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The First—and Last—Time I Wore Tefillin

I used to think that being a feminist meant doing whatever men did. Now I’ve found my own place as a woman in the Orthodox world.

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The first time I laid tefillin, I was 15. I wrapped the straps around my arm conscientiously, coached by one of the teenage boys in my Jewish youth group. Reading the blessing from a prayer book, I followed it with the Shema, expecting to feel the same pleasure I received from doing other mitzvot—lighting candles each Shabbos, reciting prayers, sharing the Passover Seder with my family. Not necessarily a frisson of holiness, but the feeling of connection to generations of Jews that had come before me.

Instead, it felt like I’d borrowed someone else’s jacket—a wool jacket that itched.

My reaction puzzled me. I was already a staunch feminist, raised by generations of staunch feminists. After my mother divorced my father, she returned to using her maiden name. During my preschool years, she worked at the local women’s support center, surrounded mostly by ex-hippies. Mom dressed my twin sister and me in blue and yellow more often than in pink and purple. She gave us baby dolls, but we also played with Legos, Lincoln Logs, and action figures. She steadfastly refused to buy us Barbies.

Both of my grandmothers worked outside the home before it was fashionable. My father’s mother worked for the military during World War II and then became one of those secretaries who types faster than most people can think. My grandmother on my mother’s side operated her own employment agency. She was also strongly pro-choice; while working as a candy-striper during the 1940s, she had witnessed the aftermath of a coat-hanger abortion.

The men in my family challenged traditional gender roles, too. My mother’s father always helped with housework—we called him Mr. Clean—and he and his wife raised their sons to do so as well. (They also excelled at babysitting once my sister and I came along.) It wasn’t until I hit college and talked to my friends about their families that I realized how “liberated” my grandfather and uncles were.

While we occasionally attended synagogues or celebrations with mechitzas and the like—we had Orthodox relatives—the synagogues my mother chose for our family reinforced our feminist upbringing. Although she had not been taught Hebrew in childhood, my mother made sure we learned to read it. At religious school, the girls were treated no differently than the boys. After my sister and I mastered the blessings over the wine and challah, my grandfather often invited us to recite them at his place for Friday night dinner.

Upon Free To Be… You and Me’s release on VHS in 1983, when I was in third grade, my teachers began to play the video during rainy-day recesses instead of Mary Poppins and Really Rosie. Well-primed by my family background, I immediately accepted its message that males and females were exactly the same, wanted the same things, and could accomplish the same things. I strongly identified with Atalanta, the princess who wanted to see the world and would let no man get in her way.

Teachers pushed me to take the most rigorous coursework possible, and to compete in academic tournaments. If my grades dropped, they told me I was a slacker. No one excused my failure or explained that “of course” math was hard for girls. My family and my teachers fully expected me to complete not only college, but graduate or professional school, as well. After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, I decided to become a real-life, female Indiana Jones, knowing that to do so, I’d have to earn a doctorate.

When my sister and I reached the age of bat mitzvah, we read from the Torah in a halting Hebrew. Our grandparents bought us each a tallit. I wore mine only a handful of times after my bat mitzvah—but not because I felt like a girl shouldn’t wear one. The stiff nylon fabric was hot, and the tendency to slip a nuisance.

By high school, I rarely wore a skirt (even to synagogue or a formal dance). I swore like a sailor and generally handled my nervousness around boys by answering any attempt at conversation with a scathing retort (unless I thought the boy was cute—then I blushed and mumbled). As a member of the Conservative youth group USY, I frequently organized and led the prayer services.

I called myself a feminist, and I could do everything the boys could do. But the one thing I never did was lay tefillin. After all, they cost several hundred dollars a pop. It was hardly worth the investment unless the owner wore them frequently, if not daily. Even most of the Jewish men I knew didn’t own a pair.

However, there were several USY boys who did own tefillin, and most of the male advisers did, too. And all of them, being liberal-thinking guys, encouraged the girls to borrow them. And so, that fateful day, when a good friend offered the opportunity to lay his tefillin on the Sunday following a Shabbaton, I jumped at the chance.

My heart raced a little. I felt quite excited, really, as my friend handed his tefillin to me. But then, as he helped me wind the leather straps around my arm, I felt a visceral revulsion to their presence on my body. Looking at my sister Rachel in the next row being coached through the process by another boy—like me, she was a feminist who was wearing tefillin for the first time—I noted the smile on her face. Yet it was hard for me not to rip the tefillin off. I had to force myself to say the appropriate prayers first.

Later that day, Rachel told my mother, “We put on tefillin today!” Mom approved. Remaining silent, I didn’t share the strange feelings I’d had. But from then on, I noticed something: As much as I hated wearing tefillin, I found it appealing when boys did wear them. The black boxes and straps had a certain macho quality, rather like a leather jacket. When I mentioned it to my sister, she giggled.

***

While still in high school, I started keeping kosher, to some degree, and continued to do so when I entered a small liberal arts college in a rural area. Surrounded with few exceptions by non-Jews, I found myself obstinately clinging to Judaism more. Each Friday night, I lit candles to mark the beginning of Shabbat, even after my candlesticks were stolen from the dorm kitchen. (I lit candles in my room after that.) I schlepped to relatives’ homes for holidays, did Passover shopping during spring break so I would have plenty to eat during the holiday, and made Shabbat dinner for my friends, most of whom were not Jewish. Baking challah turned into a hobby, although it would be a few years until I really mastered it.

Halfway through college, I greatly reduced my driving on Shabbat. I started reading more about Judaism, and the more I read, the more I felt drawn to Orthodoxy, which seemed to me a more truthful and authentic expression of Jewish heritage and God’s will than the Conservative Judaism of my mother and the Reform Judaism of my grandparents. But reading about traditional gender roles in Orthodox life, I had mixed feelings.

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The First—and Last—Time I Wore Tefillin

I used to think that being a feminist meant doing whatever men did. Now I’ve found my own place as a woman in the Orthodox world.