A Review of Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism

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Gender can be a very hot-button topic (ahem, understatement).  So can Religion.  It’s not surprising that discussions of gender roles in Judaism can get very heated.  I’ve watched op-eds fly across the interwebs, but with a certain amount of detachment.

Gender issues aren’t anything that I get particularly worked up about.  When I became Orthodox, I found the delineations between male and female roles and obligations refreshing.  I don’t feel limited, second-class, subjugated or any of the other unfavorable adjectives I’ve heard describing women’s treatment in Orthodox Judaism.  On the contrary.  I feel that much of what I was taught about gender in my pre-Orthodox days was less healthy and less reasonable than what I understand the Torah to teach.  This is probably why I don’t get worked up whenever a gender-related topic makes the rounds online.  I’m happy with my paradigm.

So if this isn’t a topic which normally piques my interest, why would I agree to review a book whose subtitle is “Exploring Gender in Judaism?” 

Partly, it was the intriguing email I received, describing the author, Miriam Kosman, as “a charedi (that’s Ultra-Orthodox) mother-of-11 from Bnei Brak who is also a scholar of feminism, currently studying for her Phd at Bar-Ilan University.”  That got my attention.  Here’s a woman who has been in both worlds, has read current literature in gender studies, but is also well-versed in Torah sources on gender roles.  I was curious to see how she meshed these (potentially very) different sources of information.

The book, Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, received positive reviews from not only prominent rabbis but also from those in the academic world.  So that was interesting to me as well.

Also, even though I’m very happy with my understanding of the Torah’s views on gender, it’s good to not become too complacent, and to continue to learn and study even topics that I don’t grapple with.  And, wouldn’t you know, I found myself quoting the book while learning with my Partner in Torah, discussing it with my husband, and thinking about many of the topics that Kosman explores.

What’s in the Book

Divided into two books, the first book contains five discrete sections, the second, three.  Each section has at least a couple of chapters, and each chapter contains a short synopsis at the end, which I found very helpful.

Kosman begins with defining the general male force, (arrow), the female force, (circle) and their synthesis (spiral), which is the Jewish ideal, the middle path.  She delves deeply into what it means to be a giver (male) and receiver (female), addresses the differences in morning blessings (sometimes a point of discontent), brings the midrashic connection between women and the moon, and discusses the reality of how the world should be female-oriented, but very much runs in the male mode.  That’s all in the first book.

The second book takes a closer look at women in halachah (Jewish law), discussing such contentious issues such as who can serve as a witness, polygamy, the ketubah (wedding contract), the get (divorce contract), modesty, as well as roles in the public versus private sphere.  That’s a lot of juicy topics in there.  She closes with a fascinating three-chapter section titled “The Jew as the Prototype Female,” examining the relationship of the Jewish people to G-d.

My Thoughts

There is a lot of information packed into this book, and it would be excellent for studying with a partner.  I almost wish that I hadn’t read it alone for this review, but had been able to study on a weekly basis over a longer period of time.  As it was, it took me a while to get through it, as I wanted to savor the information, mull over what I had read before moving on to the next chapter.  Even so, I feel that I didn’t retain as much as I would have had I studied with another person.

In her explanations of differences between the genders, Kosman did not fall back on simplifications, and repeatedly acknowledged the reality that men have some female aspects, as women do male aspects, and in each person, the ratio of male-to-female tendencies will vary.  I appreciated the nuance she brought to this discussion.

I also found interesting the discussion of the general male and female energy in the world, and her observations that while the world is still mainly run according to male energy, the presence of female energy has been, and continues to, increase.  Her discussions of the view of a women’s role in the past was also very intriguing.

There are abundant footnotes that contain a wealth of information, fascinating stories, and more food for thought.  The inclusion of footnotes definitely lends a more academic air to the book.

While there are many concepts with which I was already familiar, I found some new and intriguing information on the Torah’s view of gender.  This wasn’t a “oh, I’ve heard all this already” kind of read, but a book that I found deepened and expanded my understanding of Jewish thought on gender.

To sum up

This book is accessible to a wide spectrum of people, and is a must-read for anyone who is even remotely curious about what the Torah says about gender roles (and is even maybe a must-read for those who aren’t curious at all, like me).  You can get the book here, or also at your local Jewish bookstore.

You can download a free excerpt of the book at MiriamKosman.com.

Have you read it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!

the Best Pregnancy-Related Purchase Ever, plus Round Three of Orthodox Women Talk

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{The latest round of Orthodox Women Talk is up over at Rachel Eden’s blog!  We’re talking about our favorite way to infuse our lives with Judaism.  Check it out! } 

It’s eight days ’til my due date.  I’m not really taking this deadline so seriously, as all of my babies have been born exactly a week after my due date.  Because of this, my husband didn’t schedule his paternity leave (they’re giving him two weeks – isn’t that wonderful?) until three days after my due date.  My parents aren’t coming in until six days after my due date.

So, you know, as much as I would love to have this baby already (boy, would I), I’m kind of hoping my birthing pattern holds true!  We’ll see.  Pregnancy is one of those things where I’m acutely aware of how little control I have over anything that’s going on in there (except for, obviously, I can control how healthy I eat and if I exercise, etc. etc.).  Pretty much everything that’s going on inside of me is a big, giant, enormous miracle.

This big, giant, enormous miracle has gotten to the point where I can’t pick anything up off the floor without a significant amount of effort, both with the getting down and the getting up.  As much as I’m trying to be chill about it, I have a certain threshold to how much stuff I can tolerate on the floor.  My mother joked (I think?) that I should get a grabber.  And then a fellow blogger, Vicki Boykis, posted a link to this grabber on her Facebook page.

And I totally ordered it.

Yep.

Grabber!!!

Grabber!!!

And now look at all the things I can pick up!

All the things!  All of them!

All the things! All of them!

So if I do end up being pregnant for another fifteen to eighteen days (that’s the maximum), I will at least be able to save myself from the pain of stepping on any small legos or various other small but dangerous toys.  I am ridiculously excited about this.  Why did I wait until pregnancy number four to purchase this device??!

What’s the best pregnancy-related purchase you’ve made (or have seen someone make?) 

Don’t forget to visit Rachel’s blog and check out the Orthodox Women Talk panel!

Music for Fall Days

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It has been ages and ages since I last wrote about music (here’s the most recent post).  Thanks to Sarah’s comment on the blog’s Facebook page sharing that she liked my posts with musical clips, and hoped I would do more, I’m doing more!  This one’s for you, Sarah.

I’ve also been greatly enjoying Sarah Zadok’s musical posts (different Sarah) over at Hevria (which you should totally check out), and seeing her put together actual playlists, I have followed suit.  You can scroll to the bottom of this post if you want to listen to the entire set uninterrupted.

Saint-Saëns, Organ Symphony (Symphony no. 3), finale

It seems the pieces that I played in my earlier years left a larger impact on my heart and mind than those which came later.  Maybe because I had less mental clutter back then?  Who knows.  This is a piece I played with the Iowa All-State Orchestra back in 1997.  I’m just including the finale in the playlist.  The whole symphony is about 36 minutes long, and well worth listening to in its entirety, but for brevity’s sake, I’m just going to highlight this one particularly geshmack section.

The piano part in the opening, which you can hear if you listen very closely (starting around 0:34), is reminiscent of the piano in the Aquarium movement of the Carnival of the Animals.  There’s an eerie, enchanting quality that always gets me.

And yeah, that’s an organ.  It is called the Organ Symphony after all.  In the 1997 concert, the organist played an electric organ (we were performing in a massive gym on the Iowa State campus, so no actual organ was readily available on site, but I’m sure it’s amazing when performed with a proper pipe organ), and the way it was hooked up to the sound system caused a bit of a blowout when the organ came in with its bombastic entrance.  Ha!  Oh well.  It all worked out, even with one (at least?) blown-out speaker.

~ ~ ~

Yann Tiersen, Amélie Soundtrack, Sur le Fil

I would include this entire soundtrack if it were feasible.  It is one of my absolute favorites.  This particular track evokes a certain grey melancholy that one might feel while walking in the rain up the hills of Montmartre.  Or something like that.  Yann Tiersen, the composer, certainly seems to be channeling Erik Satie here, what with the waltzy form and the sparseness of the score.

And this is fitting, since Erk Satie lived in Paris and for a period of an entire year only wore grey velvet.  My only regret with choosing this particular track is that there’s no accordion, because the accordion on the soundtrack is so wonderful.  Including accordion in general is almost a surefire way to get me to like a piece.  It’s on my bucket list of instruments to learn.

I’m reminded of my senior year in college, when I had the most lovely roommate, who happened to have an accordion.  Once, a jazz trio was in town, set to play at some local dive.  I was there while they were setting up, as I was involved in the jazz department which led to perks like helping musicians set up, or hanging out after the concert.  On this day, something was wonky with the accordion player’s instrument (yes!  jazz accordion!  so much goodness!!), and he called out to those of us milling about:

“Does anyone have an accordion?”

and I, through association with my roommate, was actually able to answer,

“I do!”

I ran home, fetched the instrument, and saved the day.  I’m shaking my head at this eclectic memory.  It seems so contrived, but it really happened.

~ ~ ~

Schubert, Impromptu no. 3 in G-flat minor, Op. 90

Ahhhh, this piece.  I practiced it on the piano in the cafeteria on the Neve campus in Jerusalem.  Initially, it was strange to practice in front of an audience (those eating lunch), as it were, but at least my back was to everyone, so after I got into, I could kind of ignore the other people in the room.  Ideally, I would find times other than lunch to play, but my schedule didn’t always work out that way, and also, there were other girls who also wanted the piano.  Hopefully I didn’t monopolize it too much.

I am such a sucker for the romantic period of composition (late 18th to early 19th century).  Schubert’s Impromptus (there are eight of them) were written in 1827, and they are totally representative pieces of this period, meaning, I love them.  But I really love this one.  It’s just shmaltz the whole time.  Mmmmmm.

I actually ate shmaltz for the first time not that long ago, at Citron and Rose in Philadelphia.  It was exquisite.  Just like this piece.

~ ~ ~

Rachmaninoff, Prelude in G minor

I’ve been working on this piece since forever.  It’s hard.  I don’t practice that much, so I don’t make much headway.  When my husband heard this recording, he exclaimed, “it’s supposed to be that fast?”  Yes.  Because I do not play it at this speed.  Even if I never get it up to tempo, I thoroughly enjoy myself (when I’m not frustrated at how slowly I’m progressing), because it is great fun to play.

The middle section, starting around 1:23, is completely sublime, in true Russian tradition, providing a heart-wrenching, emotionally charged and impossibly gorgeous melody.  How do they do it?  All those winters, those years of oppression (this was written back in 1901, so life was marinating in the pre-revolution turmoil)?  I don’t know the secret, but there’s enough Russian composers who create these melodies that I can confidently say it’s a quality of Russian composers.  It just slays me.  Especially this part of this prelude.

And how much do we love Evgeny Kissin’s hair in this video?

~ ~ ~

Brahms, Intermezzo Op. 118, no. 6

As long as we’re listening to dark, brooding and gorgeous pieces, let’s move to another famous shmaltz-maker, Johannes Brahms.  A curmudgeon capable of writing music that gets right down to the soul, he is right up there with the romantic composers I cannot resist.

I played this piece my senior year of college, back when I actually had hours of time to devote to practicing (though, really, I should’ve been practicing clarinet, not beautiful piano intermezzi, but whatever, that’s how I procrastinated back then).  Like with the Rachmaninoff, the middle section of this piece is what really gets me, though the character is completely different.  It starts at 3:20 and is so satisfying to play, especially if you’re feeling angsty about something, which was something I felt A LOT while in college.

Mr. Kissin again brings this piece to life for us.  With the hair.

~ ~ ~

Poulenc, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

Lest you forget that I actually majored in clarinet, not piano, performance, let me include a classic piece from the clarinet repertoire. Francis Poulenc, quirky French composer and part of Les Six (a group of him and five other quirky French composers from the 1920s).

I’ve actually played both the clarinet and the piano for this piece, and they are both enjoyable and challenging.  How I came to play the piano part of this piece was because my piano skills were discovered (they’re not that great, but they exist) maybe my junior year, and the music faculty snatched me up and assigned me to accompany much of the clarinet studio.

It was a great match because I could coach the clarinets on the pieces they played, and I got paid to accompany.  Nice, right?  The only downside was that I had a lot more on my plate, which ate into the brooding-at-a-coffee-shop time in my schedule.  I survived that challenge, somehow.

~ ~ ~

Pachora, Ast, Freaky Person

When I was auditioning for the master’s program at the Eastman school of music, I met a student who burned me a copy of this album (Ast) while I was auditioning.  Like, literally while I was auditioning.  I met the student pre-audition, and when I came out, he was waiting for me with this album in hand.  Even though really that’s piracy and we shouldn’t do that, and I can’t condone it, I’m glad I was introduced to Pachora.  And I was touched by the gesture.

Pachora satisfies my love for jazz, middle eastern influences, and hello, wonderful clarinet playing.  They also have a cover of the Man Who Sold the World on this album, which I both enjoy and get a kick out of.  Because it’s kind of random, but it’s also a really good cover.

~ ~ ~

Well, that was a nice trip down memory lane.  Thanks, Sarah, for the suggestion!  I think I’ll try to do this on a more regular basis, maybe once every two months or something.  Truly, my time spent immersed in the world of music feels like a very different life than the one I’m currently living, though thankfully music is still an active part of my life.

But it is very, very different.  There are a lot of interesting memories hiding within these favorite pieces of mine, and by my sharing them with you, I get to uncover them, bit by bit.  I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed remembering them.

Here’s the playlist, if you want to listen successively to all these pieces:

And now, what’s one of your favorite pieces?  Or, in the colloquial (i.e. non-music major lingo), songs?  (Woe to you if you called a classical piece a “song” in music school.  Someone was bound to tell you off.  Songs are for the radio!  Pieces are how we describe art!  I don’t miss that aspect of music school one bit, thank you very much.)  

(I have an obsession with parentheses)

On Being a Non-Participant

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This week was the much-publicized Great Challah Bake and Shabbos Project.  I was totally excited about both these events, but, much to my dismay, I didn’t participate in either!  What?!  Yes.

The Challah Bake was scheduled on Thursday.  On Wednesday, I realized that my husband was scheduled to work the 2 pm to 1 am shift on Thursday.  Though I did see some pictures of friends who took a kid with them, I didn’t have the energy to shlep all my kids, and I didn’t have the energy to get a babysitter, either (for some reason, finding a babysitter takes a Herculean amount of effort).  So I watched from home as my newsfeed filled up with pictures of thousands and thousands of women across the country participating in this amazing event.  It looked tremendous, really tremendous!

As for the Shabbos Project, we almost hosted a couple boys for meals, but in the end they went somewhere else, so it was just us.  And since I was still recuperating from the holidays, and a little under the weather, and also having zero energy from, Baruch Hashem, being in the last month of pregnancy, I was a little relieved to not have guests this week.

And when our daughter ended up being sick multiple times Friday night (poor thing!), I was even more grateful for the lack of guests.  Maybe that was the reason that our guests cancelled.

But as I write all this, I feel apologetic and guilty about not participating, about being too tired to do more.   Continue reading

A Light in the Darkness

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We’ve done road trips for years.  Multi-day ones, with a whole system to keep the kids occupied.  We’ve always traveled during daylight hours, mainly.  Until this past Saturday night.

After spending the last days of the high holiday season with family in Cleveland, my husband’s work schedule combined with the time Shabbos ended meant that we would need to drive through the night.  Our estimated arrival time was around three in the morning.

I’m aware that many parents prefer driving at night (sleeping children are much more pleasant travel companions than kvetching ones), but night driving makes me very nervous.  We’d be driving through rural areas, in the mountains, after a three-day holiday, with rain in the forecast.  Not the most comforting scenario. Continue reading

The Time of Our Burnout, er, Joy

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The fast-upcoming holiday of Sukkos (Sukkot, whatever your preference) is also known as “zman simchaseinu,” or, in English, “the Time of our Joy.”  We’re happy for a lot of reasons, like the assumption (hope, prayer, wish) that we received a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashana, and the wiping away of our sins on Yom Kippur, and the representation of a sukkah as Divine protection, just to name a few.

Personally, I’m not big into the outdoors, with its bugs and bees (which I guess could be included in the category of bugs, but I’m giving them a special mention of their own).  I don’t really enjoy shlepping food from the house to the sukkah and eating in all that, well, nature.

It would seem that there’s not much zman simchaseinu in this holiday for me. Continue reading

Things I Learned When My Fridge Stopped Working on Rosh Hashana

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Yes, you read that correctly.  When I opened the refrigerator on Thursday night to take out the food for the next meal, I noticed that the temperature inside the fridge was . . . not cold.  I closed the door and immediately re-opened it, thinking maybe I was imagining things.  But, no, it was definitely room temperature in there.

Still experiencing a sizable amount of denial about the situation, I placed my hand along the side of the fridge, feeling for vibrations which might indicate that it was really working, just poorly.  Nothing.  I opened the freezer.  Defrosting was occurring.  Water dripped onto the floor.

Hmmmm.

I closed and reopened the doors to the fridge and freezer a couple more times, just to verify, I guess, with a sinking feeling, that none of the food I spent three days making was going to make it much longer unless I came up with a plan. Continue reading