Growing up Jewish in the 40’s

Yes, it is true that I found the play Yentel unsatisfactory. The characters were wooden, the dialogue stilted, the scenarios highly improbable. Did the mikvah lady really collect the marital sheet to check for blood? No matter. My argument with the play lay deeper.

I grew up Jewish in Louisville, a midwestern city with clearly Southern traditions, in the 40’s and 50’s. The Jewish community at that time numbered about 10,000 out of a population of about 350,000. There were several shules (synagogues), Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Keneseth Israel, where my parents belonged, considered themselves Orthodox, though by no means would it be considered such today. Perhaps a better appellation might be Southern Orthodox, or as I perceived it later, Conservative.

Nontheless, growing up there, we thought our synagogue was Orthodox. When I was very young, women sat in an upstairs gallery called a mehitzah, apart from the men. That was later liberalized so that the mehitzah became a curtain separating men and women downstairs, about 1950. Sometime later, the mehitzah was reduced to a small portion of the main floor, while everyone else sat together.

Women were never called to the Torah (to read from the scriptures in Hebrew).  Never at that time were women counted in the minyan (the requirement of ten men to pray), 140 years later than the Yentl play, and never were women called to the bimah for aliyas, or honors, such as dressing the Torah or opening the Ark.

I confess that this did not bother me at the time, and I continued to observe as I had been taught — albeit with more and more questions — until my daughter, Marcy, was to be Bat-Mitzvah. Sons Phil and Louis had been Bar-Mitzvah earlier, in traditional ceremonies. As Marcy approached her own Bat-Mitzvah, she asked me why she couldn’t do the traditional prayers on Shabbos morning (Saturday), as her brothers had. I arranged to ask the rabbi, at a meeting with Marcy and me. The rabbi’s answer was, “It isn’t discriminatory. Women just do not have the same religious obligation as men.” That marked the beginning of the end of my observant Judaism. The same dialogue was in the the play Yentl, set 100 years earlier, and struck me to the heart.

This personal anecdote only serves to mark the connection of my story to the traditions of the past several hundred years, in some cases a thousand or more, which continue today in the horrendous conduct of Orthodox Jews persecuting an innocent young girl walking to school in her own neighborhood in Israel, because her sleeves weren’t long enough. Or a Muslim woman scarred with acid because she dared to refuse an arranged marriage. Or a Catholic woman denied communion because she confessed using contraception to her priest.

I am more and more convinced that fundamentalist religion — Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — does more harm to women specifically and humanity in general than any perceived threat of “godlessness” that we hear about from our politicians today.  I continue to believe that reasonable people of faith can be both right and relevant, as long as they don’t infringe upon the beliefs, nonbeliefs, or practices of those who disagree.  In my view, there is no justification for trying to convince people who disagree with you on a religious basis to come to your point of view. And certainly no justification for imposing your own beliefs on them in the name of the law.

Gerry