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Talmud for Boys, Challah-Making for Girls—Gender Rules in Orthodox Day Schools

Gender-typing is at work as early as daycare. A new book examines how this inequity plays out and undermines religious classrooms.

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(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images (left) and Shutterstock)

SARA IVRY, HOST: Hi everyone, welcome back to Vox Tablet. It’s me, Sara Ivry. I’m your host. Today, gender trouble in our day schools.

Over the past several decades, it’s become more and more common to encounter religious women in professional roles. They’re doctors, professors, scientists, even rabbis.

Yet, while religious women have gained acceptance as professionals in their community, their sons and daughters often get very different messages about acceptable and unacceptable gender roles at school. There, at school, rigorous training in Jewish thought, or math and science for that matter, may be offered to boys only. And girls may find that more attention is paid to the length of their sleeves and to the length of their skirts than to the questions they have about Rashi.

The differential treatment of boys and girls is not of course unique to Jewish day schools. But for those invested in giving their kids a religious education, it should be cause for great concern.

So says Elana Sztokman. Sztokman holds a doctorate in education and sociology, and she’s written extensively on gender issues and Jewish life. Her new book, which she co-wrote with Chaya Gorsetman, is called Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools. The book recently won a National Jewish Council Book Award. Sztokman is speaking with us today from her home in Modi’in. Elana Sztokman, welcome to Vox Tablet.

ELANA SZTOKMAN: Thank you, thanks for having me.

IVRY: Elana, your book is based on you and your co-author’s own research, as well as that of other people. Tell us a little bit about the research that you two did. What sort of questions were you asking, and who was answering them?

SZTOKMAN: We conducted a teacher survey among day school educators about all kinds of subjects. We asked about pedagogy, we asked about how ritual is conducted in the school. We also asked about leadership. We asked about school decor, about the mission of the school. We also asked about sexual harassment. We asked about dress codes, and then how they are enforced. It was a whole range of topics that eventually became the themes of our book.

That wasn’t the only research we conducted. The teacher survey was one bit of our research. We had other bits of research also. We conducted a survey of schoolbooks looking at gender images and language in over 50 workbooks used in Jewish studies in fourth and fifth grades.

We also integrated our own research with some of our independent research that we had conducted. So, my doctorate is on adolescent religious girls in school and about identity formation. So, I spent a couple of years doing observations and interviews with high-school girls in a religious school in Israel. So, we integrated some of that.

So, the book is really a compilation of all of that. We wove it all together, all the different pieces of research and a whole bunch of anecdotes. Because as soon as we started doing the research, people kept turning to us with their stories. Writing and calling us with all kinds of different experiences that they were having, as parents and as teachers—and even as students. We had emails, also from students in school, describing different experiences around gender. So, the book is really woven through a lot of different components of research.

IVRY: And these were predominantly Modern Orthodox schools that you were looking at and Modern Orthodox people whom you were asking questions of?

SZTOKMAN: We were asking predominantly Modern Orthodox educators, but not only. So, of the 172 respondents that we had on our teacher survey, for example, around 130 (or 133 to be precise) were from Modern Orthodox day schools, and the rest were from all kinds of different schools. From community schools and other denominations and also ultra-Orthodox. We didn’t really include ultra-Orthodox schools in our findings.

IVRY: And only in Israel?

SZTOKMAN: No, no. It was, actually, the teacher survey was mostly American schools.

IVRY: In the book, you are looking at the different ways in which these ideas about gender get passed along to students, both intentionally and unintentionally. And a person might imagine that these ideas don’t really come into play until kids reach bar or bat mitzvah age around 12 or 13. That’s not really true though, is it? I wonder—

SZTOKMAN: That’s not true at all.

IVRY: Yeah, tell us a little bit about when these notions of gender really get introduced in school.

SZTOKMAN: From day one. These are issues that start when a child is born, and the very first question people ask is, “Oh, is it a boy or is it a girl?” But what’s really interesting is that we found that the early childhood years are among the most dominated by gender issues.

IVRY: Like what?

SZTOKMAN: So, for instance, in early childhood years in Jewish schools, there are two primary locations in the classroom experience where Judaism is transmitted. One is through Friday afternoon, getting ready for Shabbat; and one is morning prayers. And in both of these, there are some really stark gender issues that are taking place.

So, take prayer for example. Even among 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds, you have a lot of schools which will still make the boy leading the prayer service, he’ll be the hazzan, what’s called the cantor, the leader. And the girls will be in charge of, you know, choosing a picture or choosing a song or handing out the prayerbooks, the siddurim.

So, even then, they’re 3 years old, they’re 4 years old. And the boys are the active leaders. The ones standing in front of the classroom leading. And they’re the ones who get to wear the prayer shawl, the tallit, and they get to make all the brachot, and everybody looks at them and says “Amen” to them. And the girls are the ones, you know, helping out, or looking pretty, or passively taking on other roles. So, that’s one really interesting issue that takes place in early childhood.

The other one is Shabbat, which is Friday afternoon or Friday morning, where many Jewish schools, and this is not just an Orthodox school thing, but most Jewish schools prepare the children for Shabbat by teaching them that there’s an ima of Shabbat and an abba of Shabbat. Like there is a mother and a father. And schools have many different ways for telling the boys what it means to be the abba, the father, and what it means to be the ima. So, sometimes it’ll be that the boy is in charge of making the blessings on the wine and the girl is in charge of lighting the candles. Sometimes it’s that the boy has to practice singing while the girl has to go home and, you know, bake a cake, for example.

But what’s interesting is that in almost every single early childhood classroom, there are gender-segregated roles. So that children from really early on are learning that keeping Shabbat depends on what gender you are. There is a version of Shabbat that’s for boys, and there is a version of Shabbat that’s for girls.

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Talmud for Boys, Challah-Making for Girls—Gender Rules in Orthodox Day Schools

Gender-typing is at work as early as daycare. A new book examines how this inequity plays out and undermines religious classrooms.