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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)

My husband actually wrote an article about this in The Journal of Jewish Educational Leadership a couple of years ago around my daughters, when my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, and we had this experience where they invited the parents to have this Shabbat party to celebrate, you know, with the children what Shabbat means. And the way the teacher then did it is she called up all the boys and all their fathers to come, and they all stood there in the front and they were leading the blessings and they were singing.

And so my daughter, at the time, she wanted to make the blessing too, she wanted to say kiddush, and she was the only girl who got up there and wanted to do kiddush with the boys. And suddenly, these other mothers started mocking her. Just like, “Oh, your daughter wants to be one of the boys also.” And my daughter of course heard that and quickly sat down.

And so all these boys were sitting there and they’re making kiddushand they’re having a great time. And then it was time for the girls to get up. And the teacher said like this: she said, “And now, the men, they are all coming back from shul, from synagogue, and they come inside, and they see their pretty daughters and their beautiful wives and the beautiful table that is set so beautifully. And they say to themselves, ‘I am so happy, I wish my life will be like this every Shabbat.’ ” Like that. This is the story that my husband wrote about, because actually he went to this; I didn’t even go.

Right, so what the kids are learning is that the boys’ job, the boys’ and men’s job is to do stuff, to pray to God, to go out there into the world, to be active, vocal members of society; and the girls’ job is to look pretty. You know, my dress is as pretty as the table! The table is set, just like my body is! You know, they’re picking up these messages from really early on, and it is so dominant.

And effectively what we’re saying is that there is no such thing as a gender-neutral Shabbat. We are not teaching that there is a Shabbat that belongs to everyone. We are saying that in order to keep Shabbat, you have to first enter your gender script. You have to first figure out, which side am I on? Am I on the girls’ side or on the boys’ side? And then I can figure out what Shabbat is. And that’s what kids are picking up. That’s what we’re teaching, and that’s what kids are picking up.

IVRY: I was struck, and this is along a similar note, in the book by the examples that you give of the relative invisibility of girls and women in classroom materials in day schools and books and posters and so forth.

SZTOKMAN: Yes, yes. You know, the first time I saw this was when my son was in fourth grade. He was, he came home with a math workbook. It was a math workbook specifically designed for the state religious school system. Now, that raises a lot of questions to begin with—why are kids in a state religious school learning math from a different curriculum than the state schools are, which raises its own question. But OK.

So, he had this workbook, and I’m helping him with his homework. And I’m starting to notice that there are no girls in the book. So, it’ll say things like, you know they’re learning fractions. So, “Danny and Adam and Steve all ate a pizza” and had to divide it. You know, like that, things like that. Or you know, every example that they gave were examples of boys. I looked through the entire book. I looked through the entire book. There was not a single example of a girl in any one of the problems. So, that was really striking. So, that’s why Chaya and I started to look at, we started to do a more systematic analysis. And we were really surprised.

The worst books are actually the siddurim, the prayerbooks. There are some prayer books that really have no women in them at all. Even, even saying, you know, saying some of the blessings. Blessings like havdalah, you know, the blessing you make on Saturday nights. You’ll see a man and his son making havdalah, for example. Or sometimes, even if you’ll see a family together, you’ll see the man and his son blessing, you’ll see maybe, possibly a woman on the side. The only places in prayerbooks where you’ll sometimes see women is lighting Shabbat candles. So, that’s really striking.

IVRY: Elana, at Modern Orthodox day schools, are girls permitted or encouraged to study Torah?

SZTOKMAN: We asked that in our teacher survey, and we found that in somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of schools, boys and girls have different curricula for Jewish studies. And that’s for primary school, for elementary school. In high school, the numbers increase.

IVRY: So, that means they’re not studying Torah?

SZTOKMAN: They’re studying Torah, but Torah has a lot of definitions. You know, Torah can be, you know, you have a few stories cut out in a workbook and you’re going through a workbook, or it can mean, you’re opening up a Bible and you’re studying primary sources.

So, when they say, so for instance, take the oral law, for example, the Talmud. So, the Talmud is really the highest, it’s to reach the highest echelons of Jewish learning. So, in many high schools, the boy will learn Talmud straight from the primary sources, they’ll learn a lot of hours a day. While girls learn fewer hours a day from the watered-down workbook version and call it Toshba instead of Talmud.

Well, our contention actually is that there’s a similarity between the way Jewish schools treat Talmud and the way regular, and the way schools everywhere treat sciences. Which is that, you know, it’s considered the highest level of scholarship and it’s supposed to be sort of like this exclusive club, and it’s not really meant for girls, kind of thing.

And there are articles all the time about discrepancies between boys and girls. Today, an article came out, a study came out in the U.K. about why it is that for every eight jobs in physics, only one goes to a woman. And what they found is it has to do with messages that girls receive when they’re in school, when they’re in sciences. What do teachers say to girls who are in science? Do girls get encouraged in the same way? The New York Times Magazine had an article in October about this. This woman described how 20 years ago, she was one of two graduate students in physics at Yale. And how not once did anybody in the entire department ever encourage her to take a career in sciences, or in physics, and she wants to know why. She says today, there are more than two, something like 30 percent of all physics students at Yale are now women. But the women quoted in the article, the students of physics at Yale, still complain, they say, you know, the boys don’t take us seriously, they don’t listen when we talk. And then the staff in the faculty of the physics department, there is still only one woman on the tenured staff. So, this really isn’t an Orthodox problem in that sense, it’s also a problem in the school systems generally. And that’s what we based it on.

We wrote our book precisely because we felt that there was so much research out there about gender and education, and none of it actually looked at what’s going on in Jewish schools. And we wanted to know how Jewish schools compared to the rest of the world. Are they doing better? Are they doing worse? And what we found is that there are a lot of, that all the issues that are problematic in the world are also problematic in Jewish schools. And plus, there are a few extras. Like how we teach Shabbat in early childhood, for example.

IVRY: One of the most upsetting sections in your book is the discussion of tzniut, or modesty. And I was stunned by one quote you had from, I think it was a teacher or an administrator, who said that their school passed a rule that they would only spend 20 minutes in their 1-hour staff meetings talking about problems with what girls in the school were wearing. You argue that this obsession with modesty is detrimental to girls’ development in all sorts of ways—educational, psychological, and in terms of their relationship to Judaism. Would you break that all down for us?

SZTOKMAN: Wow, OK. Yeah. So, that is really upsetting. That story still remains very upsetting. Yeah. So, how is the obsession with modesty detrimental to girls? They pretty much learn from really early on that what it means to be religious is—how long is my skirt? And we got this tons.

We got this from interviews. I actually did a lot of my doctoral research on this subject. So, I interviewed dozens of girls. And the second you start talking about religion, like what does religion mean to you? How religious are you? They’ll say, oh, I wear skirts, I don’t wear skirts. Oh, I wear sleeves to my elbows. Oh, I wear sleeves like this. Like they can’t even have a conversation about identity without first describing their clothes. And even after they finish the description of clothes and they finish the whole debate or argument about it, I’m not even always sure there’s something else there. I’m not even sure that they’re having a real discussion about what it means to be religious. Like what does it mean to be spiritually connected? What does it mean to live a spiritual life? Skirts is not a spiritual life. Skirts is body cover. So, there’s that. So, one [issue] is that it sort of obfuscates an entire discussion about connection to God.

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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.