I’m not really sure where to begin. You’re from Arizona and I’m from South Florida. You are a mother, and I can barely remember how to make cereal and milk (which one goes first!?). You’re a Mormon and I’m a Jew. And yet, after having spoken to you over the past few weeks, I see that we really do have a lot in common: our desire to empower women of faith, our love of language, and our constant hunger to learn.
I guess the best place to start is a space in which we share an experience.
As I think I mentioned, I failed Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. Sure, I graduated with Greek honors and was Editor in Chief of the student newspaper The Observer, but that’s not what I mean. I failed to attain the degree that stereotypical Stern culture holds in the highest esteemed: the MRS degree. I was close, don’t get me wrong. There were a few hopefuls here and there. There was even almost a wedding involved, but I couldn’t seal the deal.
Until I finished college, I was everything that a well brought up Orthodox girl should be: I went to all of the correct schools and summer programs, wore the right kind of clothing, and only hung out with other members of the Tribe.
Yet here I am, a nice Jewish girl with a useless degree in English Literature with no husband to win me a place in my Jewish community. Shame, really.
But this isn’t a story of an unmarried Jewish girl. It’s not even a story of Yeshiva University’s marriage culture. This is the beginning of a story of how MRS culture helped create an unlikely friendship between the two of us: a Mormon and an Orthodox Jew.
Both Mormon and Jewish communities generally isolate themselves against a larger world that rarely understands the nuances and practices of their faiths. I mean seriously, have you seen the amount of quirky articles written about both of our rituals and beliefs!?
It’s no secret that Orthodox Jews and Mormons share many social practices. From women’s modest clothing to insular communal life, the two houses of Israel share more than the Old Testament and a fear of God. Women going to college for MRS degrees is just one of the many overlapping cultural norms.
During our first chat, you told me about what it was like being married with a daughter during college. Your situation, in a way, reminded me of some of my friends at Stern College who had gotten married during our first year at university and had kids within 18 months.
Personally, I had a different college experience. I failed to get my MRS degree.
During my second year of college, I met a guy who was smart enough and cute enough. We dated for a while, and then we broke up. Then we dated again and broke up again. This pattern continued on and off through graduation. In retrospect, I think a large part of why he and I kept getting back together was because of societal pressures, namely, the need for a spouse. Sure, we enjoyed spending time together, but not enough to work through the hard stuff.
After graduation, most of our friends were engaged or married. During my senior year in college alone, I was invited to 47 weddings, and attended 39 of them. To the outsider that may seem crazy, but so is the life of a Stern girl. For the record, I got really good at getting ready for weddings in under ten minutes. Once, I even got ready in an airport bathroom in Chicago. (The key, for the record, is having a go-to hairstyle and makeup palette.)
Anyway, that might be why he panicked- or maybe I panicked, who remembers anymore. Either way, the week after graduation, we got back together- again- and within a month we were discussing engagement. Phew, I must have thought subconsciously, college wasn’t a total waste. I got my MRS degree.
For a variety of reasons, the engagement didn’t last more than a few weeks.
In my pain of having lost what I believed to have been my first love, I also felt tremendous shame. It wasn’t until later, until I started looking critically at how my community subconsciously treats women, that I realized the source of that shame.
In Orthodox Judaism, even many modern circles, there are certain cultural stigmas around unmarried women (let alone ones with broken engagements - we came so close to attaining the ideal and then ruined our chance!). Though these stigmas are cultural, they come from Jewish texts. For example, even the three mitzvoth, Biblical commandments, specifically for women — family purity, Shabbat candles, and baking challah — are reserved for married women, some argue.
Perhaps that is why, even in a time where women are encouraged to go to college and pursue careers, there is still an emphasis on also getting an MRS degree at university.
So, Bri, I guess what I’m trying to ask is how do Mormon social expectations affect women’s college experiences in your community? Is women’s education valued in and of itself or is it a means unto an end (i.e. marriage)? Are there stigmas around single women?
Until next time,