I always knew I was lucky to be a girl. This, despite being told that I was not. In the ultra-Orthodox world where I grew up, the boys are the exalted ones. Superiority belongs to the men, who learn the holy Torah.
Still. I always knew I was lucky to be a girl. We were never beaten up. We never felt the sting of the belt on our backs, or the ringing slap of the teacher’s hand. Girls never came home from school with purple welts. We never felt the stick coming down on our heads. We were treated gently; less was expected from us.
A girl is not meant to be a scholar. A girl cannot hope to learn Torah like a man. Only boys obey the holiest of God’s commandments and study the secrets of the Book.
It has been this way for generations: Men mold boys with sticks, searing the words of God into their minds. Of course, not every teacher hit, and not every boy felt the harsh slam of the rebbe’s palm. Only the bad ones did — those who misbehaved or didn’t study.
I knew I was lucky when, in the fourth grade, I came home with a report card marked NI, for Needs Improvement, in all six subjects. I explained to my father it meant “nisht di iker,” “not that important,” and my father laughed at my smarts. It wasn’t like I wouldn’t get married because of my grades. I would be a good wife and mother with or without the much-needed improvement. So would my friend Chana who had Attention Deficit Disorder. As long as her dress was modest, and her grades were good enough to pass, what did it really matter? She’d get a good husband just the same.
But not the boys. When my brother’s rebbe called home to complain, my father’s face turned pale with disappointment. And when Chana’s brother failed his mishnayis test for the third time, I could hear the sounds of his father’s hand from the basement.
Chana told me that her brother was beaten every week in school for being lazy, and then again at home for being beaten in school. Unlike, Chana, he couldn’t claim ADD as an excuse; there was no such thing as a boy who could not learn.
I knew I was lucky to be a girl, even as my 9-year-old cousin boasted and jabbed a finger at me, saying, “Boys are better then girls! Girls can’t learn the Torah. They don’t have any real mitzvahs. Because girls are dumb, and boys are smart — that’s how Hashem made it.”
I wanted to kick my stupid cousin. I wanted to clop him hard over his ear, the one bruised by his rebbe in cheder that day when he failed to remember the meaning of the words in the Torah. I told my cousin that he was dumber than any girl I knew. He even needed a tutor.
My cousin stuck out his tongue, and I laughed in his face, but I knew that he was right. It was plain that boys were superior to girls. It was there, in our morning prayers.