Having It All and Being Good Jew Too

Can a Women Have a Career and Observant Family?

By Aurora Mendelsohn

Published November 05, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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As the season of tightly packed Jewish holidays wound down for another year — after the whirlwind of family dinners, synagogue services and even volunteer shofar blowing on top of the upheaval of a new school year for our children — my husband and I reflected once again on how hard we try to “have it all.”

As observant Jews, we feel obliged to, and desire to, attend morning and evening services, to do the spiritual work of repentance and to transform our words into meaningful actions. As involved Jewish parents and children to our own parents, we feel obliged to serve family dinners that honor the holiday, to have these meals at times and in ways that suit both our young baby and our own weary parents. We feel obliged to guide our younger children through the learning of brachot and how to blow the shofar. We teach the elder ones the meaning of the liturgy and the content of the Torah readings, and engage them in the philosophical discussions that the season prompts.

We have yet to meet all these obligations. My husband I take turns going to Kol Nidre, alternating years. We have left our children in day care during synagogue and the daytime meals. We have friends who wanted to have family dinner in the evening and host a lunch after synagogue; to make that happen, they stayed home from synagogue to prepare. After catching our breath, we concluded that Jewishly it is not possible to have it all.

The phrase “having it all” has recently resurfaced with respect to women having fulfilling careers and also being actively engaged parents. It was first popular in the 1970s, when I was a child; that’s when women began demanding and taking their places in professional careers.

To the extent that women were welcomed into professional, traditionally male careers, they were expected to behave as the men did — to wear a suit, to work 80 hours a week, to stay late. But if both parents of a (heterosexual) couple were doing the traditionally male jobs, who was taking care of the many needs of family and community? Needless to say, the model broke down.

A generation later, people came to see that feminism or egalitarianism cannot be about just “allowing” women to take on the traditionally male roles — it had to be about changing what both male and female roles in the workplace and the home were.


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