I conducted in-class exercises, I prepared word lists, we read together with dictionaries at our side, I brought in briefer and easier articles—in short, I went on a mission to make sure that this happens, despite the vocal and relentless protest, and despite several students dropping out and complaining to my supervisors about my strictness.
A few weeks ago, a student walked in whose name was on the registry but who had not yet shown up to class. I asked her where she had been for the first six weeks and she said simply, “I had things to do.” When she later heard the rallying cries against the terrible requirement to read English, she brazenly entered the fray and said, “You know, my husband is doing a BA at Hebrew University, and I understand that he’s required to learn English, but me? What do I need it for?” This remark really got to me. I replied, “You mean to tell me, that while you and your husband are both doing this degree, it’s okay for him to have to learn English and you not?” Other girls laughed, “What, we’re not in competition with our husbands!” But that was it for me. I said, “That’s it, end of discussion. This is a requirement and you are going to read in English. I’m not discussing it anymore.” Since then, the class has dwindled, as have the complaints, but I am not giving up. Husbands or no husbands, babies or no babies, scarves, slings, skirts or whatever, at least when they are in my class, I am going to make sure that these young women learn.
Still, this issue has become quite distressing for me. Ifs becoming increasingly clear that religious women, while ostensibly achieving some interesting advancements in some areas, are still being indoctrinated to believe that their minds matter less than those of their husbands and children, that babies are the top priority at all cost, and that studies are important only if you can manage it. Even at the secular and more competitive Hebrew U., not only are scarves and slings becoming a more common sight on campus, but I saw a sign the other day that read, “Parents who are also students! New service available this year—childcare. A few spots still left!” Now that’s novel, and part of me wishes it had been available ten years ago when I needed it. But part of me is depressed that religious women are still working so hard, so young.
So am I meant to be happy that the women are still learning despite the difficulty? Or sad that their own pursuits are the lowest priority? I think I’m mostly angry at religious educational institutions for continuing to construct the identity of religious womanhood as subservient. But I’m also hopeful— because after all, I was once that religious girl doing what was expected of me, but in the end, it didn’t stop me from renegotiating my beliefs and finding a place for myself. I just wish the struggle weren’t so hard.
Elana Maryles Sztokman teaches education and gender issues at the Bar llan University Program for Gender Studies, and in other post-secondary settings in Israel. Her dissertation is about the identity development of adolescent religious girls.