I attended Women’s Torah Study for the first time today.
Also at the table was a woman slightly younger than me, a woman slightly older than me, and many women much, much older than me. Imagine a circle of Bella Abzugs, sitting at plastic folding tables, eating poppy-seed cookies and drinking coffee in paper cups. Sans hats. A feminist Jewish take on “Being John Malkovich” — the scene where Malkovich, having tumbled inside his own head, at every turn, sees another Malkovich.
Except we didn’t say “Malkovich.” We were talking about sex. And status.
The Bellas claimed that women without children held higher status today than those that were mothers. Janet, a woman in her 60s or 70s, recalled being fired from her job as a teacher for becoming pregnant. I, 42 and childless by choice, somewhat cautiously begged their pardon.
I explained that, having recently moved, I am often telling “my story.” The inevitable question, following the disclosure of my husband’s acceptance of a job here, is “Do you have children?” When I reply “no,” the conversation halts abruptly, followed by a cocked head and an awkward, close-lipped smile.
I often feel I have to save the conversation, save them from their discomfort, and me from mine. I make a joke. “Just cats. That’s all the responsibility I can handle.” But that’s not even close to true.
It’s the same awkward feeling I have when asked what I do for work. “A little of this, a little of that,” I reply, feeling a lot like the Big Lebowski. How do I explain that I’m consciously not really working right now? That I’m healing? That I’m practicing really good self-care?
Who am I if I am not a mother? A reporter? A massage therapist? A Weight Watchers leader? Someone’s wife? Someone’s daughter? Who am I if I am not earning money or saving the world or taking care of someone? How do I claim my place at the table?
A number of the Bellas came to greet me after class. They said they enjoyed what I had to say. The perspective I brought. I had a voice, something to offer, regardless of my status, or how I named myself.
Before I left, one of the oldest women pulled me aside. “Do you choose to wear your hair like that?” she asked, referring to my shaved head. I bristled and prepared myself for unpleasant-ness. “I do.”
“You are so lucky. You have a beautiful head.”
Indeed I do. In many ways.