Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Yom Kippur is approaching this Saturday.  I don't consider myself very pious, but at this time of year I do tend to reflect on sin, and repentance, and also I often remember what might have been the best teshuva that I was able to make as a girl.

In fourth grade, a new girl named Sonja came to my school.  She was very cool, and I was not.  Once she wore two different earrings and I thought, "aha!  I've caught her doing something wrong!" so I asked her about it, but she informed me, "that's 'in' now, so I'm wearing it".  Rats.

One day, Sonja had gotten up from the lunch table to get something, leaving her Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, sealed and unguarded, at her place.  I quickly slid the candy under her jacket on the bench.  When Sonja returned, she sat down on her jacket, ate her lunch, and only later started looking for her dessert.  She found the Peanut Butter Cups, totally squashed, and started to cry.

I felt bad about that for a very long time, but was too shy or too scared to talk to Sonja.  Then we were in different schools, and I went on a sabbatical to a different country, and I didn't see her again.

Until one day, in high school, when I saw Sonja:  she was my schoolmate again!  I still remember how excited I was, running to my locker, getting out 45 cents in quarters and dimes, and running to the vending machine.  I bought a Reese's Peanut Butter Cups pack, and rushed to give it to Sonja, breathlessly telling her the confusing and old story of why.

She looked at me like I was insane, and said she didn't remember a thing.  But, she ate, and even shared, the candy.  I apologized dozens of times.  We parted ways after that.  In fact, I tried to find her on FaceBook while writing this, and could not do so.

Here's hoping that Yom Kippur brings us all a chance to do some teshuva that comes as easily as that!  :)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Shaking and Dancing

Since every bathroom in my house is de facto a "men's room," I got to thinking about a bit of doggerel that my father taught me long ago:
"No matter how hard you shake and you dance,
Those last drops won't fall out 'til you're wearing your pants."

Anyone who is still reading at this point loves me enough to trust me when I say, I think that it actually makes sense from a fluid mechanics standpoint!  The drop hangs from one's urethra initially, and keeps from falling due to inter-molecular forces (like surface tension) within the fluid.  These forces are stronger than the small gravitational effect on such a tiny mass.  Then, along come the undies and capillary action with adhesion!  The liquid happily transfers to the fabric.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

One Whole Cake

Today, as has happened in several previous years, my boys reminded me that it is time for their July cake.

Why?  Because, these sneaky mathematicians have reasoned:  DS3 is on his half birthday, DS2 is on his one-third birthday, and DS1 is on his one-sixth birthday, all in July.  Naturally, they pooled their fractions and determined that Mommy owes them one whole cake.

Who can argue with that?  :)

ETA the results of the combination of brotherly love, mathematics, and chocolate:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Muddled Waters

Every month or so, tens of thousands of Jewish women plunge themselves into a mikvah and simultaneously into a morass of misogyny, hygiene, and Jewish history.

Judaism is a funny thing - we have so many traditions that have been maintained since their birth in the ancient world.  Meanwhile, as modern Jews, we hope to be morally enlightened and exemplary to all humanity.  And of course between the two, a couple hundred generations of men have been editing and adjusting our ancient laws, in accordance with surrounding biases and opinions.

The mikvah started out, I think, innocently enough.  In the ancient world, two things were extremely common, if not ubiquitous:  public bathing and priestly Temple or sacrificial ritual.  Cultures as diverse as Japanese and Native American, not to mention the more commonly-cited Egyptian, Greek, Turkish and Roman - all had their versions of these practices.  And typically it was important to clean oneself before participating in ancient worship.

Universally, as far as historians can tell, public bathing was a process of first cleaning one's body via scraping, oiling, sweating, soaping, plucking, or other processes.  This was followed by a plunge into clean water, often in social groups.  It seems reasonable to get as "clean" as possible before hopping in to skinny-dip with your friends.

Something else that has been found to be universal, according to anthropologists, is the cultural "common sense" that bathing/rinsing in fresh rain or running water is considered cleaner than in still waters.  Sure, this seems sensible even to modern people, as stagnant pools of water would naturally harbor more harmful microbes.

But the interesting thing is that often "common sense" and "taboo" are not obvious to people from another culture, and taboos are not usually shared across disparate populations.  Among the very few shared taboos are those prohibiting certain kinds of incest and those around exclusively rinsing in running water.

In the time of the Jewish Temple, the mikvah was used both for public bathing, and to achieve purity for ritual purposes.  In accordance with universal taboo, mikvah design requirements have been fairly constant up through modern times, including a source of fresh running water such as rain-water.

On the other hand, the mikvah's social requirements and meaning have been subject to striking cultural changes over the last few centuries - which have, in my opinion, shifted it into an atavistic tool of misogynistic oppression.

The first major social change pertaining to the mikvah is that men's immersion has been marginalized by the rabbis.  Of course, in the ancient world, men used the mikvah to bathe and to become ritually pure.  But they were also required to immerse after STI discharge or even semen ejaculation.  Oddly, each of these rules for men and mikvah has fallen by the wayside.

Men still have the option to use the mikvah in the modern world, but even very Orthodox Jewish men largely do not feel required to use the mikvah - aside from converts to Judaism, and small cults who take it upon themselves to follow Kabbalistic or other practices of immersing (e.g. before Yom Kippur).  This is pretty surprising, considering that anyone who reads the simple text of the Torah can see that men should be immersing after experiencing non-urinary penile flows.

But it's not only men who are now generally excluded from mikvah use.  Single women, lesbians, and children are also not invited to the modern use of the mikvah.  Sadly, our historic ritual bath has become fetishized around one thing:  marital penis-vagina-intercourse.

Which brings us to the third common taboo across cultures, though it is not universal.  This, of course, pertains to menstrual blood.  To non-scientific people, a woman bleeding with no injury can seem scary or powerful, particularly if it is seen in connection with life beginning or ending.  To the men setting the rules, in the time before feminist enlightenment, menstrual blood must have seemed particularly threatening.

These men, the rabbis, dealt with menstruation primarily in the context of heterosexual marriage, and they dealt with vaginas primarily in the context of PVI.  It is therefore no surprise that the mikvah's most powerful and lasting legacy has been around controlling women's menstrual cycles and their vaginal environment, in advance of any penis contact.  This legacy has gathered strength over the past few hundred years in three categories:  (1) frequency, (2) stringency, and (3) misogyny.

(1) Frequency:  Evolutionary scientists believe that in pre-agrarian times (confirmed by the study of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies) women did not menstruate as much as they do now.  Hunter-gatherer women tend to start menarche a few years later, enter menopause a few years earlier, and breast-feed for longer.  This schedule, along with a diet of fewer starches and calories, leads to many fewer periods per lifetime.  All of this means that an ancient woman's use of the public bath would have been sometimes related to her period, but mostly not.

In contrast, period-driven mikvah has developed a life of its own in terms of the percentage of women's thoughts that it is supposed to occupy in the 21st century.  Modern books, teachers, and even "kallah class" websites go into great detail about how Orthodox Jewish women are going to be doing this mikvah thing constantly - whether planning, preparing, cleaning, immersing, or even just worrying.

In the ancient world, there would not have been time to send multiple queries to the rabbis about the color of underwear stains (who even wore underwear?).  I'm not kidding; whole categories of rabbis exist who sit in their offices and specialize at examining women's dirty underwear samples in order to forbid or permit intercourse with the women's husbands - which seems, to me, eminently creepy.

Women who stress out about these issues now have a slightly less masculine source of help - there has been a recent (last two decades) existence of "Yoetzot," women who become halakhically educated in order to be first-line help, often anonymous or online, for curious menstruants and other interested parties.  While this is good for women who want to ask questions but won't talk to a man, it's not so great in that it perpetuates an obsessive worry among women that they are never quite pure enough.  In the "you can't make this stuff up" category, I read an anonymous question on that site just this week, from a wife wondering if it would contaminate her husband's lunch for her to pack it while menstruating.

One of the saddest parts of cultural misogyny in general, from horrors like foot-binding and female-genital-mutilation, to irritants like Yoetzot and "mikvah ladies", is that oftentimes it is older women in the in-culture who perpetuate hands-on mistreatment of women.  If all women were to refuse to be complicit in their own subordination, we could really move forward.

(2) Stringency:  For much of Jewish history, the mikvah was the only place you could go to bathe.  Men and women would go weekly or monthly, and if a woman had to make a point of going after she had vaginal bleeding from a period or a birth, it would not have been terribly out of the ordinary.

Back in Torah times, once you were done with your nether-region flow, male or female, you could bathe pretty much right away except in cases of illness.  And what you did at the mikvah was normal for those days - everyone would scrape and clean, in a way that would need no special instruction because everyone did it before hopping in for the immersion.

Nowadays, that's nowhere near good enough.  Books, lists, pamphlets, websites, posters, and classes exist to remind women to do everything from plucking body hair to removing stitches in order to get "clean" enough to enter a mikvah.  And never mind how carefully you may have prepared for entrance - some stranger, the "mikvah lady," is going to be looking at you naked to check you out again before you can immerse.

And it's not just immediately before immersion that things have become more demanding.  Women are instructed to count up numbers of special days to check for bleeding, monitor their own bleeding and possible bleeding, and even count "clean" days after their periods just to be sure - all the while sticking specially-sold cotton cloths into their vaginas to be able to tell the rabbi what kind of crazy gunk might be up there.  Kallah class instructors remind women that "toilet paper doesn't count" and the cloths must be of a particular kind, and used at a particular time of day, and examined in a particular kind of light.  Underwear color is subject to instruction, and according to some, so is the color of your sheets.

Shockingly, Orthodox sources use all of these demands to justify that mikvah is "not about cleanliness" because "you have to be totally clean before you enter the mikvah".  That seems patently absurd - it's all about perceived female dirtiness and cleanliness, because the poking, checking, washing gate-keeping for the mikvah is a major chapter of the process.

And it's not just a woman's own body that becomes so severely regulated and insulted - it's also her behavior.  The wife is not allowed to be touched by her husband or even to eat meals normally with him, during her "impure" time.  Husbands are adjured to stay away from their wives during that time of impurity - and that span of time has grown to almost half the month, every month, in accordance with ever stricter rabbinical opinion.  Married couples are assumed to be so desperate for sex with each other, and so unreliable though they choose to live by these rules, that even handing your spouse a baby or a glass of water, or sitting together on a bus, could lead to an explosion of impure love-making.

(3) Misogyny:  Ok, so how could it be anything other than misogyny for men to make rules about women having to clean themselves really really well to get ready to receive a penis?  Particularly when the man could stay just as unclean as he liked.  But let's be specific here.

There's the whole category of "rules," to start with, as described above.  Those specific and obnoxious instructions to women about cleaning their bodies and checking their vaginal secretions are incredibly invasive and deprive any human of her dignity.

And then, new brides get their own special brand of misogyny, about being careful with their examination cloths - they must not damage their hymens.  Which doesn't even make sense, if you believe that vaginal blood is impure, because it creates a terrible wedding night experience:  as soon as the lucky groom does break his bride's hymen, he has to go away immediately while she does another preparation and mikvah with no cuddling in the meantime.  (I guess the assumption is that he ejaculates immediately upon penetration, or quickly enough that the blood doesn't count.  At any rate, not a fun sexual experience for the female half of the couple.)

New mothers get a dose of misogyny too:  since amniotic fluid and post-birth discharge all count as vaginal blood, one's husband is often forbidden to offer any physical or emotional support during labor, delivery, or the post-partum period.

And then there's the sexist fact that per the rabbis, an individual woman mustn't be scientific or take over her own analysis about these things.  (And the instructions in kallah books say this over and over:  don't try to determine things yourself because you need a rabbi.)

The fundamental proof that mikvah is about controlling women, and not about any kind of spiritual purity is that a woman's reward for following all of the intrusive mikvah steps is that all of a sudden, stains "don't count" the same way after immersion.  After a woman is finally pronounced clean and ready to receive a penis, she is instructed to put on colored underwear.  Some mikvahs even sell black-colored period pads for discharge, so that you can't see if you actually start to spot again.  Because once you've submitted to the misogynistic rules of behavior, and completed the process, it doesn't matter what actually happens to your body.

Speaking of what is real vs. not real, there is a whole category of false information that is given to women - again, self-contradictory.  First of all, women are told in kallah class that there isn't a health reason for mikvah, that it is a commandment from God, such a "beautiful" commandment, and one of few that they are "in control of".

And then, because even these teachers know that they had better give some more reasons to comply, women are told that having intercourse during their period will, among other things:  (1) cause cervical cancer, (2) cause birth defects to any children born, including genetic defects, (3) cause emotional problems in themselves and in any resulting children, (4) cause a bad marriage without love, (5) cause their husbands to find them disgusting, (6) lead to miscarriage, (7) lead to infertility (which is ironic, because all the refraining from intercourse in and of itself can lead to infertility - which is interesting and depressing, because in the olden days, prior to adding in all of those forbidden "clean days," mikvah observance may have made it more likely for babies to be conceived by newly-reunited Jewish couples).

For many generations, traditional Jewish women had very little choice about attending the mikvah in the context of a marital sex life.  Nowadays, sensing the predictable loss of women who do not have to submit to theocracy, and who take a shower when they damned well please, Orthodox Judaism has developed a whole battery of apologetics to add flattery and even luxury to try to convince us to practice what they deem to be appropriate mikvah attendance.

Some mikvaot try to sell their "spa-like" experience, using fancy tiles and clean floors to cover up the fact that they're treating women like dirty objects.  Some include instructions on breast-self-examination or domestic-abuse-hotlines as part of a phony effort to be about "women's health".   Some advertise the trip to the mikvah as "Mommy's time away" or as a relaxing activity.

There is now also an attempt to recapture the mikvah for less offensive purposes - to use it as a mark of transition for women and girls, or indeed for anyone at all.  Locally, the Mayyim Hayyim mikvah has opened in the Boston area for this purpose.  Although I consider the use of mikvah for general transition to be unsophisticated, I definitely think that Mayyim Hayyim needs to exist to provide a mikvah option for people who might still like to use a mikvah within their visions of Jewish practice, while being free from some of the nosy questioning and bossiness that characterize Orthodox mikvaot.

A friend of mine once said, "you can tell that mikvah is very pro-women because a community has to build a mikvah even before buying a sefer Torah!  That means that women are valued above everything else."  It seems so clear to me what is wrong with this - it's not that women are being valued, but that the control of women's bodies is valued.  That is absolutely wrong to me, and not the kind of Judaism that I can follow.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

By Men, It Grows

Before our wedding, nearly twenty years ago, my fiance and I decided that we wanted to go to the mikvah in honor of the transition.  It seemed like a reasonable Jewish thing to do.(*)

So, he and I looked into two options, and called both, just in case:  first, the Conservative synagogue mikvah, where we both went in the end.  It was a lovely experience, very clean and interesting.  And totally egalitarian.

But our second option had been the local Chabad house.  One of the reasons that we did not use this option in the end, was that a request for use of the mikvah was met with the gate-keeping requirement for me to meet with the local Rebbetzin to get some sex-ed.  (I acknowledge here that the small gate-keeping I encountered was still very privileged compared to the response that would have been given to a lesbian, or someone marrying a gentile, or basically anyone else.)  So I went to meet with the Rebbetzin.

Nowadays, my sexuality awareness is such that any continuing education is due purely to Dan Savage, and even he can't surprise me on a regular basis.  I knew almost as much in those days, having been weaned on the earliest edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, but I had to pretend complete ignorance in my "kallah class".

The Rebbetzin meant well, I'm sure.  But her advice to me consisted of gems such as:

"You might have noticed that sometimes he says you look pretty and it feels like maybe you peed yourself, but that's not pee.

"He will say, 'In.  Now,' and you must let him.

"You have seen baby boys, on the place of the bris, when you change their diapers.  By men, it grows."


I had not thought about my kallah class for a very long time, until our program at shul yesterday.  I go to a fairly progressive "Partnership" Minyan - a quick description could be that it is separate and less-unequal-than-most-Orthodox-synagogues.  The "Plessy vs. Ferguson" of prayer experiences.

Yesterday, there was a free shul lunch.  Of course, TANSTAAFL, so it was part of a "Lunch and Learn" program featuring a very learned and engaging speaker.  She is a "Maharat," i.e. the closest option that an Orthodox woman has if she would like to be a rabbi.  Our speaker spoke about Jewish sexual ethics.

Her perspective seemed to be that (a) the Rabbis support and require men to please their wives sexually, and (b) although some other sources seem to conflate 'modesty' with ignoring women's needs, on the whole, (c) isn't that nice about Judaism being progressive.

For me, it's not enough that Judaism was progressive compared to the Babylonians.  I would have much rather had a shul program about how we can continue to be a "light until the nations" via increasingly progressive sexual mores relative to our surrounding cultures.  How we could perhaps prevent the ultra-Orthodox from co-opting even those who call themselves "modern," on the path to matching world-views with the Taliban and the Texas State Legislature.

At any rate, our speaker did a great job bringing a mix of sources and trying to bring positive feelings to her audience on the topic of Judaism and sex.  She is clearly very educated, and very personable, and has a sweet and loving relationship with her own husband and children.

I think the Maharat serves an important and valuable function to the Orthodox community who may not have the benefit of regular education from Mr. Savage.  It is crucial, for instance, that educators like her are publicizing in a religious Orthodox community, as she did yesterday, the facts that fewer than 30% of women orgasm from penile-vaginal intercourse, but that female orgasm is essential to well-being.  I can even forgive the use of stereotypes about "complicated women" and "simple male desire" in this context.

Now, the Maharat brought several sources that bear more comment.  Some of the earliest Talmudic sources imply strongly that it is a wife's right to receive conjugal satisfaction, interpreted as female orgasm, on a regular basis from her husband.

There is then a set of unfortunate medieval and other sources, likely influenced by surrounding Christian culture.  These rabbis' opinions chip away at women's conjugal rights by marginalizing any sexual activity that is actually likely to bring women sexual pleasure, and even maligning those wives who "brazenly" ask for sexual pleasure from their husbands.  These sources have a very strong misogynistic bent: "it is a sin to look at the vulva, let alone touch or kiss it".  Oh wait, they didn't actually say "vulva" - they used the obnoxious euphemism, "that place".

I don't even have energy to analyze the obvious sexist assumptions as to who is reading, writing, interpreting, or following the texts (not women!).

There was one refreshing polemic of a 19th-century rabbi who insisted that a man who tries to be an ascetic with wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am sex is nothing of the sort, but rather a sinner who will have satisfied his own lust but left his wife the unhappy, unsatisfied victim of marital rape.  You can just sense that he had a great relationship with his own wife, and was watching his colleagues or students behave abominably in contrast.

Fundamentally, all humans, in all times and places, are profoundly influenced by personal experience.  A benign example of this is how my colleagues and I become more empathetic teachers as we become parents to our own children, and are thus able to see the adorable newborn face in the most truculent adolescent.

It seems that throughout our tradition, there have been rabbis who had admirable relationships with their wives.  These men loved their wives and appreciated them - and enjoyed their mutual sexuality.  These rabbis had their say, and women like the Maharat are trying to amplify their voices even today.

And then there is an enormous cadre of men in Jewish history who, whether because they were closeted, frustrated gay men, or perhaps just selfish misanthropes, seem to have been completely disgusted with women and ignorant and uncaring about women's sexuality.

Without even getting into the phallo-centrism of Talmudic sex definition ("if there's no penile penetration, it's not sex"), there are men who seem to see women as an annoying, frivolous accessory at best, if not "a leather bag full of excrement, her orifice full of blood" [Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 629 Bialik ed.].

In such a context, we modern women are expected to feel reassured by the Talmudic proof-text for permitting alternative forms and positions for sex:

"A man may do whatever he pleases with his wife (at intercourse). A parable: Meat which comes form the abattoir may be eaten salted, roasted, cooked, or seethed, so with fish from the fishmonger..."

Oh those clever Talmudists!  Who doesn't like to be objectified as a piece of meat?  And even the fish joke for cunnilingus, ha ha!  Just as funny nowadays as it was back in the frat-house environment of the early Rabbinate.  It's not even an apt analogy.  These rabbis would not let you choose to cook the meat with milk, surely!

Ok, so not everyone reads Our Bodies, Ourselves.  I understand that some women, and many men, especially married people in the Orthodox community, would likely benefit from any sex-ed that they can get.  I'm just sad that this is what gets classified as "progressive".  For the next Lunch-and-Learn, can we invite Dan Savage?

(*)(For the record, I think the typical Orthodox Jewish use of a mikvah nowadays is atavistic bordering on barbarian, though I respect its hygienic ancient origins before it became a tool of the misogynistic reactionary menstrual taboo.  But that's for another blog post.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Culture of Patriarchal Oppression - episode 7/12/13

"Hello, Darling!  Is the Man of the House available, please?"

Ok, so it wasn't quite that bad, but M.I.T. has called our house six or seven times in the past few months, first soliciting and then acknowledging our donations to several causes, including Hillel and the Alumni/ae Annual Fund (which share records).  Every time - every time - they ask for "David Gordon".

This was M.I.T. - which you recall has been "proudly admitting women since 1861, a full hundred years before they could attend our neighboring college up the river!"

I know it's not easy for these students in the undergraduate phone bank to make calls, even to previous donors.  They are necessarily bothering people who will be annoyed.  But I just can't understand their insistence on speaking to "Mr." even after my repeated patient explanations via phone and email, that we are both alumni/ae and that in fact, I prefer to be addressed as I handle the philanthropy, and could they please update the record to reflect that fact.

Let's leave aside why they are calling in the first place, since electronic communication and even the good old U.S. mail service would do just fine and be more convenient for everyone involved.

Twenty-five years ago, I was told in my own undergraduate phone bank orientation that often it is "the wife" who makes the money decisions, or perhaps she just wishes to be included, so always be careful to address both halves of the couple, not just the "engineer".  That was sexist enough it its time, but apparently even the noblesse oblige to include Mrs. Engineer has now gone by the wayside.

Maybe it's a reactionary response to women in science - or sadly, maybe it's just more of the widespread degradation of telephone etiquette.  I used to be shocked when a business would have rude people, or no people, answering the phone.  This week I was told, after calling the main number, during business hours, at an education agency: "I'm the Executive Director and I didn't mean to pick up the phone, so I can't talk to you."

Callers don't usually identify themselves any more, assuming the ubiquity of caller-ID, although only 50-70% of Americans use that service, according to the most recent research data.  People on a primary conversation think nothing of breaking off to tell an "interrupting" caller to hang-on, while leaving their first partner left in the lurch.  All of these micro-aggressions are surely behind the decreased patience with humanity that some of us are seeing in the classroom, in shops, online, and even on the road.

But that's getting off the topic of C.P.O., so back on track....

It's always bad form to assume that the main character in a transaction will be one half of a couple, when you really don't know.  My guess is that this costs real dollars to charitable causes.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


"Boston Strong" and "Watertown Strong" T-shirts, bumper stickers and lawn sign have become ubiquitous throughout my daily orbit from Somerville through Belmont to the Wild West and back again.  (Oddly, I have yet to see a "Cambridge Strong" item.  Perhaps that's a topic to think about later - the culture clash of different visions of community building.)

Obviously, I feel enormous sympathy and despair about the Marathon Bombings.  But it reminds me of something else, too: the word "strong" when it comes to women.  Women are sometimes described as "strong" around the trope of suffering - through childbirth, through immigration, through poverty, even through their husbands' infidelity.  These are all considered appropriately feminine occasions for strength.

And then there's:  "She has a strong personality."

People who thought I was too strident as a teenager and young adult would sometimes say that I had a "strong personality".  I felt insulted by this, and certainly that was the goal.  In the context of personality, "strong" is a snide weasel-word that is meant to have the same connotation as it does in "strong odor".  Sure, it could be a good odor, but well, you know it isn't.

Plus, if you argue that you don't really have a strong personality, well, that's the pesky strength rearing its head again, so ha!

Now that I'm a grown-up, I embrace being called "strident," let alone "strong," so it's not a daily personal problem.  Plus of course, studying Civil Engineering neatly substituted "strong bridge" for "strong odor" in my connotation lexicon.  But in the broader context - can we have strong personalities without detracting from our essential American femaleness?

I think things actually have changed for the better over the past twenty years.  One of my favorite icons is Hillary Clinton.  She was widely denounced for her strength for many years - but who knows - she might be on the Presidential track now!  Maybe I need to make a "Hillary Strong" T-shirt.