On Being a Guest

“What would you do?” the post began. It was a question posed in a private Facebook group comprised almost entirely of Orthodox Jewish women. The poster explained that she and her husband were staying with a family for shabbos and were put up in a guest room with a Queen-sized bed. The woman was apparently niddah that weekend and as such would not sleep in the same bed as her husband.

The women that responded to this post all seemed to be of the same mind. “How could they call themselves Orthodox and not offer separate beds to a married couple?” one wondered. Another went so far as to say that she hoped that the original poster wasn’t also eating with that family, as any family that didn’t know the laws of family purity most certainly could not be trusted to keep the fullest standards of kashrut. One brave soul suggested that separate beds is not a widespread custom and in many out-of-town communities, it is rarely practiced. This person was very quickly shot down though, with loads of other women jumping in to say that they live “out of town” yet would never think of sharing a bed while niddah.

In response to “what would you do”, the women offered many suggestions. The most common seemed to be to make the husband sleep on the floor, while many others suggested that they would probably volunteer to be the ones to sleep on the floor. Someone suggested, half in jest, to build a pillow wall between the spouses, but she was quickly informed that this would still be a violation of niddah.

While reading through this thread, I kept thinking about the many times that my husband and I have spent nights at other people’s homes and have been given a room with two twin beds. At home we sleep in one bed all month long, and typically fall asleep cuddling. When we’re forced to sleep in two beds, the quality of our sleep drastically diminishes. I feel like our host is, unintentionally, driving a figurative if not literal wedge down the middle of our marriage.

I found it strange that the essence of “making guests feel comfortable” was to offer two beds–and the consensus being that if you could not offer such accommodations, you should either not have married couples stay over or should make it clear in advance that there will be only one bed.

I, for one, feel much more comfortable in one bed. My parents are God-fearing, fully observant, orthodox Jews and they only have one bed. In their community, I would guest that most people with guest rooms also only have one large bed in the guest room, that’s just “what’s done.”

Furthermore, as a guest, my philosophy has always been to not assume anything as a given and take things as they come. I pretty much don’t expect anything and am usually pleasantly surprised to learn that in fact my hosts did provide whatever they provided. If there’s only one bed, then fine, sleep in the one bed that night.

I suppose there are those who will see my response as closed-minded, that I fail to value the opinions of those who will not sleep in the same bed as their spouse while in niddah. I want to be clear that I hold nothing against such folks. If one or the other spouse wishes to sleep on the floor in such a situation, go ahead, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s actually probably the exact appropriate response for a couple in such a predicament.

My problem is with the lack of hakarat hatov  to the family that graciously opened up their home and offered sleeping accommodations to strangers over shabbat, and the assumption that if a family cannot offer separate beds for a married couple, they are better off not hosting at all.

So, what would I do? I would look my hosts straight in the eye and say “Thank you,” as all hosts deserve.

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Hair Covering Revisited: Sheva Brachot

I’ve written on this blog before about my relationship with hair covering. Readers know that I planned not to cover my hair at all after I got married, other than in synagogue. I wrote about how I woke up the day after my wedding feeling like nothing had changed but knowing that everything had changed and wanting a physical indication of such. Since that point, I’ve grappled with decisions about when and where to cover my hair: I covered my hair every time I was out in public during the sheva brachot week. I covered my hair at some, but not all, weddings. I covered my hair at shul, except that one time when I went away for shabbat and forgot to bring a head covering with me. Sometimes I leave the hair covering on after shul, other times I take it off immediately. Most times I leave it on atleast during kiddush.

Mayim Bialik, one of my favorite celebrities to follow, just started a new blog site, GrokNation. I have high hopes for the future of the site. She reposted some of her older articles that previously appeared on Kveller.com. One such article was her piece on covering her hair after her divorce. I remember reading that article shortly after she originally published it, and thinking that it was interesting but not too applicable to my life, as I’m not divorced and (thankfully) don’t have to struggle with that particular question.

Upon re-reading the article, however, something jumped out at me. Mayim wrote about her own relationship with hair covering during the course of her marriage, and mentioned how excited she was to wear all her brand new hats and scarves during the shave brachot week. Like me, Mayim didn’t cover her hair all the time, but there were certain times when she did. Shea Brachot was one such time.

This is important. Before my marriage, I was so adamant that I wasn’t going to cover my hair outside of synagogue at all. I read all sorts of halachic analyses of the practice and determined that it was no longer necessary. I knew many of my peers still covered their hair, for various reasons, but I thought they were foolish and encouraging a practice that is no longer applicable.

But that day after my wedding I was shocked at how “undifferent” I felt. I was still the same me, wearing my same clothes and driving my same car and hanging out with my same partner, whose title had changed from boyfriend to finance to husband but who was essentially the same person. But we WERE different. We were MARRIED. I wanted to walk out of that honeymoon suite and announce to the world: We are no longer two individuals, we are one unit.

In Judaism, we utilize the physical to represent the spiritual all the time. Kiddush is a prayer that sanctifies the specialness of the sabbath with wine and bread. Tfilin are prayer garments, worn for no other purpose than to physically connect with prayer. After my wedding, I needed to physically represent the new me. My new ring wasn’t enough. I wanted something to say, look at me, I’m married. A hair covering would do that.

So I went to the hotel gift shop and bought a scarf and wrapped it around my hair. I wore all sorts of hair coverings during that week, but then sheva brachot ended and life went back to normal. I didn’t need a hair covering anymore, I knew who I was and that was enough. I took it off. I wore my hats and scarves on shabbat at synagogue but not during when I was at school or work.

The important thing is, I don’t feel that I was inconsistent with myself. I needed the transition period of sheva brachot to feel like I was transitioning into marriage, but once I made the transition, I could let things go back to “normal”.

There has been a lot written about hair covering: Applicable today or not? All hair or partial hair? Wig or hat? I think that something that’s been overlooked is the acknowledgement that there’s not just before-marriage and after-marriage, there are a lot more grey areas. Sheva Brachot serves an important transitional function: One’s life does change, dramatically, with marriage. By taking a week to focus solely on being married, Judaism and halacha recognize that a transition period is necessary.

I think that it is important to understand the value in a transition period. I think that sheva brachot is an excellent opportunity to explore one’s relationship with hair covering and to try out different practices before fully deciding on something. And just like in every other religious decision, it does not have to be a final decision. People’s thoughts and views are always evolving, and they will change with time and experience, and sheva brachot is the perfect time to explore those different perspectives.

Covering My Hair and Changing My Name

When I was in Israel, I remember studying the laws of hair covering with a woman who grew up in the US, moved to Israel as a teenager, and got married in Israel. She and her husband honeymooned to Italy. She told the class of how, when she arrived at the bed and breakfast in Italy, the very religious Catholic host wouldn’t let her and husband share a room, because she didn’t think they were married. They hadn’t yet changed their names, and they didn’t wear wedding rings. In an attempt to convince the host that they were, in fact, married, she pointed to her mitpachat (head scarf). “This is something that only MARRIED Jewish women wear, see.” The lady didn’t buy it. I don’t remember how, but they did eventually convince their host that they were married, and they were able to share a room.

I make a big deal out of the fact that I don’t cover my hair at work or during day to day activities, only when I’m at shul or weddings or otherwise religious activities. For me, that’s my way of letting the world know where I stand Jewishly–I follow halacha, but I’m not an extremist. I think that because I had my struggle with hair covering, other things, such as changing my name after marriage, were less important to me. Still, for most secular people, hair covering or lack thereof really means nothing. It seems, however, that a woman’s last name after marriage is much more symbolic in secular, feminist circles.

I have been reading a lot from feminists in support of women keeping their last names after marriage. From the blogs that I read, it appears that if you’re “a real feminist” and a “strong woman”, you don’t change your name. (See, for example, this article about why Emma Watson thinks Hermione Granger wouldn’t change her name to Hermione Weasley after her marriage to Ron Weasley). Well, as I’ve told you all before, I changed my name after I got married. Sure, there were (and still are) some logistical difficulties, but once I get past those, I really don’t mind that I changed my name. In fact, I WANT to have the same name as my husband and our future children. But then I read things like the Emma Watson article above, and I start to doubt my decision. Am I a bad feminist? Am I supporting a society of Patriarchy? Will people think I’m naïve and–gasp–a republican, once they find out I have a maiden name??

In my heart, I know these things aren’t true. But, in some ways, I feel that perhaps the reason that I cover my hair in the manner that I do is exactly why a lot of feminists keep their maiden name: A way to show the world that I am a non-conformist, and that I don’t want to do things just because I’m told to do things.

Splitting the Chores

My mother is an amazing woman. She works a full time job and takes care of her house and cooks fabulous shabbat meals and still maintains her sanity.

Yesterday, I was speaking to her on the phone, when my husband came home from work. He looked around and noticed that I was in the middle of doing laundry. He asked me, “Should I switch the laundry now?”. I asked my mom to hold on a moment while I explained to him that yes, the laundry was ready to be switched, except for one load which was already in the dryer and that he should just bring that one upstairs so we can fold it.

When I got back to my mom, she said “Your husband does laundry with you? WOW.”

My father is one of the “manly men” from the previous generation that works all day, comes home and sits on the couch and relaxes after work, eats the dinner my mother prepared for him, and then goes upstairs to watch a game while he gets ready for bed. Meanwhile, when my mom gets off of work, she does the grocery shopping, cooks dinner, cleans the house, and makes all the social arrangements.

My parents like to say that when they got married, they made an arrangement: My mother would be in charge of all the minor, day to day decisions, and my father would be in charge of the major decisions. But, they realized, throughout the course of their marriage, there has never been one major decision!

You see, they came to the realization that all of life is simply a series of small decisions. A couple doesn’t just decide to buy a house, they decide to go to a few open houses, decide to talk with a real estate agent, decide to make some offers, and finally, decide to transfer a whole lotta money to a bank that’s going to own them for a very long time.

And while, this “big decision/small decision” method may work for my parents, it’s not the marriage that I want. Sometimes to a fault, I want every decision to be made mutually between myself and my husband. This is just as true for decisions like “should I take this job?” as it is for “what’s for dinner?”. He knows that one of the most frustrating things he can say is, “Honey, I don’t care, you do what you want.”

In general, I think it’s healthy that we do things together. I like that he chips in with laundry. I like that I can bounce all sorts of ideas off of him. Still, sometimes, if it’s my turn to make dinner, I should just choose something and be okay with it. And, well, that’s hard for me. I know that even if I think chicken is a good choice for dinner, he may not be very hungry and might only want soup. Or, he might have had pasta for lunch and not want it again for dinner, but I won’t know until he tells me.

In some ways, I’m happy that we have a 50/50 marriage. But sometimes, I think that the problem is that we don’t do things 50/50, we do things 100/100. There’s absolutely no reason why we both have to go to the grocery store together (other than, of course, we like each other and want to spend as much time together as possible) or both decide together what to have for dinner. Instead, we need to get better at splitting the chores evenly, instead of us both doing everything, so that we can have more time to spend with each other doing the things we really want to be doing.

Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, and Jew in the City

I’ve hated Jew in the City ever since I saw her nauseating video about the beauty of Mikvah, and the hate was reignited again after I saw her ruin all that is wonderful about Buzzfeed with an eye-rolling, kiruv style article about Orthodox Jews.

So when I saw that she wrote something about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s performance at the 2013 Video Music Awards, I have to be honest, I assumed it was going to be just as cliche and holier-than-thou as her other posts.

But, I have to give credit when credit is due, and I actually liked what she had to say about it.

She writes that Miley explained her song, “We Can’t Stop”, as a celebration of adulthood and maturity. The lyrics of the song are an anthem of what grown-ups can do, simply because they’re grown ups: “It’s our party we can do what we want/…Doing whatever we want/This is our house/This is our rules/And we can’t stop/We won’t stop”. But, Ms. Jew in the City explains that that’s not real maturity, in fact, it’s the essence of childishness:

“The irony in defining maturity as being able to do whatever you please is that it’s the immature kids who we find screaming that it’s their toy and they can “do what they want.” Or telling their moms and dads “you’re not the boss of me!” When considered in that light, Miley’s hyper-sexualized, know-no-boundaries song sounds a bit like a spoiled little child having a fit about how she wants what she wants!”

Allison Josephs, Jew in the City, “We Like to Party: Childishness Masquerading as Maturity”

She goes on to explain that real maturity involves boundaries and limits and knowing when to say enough is enough. I’ve written about that before, and I agree.

The article also made me think about how exciting my first year of marriage has been for me. We were no longer simply our parents’ children, we are now our own family, complete with our own family traditions. Some we’ve adopted from our parents, but some of our traditions are completely our own, and I love that. I love being able to say to my husband “I don’t like the way our parents do X, lets do Y instead”. We’re adults, and we now have both the freedom to set our own customs, and the responsibility to make sure these customs fit our needs.

As adults, we sometimes use our freedom to eat junk food for dinner and to go three weeks without cleaning our room. But, our responsible nature also tells us that these things are okay, if done with moderation. We eventually clean our rooms, and a junk food dinner is usually balanced out the next day by a healthy salad and steamed veggies dinner.

This self-responsibility is one of the best things about being a grown-up.

Edited to add:

Please watch this amazing video response to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Blurred Lines is a song about how the line of consent can be “blurry” for men. This is a feminist response, and it is wonderful.

Niddah Diaries: Harchakot

I have’t published Niddah Diaries recently, perhaps because I’ve gotten complacent in my niddah practices.

My husband and I have been (sort of) keeping niddah for almost a year now, and I think it’s working. So much so, that when I went to a Q and A session on niddah run by several yoetzot halacha, I couldn’t think of anything to ask, and completely forgot to bring up the issue of strictly keeping the harchakot. I can’t remember if I’ve posted here before about the distinction between the harchakot and other niddah practices, so I’ll give a basic overview.

The “harcharkot” are rabbinic laws made to ensure that the husband and wife don’t even come close to having sex. These laws prohibit certain “romantic” acts between the spouses. Some are more “understandable” and what I call the “big ticket items”, like not sleeping in the same bed, and not touching each other. Others are more fine tuned, the smaller ticket items, like not eating from the same plate, or sitting on the same couch.

Even my kallah teacher acknowledged that the smaller ticket items can be hard to keep sometimes (and frankly, the big ticket items and the actual item, the no sex rule, can also be difficult to keep). She told me “not to fret” if I mess up on some of the harchakot, because it’s going to be a new halacha that I’ll be keeping for the first time, and will take some getting used to.

I wasn’t so convinced, and after a few months of getting frustrated with the harchakot (see my early Niddah Diaries posts), I decided that those just weren’t for me. Pretty much all of them. Definitely the small ticket items, and definitely sleeping in different beds. But the not touching made sense sort of and my husband was more insistent that we don’t touch, so we don’t. Sometimes we slip up and do, but it’s okay. We try to be very strict about the not touching at least the last day or two before I go to the mikvah, so that we can have that “mikvah night anticipation” that we both acknowledge as beneficial.

So, basically, we pretty much don’t keep the harchakot except the not touching rule, and thats fine. We may go back and forth about whether we should or shouldn’t touch, but we never go back and forth about whether we can serve each other food or sit next to each other. I just don’t even think about those things as relevant anymore. And I think that’s helped.

Back to the Q and A session. Not a single person asked about harchakot. I’m curious if this is because as couples get older, most of them sort of fickle out the way we did about being strict about them, or if all other couples are super complacent in their practices that they don’t need to discuss the harchakot at all, or if they all just had other pressing matters on their minds.

I understand that Niddah is supposed to be a private matter, and specifically because it involves couples’ sex lives, people are hesitant to talk about it. Still, I wish there was more dialogue specifically about the harchakot aspect of niddah, because it can really make the difference in being able to keep niddah at all or not.

My Last Name

Before I got married, I really debated about what I’d do with my last name.

On the one hand, I really wanted myself, my husband, and any future children we might have to be a “real, united family”, and share the same name.

On the other hand, I like my maiden name. I also don’t like the symbolism of just taking the name I was given and throwing it away, replacing it with my husbands name. Just because I’m married doesn’t mean I have to leave all my single life behind.

When my mom got married, she changed her last name to my father’s last name, and changed her middle name to her maiden name. But therefore, she no longer had any legal relationship to her given middle name. It just went kaputs out the window. I didn’t like that idea, either. I wanted to keep all the names I was given, but add on this new part of my life.

I decided that I would keep my given middle name, change my maiden last name to an additional middle name, and take on my husband’s last name. I’d go from “First Middle Maiden” to “First Middle Maiden Married”.

Two things complicated this.

First, when I got married, I was in my last year of law school, and about to start applying for jobs. I thought that this would be the perfect time to change my name, since I hadn’t actually started working full time yet. I could just introduce myself to employers with whichever new name I chose, and that would be the end of it.

I forgot that all those new potential employers will want to contact former employers, who know me by my maiden name. This requires explaining that I HAVE a maiden name on my resume, which in turn basically puts my marital status on my resume. So much for privacy.

Additionally, the state where we got married has some pretty funky rules for name changes. Apparently, if you want to do anything other than drop you maiden name and take on your husband’s name, you have to note so on the application for a marriage licence. I knew this going in, but there was no place on the licence that said “New Name”, so I got confused and apparently didn’t indicate the name properly. When I went to the DMV to change my name on my driver’s licence, therefore, I could only change it to “First Middle Married” without getting a court ordered name change. So, the legal system sort of forced me to take on a different name than I wanted.

I’ve been married for almost a year, and I honestly have no idea what my name is. All I know is that my first name is and will always be my first name, and I tend to rely on that. I sign emails and letters as much as possible as “-First”. On my resume, I wrote First (Maiden) Married. On Facebook and G-mail, I’m First Maiden-Married. If I had it to do all over again, I don’t think I’d change my name at all. It’s nice to have the same name as my children, but its really just not worth it in the end.