Almost two years ago, a woman who is dear to me announced she would undergo prophylactic surgery. Her decision to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes was painstaking; as a mother of young children, she didn’t relish the thought of slipping into early menopause, never mind the physical stress of surgery or disruption of her family life. Yet I felt mostly relief.
It began as the typical nightmare of so many parents, but concluded with an unsettling twist: Danny, age 3, had made his way through the door, down to the building’s lobby and out onto the lively sidewalks of Manhattan. By the time Hannah Brown found her son, in a shop near her Upper West Side building, she was beside herself. But Danny? He registered no concern.
I say this because every once in a while, after I publish an article or column, I receive indignant e-mails denouncing my behavior or thoughts because they don’t align with traditional Judaism. I say this because my February column on modest dress for “tweens” elicited several such letters, including one from a single male writer who was “dismayed by my ignorance,” and also “sad,” about the way my children are being raised.
My son Joel, age 7, and my daughter Talia, almost 10, lean on my shoulders, staring at the computer screen in disbelief. Here was something that didn’t fit their notion of the world. Grown men spitting? At a child? Because her long skirts weren’t long enough? A sincere and sweet boy, Joel wondered if these men, these ultra-Orthodox lunatics of Beit Shemesh, in Israel, had ever read the Torah.
I can’t think of the summer of 1985 without wincing. Being 16 and shy, with the kind of fine hair that went limp in dry desert heat, and with only one (miserable) month of overnight camp as my experience away from home, I wasn’t bound to enjoy every moment of a six-week teen tour of Israel.
She’s not a rabbi. She has no plans to become one. She sees herself more as a teacher than a trailblazer. And yet, Adena K. Berkowitz — who at 52 is an Orthodox mother of five, a scholar of bio-ethics, a lawyer and an instructor of liturgy, to name a few of her many roles — quietly added an intriguing new hat to her collection three years ago, one that places her among a small group of pioneers: spiritual leader of an Orthodox congregation.
The last time I recall feeling this disturbing sense of dislocation, a boyfriend informed me that he loved someone else. He explained that all through our short but spirited romance, all through his soft renditions of Yiddish lullabies and late-night phone calls, and for two years before that, he’d been seeing that someone else. I felt as if I’d been suddenly transported to an alternative and hostile universe; the person in whom I’d confided still wore the same sheepish grin, but was not at all the person I’d imagined he was.
On rare occasions, she surfaces in my dreams. During these nights, she’s a loving friend, her expressions animated, her laughter loud and long.
In waking life, I haven’t spoken to her since my children, now 6 and 9, were tiny toddlers so demanding that I couldn’t summon the energy to focus on our fight, even as the flames roared beyond control. By the time I was paying attention, our friendship was extinguished.
I received one of my best parenting tips while trapped in a dentist’s chair. Big with my first baby, my voice quieted by the examination, I was an obvious target for advice. My dentist, a mother of three, leaned over conspiratorially. “Don’t let them tell you what to do,” she said.