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Material Differences

My 3-year-old wanted a velvet yarmulke, like they wear at his Chabad preschool—an early skirmish in the values clashes I knew were coming.

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The Rebbe’s Teachings

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The yarmulke my son picked out at a local Judaica store on his third birthday was big like a salad bowl and the deep, chocolate velvet of a dress I once wore to a winter formal. Etched into the yarmulke in Hebrew letters was the name Yosef Yitzchak. There were a number of things wrong with this, not the least of which is the fact that my son’s name is Ezra. But that was the last thing that bothered me.

At the store on the west side of Los Angeles, where we live, I tried to talk Ezra out of the velvet yarmulke. The clerk, whose yarmulke said Shlomo and whose name probably was Shlomo, helped me try. But on the topic of a yarmulke that says a name that isn’t his, Ezra was irrational. He didn’t yet understand that letters signify words, which signify identity. On the topic of velvet being an impractical fabric, he was unmoved. Ezra wanted this yarmulke because that is the kind they wear at his school, which is run by Chabad, the ultra-Orthodox movement. Yet we are Modern Orthodox, not Hasidic, and the yarmulkes men wear in our Modern Orthodox community, the yarmulkes my husband wears, are crocheted.

The kind of yarmulke men wear in an Orthodox community signifies the type of observance they undertake, not by law but by tradition. To me, woven yarmulkes like my husband’s mostly signify that we are Zionists; they also indicate that we identify as Modern Orthodox, that we are constantly straddling the tension over what it means to be a religious Jew in the larger secular world. Velvet yarmulkes are favored by more right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose religious practice is led by a central rebbe. Though many of these Jews are missionary in their approach, they are also mostly insular, dressing in a certain fashion and eschewing much of the modern world. If you aren’t religious, you might see the velvet and the woven simply as yarmulkes; but to us, they are often indications of great differences.

To me, Ezra’s longing for the velvet yarmulke pointed to the hold his school has over him and how the lessons it sometimes imparts conflict with the lessons I try to impart. As an Orthodox woman who largely objects to the sexism inherent in the tradition, I am braced for the ideologies Ezra and his brother could bring home as they grow older. But I wasn’t braced for Yosef Yitzchak’s yarmulke.

It foreshadowed other conflicts I’ve known were coming. We’d always planned on sending our boys to an Orthodox day school, the kind I’d gone to in New York, after they finish nursery school. These kinds of day schools are familiar to me: Boys lead prayer, there are co-ed classes until kids are separated around age 10, children undertake Torah-related art projects, like cardboard Noah’s Arks and clay Sinais, and the school day ends long after it gets dark, except on Fridays, when dismissal is long before that. Boys in these schools learn that they are considered superior: They recite a prayer thanking God they are not slaves, then they recite one thanking God that they were not created as women.

(In grade school, I remember, we girls would then recite a prayer that comes almost as an apology: “Thank you, God, for creating me as I am.” Which is not the same thing as thanking God for not creating you a man, or thanking God for creating you as a woman. It is a sentence of resignation, not pride.)

As white men, my boys probably won’t need any help to feel privileged or entitled. Why do they need to assert that privilege out loud in prayer? To what extent are ancient prayers like this at the root of inequality, as much as reflections of it? Though the obligation to utter this particular prayer is tenuous, it still remains in morning services around the world. Increasingly, other staple practices of Orthodoxy—allowing only boys to lead services or to become rabbis, teaching boys and not girls Talmud, and even the insistence that girls wear skirts—are being challenged by some Orthodox Jews. When I looked at Ezra in his yarmulke, I wondered: If he can’t be counted on to follow our example by wearing what we want him to wear at age 3, how can we count on him to dismiss these retrograde religious practices at 10?

I have to face the fact many Orthodox schools are going to teach my boys things I don’t want them to learn and that I can’t count on my kids to be revolutionary in their thinking, to disregard that which is unfair or outdated. And though these are problems I have with Orthodoxy on the whole, I go to a progressive synagogue where these issues are addressed often. And the things I don’t like about Orthodoxy, I don’t allow into my home. My kids will see that, but can that compete with what they’re being taught nine hours a day? I am vexed by contradictory questions: What is the message I send my son if I allow people to teach him that girls are not allowed to chant Torah, when I don’t believe this is mandated in the Torah? Am I teaching him to disregard teachers’ authority? I believe the laws of public and women-led prayer are due for an overhaul. I believe women should be rabbis—and I believe the confines of Orthodoxy allow for these innovations. But am I living these beliefs if I tell my boys what I think and then send them to a school that insists otherwise?

How do you decide what school to send your kids to? When there is no institution that matches your values completely, do you give up on the religious values, or do you give up on your own values? These are the questions Yosef Yitzchak’s yarmulke brought up for me.

For now, we have opted to send Ezra to a public school next year. The decision was based on a different kind of value: financial responsibility. As much as religion is something we cherish, so is the lesson that our children should not spend what they don’t have.

As it turned out, as quickly as Ezra started wearing his new yarmulke, he stopped. A few weeks after his third birthday, he wouldn’t wear it to shul, to school, or anywhere. He took it off and has refused to wear another one since. He just turned 4, and his head, for the most part, remains bare.

I should have known from the beginning that the control I think I have over my child, the influence I think his teachers have, is all an illusion. Maybe school doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Ezra will grow up, with God’s help, and his head-covering will not be subject to my opinion anymore. I will teach him now what I want him to know and hope that he makes decisions that are right, hope that he doesn’t dismiss our values. He will survive what we teach him; he will figure out what we don’t. We pour our love and knowledge and ethic into him, and we watch with wide eyes to see what comes out slowly over a lifetime. He is as God made him.

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Sandra Gerstner says:

Why such a long winded way of getting to her point? Finances are at the top of this mother’s priority list. So public school it will be. Let’s not veer off topic with the kippah story, so lame . . . For all the labels this woman uses, MO, Ultra Ortho, Chabad, Progressive, she clearly has a confused sense of identity. As a Jewish day school teacher, I have seen over and over how kids with parents just like this one–(confused, uncertain about what’s important to them) lose, and the ones who are fortunate to have parents with strong Jewish values win with confidence and a better overall adjustment.

Hate to say it, and I hope I am wrong, but the cahnces are VERY high that this child will turn out or be secular at best. Taffy, get over your latent and outdated feminist rhetoric and send your kid to a Jewish school. If you can’t afford it, that is something different, but my guess is your deicsion mirrosr your own indifference to Orthodoxy. Oh well. Give your kid a cahnce to choose, though.

Taffy, I just reviewed some of your previous articles, the one regarding not observing 2nd day Yom Tov especially. I have seen many like you go through the ranks, and enventually you will go full bore “frei” and yet find someone or some thing to blame for your own personal decision. My suggestion, just suck it up woman, and deal with your ambivalence towards Torah observance and realize that you are making these decisions yourself with no one to blame and for G-ds sake please stop whining about it and blaming everyone for your own religious shortcomings.

As much as we think we can rely on insititutions to give our kids values, the most important communicator of vaules is the home. Kippah or bear headed is really not the issue. The real issue is ethics, morality, the acceptance of the other( even if different than ourselves) especially within the Jewish community. Ezra was a great Jewish leader, maybe this Ezra will be as well.

Samantha says:

I stopped reading after she says “Velvet yarmulkes are favored by more right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose religious practice is led by a central rebbe.” Obviously, she doesn’t know what she is talking about. Lots of ‘regular’ orthdox people who don’t follow a ‘central rebbe’ wear velvet kippas. Maybe she has them confused with streimels.

Wrestling with values and understanding of halacha is an integral aspect of Judaism. It’s what keeps the religion vibrant and alive. And there’s nothing like raising children to bring that process to life. Thank you for sharing this chapter of your struggle. I wish you well as you navigate the shoals of what it means to you to be a woman, a Jew and a parent.

Honestly, Sandra, Taffy does not have a confused sense of identity; she’s just confused by an orthodox community that allows women to be valued in the secular realm and then turns 19th-century when it comes to rites and traditions that devalue them. And Bucky — why should Taffy “just suck it up” when her love for orthodox Jewish life (and yes, she does, otherwise why even bother to write about it) is obviously being forced into a path that is philosophically unacceptable for her. Too many MO’s are being turned off by the attitudes you both demonstrate: no understanding that there is a need for halacha to discuss, address, and respond to the issues she raises. Without Rabbinic response, people like Taffy will gravitate to egalitarian and/or conservative modes of worship. Thankfully, there are progressive orthodox Rabbi’s and institutions (like JOFA) that have undertaken serious responses to women’s roles and that give women like Taffy (and me)hope and chizuk for the future of orthodoxy.

I completely agree with Sandra. The author clearly has made her own Orthodoxy, which is fine, something that is between her and her Creator. But children learn what they live. Her non-enforcement of her son covering his head is enforcement for not covering his head. Rewarding a child for doing Mitzvos (and not just Mitzvos, but all things positive and correct) is something that helps to form a child’s value system.

I grew up in Los Angeles, where, for tens of years, Chabad was the ONLY group keeping Orthodoxy alive. Today there are plenty more options (I would still choose Chabad) to decide on for a Torah education for a child. Sending him to Public school will definitely affect his being a Torah Observant Jew, especially when his home environment is seemingly wishy-washy at best. Question: Is there a Father in the picture? What does he have to say?

The author blaming Chabad, or Orthodoxy in general, for being at odds with her form of Orthodoxy is wrong. We live for our children. But hey, it’s your life, right? Do your own thing. Take a stand, declare that you are a rebel and want to do things YOUR way, not the Torah way, and be happy with the outcome. But DON’T YOU DARE blame Chabad or Orthodoxy for not bending to YOUR will. Torah observant Jews have sacrificed for centuries so that you could live in Los Angeles and keep Kosher and observe Shabbos and wear a Yarmulkah without being persecuted for any of it.

As for the money issue, did you know that there are ALWAYS scholorships available to Jewish schools?

Personally, I don’t think it your choice of Public school is a good one and unfortunately it’s your children who will suffer from your decision.

Ultimately, I wish you only the best. Perhaps some of these comments will give you a reason to rethink your decision during this school year.

As Chabad’s Rebbe always says, “Think good and it will BE good!”

Christopher Orev says:

Thank you for sharing this thoughtfully composed short essay with the Tablet readers.

Contrary to what the strong-worded condemnation and prognostication in several of the comments above imply, wrestling with such challenging choices and approaches is the very essence of living Jewishly. Kol HaKavod.

Jules says:

We are one people with many millinery fashions. At the end of the day we are in our eyes Jews and the world’s eyes Jews, for better or worse. Your blogger is focussing on minutiae and not on reality, thank G-d, the Rebbe focussed on reality.

Jonathan says:

I agree with Christopher, EBF and Ruth.

Thank you for articulating the daily struggles that questioning Jews experience, and how those daily struggles echo the larger issues. This is entirely in keeping with tradition: the Talmud and several thousand years of responsa are themselves an living record of struggles and questioning over Torah. The Rabbonim were the first to reform Judaism.

The greater threat to Judaism and Jewish Peoplehood is not from those who struggle and question, as Taffy does; it is from those who act in blind observance of unexamined tradition and perpetuate a insular, shtetl-and-ghetto existence.

Wow. The negative judgments, hostility and lack of understanding on the part of the commentators toward this blogger is a bit much.

What? All of you follow Halacha lock step? You don’t question your beliefs or how they play out in your homes and lives?

Really? Seriously?

Kudos to the blogger for articulating her inner struggles with Judaism. I am certain she is not alone.

Chaya says:

WOW! What judgmental group of commenters. I went to an ‘orthodox’ day school in Washington, DC when I was in elementary school. At that time I think all girls wore skirts to school, all the way through high school. My parents attended an Orthodox shul which was within walking distance of our home.

We later moved and switched to a Conservative shul, again within walking distance, with Hebrew school, and I later attended a Hebrew high school – Sunday and afternoons program.

I do not know the author, but here is my interpretation of this story, taking some liberties – What I see in this story is an Orthodox woman who is becoming more and more appalled at the extremist positions being taken by the self-styled very Orthodox in Israel and in the US, who does not have available a school which teaches her values, and sees it as an increasing struggle to counteract what her children will be taught in school. She is losing belief in a structure that places her, as a woman, in a minor and subservient role.

When I learned what the ‘for not making me a woman’ prayer said, I stopped. Instead I say ‘for making me a woman’. And I have a new line that I use in discussions – “this is not my religion”. This includes ‘for not making me a woman’, the Taliban women in Israel with stovepipes on their heads under their burkas, and the kooks in Beit Shemesh who are attacking young Modern Orthodox girls on their way to school.

I suspect that were it not for the additional issues, the cost of this school, whose teachings she will have to undo, would not be the issue. And they will not be part of the population that appeals for funds to pay for large weddings for their multiple daughters. Another example of “not my religion”.

This article is for me an authentic example of Judaism as we know it in the United States at the beginning of this millineum.

Many people are drawn to Chabad because of the friendly outreach and find a true home. Many are drawn to Chabad because they do not “Charge” for schooling.

I see things that are sometimes led by economics as well as by wanting to associate with the Real Jews not us namby pamby Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox. I believe that most of us are swimming in Judaism for spirituality now. We are all Jews by Choice in America and a little cutting of slack is warrented.

In so far as I know, “Authentic Judaism” is between a Jew and G-d. I applaud the author’s love and concern for her son and for the quality of what he is being taught.

In my prayers I thank G-d for the privelege of being a Jew period.

IMO the devisive rifts and outrageous behaviours in Judaism are not arguments for the sake of Torah. They are vanity at the expence of Judaism.

Rebbetzin Goldie Huttler says:

You don’t have to agree with the author’s premise, but words like “lame” and phrases like “suck it up” don’t contribute to a respectful dialogue. The author is verbalizing what many modern orthodox women are struggling with: a perceived conflict between Jewish tradition and being a 21sth century woman. The problem is that these women are not getting the answers they need, and the observant Jewish community (from Modern Orthodox to Chareidi) runs the risk of losing them and their children when we ignore their issues or condescend to them.
There are amazing Orthodox women, such as Rebbetzin Jungreis and Rebbetzin Faigie Twerski who address these issues, and I would refer any woman who is struggling with these issues to read their books and attend their lectures, and contact them. Both these women travel the U.S. and abroad and attract wide range audiences.

For those of you who disagree with the author’s decision to send her child to a public school, I support your concerns, but do you really believe that a strongly worded comment posted here is going to change her mind? Try contacting her directly and open a respectful dialogue with her. Get to know a little bit about her, and let her get to know a little bit about you. You may find that you have more in common than you think.

As for Yeshiva tuition being unaffordable, there is a Modern Orhodox yeshiva day school in L.A. that offers a Jewish education to ANY Jewish child that wants one, regardless of ability to pay tuition, and regardless of the family’s level of religious observance. PERUTZ ETZ JACOB HEBREW ACADEMY, located on Beverly Blvd. near Fairfax Ave. will take your child, even if you cannot afford to pay a penny. This school places STRONG emphasis on Ahavat Yisroel – love for one’s fellow Jew. They also have a strong Title 1 program for those who need it. If you want a Jewish education for your child but feel you can’t afford it, I urge you to call Rabbi Harrosh at 323-655-5766.

Well done, Rebbetzin!

Jerry says:

Perhaps the author should consider homeschooling her child so that she can impart her values rather than sacrificing him to an enviroment where he will face the challenges of eating kosher while his class mates are indulging in treif, celebrating x-mas. st. valentines etc…

I agree, I think the author made this way harder than it is, due to her own ambivalence.

I have a three year old boy now, and since he started gan (preschool) he goes attired in a large knit kippa (easier to keep on the head, doesn’t require clips, accepted in our social circles) and child sized tzitzit. If he doesn’t feel like tzitzit, i don’t force it, but he’s more than happy to wear them when I put them on. Also, no fighting about the kippa, it’s just what we do. It also helps that he sees all his friends wearing one.

Dunno, it doesn’t have to be hard unless you make it so.

As I procrastinate filling out the financial aid form for my kids’ day school, I would caution Ms. Brodesser-Akner to rethink her choice of public school. There are plenty of community day schools where the students come from families who range from liberal modern Orthodox to intermarried. A school of this ilk – though it probably won’t have as strong a Jewish studies component as a more traditional Orthodox school -will encourage girls to take leadership in prayer and in other ways. Just because the author doesn’t like some of the messages her kids will be getting at an Orthodox school, doesn’t mean it is her only option. She may be more unhappy when Ezra comes home singing Christmas carols and asking for a tree next December which won’t happen in a day school of any denomination.
I’m not entirely happy with the level of Jewish studies at my local community day school, but don’t want to expose my kids to the intellectual stagnation of the local Orthodox schools which won’t discuss evolution or allow any kind of questioning( I know this from talking to parents and former parents at these schools). I also want my kids to have a thorough grounding in modern Hebrew which, to my husband and I, is the key to any serious Jewish education. To supplement what they don’t get at school, I have sent and will send my kids to either Ramah or Bnei Akiva camps(again on scholarship, thank you Harold Grinspoon and Jewish camping foundation) and to study in Israel for a year.
When thinking about school, think about what the school provides and what you can supplement, either at home, shul, camp, Israel, etc. School is but one component in a child’s life, but a big one, and a public school may not be satisfactory in some big ways.
Thank you Ms. Brodesser-Akner for your serious examination of a complicated topic.

estherkayla fleischman says:

i think that the authoress of this article is not at peace with her own place in Judaism, and until she figures that out, she will not be able to transmit strong values to her child. if she is so diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Chabad movement(and i am not part of that movement,nor do i agree or subscribe to many of their values) she should not be sending her child to that school. she needs to do some serious studying in the prayer area,since she mistranslated and interpreted the blessing for women in the morning prayers. perhaps she could contact Rabbi Avi Weiss of Chovivei in Riverdale, and he can answer her questions….

Jon Davies says:

What gives away this piece as utter humbug not to be taken seriously is the sentence
“As white men, my boys probably won’t need any help to feel privileged or entitled”
A sickening knee-jerk liberalism that has nothing to do with the story.
It goes with the insensitivity of taking as her writing name the offensive name Taffy as in “Taffy was a Welshman. Taffy was a thief”
No doubt she still talks about people welshing on their debts. Time to drop the ‘T’ word

Eric Leibman says:

If you don’t like the values your children are being taught in a Jewish school, just wait until you see the values he comes home with from going to a public school.

Yikes. TONE, PEOPLE.

I appreciated the honesty and struggle evident in this essay. And I appreciated the Rebbetzin’s plea for civility and an attempt to understand where the writer’s coming from.

I’m always interested in the semiotics of kippot, btw. I think there are even more signifiers than velvet vs crochet.

Kal Stin says:

“As white men, my boys probably won’t need any help to feel privileged or entitled…”
…which, of course reveals the author’s hypocrisy.
And just as an FYI, the Lubvitcher Rebbe, leader of the Chabad movement, favored SILK Kippot, and that is what his Chasidim world-wide wear. Taffy, I humbly suggest that in the future, you take the time to actually research your articles before ranting and exposing your misinformed, prejudiced opinions to the world.

Kate S says:

As someone who is undergoing an Orthodox conversion, with the intention of living (and raising my children) as Modern Orthodox, I completely understand where the author is coming from. At first blush, certain things regarding women rubbed me the wrong way, and I considered going through a different movement for my conversion. Luckily, I was able to reconcile my desire to be totally observant with women’s roles in Orthodoxy thanks to many wonderful people who provided insight. My understanding of the prayer the author cites is that a man is essentially thanking God for the added responsibilities, aka mitzvot, that come with being a man, in the same vein that he thanks God for not making him a Gentile. It is not an issue of superiority but responsibility. Again and again throughout the Torah, we see the leadership of women, whether knowing which son deserved the blessing or insisting that Hebrew parents bring children into the world. I could go on and on, but I’d run out of allotted characters! I agree with the Rebbetzin that there are wonderful sources from which to learn more. I’d also gently suggest to the author that she take a second look at the “equality” of the secular world, which, in my opinion, teaches that in order for women to be empowered, they should act like men, e.g. sexually, power suits, showing no emotion, etc. I am proud and grateful to be part of a religion that honors and reveres my femininity. I sincerely wish the author all the best, and hope she finds the right balance for her and her family.

What a smart kid. He learned that his mother would create conflict and make him choose between her approval and being different from his peer group. Ditch the yamulke!. Seriously though, will she ever dress him in clothes that have a designer logo? A little alligator or ralph lauren shirt? Does that really establish one’s identity? In the end, it was an unnecessary rant on chabad and her self-assurance about saving money.

JCarpenter says:

I’d hope the spiritual formation at home and in the congregation would prepare the child for any school setting, whether public, private,or religious.
A plain dark velvet yarmulke, connotations aside, is also classy, stylish even—not garish like so many alternatives (is that a Rastifarian knit cap or a brimless MLB cap? I exaggerate . . .) :?)

I believe we teach the capacity for independent thought and an engaged relationship with the Creator through our interactions with our child (and with each other in general).
What are the interactions between the author’s child’s teachers and her child? The other children at either school and her child?
Most helpful would have been an actual snippet of the author’s dialogue with her son.
Parents, before teachers, are privileged to be the transmitters – through their interactions with their children – of the tools the child will have to navigate the shaping of his/her identity.
If the parent is concerned about the alignment of the interactions at home with those at school, that is a good reason to homeschool.

I have a minor quibble here: “Velvet yarmulkes are favored by more right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose religious practice is led by a central rebbe”
This must be an American thing. In Israel, black velvet kippot are usually worn by secular Sephardim/Mizrachim who are in mourning and as soon as the “shloshim” ends, off comes the kippa.

On a deeper level – honestly, I can’t imagine why the author sent her son to a Chabad pre-school in the first place if that’s the way she feels about their brand of Judaism.

Myron says:

I think it is criminal that anyone of any religion permits their children to be embedded with mumbo-jumbo while they are infants and toddlers.

What right do you have to program your kids? You feel they are “yours”? You think you have the right to fill their heads with insanity before they can think for themselves?

You’ve already ingrained all your delusions into the poor kid.

Unfortunately, this will never stop.

Jennifer Low says:

It would be easy to say that you’re really an observant Conservative Jew – but I won’t because self identification has more to do with community sometimes and not necessarily belief/levels of observance. The answer, I believe, after you can manage the up to $30,000 a year cost of Day School, is a non-orthodox day school that is pluralistic. My daughter attended a Schechter school from K-8 with secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox kids. This school respected all branches but had requirements (such as kippot and kashrut) that would perhaps not be required in a Reform DS. She’s in a pluralistic Jewish HS now that maintains approximately 8 minyanim (my favorite is the doubters Minyan). She has friends who run the gamut; a remarkable understanding and respect for the range of observance of her friends –and the others have the same. Orthodox families were housed by friends close to our egalitarian Conservative shul so they could attend her Bat Mitzvah – where she wore a tallit and read from the Torah. But I have experienced what Taffy fears. Alas, My daughter is not in sync with our kashrut level outside the house and she may be a little more to the right of my left-centrist views on Israel. But her Jewish identity is cemented and she’s being given a Jewish education that will at least give her a Jewish basis upon which to decide her Jewish path. As an aside, the Jewish community must find a way to make Day School education affordable for all – for more reasons that will have to wait for the applicable article.

Great comment, Jennifer Low.

what I find incomprehensible is that the writer, an obvious member of the cognitive elite, has so flippantly written off day school for financial reasons.

She sounds college educated; she’s married; and she makes no other claim to financial distress. Yet, having stereotyped everyone around  her, she fails to recognize that the greatest of stereotypes is she, herself – a self-indulgent narcissist who is totally incapable of seeing the world through other than her own self-limited perspectives, who buys into the “conventional wisdoms” to justify all her self-loathing (her son and his future privileged status as a white male – who writes that junk about their own 3-year-old!!).

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Material Differences

My 3-year-old wanted a velvet yarmulke, like they wear at his Chabad preschool—an early skirmish in the values clashes I knew were coming.

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