Traditional Jewish and Catholic Mothers Caught in a Bind

Appropriately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions (Harvard University Press, 2003, $35.00) is a wonderful exploration of the lives of several Orthodox Jewish women and traditional Catholic women who share many attributes. They are all feminists, religious educators, and mothers of teenage girls. The Jewish women were in Jerusalem; the Catholic ones in Chicago. Tova Hartman Halbertal is careful to avoid finding facile similarities between the two groups, but overwhelmingly, beyond the din of the specific struggles these women fight within their traditions, we hear a common voice. Both groups of women are choosing their orthodoxies, and want to pass on to their daughters a sense of rootedness, of legacy. But in doing so, they have to hide part of themselves, the part that is ambivalent about the sexism in their religions, and its impact on their daughters. At the end of the book, Hartman leaves us with the question: How will the daughters view their mothers, meta-representatives of women in their religion, if they see them only through this veil? And how, indeed, will the daughters interpret their own religions?

Hartman is interested in women as socializers, as teachers of the “mother tongue.” She has chosen the women in this study because they socialize in two realms, as mothers and as teachers in religious schools, but they do so as carriers of conflicting world-views. Her questions are; how do women live with these conflicts? How do they communicate about them to their daughters? And how to their students?

Most of the women Hartman interviews, both Catholic and Jewish, choose to send their daughters to rigidly traditional schools. They say they want the schools to be the primary religious socializers of their daughters, to give them a “solid” background, upon which the mothers can layer on questioning and doubt. The consequence of this abdication of authority can be unexpected, as when the daughters fail to understand their mothers’ struggles and refuse to take on their battles.

The mothers appear concerned about protecting their daughters from the consequences of nonconformity; it is easier to be a “good girl” in society. But what message does this send to the girls about the mothers’ feelings about their own lives, the choices they have made, the ambivalence with which they live?

The women who protect their daughters from the hard questions by sending them to traditional schools work out their revolutionary impulses as teachers. They “wanted to inculcate a spirit of intellectual honesty and curiosity and a readiness to question authority” for their students. At least two felt they had a “mission to capture the hearts and minds of their students in order to further a feminist transformation of Jewish tradition.” What a contrast to the way in which they protect their daughters!

Hartman concludes that feminists in traditional religions have two selves, the committed self and the resisting self She finds, to her surprise, little admission of conflict between the mothers and daughters, and suggests that this must be because the mothers put a veil between the generations, and silence both themselves and their daughters. They shield their daughters from the ambivalence they feel toward the position of women in their deeply patriarchal religions. And so they sit at a distance from their girls. But these mothers have a forum in which to express their rebellions: the classroom. Their students, not their daughters, inherit their struggle.

C. Devorah Hammer has written for the Washingtonian, The Forward, Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and, of course, Lilith.