By Gail Pozner
When you think about all the changes a secular woman makes and the challenges she faces along the road toward a frum lifestyle, especially compared to men, it is amazing that there still are so many women who do it. I think it testifies to the explanation of “She lo asani eisha” that “women are more spiritual” (so they don’t need as many mitzvos). If women are not spiritual, I don’t think we’d be seeing this phenomenon, because it is so hard. I’d like to focus on the following two experiences.
Many, although not all, American women who become frum during or after college, had completely absorbed the feminist ethos, to wit: men and women are basically the same (although some believe women are superior); they have often proven themselves equally capable as men in all levels of competition, be it intellectual, creative, or athletic. They have lived side by side with the men in classes, at parties, in the dorms, and even in the coed bathrooms. They have been fed “women’s studies” classes whose goal is to denigrate marriage and traditional, feminine aspects of womanhood and to bolster the notion that career and individual achievement is what is important.
When these assertive, accomplished women arrive at a Torah class or yeshiva/seminary, it is nearly impossible at first for them to wrap their minds around the notions of “making your husband your king,” “men’s role is public, women’s role is private,” and the importance of dressing with tznius (modesty) so that (among other reasons) men’s minds are not distracted. They often have little if any understanding or appreciation of the fundamental differences between men and women, of their differing wants, needs and basic personalities, and they certainly don’t appreciate the different goals for each as outlined in the Torah. As my rebbitzen used to say in response to accusations by parents of brainwashing, “these girls need their brains washed a little!”
As in other pursuits, it is much harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it from a blank slate. So for some women, the process of aligning their personal philosophy and sense of self to the Torah is a huge challenge. Many female baalei teshuva make this transition smoothly and feel deeply liberated when they finally find “permission” from the Torah to express their deeper, feminine selves and give up fighting a masculine battle. Some women battle it out and finally emerge sans traces of anti-Torah feminist thought. Others, however, remain stuck on feminist issues.
The second major challenge comes upon marriage. A woman by that point has likely changed both her first and last names. She is likely wearing a wig or scarf, and a skirt down to her ankles. She looks…different. If she is fortunate enough to become pregnant right away, she is probably experiencing weakness, nausea and emotional rollercoaster rides. In short, “Shaindy Berkowitz” is nothing like she used to be before her teshuva, when she was strong, independent, holding a prestigious job, cheery and named “Ellen Mayer.” (Do not underestimate the sense of weirdness that comes with a complete name change!)
The challenge is only compounded when she has her baby, and she is shocked that it takes such strength and fortitude to merely get her baby through the first year of life, with the all-night feedings, sicknesses, and lack of time for even a shower. In addition, she now has to throw a dinner party twice a week (Shabbos) plus holidays. She may find it difficult being home all day, and may envy her husband who is carrying on doing the exact same thing (learning, working, or studying in university) that he was doing the day before the wedding. All these swirling emotions exist simultaneously with profound gratitude and happiness at being married and having had a baby and having found the Torah way of life. In short, the level of life changes a woman faces upon becoming a frum, married woman and mother is way beyond what a typical BT man generally faces when he starts a family.
[I have not even addressed the challenges for women who are single or not being able to conceive, while living a frum life.]
The answer is not simple, but I believe it lies in women needing to learn a long time to internalize Torah hashkafa and to understand the realities of her future and to strengthen herself internally for it. It is no small task to raise a family in the Jewish way, yet frequently women are just not prepared for it emotionally, especially if they still carry feminist impulses and resentments. Those who have learned the longest, especially in Eretz Yisroel, in a seminary or series of classes which discusses these issues head-on, make the smoothest and happiest transitions.