Everything I Know About Being Bad I Learned in Hebrew School
Once upon a time, I thought a quintessential feature of being Jewish involved asking questions. But I learned early on that challenging the Modern Orthodox rules of my upbringing meant I would be considered a rebel and a troublemaker. Maybe I was born into the wrong tribe, or at least the wrong family, but 613 commandments just about brought me to my knees. And I was supposed to be grateful.
My father’s determination to provide me with a serious Jewish education alongside my secular one filled me to the point of bursting with regulations and prohibitions. Having outgrown the first few years of Sunday school, I was forced to attend Hebrew school several afternoons a week. No amount of protesting, regular and vociferous, could persuade my parents not to send me.
I began learning the seemingly infinite prescriptions involving my most basic habits. Forbidden food combinations focused especially on keeping milk away from meat. In other words, no cheeseburgers, no glass of vitamin D with my steak, no butter or white bread for the chicken sandwich. Eventually, I appreciated the humane philosophy behind this, the idea of not “drowning a calf in its mother’s milk.” However, attempting to explain it all to my friends as they headed to McDonald’s was no small feat. You’ve never, ever had a cheeseburger? they wanted to know. And what do you drink with your dinner?
This bizarre diet paled in comparison with the list of what not to eat at all: anything deriving from a pig, any seafood with a shell, and any animals that had only one stomach and no cloven hooves. There were supposedly rational determinations behind all of this, and I marveled at the elaborate details. Grown men sat around and debated these questions? For centuries? Even today?
Although as a girl I had been spared the ordeal of circumcision, it soon became evident that there were numerous female body parts to keep covered up. Shoulders, for example, were dangerous, and thighs off limits. Apparently it was my job to ensure that men weren’t tempted by my flesh. This was especially critical when it came to being distracted from their devotion to prayer by my provocative displays. No upper arms. No knees. Some ultra-Orthodox codes even included prohibiting any glimpses of elbows and ankles. Not to mention hair. The neckline: Forget about it. Cleavage? Are you kidding? These were the days of mini-skirts and halter-tops, but not in synagogue, God forbid. Not on your life.
Indeed, in synagogue, the situation was dire. Girls and women were seated off to the side, separated from the men by a chest-high wooden barrier, and we were never allowed to read from the Torah scrolls or even to touch them. We were unclean, I was told. Blood. This news came to me just as I was learning about my body, and the onset of the monthly event we would sometimes call The Curse. There were ways for me to purify myself after having my period, I was told, by immersing myself in a ritual bath. This was intended as some holy form of consolation.
As for what was not allowed on the Sabbath, the territory was vast beyond belief. No turning things on or off (television, lights, appliances, cars). No touching money, no writing, no cutting or tearing. No cooking of any kind. Sentences beginning with “Thou shalt not” went on and on. The lists of exclusions exhausted and mortified me. I envisioned my life stretching ahead with huge signs reading NO along every corridor.
My increasingly desperate desire to know WHY did not go over big in Hebrew school, or at home for that matter. Told I ought to defer to the greater wisdom of my elders, and to respect the teachings of the Torah, I began to suspect a giant conspiracy. No matter how kind-seeming my teacher (Benjamin Friend, his real name!) or how jolly and warm were the smiles and voice of the Rabbi, the messages were unmistakable and always the same: Obey the rules. If you study hard and follow the instructions, you will be a Good Jew.
And by the way, Boys have one set of rules and Girls have another. STOP ASKING WHY.
I became furious, a raging feminist at the age of nine, long before I ever heard of such a thing as women’s rights. WAS there a women’s movement in 1969? I wouldn’t have known. Instructions in prayer dealt one of the most painful blows of them all. Boys in my Hebrew school class were instructed to recite the following among their daily morning prayers: “Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, to whom I give thanks for not making me a woman.” I remember sitting at my tight little desk, the kind where the chair was permanently attached, and wanting to scream. WHAT DID THEY MEAN? Girls were instructed to insert a substitution: “Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, to whom I give thanks for making me as I am.”
I can recall the shock and damage of those teachings to this very day. To see the smug faces of my male classmates, in contrast to the humiliation of the girls! I wanted to break all the rules I had ever been taught, just to show everyone how much it HURT to be so dismissed, so blatantly relegated to second-class citizenship. But when I opened my mouth to protest about inequality and injustice, I was told that such “differences” were part of the Divine Plan. That this was a contract between me and God, that this was how it was all designed, infuriated and depressed me.
I tried denouncing these indignities to my father, desperate to feel heard, at the very least. I threw my Hebrew school notebooks on the ground, swearing I would no longer attend class. My father thundered right back, reminding me that my education was not optional. Girls have their own special roles in Judaism, he insisted. “Think of it as a privilege!” my teacher, Mr. Friend, offered.
Where was my mother in all of this? Essentially, she remained on the sidelines, practicing her own form of non-violent resistance. She said she was Jewish “on the inside,” and that feelings mattered just as much as behaviors. Your father has his way of being Jewish and I have mine, she said. Translated into my language, this meant that she got to avoid synagogue, except on the high holy days. Somehow, she had managed to let herself off the hook.
Every Saturday morning, when my father dragged me out of bed to join him and my sister and brother on our walk to synagogue, my mother went shopping. Through snowdrifts in the endless winters of upstate New York, I trudged along like an indentured servant. My father made us walk through the parking lot of the notoriously anti-Semitic country club, claiming it was a shortcut. He told us to hold our heads up and stick out our chests. When we got to the synagogue, I had to be sure to remove the pants I’d been allowed to wear for the snow. And while my brother sat beside my father and murmured prayers with the men, my sister and I took our places on the side. In the unclean section.
My mother kept a kosher home, complying with my father’s preferences. But when we ate out at restaurants, she ordered shrimp cocktail and ate it in what looked like a pleased silence. My father looked away in disappointment. I felt myself waiting for my turn to grow up and break rules whenever I was in the mood.
A couple of times, feeling defiant and caught by divided loyalties, I announced I was going to accompany my mother on a shopping trip instead of heading off to pray. It seemed the walls might collapse or the roof explode. I remember my father shouting not at me but at my mother, for “setting a bad example.”
After the disenchanting ritual of my bas-Torah, in which I was supposedly initiated as an adult into the congregation, my father and I had a world-class argument about Hebrew school. When he insisted that I still had to continue my studies as long as I was living in his house, I told him I would no longer attend classes at the Orthodox synagogue. In the Conservative synagogue, where men and women got to sit beside one another during services, a slightly more broad-minded curriculum was available. I stood my ground about going there instead, to the conversational Hebrew language class. Prayers were over. And as for Jewish activities, the only one I could stand to participate in was Israeli folkdancing. I had noticed there were boys involved.
When boys began showing up with increasing frequency on my radar screen, I realized keeping secrets could become a new form of resistance. My father forbade me from dating non-Jews, and naturally they were all I wanted. I sneaked out of the house to meet boys named Charlie and Matthew and Chris, kissed their Catholic lips and tried my first tastes of beer. I wanted to taste everything. I wanted to be free.
Once my father followed me to the ice cream parlor and caught me with a boy. Not a Jewish one, of course. I had lied about meeting a girlfriend, and my father saw right through me. But even getting caught and then grounded for the crime of my deceit couldn’t make me righteous.
My rage got so fierce I knew there was really no cure except to get out of the house. At the ripe age of sixteen, I figured out how to graduate early from high school and engineered my formal escape. Sponsored by Rotary International as an exchange student to the Philippines, I flew to the other side of the globe, as far from home as I could get without leaving the planet. For the first time, I saw what it might really feel like to leave my Orthodox Jewish world behind.
Here was my Big Chance to break rules with no one looking over my shoulder. Pork? Prawns? My hosts were offering me every forbidden food, calling them delicacies and insisting I try them all.
I hesitated, thinking of the struggles that had defined my life. The good/bad daughter. My public school and my religious school. The Jewish boys and the non-Jewish boys. Surrounded by a sea of Catholics, thousands of miles from home, I had every reason to forget about US and join up with THEM. No father’s threats and admonishments, no older sister setting her obedient example. Plates heaped with roast pig and shellfish were arrayed before me. All I had to do was open my mouth and lift a fork to my lips.
At the dining room table of my Rotary family, I felt utterly alone with my language, my beliefs and my history. Who was I? What came to me was both a thought and a feeling, a vivid sensation that I was not just another “messenger of goodwill,” as I’d been instructed by Rotary. I was carrying my parents’ stories under my skin. I was their blood, their very bones. Their miraculous survival during the Holocaust had led all the way here, to me, sitting among a group of brown faces, all waiting for me to take a bite of their most generous, most welcoming meal.
I astonished myself. I shook my head No. In this strangest of strange lands, the only familiarity and individuality I could retain was what belonged to me on the inside, in my body. Given the freedom to choose my own rules, for once I wanted to stay loyal to my tribal code.
“I’m Jewish,” I said.
All around me, puzzled expressions deepened. Prepared now to explain that I was simply practicing my religion every time I sat down to a meal, I tried to remember what I’d been taught about keeping kosher. I would have to re-learn a few things, I thought. I might even have to study some books on Judaism! But before I could begin to tell them about the unclean animals, I was stopped in my tracks.
“What,” my new family asked, “is a Jewish?”
As for the rest of my rebellion, it’s a longer story. Even when I returned (a vegetarian) from the Philippines at age 17, I never did live at home with my parents again. After attending Stanford, I made my permanent home in California. To this day, I wrestle with the unresolved question of my membership in the Tribe, what it means to be a Jewish woman. I eat shellfish now. I do not observe the holidays or practice the rituals. I married (and divorced) a non-Jewish man, and have continued to be drawn toward men from the “other” world, though I swear it’s not by design. I just like them better, that’s all.
Am I still just saying NO after all these years? I feel mostly determined to say YES, to make my choices without the demanding voices of prohibition in my ear. But does that make me Bad by anyone else’s standards? Ask my father. Ask the Rabbi. They are likely to shrug and say that maybe I’m finally old enough to make up my own mind. Suddenly I wonder if that ancient prayer can be my new mantra for self-acceptance. Blessed be God, ruler of the universe, to whom I give thanks for making me as I am.
Elizabeth Rosner is the author of the novels “Blue Nude” and “The Speed of Light.” The essay above is excerpted from “Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave,” edited by Ellen Sussman (W.W. Norton).