Sheitels and Garments: A Mormon and a Jew Discuss the Dreaded 'MRS' Degree

Sheitels and Garments is a series of letters between Brianne McDonald, a Mormon writer, and Rachel Delia Benaim, a Jewish freelance journalist. They discuss topics pertaining to women, religion, and modernity of both faiths in the 21st century. Sheitels refers to the wigs that married Orthodox women are wear after they’re married. Garments refers to the undergarments bestowed upon Mormons after they undergo Endowment, a religious ceremony usually correlated with marriage.

Failing to Get My MRS

By Rachel Delia Benaim

Dear Brianne,

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,

Rachel 


Beyond the Pre-approved MRS Degree

By Brianne McDonald

Dear Rachel,

My understanding of Judaism, up until very recently, was centered on a few stereotypical things: their near decimation during WWII; kosher isles in the grocery store; men with black hats and those curly bits of hair (what do those symbolize and how do they get them so perfectly curled?!); and the entirely racist sentiment that they’re penny pinchers.

That’s pretty much it. I’d never given much thought to how their women lived or how they might struggle with some of the things I struggled with growing up. My religion felt very much isolated. A world unto its own.

MRS degrees, for instance (I didn’t even know there was a name for this! Mind blown!) wasn’t what I considered to be a common modern concept. Despite what popular culture might believe, Mormons encourage their women to pursue a higher education. What remains unspoken, but nevertheless true, is that this is more a means to find a suitably educated husband to support you and less about finding a job after graduation. The fact that Mormons believe a woman’s place is in the home is no secret, but it was one that rubbed me the wrong way from a young age. I don’t think I actively considered the effect my upbringing had on my choice of major (History) until long after the fact. History wasn’t the sort of degree a person pursued to make money or launch a lucrative career. I had only the vaguest sense of what I might do after college, which basically amounted to: pursue my Masters; possibly work at a museum; write books. But really, in the back of my mind, I knew I was going to accept my diploma, tuck it away, and likely never put it to use. Maybe I’d frame it and use it as a dining tray. Ha.

As you mentioned, I was married in college. I also had a small child to care for and sometimes I felt like college was merely a means to distract me and placate me rather than uplift me. I think this is certainly how my ex-husband viewed the endeavor, with a sort of indulgent belittlement.

Older and wiser, I now wish I’d pursed something different.

I chose History because it was easy and it was safe, and also because it was one of the pre-approved MRS degrees. There would be no long nights for me, hunched over a computer or workbench as I worked my way up in an Engineering field, because my husband worked and I belonged at home. There would be no devoted hours toward exploring the complex world of computer programing (I think it would be amazing to be involved in video game development, but that’s the geek in me) or, closer to my heart, no scrambling to have my writing published. A small but insistent voice told me I would never be good at those things and that I would never succeed. Looking back, I think the source of that voice is pretty obvious.

I was far more school oriented than my husband. My grades had always been better and my motivation to pursue education much higher. Another little voice in my heart whispered early on that if I were to step out into the workforce, there was a good chance I could make more money, that we could live easier and better lives. A voice that grew louder and louder as my ex-husband lost job after job and settled into something very close to mediocrity. As much as I enjoyed my time at home with my daughter (because I absolutely did) it was incredibly frustrating to watch my life deteriorate, seemingly beyond my control.

I struggled deeply with the guilt of these feelings. Teetering on the edge of everything I had ever known. My place was with my daughter, at home, caring for her needs; facts which had been drilled into me since birth. It’s an ideology I still struggle to come to terms even now, years later.

All I know is that I draw a great deal of personal happiness and satisfaction both from my current career in the government (as well as my humble dalliances in writing) and in caring for my daughter. But there is a sense, quiet but aggressive, that to pursue one to is to scorn the other. It sets me apart in many ways in the Mormon culture and it pushes me back, it keeps me just a little bit outside. Activities are often set during the work day, Callings (each member of the church is given a specific task; child care; teaching young adults; planning events, etc.) that demand a great deal of time and effort during the week…I think you get the idea.

These feelings are merely magnified by the fact that I am, in fact, divorced and, up until recently (I remarried in November of last year), I was a single mother. These are two claims very few Mormon women can make and are easily what defines me through a religious lens.

As to there being a stigma around single women…absolutely. I have a close friend who is now in her early thirties, unmarried, and struggling deeply with remaining in her faith because, after a woman reaches a certain age, so few things are designed around husbandless and childless women (as I’ve already discussed). They have what they call ‘Singles Wards,’ which is really the Mormon equivalent to a mix and mingle, but in a town as small as mine there aren’t enough unmarried people to facilitate one so they have the occasional get-together. It really boils down to another form of isolation though; a constant reminder that you haven’t settled into what is easily one of the most important parts of Mormonism — marriage and the family.  

For me, personally, I find it incredibly comforting to know and connect with women who maybe struggle with a similar pressure and a similar sense of insecurity. I guess the point is that it’s always nice to know you’re not alone.

Since we’re talking about faith, what are Jewish beliefs concerning alcohol?

Mormons have a pretty strict diet and consumption rules but I’m thinking we’ve got that in common, too. (How you guys manage to live without bacon is quite honestly amazing.)

Sincerely, Brianne

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