Head of a laughing girl (study by Vasily Surikov for the painting “Taking a snow town”, 1890-1891)

Taking The Ritual Laugh

The last conversation that I had with my great-grandmother before she passed away captured, perfectly and absurdly, the way in which the women in my family observe Orthodox Judaism. My mother, my grandmother, my sisters and I were visiting my great-grandmother, Mutti, right before Rosh Hashanah, and shortly after her stroke. As we chatted around her dining room table, our usual coffee talk transported temporarily from Sarabeth’s Cafe to this haven of 7os-era furniture, it seemed as if Mutti was someplace else. She was; she had been sick for a while, and was by then rarely lucid. But when detailed talk of the upcoming holiday arose—meal times, what outfits to wear each day to synagogue—a flicker of interest crossed my great-grandmother’s face. Suddenly, her voice was clear and strong:

“Rosh Hashanah is on Shabbos this year.”

“What, Mutti?” we asked, clinging to her every word.

“Don’t go to shul.”

My great-grandmother’s legacy: when Rosh Hashanah falls on Saturday, there is no blowing of the shofar (for that would violate the rules of Shabbos). Women are obligated to hear the sounds of the shofar, one of the few time-bound commandments in which women are included. Otherwise, shul is optional—the conventional practice, surely, but by the letter of the law there is no commandment for women to pray in congregation. The setting for her message was apt: surrounded by the family women, and only women. Women, the alleged second class of Orthodox}’, but for my family, a group personified less by the biblical matriarchs than by the mother of the Manchurian candidate. Manipulators, co-conspirators who cluster in the bathroom at bar mitzvahs and peek at novels hidden behind their prayerbooks.

Ironic Orthodoxy: this has long been the attitude of the women in my family, and it is an inheritance with which I struggle daily. It is, too, an attitude particular to Orthodox women, dependent on the feeling of rejection that accompanies being barred from religious leadership. For my father and brother, though their ability to point out the ridiculous in people is unparalleled in its sharpness, their allegiance to rabbis is purer, unmarred by this sense of exclusion. For women, on the other hand—especially for women who believe that their talents are potentially limitless—subscribing to Orthodoxy requires a quiet subversion of power assignments. This attitude fosters, for better and for worse, an unyielding sense of sisterhood. Its mantra: Send the men off to shul—then the real conversation may begin.

My mother has often described the exclusion of women in daily Orthodox Jewish ritual as a pleasure—”who wants to do all that extra work?” This is not, mind you, an attitude which stems from indifference or a lack of depth. My mother is a brilliant woman—a professor of Jewish law, she writes and lectures widely on topics in Jewish legal theory, including quite often, matters related to Judaism and feminism. She was the first person from her yeshiva high school to go to Princeton.

And she comes by her feminism quite honestly: my grandmother fought bitterly for my mother to be able to go away to college, a practice unheard of then for Orthodox Jewish girls. My grandmother too, conveys mixed messages when it comes to the conventions that the Orthodox community asks of women. When I was planning my wedding, she cajoled me every day about my dress, thinking the sleeves were too short and that I would be considered immodest (a battle she lost). Since I have been married, she calls every Friday afternoon to tell me, “I hope you’re ordering takeout for Shabbos. You’re too young to cook.” (This battle, so far, she has won). Be a kallah (bride) on the outside, she says, a feminist on the inside.

Make sure to be on time for shofar blowing, but don’t go to shul when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos. I know it is an attitude that seems flippant, even hypocritical, but the first part is undertaken seriously, with a deep sense of commitment to Jewish people, traditions, and texts. As is true of most adherents to a rigorous religious lifestyle, deep convictions and personal motivations co-exist, neither explanation more true than its counterpart. For my great-grandmother, a notoriously paranoid person, ritual was an exercise in control. She could know where her husband was and what he was doing, and the women could be home having their own secrets. For my grandmother, caught in the genteel generation that preceded Jewish feminism, this attitude serves as a pastel pink cover for a Betty Friedan book. She can adhere to the observable standards of Orthodox practice but subvert them internally.

It’s a strange legacy, to grow up in an Orthodox society, to feel the pressure to conform that accompanies a life of constant ritual, but at the same time to be taught that utter conformity is a surrender. There are times when I resent these contradictions, what my family would euphemistically call our complexity. How should one distinguish complexity from hypocrisy, ambivalence from laziness? The purity of a religious identity holds a distinct appeal, likely the appeal that draws most newcomers to such a lifestyle—the sense of righteousness that comes from not only doing, but knowing why. But despite years of yeshiva, countless holy texts studied, infinite prayers recited, many a Purim costume donned—for me, these rituals have always been sources of questions, often rich and interesting ones, and not of answers.

On my best days, I believe that this attitude, the ability to practice while questioning infinitely, is a gift more than a burden. I was privileged to grow up an insider in the Orthodox world, heir to its rich traditions, its warmth and its strength. But while I was expected to perform certain actions—to attend Shabbos meals in Shabbos outfits, to learn the Talmud regularly—I was subject to no expectations about my beliefs, no censors governing my conversation. The regular absurdity of communal life provided our dining table with endless, occasionally ruthless, social commentary, but the possibility of discarding the community altogether never entered anyone’s mind. As Freud pointed out, humor is a unique tool for those who wish to live just inside communal bounds; for in order to mock properly, you must already be in on the joke. It was a crucial freedom, allowing me to be entangled with traditions instead of strangled.

And so it was quite a shock to me when, three days before my wedding, I went to the mikvah for the first time to undergo a ritual bath: because I loved it. Of all the rituals that I partake in as a self-declared Orthodox Jewish feminist, this one should have been the most confusing. We Orthodox women rarely have to leave the house for a ritual that doesn’t require pantyhose, let alone one at which pantyhose are truly discouraged. We rationalists don’t believe that swimming on West 78th Street absolves us of all sins. We feminists embrace our sexuality, our mystique, our strength and our femininity. We need men telling us to take a bath? That our beautiful bodies are untouchable without throwing on some holy water?

But alone in that room, reciting a prayer to God for the protection of my husband, my marriage, my new home, I felt wonderful. Like never before, I inhabited a ritual, outside and also, to my surprise, in. In that small private space, there was no room for mockery, no one with whom to whisper cutting quips or roll one’s eyes. I felt relaxed, joyful, possibly even spiritual (Mutti, forgive me). I owe this joy, I believe, to this legacy of complexity, of hypocrisy perhaps, that I received from my family. Even with my overeducated feminist sensibility, I could enjoy this ancient ritual, frowned on by most students of contemporary gender theory, because to me such a feeling of purity is itself an act of subversiveness and innovation. I was never taught that I had to feel a certain way when performing a mitzvah, and so I am not plagued by the idea that for some, the mikvah expresses a stigma against female sexuality. People believe a lot of things, some of them beautiful and some of them crazy; but I do not have to share their motivations. To me, the mikvah was romantic, symbolizing that even in my most private moments I would continue to find meaning in Jewish traditions, that I could honestly promise to commit to my own life choices, not only to myself, but to my husband too. Becoming a 23-year-old Orthodox wife could have meant that I would have to keep hiding parts of myself within—the powerful parts, the critical voice, even the part that, despite criticism, still believes—but at that moment I felt, well, naked. Revealed.

Okay, I did laugh to myself when the mikvah lady instructed me to cover my chest as I dipped, because of course, God can see you naked, but apparently He is not a breast man. So I guess there is always a little room for irony, even in the most sacred of spaces.

Rebecca Stone is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the Derner Institute. She lives with her husband in Manhattan.