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The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
Everything began with Sarah. It was a Friday afternoon and the blazing sun was finally
receding to the western horizon, giving some relief from yet another hot day. Sarah stood in her
kitchen holding the cut of lamb Ishmael had brought in from the fields earlier that day. “Shall I
sauté this with onions or roast it on the open fire with those spices Abraham likes so much?” she
said to herself. With a bit more thought, she chose the latter. The Sabbath would be coming
soon, and the faster she could get the meat cooked, the better. Once the Sabbath began, she
would have to stop all her work. As G-d1 has so clearly explained to her and Abraham just the
other day, the Sabbath is the day of rest and cooking was forbidden. As she pounded the spices
into the meat and set it up over the fire, Sarah reflected on all that G-d and Abraham had taught
her in the past months. She was excited to accept this mission: to become the mother of the new
Jewish nation and to teach other women to live as Jewish women.
As she was slowly learning, being a Jewish woman was not going to be easy. It involved
commitment, dedication, love and faith. It meant educating her children in the ways of the
Torah, G-d’s holy book, and instilling in them a love of Judaism. She would have to keep a
home with only kosher food, observe the Sabbath and all of the holidays. Above all, it meant
building a home of righteousness, love, and purity that would be an example to others, “a light to
the other nations,” as G-d had said. He taught them a song of praise from the book of Proverbs
entitled “A Woman of Valor”:
An accomplished woman, who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value. Her husband’s
heart relies on her and he shall lack no fortune…She spreads out her palm to the poor, and
extends her hands to the destitute…She opens her mouth with wisdom, and a lesson of kindness
is on her tongue…Her children arise and praise her, her husband, he lauds her: ‘Many daughters
G-d’s name is considered holy when written out in its entirety and makes the paper on which it is written holy as
well. To avoid having such a paper thrown away, we replace the “o” with a “-“. While this is more important when
writing the name in Hebrew, it has become tradition to do so in other languages as well.
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all.’ False is grace and vain is beauty, a G-d
fearing woman—she should be praised. 2
This is the song that a husband sings to his wife at the Sabbath table. Building a Jewish
home would make Sarah a woman of valor, and this was the mission she accepted.
Many generations later came Marsha, my mother. She too was a Jewish woman. Her
mother and grandmother were Jewish women. Yet somewhere along the way, as so often
happens when families immigrate to the United States as mine did in the early 1900s, the desire
to fit in with the American culture overpowered the desire to follow all the ways of Judaism.
Marsha’s mother chose to leave behind some of her “old-fashioned” roots to become more
American. Consequently, Marsha grew up in a home infused with a mixture of the ancient
Jewish traditions and the more modern secular American practices. The food she ate was usually
kosher, but not always. Friday night meant welcoming in the ABC Friday night movie along
with the Sabbath. While Marsha’s mother was content, Marsha was not. She attended a youth
group and experienced the beauty of the Sabbath along with one hundred others her age. One
hundred voices singing Hebrew Sabbath songs in unison, echoing throughout the lofty social hall
had the power to inspire. Marsha would read from the Torah, close her eyes, and imagine Sarah
standing in the entrance to her home, ready to welcome in guests to eat at her Sabbath dinner
table. Marsha yearned for the warmth and light that Judaism brings to the home. She read about
the mission given to Sarah, to build a Jewish home and guide her children in the ways of the
Torah. Marsha desired to do the same and so as Sarah did before her, she chose to live her life as
an Orthodox Jewish woman. She strove to be a Woman of Valor.
I, Sarah, am Marsha’s first child. I grew up in the home that Marsha built. Jewish values
and traditions are part of my earliest memories. I can see my mother standing in front of the
white Sabbath candles resting in their shining silver candlesticks. She slowly moves her arms in
Proverbs 31:10-31
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
a beckoning motion to welcome in the Sabbath bride3 and then covers her eyes while she sings
the prayers in Hebrew, “Blessed are you, Lord of the Universe… who has commanded us to light
the lights of Shabbat.” I can see my mother in the kitchen. It is late on a Friday afternoon and
she stands in front of the stove, ladle in one hand and salt shaker in the other. She sprinkles in
some salt and stirs the pot of hot chicken soup carefully, so as to not splatter it on the stove and
on her clean white blouse. I can smell the soothing aroma of the soup in the pot and can feel the
intensity of the heat emanating from the oven as the turkey slowly roasts. She dips a small silver
spoon, engraved with a fancy “L” for her grandmother’s last initial, into the pot and after
blowing on the steaming liquid, she takes a taste. “It’s missing something,” she says to me.
“What do you think I should add?” With about ten minutes to spare before sunset and the start
of the Sabbath, I suggest that she add some fresh dill. I then run to the dining room to set up the
Sabbath candles, beginning my own apprenticeship in building a Jewish home.
Growing up in my mother’s home was about learning the beauty of being a Jewish
woman. I cannot think of many people more righteous than she. She was dedicated to her
family, to her community and to G-d. She diligently prepared our home every Friday and before
every holiday. She served in the community as a member of the Jewish Burial Society, the
group of people who cleanse and purify a body before burial. The Jewish community considers
this to be the greatest act of kindness because it cannot be repaid. She helped to run the Mikvah,
the community ritual bath. All women must immerse themselves in the Mikvah on a monthly
basis, at the conclusion of their menstrual cycles, as a symbol of renewal and purification. She
sent my sister and me to Jewish schools and listened attentively to what we had learned. And
each night, as she tucked me into my bed, she would sing to me in Hebrew the greatest Jewish
declaration of faith, “Here oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” Through my
mother’s example, being a Jewish woman is instilled deep within my very essence.
In Jewish literature, the Sabbath is likened to a bride, a sign of joy, purity and renewal. White becomes a symbolic
color as shown by white candles and a white tablecloth. The Sabbath is treated almost as a physical being, and so
every week, we welcome this bride into our homes by beckoning her in and singing to her.
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
Yet within me as well is my desire to live a unique life. The banality of the lives of many
of my Jewish female peers in high school drove me away from my religion. It seemed to me as
if they marched in each other’s footsteps, nobody daring to stray off the well-trodden path. They
attended the same schools and summer camps, from preschool all the way through university. I
also thought they were afraid to be smart. While they spent their summers camping, I spent my
summers in various college programs, discovering the world of science and the intellect. I
discovered that I was smart and that I had ambition. I made friends who were just as excited
about electrophoresis gels and genetics as I was. These friends were not Jewish, and I connected
with them more than with many of my peers back in high school I returned to school each fall
invigorated with my new knowledge and eager to share it with others. But at my Jewish school,
I was just “that really smart girl.” I felt alone in my pursuits and ambitions.
One day, I met an observant girl about my age, and we began discussing our interests.
We soon realized that we had a lot in common; she too wanted to get a doctorate in biology and
go into research. I was thrilled to finally meet somebody with my same interests who was also
an observant Jewish woman. Then she said, “But I’m not really going to do that because, of
course, I have to get married and have a family, and I won’t have time for that.” There was a
difference between us. I was really going to do what I said.
By the end of high school, she and all of the girls became preoccupied with finding a
husband, getting married and beginning their own Jewish homes. They worked to become
teachers or physical therapists, respectable careers for young Orthodox Jewish women. These
are important jobs, but I had my sights set on other things. I dreamed of becoming a scientist in
outer space or a Nobel Laureate in Medicine. My parents, having grown up in more secular
families themselves, were excited by my goals. They had faith that I could balance my dreams
with the religion they had lovingly given to me. But some of my family did not agree that this
balance was possible. I remember a very observant cousin of mine questioning me on the topic
of my future career. She politely listened with a rather perplexed look on her face as I described
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
my grand plans to conquer the frontiers of science. “Have you considered physical therapy?” she
offered. “It’s a wonderful job for a young Jewish girl these days.” I nodded my head in an
interested fashion but inwardly I felt she was too closed off from the world. Because of her
religion, I thought, she was trying to dissuade me from where I wanted to go. That made me
dislike her way of life.
Somewhere along the way, I connected living an observant Jewish life with not being
able to pursue what I wanted to be, even if my parents felt it possible. So I was determined to do
exactly what my cousin feared I would: leave behind my Jewish roots for something new.
My determination paid off. As the blazing hot summer following my graduation from
high school began to recede into the cool richness of autumn, I departed for a new home: college.
My mother had passed away the previous winter and with her went some of the warmth of our
home. College would be a home I would build for myself, without her guidance or watchful eye.
It would be not as she would have desired, but as I desired. What type of home would I choose
to build?
I turned away from my sheltered and familiar Jewish home. My desire to be different
from my high school peers pushed me. I felt that I had never made the choice to be an Orthodox
Jew. It was the only way of life I knew. Coming to college three years ago was about making
my own choices. The first choice I made was to live apart from many of the other Jews on
campus. I feared that if I did live with them, I would be forever trapped in that community and
in having to live up to the standards expected of me as an Orthodox Jewish woman. I wanted the
freedom to live differently if I wished. While the home I did choose is only a fifteen-minute
walk from campus and the Jewish community, my choice created a spiritual distance that was far
greater. As the only practicing Jew in my house, I suddenly found myself to be a minority, when
I had spent most of my life with those who shared my religious upbringing.
The first Friday night in my new home, I make another choice. I am rushing out of a
room with my new friends. One of them calls back to me to turn out the light. My natural
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
impulse is to reach for the light switch. Yet my hand hesitates when I remember it is Friday
night and that I am not allowed to turn the light off. How can I explain such a concept to these
people who know nothing of Shabbat? With a brief twitch of my hand, I take a deep breath, turn
my back on the room and on everything my mother has taught me, hoping that she cannot see
me, wherever she is. I turn out the light.
In the darkness, it was easier to keep walking away and forget what I was leaving behind.
That first act of switching off the light made it easier to do so the next time. On a Friday night, it
became easier to get in a car, or go out to a movie, or take a weekend trip to the mountains. My
willingness and then desire to do these things overcame my desire to spend Friday night with the
Jewish students I had distanced myself from at the start. In the darkness it was easier to forget
how disappointed my mother would be.
Every choice I make leads me along a path. My choices in the past three years have
taken me far away from where I began. I have enjoyed every step of my journey. At first, the
places I came to were novel and exciting. My choice to turn away from Judaism enabled me to
see and experience what other girls from my background never would and never will. Yet as the
years progress, I find myself too far away from home. I find myself driving in a car on a
Saturday afternoon through the streets of Brookline, the big Jewish community in Boston. As
we get closer to the area synagogues, I duck down in my seat, for fear that somebody I know
may see me. “What are you hiding from, Sarah?” I think to myself. “Why are you trying to be
what you are not? If you were truly comfortable being in this car right now, you wouldn’t be
hiding. You know you are a Jewish woman. You don’t belong in this car today. You can go
shopping any day of the week. You know that you belong out there, walking on the street
towards the synagogue, because today is the day of rest and spiritual revival.”
I feel an indescribable sense of emptiness. Judaism speaks of everybody possessing a
neshama, a spirit. A person’s neshama is her very essence and without it, she would die. Just as
the body must be nourished with food, the neshama must be nourished with Judaism and Torah.
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
Although my life is fulfilling in many ways, my neshama is malnourished because I have been
ignoring her for too long. I need to revitalize her because she is who I am and her sustenance
comes from living as a Jewish woman. I now recognize that what seemed ordinary is nothing
less than extraordinary. I was given the opportunity to be a Jewish woman, a guiding light to all
those around me, and I cannot walk away from that.
There is so much that I miss. I miss the hustle and bustle of Friday afternoon Sabbath
preparations. I miss my mother’s Hebrew songs. I miss the warmth of the kitchen, the smell of
the chicken soup and the light of the shining candles. I begin to think about my own daughters
and what I want for them. Will I be able to build a Jewish home as my mother built? Will my
husband and children see me as a Woman of Valor?
But there is another reason why I choose to return to my roots. The difficult part is
discovering what that reason is. I wonder why my mother chose it. I wish so much that I could
ask her, but I am left on my own to understand her actions. I remember a story she told me long
ago. Her high school prom was on a Friday night. She wanted to go but she did not wish to
break the Sabbath by driving there. So she walked, as my grandmother drove the car two miles
per hour behind her to make sure she got there safely. This simple act makes it clear to me now
how deeply dedicated she was to following in Sarah’s footsteps. I feel overcome by the strength
of her commitment. Her courage to be different from her friends and the secular society around
her must have come from a deep source of strength. I believe it was this strength that made it
possible for her to balance being a career woman in the cosmetics industry with being a Jewish
woman. Only now do I realize that she was able to balance both worlds successfully, and I strive
to do the same. I do not know if I possess her strength, but I know that I seek it.
Only by choosing to turn away from the way I grew up did I come to the place where I
could choose to return. So now, like Marsha, and Sarah before her, I accept the mission. It will
not be easy. There is so much I have to remember, so many habits that I have fallen into that
must change. I must remember to keep the light on. I must figure out how to be a Jewish
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman
woman and a career woman too, without my mother to help guide me. It is the memories of her
and the warmth that she brought to our home that I take with me. I choose to follow this path,
because that is who I am (say it loud and proud), a Jewish woman.
A WOMAN OF VALOR The Journey to Becoming a Jewish Woman