My birthday prayer at 83

This-coming Shabbat will mark my 83rd birthday. It might be an occasion to celebrate my second bat mitzvah — if I had had a first …
When I was a youngster, I went to Sunday School, of course, but I couldn’t attend weekday Hebrew school. And I couldn’t stand on the bimah of our shul, or hold a Torah.
I don’t say I was denied these experiences so much as brought up to recognize that they were meant only for males. I wasn’t resentful, just resigned. But I wasn’t happy with the restrictive roles that Judaism then assigned to women. I didn’t question the expectations: Certainly I would marry and have children. But I didn’t like the centerpieces of that life: I was totally un-fond of the kitchen, and hated dusting, sweeping, washing, ironing, and all the other routine chores that fell to my sex.
Years later, as my children still recall, I once told them that some mothers stay home and bake cookies, and other mothers do other things; like it or not, life had given them one of those “other mothers.” So I stepped outside my home, working even when that was frowned on by the traditionalists surrounding me. In this I was enabled by a neighbor woman who had sought help from her minister: Staying home and baking cookies caused severe depression. She was able to face down the local critics only because she’d received “permission” to take a paying job and hire some household help.
A journalist, she opened the local newspaper’s door for me. I compromised, working only when my children were at school; my understanding employer granted me the freedom to leave my office when those children were doing something at school that mothers should be attending. (How interesting: Nobody ever thought fathers had to attend those daytime functions …)
But look at all that’s happened since! Women not only learn Hebrew; in non-Orthodox congregations, they stand on their bimahs, holding Torahs, leading services — even as rabbis! And soon, after a struggle of years, I thought they would be able to worship openly and freely at the Western Wall, in an egalitarian venue created specifically for this purpose. Imagine a woman standing by her son for his bar mitzvah instead of having to peek at him over a barrier! Imagine her there, with a daughter or granddaughter becoming a bat mitzvah!
But the voices of dissent to all of this are loud ones. Not surprising, because Israel, with all its exciting freedoms, is still bound religiously by traditionalists who cling most closely to the old, women-restricting ways. The backlash has not been pretty, and even reasonable protest has been less effective than hoped for. However, although the Torah tells us that Eve was brought forth from Adam to be his helpmeet, it does not say that she or her female descendants should be relegated forever to kitchen duty and household chores. Yes, it says she will bear children for them both, in pain, while Adam sweats to earn a living for them. But nowhere does it specify that the Torah and its mandated reminders, those threads of blue, are altogether forbidden to her.
When all the women of my generation are gone, these dichotomies will have virtually disappeared in modern Diaspora Judaism. However, I continue now to straddle the issue, with one leg firmly planted in my traditional upbringing, the other steady in the camp of the more non-restrictive life my heart and soul long ago led me to pursue.
Today, I applaud each bat mitzvah of my congregation as her parents present her with her own tallit. I do not wear one myself. I do not carry a Torah. But maybe, just maybe, I will do both — if I am privileged, someday, to stand by the Wall in Jerusalem, in a place that our once-and-forever homeland will see fit to grant for women. This is my 83-year-old birthday prayer…

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