I was awakened at 7:00 on a recent Saturday morning to find a very persistent little girl thrusting a Chumash in my face. “Mommy, wake up!” she screamed. “Read me the parsha!” Amused by her diligence first thing in the morning, I sat up in bed, opened the Chumash, and began teaching my 5-year-old daughter about the birth of Moses and how he was placed in a basket and sent down the Nile River.
It would have been easier to tell her to go back to sleep, or set her up with some toys to play with quietly in her bed. But the truth is that I am thrilled by my daughter’s interest in learning Torah. While her friends are obsessed with Barbies and dolls and princesses, my baby is obsessed with the Torah—primarily Moses and all the stories related to him.
I was similarly enthralled with Jewish learning when I was a child. But in the Hasidic community where I was raised, girls were never encouraged or even allowed to learn Torah beyond a few carefully selected texts that we were taught in school. The Torah, we knew, was the most important thing in the world for an observant Jew, and yet my classmates and I had little knowledge or understanding of it, simply because we were girls. I was denied the opportunity to study Torah properly, and that’s why I have tried to ensure that my own daughter will never feel the same way—even if it costs me a few hours of precious sleep.
School was never too difficult for me; I was smart, got good grades, and always asked questions. Growing up with an Israeli mother, I understood and spoke Hebrew fluently, and so I caught on quite quickly to whatever we were learning in traditional Hebrew, while most of my classmates struggled to understand the language.
When I was in the fifth grade, my class moved from the local school to an old, broken building about 20 minutes from our Hasidic community in Brooklyn. There was no yard or rooftop where we could hang out or play ball during recess and lunch breaks, so we had to get creative. Some girls would play cards on their desks, others would just talk and eat their snacks, and still others would somehow manage a quick game of dodge ball in the narrow hallways.
I chose to read the Chumash—not in preparation for class or as homework, but because I found the text absolutely fascinating. Concepts like the Talmud, the Mishnah (the Oral Law), and Tannaim and Amoraim (the rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah) were all foreign terms that I would never be taught in school; the only thing I knew how to study at that point was basic Chumash with Rashi and some Navi (the second subdivision of the Hebrew Bible). Still, the stories were interesting, and I enjoyed finding answers to my questions within Rashi’s interpretations.
It was my dirty little secret. I remember placing my Chumash in front of a novel, hiding the cover, so that nobody would see, nobody would ask questions. I was afraid that if my classmates discovered what I was reading and ask me about it, I wouldn’t know how to explain to them why I was reading the Chumash for fun. The truth is, I could barely even explain it to myself. I mean, really, why would any normal girl learn Torah in her free time? There was certainly enough “kosher” reading material available to me. And it’s not like we weren’t learning any Torah in school; we were, and I had the homework to prove it. Yet somehow, inexplicably, I thirsted for more. And even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I knew, as did the rest of my classmates, that the reward for learning Torah applied only to boys, so there was no reason or motive for any of us girls to learn beyond the scope of what was assigned to us in our classroom.
Later on that year, our school moved to a spacious new building, and it was more enticing to spend recess outdoors with my friends. My worn-out, red Chumash was relegated to the confinement of my locker and taken out only when class required it. Despite the many questions about the Bible that still nagged at me, I learned quickly that my teachers were not there to answer our questions or to teach us critical thinking, but rather to have us repeat mindless memorization about our history and traditions that we were never encouraged to understand.
I was still fascinated by the mysterious text in the large, heavy Gemaras that lined our bookcases at home, but I had no way of understanding it myself. The Talmud, unlike the Torah portions we were learning in school, is in Aramaic, and I had never even heard of Artscroll Gemaras (which provide English translation). And there wasn’t anybody around who was willing to teach me how to learn the foreign texts.
At home, my responsibilities included doing homework and then helping out around the house. I was the oldest, and until I was 12 years old I was also the only girl, and my mother relied on me heavily to help her out at home. I would babysit, prepare baby bottles, help out with dinner, and clean the house. Friday afternoons found me cleaning the kitchen, washing the floors, doing the dishes, and setting the Shabbos table.
My three younger brothers, on the other hand, were encouraged to learn as much as possible: Torah, and later Talmud. Bitul Torah (the term used to describe the importance of not wasting a single moment on anything aside from learning Torah) was greatly emphasized and demonstrated by my father, who, on any given evening, could be found poring over a sefer, studying another chapter, another page of Gemara—learning, learning, always learning, always on a deadline to finish as much as possible.
I watched enviously as my father studied with my brothers, wishing he was studying with me. I never spoke to my mother about my desire to learn; I felt she wouldn’t understand. The one time I opened a Gemara in front of my mother and siblings, she raised her eyebrows in surprise while my brothers laughed. The underlying message I got was: Real learning wasn’t for girls. And while I was certainly encouraged to do well in school and get good grades, my most important responsibilities were the domestic ones.
I remember one Sukkot in particular, when I was 13 or 14 years old. My mother, who was usually the one serving, wasn’t feeling well, and I took over her role of setting the table in the sukkah (which was six flights downstairs from our apartment), serving our guests, entertaining them, and cleaning up somewhere close to midnight. I noticed my father beaming at me the entire time, and later, after all the guests were gone, he told me how proud he was of me. “You’re going to be a wonderful balabusta,” he said in a rare display of emotion. I remember how good I felt hearing him say those words. I didn’t get many compliments from him, so this instance stands out. But it was also at that point that I realized that the only way I could ever make my father proud was by being the best homemaker that I could be. And that made me sad that nothing else—not my intellect, nor my passion for knowledge—would ever make him proud of me.
I never did get the opportunity to explore much Torah after that. Instead of going to seminary right after high school like the rest of my classmates, I got married at 18, and my life became all about my husband, my job, cooking dinner, making Shabbos, and then pregnancy and a new baby. But despite my immersion in all things domestic, I knew that there was still an ocean of knowledge out there that I hadn’t even begun to acquire, and I wanted to know more. I heard about a co-ed Torah class in Manhattan given by a prominent rebbetzin, and I attended twice a week religiously from the time I was 17 until I became pregnant with my daughter four years later. Additionally, I convinced my husband to attend a more serious Torah lecture with me every Saturday night in Brooklyn, which became our weekly “date night”—Torah and then out to dinner—for five years.
But it wasn’t enough. I remember asking my husband many times to learn with me b’chavrusah—a traditional approach to studying Talmud in pairs of two—and his many excuses for why he wouldn’t learn with me. There were also the times that I set out to clean a bookshelf and would find myself sitting on the floor reading instead for hours at a time, surrounded by piles of books and a long-forgotten bottle of Windex.
We separated and ultimately divorced after five years, and my thoughts became consumed with a long and exhausting journey to get my life back on track. For a while, my desire to learn was pushed away to a place that I forgot even existed, rekindled only sporadically by an overheard Torah discussion, or an essay on a website.
But my curiosity about Torah was never extinguished. Now, three years later, that desire has been reawakened, and my thirst for knowledge, for learning, for growth, has become somewhat overwhelming. It began quite inconspicuously—first with an article, then another one, then a shiur on a website, and slowly but surely, I was interested enough to open and learn from seforim on my own. A large part of my newfound desire was being privy to many online conversations about Torah, discussions generated by very intelligent, knowledgeable men, and feeling like I missed out on an education.
Initially, I planned on taking classes but was disappointed to learn that there aren’t any organized Gemara classes for Orthodox women in all of Brooklyn. The few women I did speak to who were genuinely interested in studying Gemara were lucky enough to have husbands to study with, and the rabbi I consulted with was far from encouraging. I had long stopped considering myself a part of my Hasidic community, and I knew that the only way I would ever get anywhere with my Torah study was by doing it myself.
And so I did. I stocked up on seforim with English translations and started researching and learning online. The wealth of Torah study readily accessible on the Internet is astonishing, and I am taking full advantage. My mornings now include podcasts and lectures in the car, and my evenings are busy with exploring the texts I never got to experience before.
Watching my own daughter begin to learn Torah has been another motivating factor in my rekindled quest for learning. Having been out of school for the past 10 years, I realized that I actually need to look up answers to her questions, and so I found myself learning the weekly Torah portion without fail, if only in preparation for my daughter’s questions. I don’t want her growing up thinking that her questions are meaningless, the way I felt as a girl. I want her to know that learning is empowering and that questions are wonderful. And that she should keep on asking.
Recently, I asked my father to borrow a copy of Mesilas Yesharim—The Path of the Just—a book printed in the 1700s as an ethical guide to perfecting one’s character. A part of me hoped that maybe, maybe, after all this time, he would actually be proud of my desire to learn, even (or perhaps especially) as a busy single mom. But I found out quickly that nothing had changed. After his initial surprise, my father’s response was: “How can you learn it on your own? You need to find someone to learn it with.” And that somebody, I knew, wasn’t going to be him.
When I tried asking him for the book once more that evening, he brushed me off with an excuse. Once again, my father’s message rang loud and clear: A woman cannot and should not learn Torah on her own. I knew that if it was one of my brothers who asked him for a sefer, my father would have been thrilled and very proud.
I don’t want to be known as a “rebellious feminist”—as a rabbi recently called me—who wants to learn Gemara only because the boys do. That’s not what this is about. I’ve been made to feel ashamed about my curiosity and inferior to many men and even boys who are much less interested in learning than I am. It’s painful knowing that my father will never really be proud of me, or of the way I am bringing up my daughter; not when I am an unmarried woman who overthinks her faith and wants to learn from a sefer she has no business learning from. I don’t believe he will be proud of my daughter either, if and when she expresses interest in learning the Talmud.
But Judaism is supposed to be about growth, about studying the holy Torah. Women were at Mt. Sinai, too, right alongside the men. As a mother, I consider it is essential that my daughter never feel the shame that I experienced, that feeling of not being deemed worthy enough to study the same texts that the boys do. This attitude that there is no need for a woman to learn because she is only there to support her husband’s learning is shameful and wrong.
As my daughter gets older, I will make sure she gets the opportunities that I never had. As long as she remains as curious and excited about Torah as she is now, we will learn together and grow together. Because there aren’t many things greater than hearing my daughter mumble, three seconds before drifting off to sleep: “Mommy, I can’t wait to hear the Moshe story tomorrow.”
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Shaindy Urman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is also a contributing blogger to the Times of Israel and Kveller.com.
Shaindy Urman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is also a contributing blogger to the Times of Israel and Kveller.com.