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maisonneuve I s s u e 60

F ro m C h a l l a h t o H a l a k h a h D e p t.

The

Ones

Who
Return
Blair Mlotek explores the world of Modern Orthodox women,
who seek to balance their religious and secular lives.

Illustrationsby

m athilde cinq-m ars.

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to them. In Canada, though the Jewish population is growing,


the Jewish Federations of Canadas most recent survey found
that fewer and fewer Jews are being raised with a religious
focus. About 26 percent are intermarried, and within these
households, more than half of children are being raised with
no religion at all.
In the midst of this decline, a much smaller group of peopleof which Kastner is onehave opted to turn back towards their roots. These Jews are referred to as Baal Teshuvot,
literally meaning ones who return [to God]. A new group of
Modern Orthodox Jews is one iteration of this phenomenon:
they are often young men and women who grew up in moderately religious homesmaybe eating mostly kosher or going
to Hebrew schooland opt for Orthodoxy as they reach adulthood. For some, this requires a complete restructuring of the
way they approach everything in their lives: the food they eat,
the clothes they wear, and how they approach work, relationships, holidays and home life.

mind is racing as she


leaves her office at Manhattans Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday
night. With just under three hours to
get to a friends apartment in Crown
Heights, Brooklyn, she needs to first go
home, pack an overnight bag and pick
up something to bring to dinner along
the way. As she walks briskly towards
her Upper West Side apartment, Kastner calls her mother to wish her a Shabbat Shalom; she wont
have time later. Once home, Kastner throws together an outfit
for dinner and something to wear tomorrowstaying the night
at her friends apartment is a must; she wont be able to get
home by using transit after sundown and it is much too far to
walk. With no time left to shower, Kastner hurries out the door,
heads to a nearby grocery store in search of kosher wine and
finally makes her way to the subway. Shell make it on time,
she calculates, if there are no delays. She checks her watch and
finds a seat. Then she looks at her watch again.
You look like youre in a rush to get somewhere, says the
man sitting next to her. When Kastner replies that shes meeting friends for dinner, he reassures her. Im sure your friends
wont mind waiting for you, he says. Kastner demurs. Theres
no point getting into a long-winded explanation.
Shabbatthe Jewish day of rest that begins every Friday at
sunsetmay start later in the summer, but its always a scramble. When the sun goes down, that means no modern transportation, no electricity and no technology. Kastner has a friend
who got stuck in traffic and was forced to leave their car at the
side of the road. She doesnt fancy getting caught like that.
Though she lives and works in the secular world, Kastners
life also cleaves close to Jewish Orthodoxy. Tonight, shes in
luck. The train runs on time and she makes it to her friends
apartment just before eight. The relief she feels upon entering
is palpable.
liza Kastners*

Across North America, Jewish religious adherence is on the decline. Only about half of the Jews who were raised Orthodox
remain so as adults. Within all of the denominations, there is a
trend toward becoming less traditional in terms of religious beliefs. According to the Pew Research Center, only 19 percent of
Jews in America agree that following Jewish law is important
Name has been changed to protect privacy.

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Most Modern Orthodox Jews


attend synagogues where there
is a stricter level of separation
between men and women than
they accept in their home and
work lives.

Orthodoxy requires closely following the laws of the Torah


(also referred to as halakhah), and it means creating a respectable Jewish home and following the laws of modesty. Unlike
Ultra-Orthodox believers, the Baal Teshuvot who turn to Modern Orthodoxy usually choose not to live in insular communities or eschew everything secular; instead, they seek a balance.
For Modern Orthodox women, the tension between the religious and secular sides of their lives can be particularly pronounced. At work, they may pursue competitive careers and
be industry leaders; at home, they follow the womans role according to the Torah. On top of the duties that any traditional
mother and wife may hold, it is the womans responsibility
in Judaism to ensure that the spiritual state of her home and
family keeps with the halakhah. This includes the practice
of Shabbat, as well as making sure that religious tradition is
upheld during the weekdays by keeping kosher, overseeing
prayers and instilling Jewish values in children.
Navigating between personal beliefs and public lives starts
the moment these women get dressed in the morning, and follows them into work, on a night out with friends or a boyfriend, and back home again.
surrounded by many different
sects of Jews, you can often tell how religious someone is just by
looking at them. Reform and Conservative Jews are liberal and
centrist, respectively, when it comes to how literally they take
the scriptures; itd be hard to pick either out of a secular crowd.
Orthodox Jews are more clearly visible: the men wear tall black

When you live in a community

maisonneuve I s s u e 60

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hats or kippot, suits and tzitzit (small ropes hanging down from
the four corners of their shirts); the women wear long skirts
and long sleeves. Married women often have hair coverings
either wigs, scarves or hats. The garments men wear are meant
to remind them both of Gods presence above, and to make sure
that Gods laws are always with them. According to Judaism,
women are born on a naturally higher spiritual plane than
men. As a result, their clothing doesnt need to remind them of
Gods presence, but they are required to remain modest.
Suzanne Glaser*, a director at an investment management firm in Toronto, doesnt look like someone who would
describe herself as Orthodox. When we meet, Glaser is wearing a long black coat, tight grey turtleneck and a skirt that
hits just above her knees. Her blonde hair, uncovered, is cut
in a trendy shoulder-length style. Im only dressed like this
because its cold, she tells me, making sure I understand that
being covered up isnt something that she takes to an extreme.
It is important to her not to be identifiable as Orthodox in her
line of work because she doesnt want to be viewed differently.
She even gets nervous when her husband and son wear kippot
to a baseball game.
Glaser tells me that, over the years, shes thought a lot about
whether or not to cover her hair. In the end, shes always decided not to. The only exception Glaser makes is for synagogue
or special eventswhen you go into a place of worship, you
cover your head, she says matter-of-factly. While Glaser feels
the pressure of the sometimes-competing expectations of her
working world and her Ultra-Orthodox acquaintances, she
says its ultimately more important for her to feel comfortable
with who she is and how she presents herself.

Blair Mlotek is a freelance writer and fact-checker based in Toronto.


She has worked with publications such as This Magazine, Fashion and the
Ryerson Review of Journalism.
Aliza Kastner explains that she doesnt want to clothe
herself according to what would make her more appealing to
Orthodox men. Instead, she prefers a slightly more liberal approach to modesty, in the form of knee-length skirts and sleeves
below her elbows. She laughs as she talks about what a friend
from synagogue once told her: If you add two more inches to
your sleeve, Aliza, it would open up a whole new pool of men.
This isnt to say that Kastner never faces sartorial conundrums. Shes currently on the search for a dress for her sisters
secular summer wedding, a task thats proving stressful. Her
momwho is supportive of Kastners religious leanings but
is less religious herselfhas an eye out for options, and often
calls Kastner with suggestions, asking questions like, How
low a neckline would be okay for you? Kastner says that if she
were to wear a properly modest dress, it would probably have
to be from the winter seasonand therefore the wrong fabric
and colour. If thats the case, not only will she be shvitzing the
whole time, she says shell also look like a lunatic. Kastner
doesnt want to shop at pricey stores meant only for Orthodox
women, preferring to find modest clothes in the mainstream
places where shes always shopped. But it isnt necessarily easy
to find items that she likes that are also in line with her religious beliefs; with only a few months left before the wedding,
Kastners search for the dress that does both continues.
Yael Lipson, a Modern Orthodox friend of mine, was in line to get

coffee at Torontos York University when a friend introduced


her to a man standing behind her. He asked her out soon after.
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The two dated for a year and a half before he asked her
to marry him; Lipson describes it as less of a traditional Orthodox courtship and more of a typical millennial series of
hangouts. They did, however, discuss their religious values
and talk about the way they envisioned their future home.
We were honest and open about who we were before, there
were no surprises, she says.
Many Modern Orthodox men and women go on dates that
look similar to those in the secular world. Lipson says that all
of her Modern Orthodox friends got to know their spouses well
before they married. Some Modern Orthodox people choose to
go with matchmakers, but others have met their spouses at social gatherings, synagogues, coffee shops or online. However,
Modern Orthodox couples do approach dating less casually
than your average millennial: their courtships are meant to
determine life and marriage compatibility, and they also usually follow the halakhah, waiting to get married before they
have sex or move in together.
The pressure to take courtship more seriously than their
secular peers sometimes leads to sitcom-like hijinks. When
Aliza Kastner recently decided to go out on a date with a friend,
they wanted to avoid seeing anyone they knewit would only
lead to unwanted questions about the relationship and how serious they were. While at a bar in Torontos Kensington Market, Kastner thought her date was joking when he said he saw
a mutual friend of theirs. He wasnt. It was literally like duck
and cover, she says. The two decided to get out of there before
they were spotted. Kastner hid in the bathroom while her date
left the bar, and, a few minutes later, she snuck outside to meet
him. The friend was successfully avoided.
Dating as a Modern Orthodox woman is different from
what is typical in the Ultra-Orthodox world, where marriage
can seem more like a transaction. Orna Serruya, a matchmaker for all Jewish sects and a Modern Orthodox woman herself, says that with the more religious Jews, marriage is often
less about love and more about religious compatibility. When
Serruya finds two people who might be good together in the
Ultra-Orthodox community, the first step is to arrange for the
parents to interview their son or daughters match. If they approve, the two go on a date.
Serruya says that regardless of level of belief, people tend to
try and find a mate who is religiously compatible, as it can be a
potential source of strife. In many relationships, its common
for one person to take the scriptures more seriously than the
other. This, Serruya says, can often be difficult to navigate.
She explains that although it may not seem like a large problem
to begin with, if they become married and have children, these
sons or daughters often have a tendency to follow along with
the less religious parentless obligations seems more fun
and then one parent is often left in a lonely place.
of being a working Modern
Orthodox mother and wife look easy. On a Wednesday night
at the start of spring, after her daughter has been put to bed,
Lipson opens the door to her apartment wearing a long grey
sweater over a white collared shirt with a knee-length black
skirt and tights. Her hair is up in a bun, showcasing the sparkly silver studs in her ears. She ushers me to a circular glass
table in the kitchen. As we talk, Lipson prepares challahs for
Shabbat that week, pulling and twisting the dough with expert
hands before placing the perfect braids in a pan.
Lipsons Orthodoxy began when she went to seminary
in Israel. It was here that she began to keep kosher. Though

Lipson makes the daily struggle

maisonneuve I s s u e 60

Lipson has had a strong belief in God since she was a child,
she tells me that she developed her faith slowly, weaving the
threads of her life together as deftly as she handles the challah.
Because of the mitzvah called pru urvu, which speaks of the
importance of populating the Earth, many Orthodox people
believe it is their duty to get married and have children quickly.
While Lipson believes in the importance of this mitzvah, she
wanted to establish her career before having her first child.
To maintain the balance between maintaining Jewish home
values and living in the secular world, Lipson plans to send
her children to Jewish schools, where theyll be around other
kids who practice Shabbat and keep kosher. But unlike UltraOrthodox believers, who worry about the immodest thoughts
that technology can bring, Lipson also plans to let her kids
have access to TV and the internet.
When it comes to instilling faith in her children, Suzanne
Glaser takes a hands-off approach: she wants each of her children to come by their belief on a personal level instead of it
being dictated to them. Thats how she found her connection
with religion; in fact, she remembers the exact moment it happened. One Shabbat when she was a child, she was driving
with her parents and saw her observant cousin walking to
synagogue with her kids. She knew right then that that deep
sense of belief was what she wanted. If her own children decide the same, then so be it.
While Glaser is happy with the way she runs her home, she
still faces scrutiny from people in the secular world, namely those
who are wary of the more traditional gender roles shes modelling.
She also says that stricter Orthodox Jews may think that
Modern Orthodox believers are not religious enough. Glaser
lived at Bathurst and Lawrence, a religious neighbourhood in
Toronto, when she was first married. She says that Orthodox
women there gave her the up and down look as she pushed
a stroller on her way to synagogue, seeming to make assumptions about her lack of strong belief because of how she dressed.
But, she says, when the more-to-the-right call and ask for donations, my money is good enough.
Glaser also says shell never forget the day her husband took
their kids to play in the park after a Shabbat morning service.
Ultra-Orthodox people stay in their Shabbat clothes no matter
what their post-synagogue plans are, but Glasers family usually cant wait to get home and change. Glaser says that, at the
park, her husband was wearing shorts and a T-shirt when he
overheard two young Orthodox boys in black pants and white
button-down tops speaking about him in Yiddish. Not knowing that her husband could understand them, they called him
Goyisha derogatory term for non-Jewseven though he
was clearly wearing a kippah. Glaser says he answered them
in the same language: I pray to the same God that you prayed
to this morning.

says this move to become more modern has been a process.


Many members say that its time for things to change, he explains. Alternatively, others argue that the Jewish religion
has survived thanks to strict adherence to the Torah, and are
skeptical of moving away from the historical status quo. We
are one community but people are afraid of whats different,
Strauchler says.
Shaarei Shomayim has taken pains to find a middle path:
for example, it has experimented with the placement of the
mehitzah, which separates the men from the women. Women
wanted to feel closer to the Torah rather than sitting at the back
of the synagogue or up on a balcony; to accommodate the progressive and the traditional, Strauchler decided that the mehitzahs placement would switch from dividing the congregation
front and back to dividing the room left and right once every
four Shabbats. Not everybody is happy with the compromise.
Lipson is proud that her synagogue is willing to include
women, but shes also not bothered by the fact that women
cant yet go to the Torah. While Lipson says that women are
just as capable of reading from the Torah if they choose to, for
her its not a priority. In Orthodox Judaism, being a good Jewish
woman, mother and wife is categorically different but equally
important to being a good Jewish man, father and husband.
Glaser is similarly unbothered that women cant go to the
Torah at her synagogue. I can be a powerhouse at work, she
says, but when I go to synagogue Im very happy not to have
those obligations. For her, synagogue provides quiet time to
focus on her faith and her respect for the laws of the Torah.
In Reform and Conservative synagogues, women sit among
the men as equalsmany even wearing kippot and tallitsand
participate in the days service. In January, Jody Isenberg stood
at the podium of Beit Rayim, a synagogue just outside Toronto,
explaining the days Torah portion. In it, the Jews have escaped
from their lives as slaves in Egypt and the Pharaoh has decided
to pursue them. God splits the Red Sea so that they can flee,
and the people of Israel sing as they cross. This is when Moses
sister Miryam picks up a tambourine and begins to play, leading the women in a song and dance.
Isenbergs interpretation of the story is that Miryam has
a role in the exodus for a reasonmuch like women do in religious services today. It is a story that Isenberg has debated
with her son, Michael, who started the process of becoming
more religious ten years ago. She asked him how it could be
that Miryam played such an important role centuries ago,
while supposedly liberated Jewish women today cannot even
go to the Torah at his synagogue. His answer, a common Orthodox belief, was that, men need to be told what to do, while
women are born at a naturally high level of spirituality. It is
an answer that Isenberg isnt completely satisfied with.
I attend the Shabbat service at
Chabad Flamingo, an Orthodox synagogue just north of Toronto. Nearby, a young girl sits in the middle of the balcony designated for women, separated from the men. She looks about ten,
and is wearing a long-sleeved navy blue dress that lands above
her knees, Ugg boots and white leggingsshe dresses the same
way that any other young girl around the city might.
As her peers wriggle impatiently in their seats and chatter
to each other, the girl watches intently as the men at the podium read the Torah and say the blessings. She may be a young,
modern girl, but I can tell religion is important to her. In her
I see all the other Modern Orthodox women Ive metsimultaneously thoughtful, stylish and deeply connected to God. 

On a rainy Saturday in March,


Most Modern Orthodox Jews including

Kastner and Glaser


attend Orthodox synagogues where there is a stricter level of
separation between men and women than they accept in their
home and work lives. At synagogue, they sit in a segregated,
women-only area and are only permitted to watch as the rabbi and cantor, both of whom are men, lead the service while
various men help by reading blessings and from the Torah.
Lipsons synagogue, Shaarei Shomayim, is one of a small
handful in Toronto classified as Modern Orthodox. Lipson
has been attending all her life, and her mother is vice president of the synagoguea position that wouldnt likely go to
a woman in a less-progressive space. Rabbi Chaim Strauchler

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