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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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In the past several decades, it has become increasingly common to find religious women who are doctors, professors, scientists, and rabbis. Yet while they’ve gained acceptance as professionals in their community, their children often get very different messages in Jewish day schools about acceptable and unacceptable gender roles. There, rigorous training in Jewish thought, or math and science, for that matter, may be offered to boys only, while girls may find that more attention is paid to the length of their sleeves, and skirts, than to their questions about Rashi.

Differential treatment of boys and girls is not unique to Jewish day schools. But for those invested in giving their kids a religious education, it should be cause for great concern. So argues Elana Sztokman in Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, co-written with Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman and the recent winner of a National Jewish Book Council Award. Sztokman speaks with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about how schools can squash girls’ spiritual desires, what Jewish modesty rules erroneously teach kids about sexual desire (men have it; girls don’t), and why changes in the Orthodox world offer hope for gender parity.

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.

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.

And then of course is the issue of the internalized gaze on the female body. Gaze, G-A-Z-E. Right, so that girls learn from the time they’re 5 that they are being watched and looked at. Their body, their skin, their movement is being watched and looked at. And before they even have the tiniest hormone of puberty entering their body, before they even know what anything about sex is, they’re already learning that men are looking at them sexually. I mean, what does that do? If they are learning when they’re 5 years old that they have to cover their knees in a certain way because adult men might be looking at their knees, what exactly are they learning? You know, that’s really, really troubling.

I mean, what are boys learning? When boys are learning that girls have to cover up from the time that they’re 5 because boys can’t help themselves but look at girls’ knees, what are we teaching boys about their own sexuality, about their own relationships with girls? We’re teaching them that boys can’t control themselves, that boys cannot have a normal relationship with girls, that boys only see girls as sexual objects. That there is no other way. That this is the natural way. And that we just need to accept it. And as a result of this, girls have to constantly be covering and being aware of covering; and boys have to constantly be aware of the girl as a sexual object. And if you don’t, let’s say a boy is sitting and talking to a girl and not sexualizing her, he’s going to be thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me? What is wrong with me?”

And girls, on the other hand, are taught that they don’t have any sexuality at all. Right, women’s sexual desire is a nonexistent concept in all of Judaism. There is nowhere, you know, where women are taught, oh, well maybe boys should cover up too because when a, you know, when a woman sees a man, you know, she gets all excited and turned on and can’t control herself. Like that is a narrative that is just foreign to Jewish life. It doesn’t exist anywhere. So, there are a lot of messages that come from this. And they’re all troubling. They’re all troubling. And kids are learning this from 5 years old.

IVRY: There might be some people in our audience listening to our conversation and thinking: Look, this isn’t really about education, it’s about religion, and it’s specifically about Orthodoxy. So if, according to Jewish belief, men and women are fundamentally and immutably different, and they have different relationships to text and to ritual and to halakha, Jewish law, does it really make sense to take these day schools to task for replicating those relationships in school and actually trying to reinforce them. What do you say to them?

SZTOKMAN: OK, so there are a few different parts to that answer. So, first of all, this is not necessarily the way that Orthodoxy has to be. And it’s not necessarily what all Orthodox people want. It’s not, a lot of what we’re seeing in schools has less to do with Jewish law, with halakha, and more to do with convention, with the way some people just want it to be or want their worlds to be.

You know, the Orthodox community has seen a lot of changes over the last 20 years in the status of women. There are—30 years even—there are women’s prayer groups, women’s tefillah groups in almost every community. There are something called the partnership minyanim, which are synagogues that try to maximize women’s participation and strive for egalitarianism as much as possible. You have the Maharat revolution of women in these quasi-rabbinical positions. And you have a whole slew of women Talmud scholars. So, it’s not really fair to say that these practices that, let’s say, exclude women from Talmud from the time, you know, that they’re 12 or 13, that these reflect Orthodoxy, because it doesn’t reflect Orthodoxy. It reflects a very old version of what Orthodoxy might once have been. But Orthodoxy has advanced a lot since then. So, the changes that we’ve seen in Orthodoxy aren’t really finding expression in the schools.

You see a lot of educators in schools who are guiding more by politics rather than pedagogy. They’re guiding more by ideas about, “What will people think?” rather than “What is really good for the child?” So, we saw this you know over the past few weeks, there’s been this big controversy about girls wearing tefillin. And it’s caused this huge uproar throughout the Orthodox world: What does it mean that these schools are allowing girls to wear tefillin?

So, now you have all these rabbis, you know, writing all these op-eds and blogs saying, “What do you mean, how could schools do that?” But the fact is, and almost everyone agrees, that there is no real halakhic objection to girls wearing tefillin. Like, so much of the discussion has absolutely nothing to do really with pedagogy. With saying, well let’s think about this person. Let’s think about this girl who’s coming to you. She’s a 12, 13-year-old girl, she just had her bat mitzvah, and she really wants to pray to God in the most sincere way possible, wearing phylacteries. Just like the boys are. That’s what she wants to do. She wants to connect with God. Isn’t that what we want?

So, a pedagogical response would be one which looks at this person, this child, this beautiful creature of God and says, let me help you on this spiritual journey. What a beautiful thing that is that you want to connect with God. That would be what we consider to be a beautiful, pedagogical response. That is what would be in the spirit of our book title, right, Educating in the Divine Image. Where you’re looking at the child and saying, wow, this is a creature of God trying to connect spiritually. But instead, what we’re hearing is, you know, all of this stuff about, what will the neighbors think and what will people think? And, oh my God, we’re going to become Reform, we’re going to become Conservative—all of these considerations that really have nothing to do with pedagogy and everything to do with politics.

And our contention is that we want to get Judaism back to a spiritual core, to its spiritual roots. Where first and foremost, we see one another as human beings created in the divine image. We want to bring the schools back to that. We’re not trying to say religion needs to change. We’re saying, no, this is what it means to be religious. This is fundamentally what it means to be religious. Our goals are religious goals. So, yeah, in that sense we are not challenging Orthodoxy. We’re saying, this is what Orthodoxy is meant to be.

IVRY: Elana Sztokman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SZTOKMAN: My pleasure, thank you for having me. And thank you for all of the interesting questions.

IVRY: Elana Sztokman is the co-author with Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox and Jewish Day Schools. The book came out in January and was recently named a winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award. Sztokman spoke with us from her home in Modi’in.

What about you? Did you go to a Jewish day school? If so, did it prepare you intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for the world that you live in today? We want to know what you think. Send us an email at podcast@tabletmag.com or find this episode on our website, tabletmag.com, and post a comment there. You can even post a comment on Facebook. Go for it, be part of the conversation.

Vox Tablet is produced by Julie Subrin. I’m Sara Ivry. As always, we want to thank you for listening, and we hope you’ll join us again next time.

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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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