If they were sons

It is early on  a weekday morning and my 8-year-old comes into our room and jumps in bed with me and with  our two year old who has been sleeping next to me. We move over to make room for her and we hug each other. We cuddle each other. We tickle. We roll over each other. We make “sandwiches” where one child is the “cheese” and the other child and I are the “bread”. There are horsey rides and human sculptures. There are squishy group hugs. Despite my desperate desires for more personal space and more sleep, this is the “hug time” that my daughters treasure and that I am sure I will miss when it ends. (We have already lost my 13 year old, who, understandably and typically for her age, wants to sleep and needs the physical disctance. She still cuddles and tickles with the younger ones, just not at “hug time” with me).

But this weekend as I was engagingly our usual wild and unselfconscious hugging, tickling and playing, I thought to myself, “If I had sons instead of daughters would I be doing this exactly the way I am? Would my eight year old son be here in the same very physical way?”  And the fact that I could not quickly and easily say “Yes, of course” stopped me cold.

Those of you who know me or my blog know how hard I work to reduce the effects that gender stereotypes have on how I interact with the world in general and especially how I interact with  my children. But I couldn’t honestly and quickly say yes to my own question.

In the wake of the recent Jian Ghomeshi scandal  (a famous CBC radio host is accused of physical and sexual assault of numerous women), I have had a lot of conversations with people about how our culture enables sexual assault.  People mentioned the pervasive cultural objectionable of women  and the linking of sexuality to violence. We focus on how bad it is for boys to grow up in this culture of violent pornography and the constant  social messages they get about women, sexuality and consent, and rape culture .  The local paper had an essay by Gabor Maté on  the problem of narcissistic male rage  where he writes

We live in a society steeped in male narcissism, one in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche. Nor is male sexual predation confined to a few “sick” individuals: that we see it portrayed, relentlessly and voyeuristically, in movies, TV shows, and advertising is beyond obvious, except for those mired in denial.

Ghomeshi’s reported behaviours arise from a misogynistic culture that degrades and confuses people of all genders. Few men enact extreme hostility, but few are those who do not harbour anti-feminine aggression somewhere in their psyche.

When we are talking about confusing physical affection with aggression, of getting physical affection wrong, I can’t help wondering, how many boys who aren’t very small get “hug time”? How many real, unperfunctory, unselfconscious hugs does a boy get in week?

And what does that do to them?



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The evidence of polygamy is in our genes?!? Poor Science writing and the danger of sociobiology

The Washington Post recently reported on a genetic study that found more genetic diversity in female ancestors than male ancestors. The article was headline:

The evidence of polygamy is in our genes

The article explains the finding:

In the genetic history of our species, the mamas outnumber the papas. A new study in Investigative Genetics reports that females have made a bigger contribution than men.

By studying the DNA of 623 males from 51 populations, the researchers found more genetic diversity in the DNA inherited from mothers than they did in the DNA inherited from fathers.

At first glance, these results could be taken to mean that there used to be more women than men. But if you know anything about history, it makes more sense to blame reproductive habits: In many cultures, more women reproduced than men.

And then it goes off the deep end of speculation via sociobiology (a field based on the assumption that social behavior has resulted from evolution and is sometimes used to justify such behaviours):

Polygamy —  the practice of one man marrying multiple women — was historically pretty common (and probably much more common than the opposite group marriage arrangement, polyandry). If most men have multiple wives, and the richest can support a whole bunch, that’s going to leave some men without reproductive partners. So even though an individual male might have had more offspring than most individual women, the gender as a whole was making fewer contributions to the gene pool.

How we get from the fact that more women reproduced than men to any information about marriage in prehistoric people is a bit beyond me. First, (and I know this may be a shock here) people can reproduce with out being married. In fact whole societies may have had no marriages at all and still produced the pattern of more females reproducing than men. It is not like we found a huge stack of marriage certificates from 10,000 years ago and saw individual men married to multiple wives. But if you are looking at reproduction as marriage (an unscientific approach perhaps biased by living in  today’s 1950s society), then you might miss a more obvious answer. (At least this is what I thought of).

Prehistoric women probably had enormously high rates of dying in childbirth (validated by many scientific studies). That alone could account for the effect of more women reproducing than men, if men took up new partners when their partners died.

But you won’t see that if you are looking to justify the cultural idea that men are polygamous but women aren’t polyandrous.

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Girls are Easy: A Rant

I have three daughters. When people hear this, be they co-workers, parents I meet in the playground or people in the supermarket, they very often say, “You are lucky; girls are easy” or “Girls are easier to__” . People say this whether they themselves are the parents of boys, boys and girls or have no children. They say these things whether my kids are screaming and running or playing quietly. I have heard this so often and for so long it has inspired this rant.

I have been told girls:

  • are easier to toilet train
  • are easier to discipline
  • don’t run away
  • are better at listening
  • are less likely to avoid homework
  • are more willing to do housework
  • are less likely to get lost
  • are more responsible
  • are better at communicating
  • are better at introspection
  • are less clumsy
  • less likely to eat bugs
  • are less violent
  • are more trustworthy
  • can do errands earlier and more reliably
  • are quieter
  • can cross the street at an earlier age than boys
  • can take care of their siblings, whereas boys can’t or won’t
  • can remember instructions better
  • are less likely to take things apart to see how they work
  • dress themselves earlier
  • can sit still
  • are less likely to make poo and fart jokes and noises
  • will clear their own dishes
  • are better at school
  • are more polite
  • are cleaner
  • are more organized
  • understand adults better
  • are more patient
  • are more persistent
  • are more  independent
  • mature earlier (both in the infant/toddler range and the teenager range)
  • learn better
  • follow directions better

So after hearing this kind of thing for more than 13 years here is my question:

If according to this cultural knowledge/ set of stereotypes boys seem to be slow, unreliable, immature and irresponsible idiots then by what magic do they then suddenly turn into men who seen are as more competent, more professional, smarter,  with more valuable opinions and more deserving of jobs of with higher pay and higher responsibility? How does that work?

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My daughter on Kippah and tfillin

I generally don’t post my kids’ achievements on my blog or facebook, but I couldn’t resist this one as it is so close to the themes of this blog. Here is Tefillin and Standing Out  by  my eldest.  It is short so you can head over to V’Tzivanu to check it out. Here is a quote:

Later, the first week after bat mitzvah, when I could wear tfillin, I left my tfillin — which my parents gave me — at home the first time because I was embarrassed to put them on when no other girls were. I eventually took them to school and one of the male teachers who put them on every week showed me how. The teachers were very friendly and made me feel more at ease. A few people gave me weird glances but nobody really cared. I felt different and a little on edge. The tfillin helped me feel like a Jewish adult, but I felt a little unsure of what to do. The next time I put them on I still needed help tying them, but I remembered more. I was more comfortable wearing my tfillin because I had done it before.

On an interesting note, she never mentions tallit, which she saw women wearing since birth, and which her school presented as non-optional (unlike tfillin).



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Atereth Zekaynim, The Crown of the Elderly – On the death of Reb Zalman

       עֲטֶרֶת זְקֵנִים, בְּנֵי בָנִים 

Children’s children are the crown of the old (Proverbs 17:6)

Reb Zalman, z”l, of blessed memory was not my Rebbe, though I did meet him several times. He was the Rebbe of my parents when they very young, in the mid-1960s in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At that time Reb Zalman was a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department of the University of Manitoba, where my parents were students (in other departments). This was in the time period after he was a dynamic youth emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe, and after he founded Bnai Or (the beginning of Renewal) and just before he founded Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA.  The Judaism my parents knew  at that time consisted of what we would now call big shul Conservadox, and also the rich secular, often communist (or at least socialist) Jewish culture of the Bundists and the Yiddishists and a taste of more modern Judaism through the Brandeis Camp Institute. What they were finding in their secular lives as university students in the 1960s was Ruach- in the sense of spirituality and in the sort of Camp Ramah sense of spirit and joyous community.

What Zalman did for them, and indeed for all of us, is create a Judaism that had Ruach, in both the spirituality sense and the joyous community sense.

So, my experiences I want to share of Reb Zalman, are not what it was like to hear him teach or lead prayers, as others have so eloquently  done (Reb Zalman Married Counter Culture to Hasidic Judaism …Rest in Peace Reb Zalman: My Rebbe Died Today), but two different things. First, wherever I travelled in my Jewish life, geographically, spiritually, over many years, when I landed in a community that I admired or felt at home in, within a few minutes I would find out that it had either been found by Reb Zalman, or by one of his disciples, or the current leaders were inspired by him. Like the Johnny Appleseed of Jewish spirituality and renewal, his reach was everywhere.

The second is that since it was my parents who were inspired by Reb Zalman, I had the privilege of growing up in a Judaism  where ideas and practices he started were woven into the fabric (see blog title) of my Jewish life, and did not seem new, or odd, but normative and authentic. For this I am very grateful, as it has allowed me to explore without the fear of change and with the confidence of a native. He literally invented the Rainbow tallit (see Jewish Chronicle version or Yonassan Gershom’s version) that I was metaphorically wrapped in. 

And both of these are a true legacy of what he gave to Judaism, and a true crown to his achievements.


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All-of-a-kind Family tore down the mechitzah on Simchat Torah

What were shuls like in terms of seating  early 1900s in the United states?

The family pew/mixed seating came to Reform shuls in the 1850s and was adopted between the 1920s and mid-1950s by most what were to become “Conservative” congregations and a small but significant minority of what were to become”Orthodox” synagogues. (The terms were not used in then the way there are today and the movements were less  separate then). Most traditional shuls had michitzot. But that did not mean they were as strict as people seem to think today.

I was astonished to (re)read this passaged from the beloved children’s book, set in the Lower East Side in 1913, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown by  Sydney Taylor, for whom the premier Jewish Children’s book award is named.

From the back of the synagogue Uncle Solomon’s voice suddenly rang out, “All the world is singing on this joyous holiday”. Right hand cupping his right ear, left arm flung wide, he began shuffling his feet in time with his song. The sisters stared at him, astonished. Could this be their dignified Uncle Solomon?“ Papa, he’s dancing!” Gertie shouted. “It a party?” “Yes, my little one, Papa cried gaily. “It’s God’s party and everyone is invited.”

Uncle Solomon’s feet kept whirling faster and faster. They were carrying him clear across the back of the synagogue. He did not dance alone for long. One after another joined in to form a circle. Pious old men forgot the stiffness in their aching joints and danced shoulder to shoulder with the younger men and children. The curtain separating men and women was thrust aside, and so contagious was the revelry, many of the younger women joined the dancers. In and out and roundabout, Uncle Solomon led them, and the excitement kept mounting.

Voices feebly raised at first, soared ecstatically higher. Feet that had moved hesitantly, quickened their pace. Only the older women remained seated on the benches, bobbing their heads and clapping their work-worn hands in time with the dancing. Mama, too, was caught up in the moment, bouncing a delighted Charlie up and down on her knee.

The sisters, swept along in the general furor, were prancing about in all directions. Tiny Gertie was hemmed in by a sea of moving legs till Papa swung her onto his shoulders. There she rode on her bobbing throne, smiling down triumphantly at Charlotte who was holding on for dear life to her dancing Papa.

Yes, it is is a fictionalized account of Sydney Taylor’s (Sarah Brenner’s) early  life and there are a few very small, trivial  historical inaccuracies. But when she so carefully recalls so many ritual details like how to kosher meat with salt at home or what it is like behind the mechitzah on Yom Kippur, I doubt she would randomly make this up.

No religious expression is static over time or immune to the world around it. And we are all the richer, spirituality  for that.

After all, is it really God’s party if not everyone is invited?


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Conservative Movement and Egalitarianism- Really Time to make up their minds

Just a  few days ago the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) passed a Tshuvah (ruling) declaring that women are obliged to perform positive time bound mitzvot.*

Let’s take a step back and look at the evolution of Conservative halacha on this point (Thank you Rev Wikipedia for most of this history):

  • Early in its history (earliest reference I can find is 1955), Conservative Judaism determined that a mechitza separating men and women was not required in services, and that women could be called to the Torah if permitted by the synagogue rabbi.
  • The CJLS passed a takkanah which allowed Jewish women to count in the prayer minyan. Throughout 1973 the CJLS debated various responsa on this subject. In August 1973 a vote was taken. Instead of voting for or against a particular responsum, the committee voted on accepting the conclusions of the teshuvot. A motion was passed which stated that “Men and women should be counted equally for a minyan.”, with nine in favor and four opposed.
  • In 1983 a number of Conservative rabbis issued responsa on the same subject, arguing that women can and should be counted in the prayer minyan. These papers were written as part of the process of JTS deciding on whether or not to admit women to its rabbinic and cantorial programs. However, the Chancellor of JTS at the time took this process out of the hands of the CJLS, and made the process an affair of the JTS faculty. The decision to allow women to become rabbinical and cantorial candidates was then based on a vote of JTS faculty.
  • In 2002, long after the Conservative movement had adopted complete de facto egalitarianism, it offered its first responsum on the subject, the Fine responsum, holding that Jewish women as a corporate entity could agree to assume the same obligations as men and be bound by them corporately, without any individual woman having to do so personally.  The CJLS effectively passed a takkanah ruling that women may be counted as witnesses in all areas of Jewish law.


And now to the main question the current tshuvah raises:

How can they maintain non-egalitarian congregations and minyanim ( including the daily Stein minyan at JTS) when those entities actively prevent Jews from fulfilling mitzvot they are obliged to do. I am pretty sure, for example, that the Shulchan Aruch says that if you are in mourning and you are able to you should be shaliach tzibur/ prayer leader-but wouldn’t a non-egalitarian minyan be actively preventing you from performing this mitzvah?

Yes, I know that each rabbi is the  mara d’atra, or local religious decisor but certain things are deemed beyond the pale (Officiating at an intermarriage, for example).

For extra fun you could note how the evolution of Conservative Halacha is  does and does not match in the order of the evolution of Modern Orthodox Halacha on women.

Also- Nice abstention from local Toronto Rabbi Baruch Frydman Kohl, who recently ruled that women could be counted in a minyan but not lead services.

*In Judaism traditionally, women were excused from what are called positive commandments (the Thou Shalts as opposed to the Thou Shalt Nots) and time-bound commandments (ones that must be done at a specific time of day), which happen also to be the commandments that are done in public, are performance oriented and are associated with prestige. (More here  )





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