By Dr. Elizabeth Kaufman
I suppose one of the biggest advantages of growing up with no religious background is never being aware of the common stereotype that observant women are considered second-class citizens and that these poor unfortunate creatures are barefoot, always pregnant, and chained to the kitchen. After meeting observant women of all stripes in Israel, I returned to New York only to be informed by my liberal Jewish friends of the actual state of affairs. If I hadn't seen the reality for myself, I would have believed what they said and dismissed subsequent Jewish exposure as archaic and out of touch.
For those of us who question unproven stereotypes, lets get something perfectly clear: Jewish women work. And they have always worked, whether as shopkeepers, teachers, or professionals, whether in Babylon, European shtetls, and 20th-century America. And nowadays, like women all over the Western world, they work in every field. Some run their own businesses or are part of a larger corporation. Here in Israel one of my neighbors is a nuclear physicist. Another is a school principal. Several good friends are lawyers. One's a pediatrician. Two are successful artists. I'm a zoo veterinarian.
Many of these professional women have been religious since birth; equally as many are newly observant. My point is, little is forbidden us. We work in the fields we want. We have open choices. We can choose to work part-time or full-time. We can choose to stay at home with our children, and no one will pooh-pooh us because this, too, is a valued choice.
Since I have always worked, perhaps I should tell my story. I first came into contact with traditional Judaism while working at the St. Louis Zoo as senior keeper of the Aquatic House. My brother introduced me to a college friend of his who'd just spent six months in a Jewish beginners program in Israel. Nice guy. We got religious and we got married.
Actually, my return to Judaism took longer than that. My boyfriend wasn't doing anything Jewish when we met, but he talked about it. And kept on talking about it. I found it somewhat interesting but decided that it could never be relevant to me. Four months after we met, I moved to Colorado to start veterinary school. Three months after that we became engaged. Since my fiance was determined to do this Judaism thing, we agreed to explore it in Israel before the wedding, and I agreed to keep an aborted form of Shabbat for the school year. That meant no school work on Saturdays and no telephone. Frankly, Shabbat saved my sanity that first grueling vet year.
Soon I realized -- with Judaism increasingly, surprisingly relevant -- that we needed to live near a Jewish community. I arranged a transfer to Tufts Veterinary School for the following spring. We then flew to Israel to work out our various issues. At a women's yeshiva, I learned that my Shabbat observance wasn't even close to reality. Nevertheless, I'd fallen in love with the idea of Shabbat, the peace of mind it gave, and the increased energy and concentration it lent my week. My feminist mind liked Judaism's answers to women's issues.
My mother, upset at my new religious bent, predicted that I was going to drop out of vet school, get married, get pregnant, and in 20 years get divorced with no way of supporting myself. The truth is, I did drop out of school and get married, and I did get pregnant right away. Mothers may always be right, but they're not always prophets: I graduated vet school, and I'm still married and still happy. And I can even support myself.
After our learning time in Israel, we moved to Boston and Tufts. This was my first professional outing as an observant woman. I was visibly pregnant with a scarf on my head. I was nervous about how people would accept me. But since vet school was what I had wanted my entire life, I plowed ahead. For six weeks no one spoke to me. Many years later, I learned that the vet students thought I was a medical student, the medical students thought I was a vet student, and everyone thought I was undergoing chemotherapy because of the scarf and wasn't that a shame because I was pregnant. It took a while to sort things out.
What surprised me most during my five years at Tufts were the many people telling me how much they respected my melding of Jewish and professional life. Even the dean helped. When I told him, "I can't work or take exams on Sabbath or the holidays," he typed out, "Elizabeth Kaufman will be making requests for religious reasons. Please comply with everything she asks." He handed me the paper, saying, "Don't abuse this."
To reciprocate, I worked every Sunday and all Christian, Greek, and Armenian holidays. I always tried to be polite and friendly. I always tried to behave better than I would have otherwise. Because, lets face it, I looked weird: the only one in a dress on night duty during large animal rotations, the only one pregnant with a scarf on her head.
By the time I left on aliyah, after a residency at Tufts New England Wildlife Clinic, my colleagues threw me a party. They had done their research and were proud of the fact that it was a completely kosher affair. And because I ate Yodels constantly, they bought me a case for a going-away present. The truth is, Yodels were the only kosher snack in the vending machines, and I haven't eaten one since.
Time was forever tight. No time for phone calls, for correspondence, for errands. I was always racing home from classes to nurse the baby and see the husband, who did all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and child care for five years. He insisted he wasn't a house husband and preferred to be called a housewife. I bought him flowers on Mothers Day.
Sixteen years later I'm working at four part-time jobs in two cities. I work for the Biblical Zoo and a private clinic. I teach at the Veterinary School of Hebrew University and teach pro bono for Jewish outreach programs throughout the country. I've found my present colleagues responses akin to those of my student days -- people go out of their way to accommodate my religious requirements and do so happily. I try to be cheerful and professional and religiously tolerant in return.
But priorities remain husband and kids. I'm always home by one o'clock, when my youngest child arrives. I reschedule my workweek if there's a school party or performance. No matter what work requires, my children come first. Because without a family-first priority solidly in place, we cannot expect our own lives, or our children, to be successful.
You might ask, if family is so important, why should women work at all? The answer is different for everybody. For some it is an economic necessity; given a choice they would rather not work. For others, the challenges present in pursuing a professional career or any work outside the home adds a dimension that can help round us as balanced human beings. We can pursue interests and uncover potentials that homemaking and parenting, no matter how rewarding, leave unfulfilled for some women.
The Western world defines success as being at the top of one's field, wielding power and making lots of money. Being a housewife and mother, therefore, appears antithetical to accomplishment, because one remains at home, not out making ones mark in the world.
In stark contrast stands the Jewish definition of success: To what degree have you become a developed human being? How do you treat your spouse? Neighbors? Business partners? Are you honest with yourself? Are you emulating Gods attributes? Are you raising children to do the same? Because, you see, in Judaism, building caring, principled people is an equally valued career for a woman -- and a man.
Work and religious life are not mutually exclusive. Working can be an important part of a rich life. We merely need to decide which definition of success is most important to us so we can prioritize and organize our days, weeks, and months to give everything we can to those we care about, including ourselves. We need to decide how we wish to be affirmed in life, how we wish to be remembered after our deaths.
Speaking for myself, I work because I am a better wife and mother for it, because my personality needs to have various intellectual interests and physical occupations outside the home. Work helps me appreciate more of what I've got.
Excerpted with permission from
"Jewish Women Speak About Jewish Matters"
Published by Targum Press.
Presented in cooperation with Heritage House, Jerusalem. Visit www.innernet.org.il.