This post previously appeared on Mayim’s blog on Kveller.com, June 4, 2013.
I was raised in a traditional Jewish household attending a Reform synagogue. My mother was raised Orthodox but left traditional Judaism pretty much as soon as she could.
When we lit Shabbat candles, my mother covered her head with a doily and I had a matching one so I could be like her.
My mom’s older sister was very religious, so she and all of her daughters covered their heads all the time in tichels (headscarves), hats, and, for special occasions, fancy wigs. To me, head coverings were for super religious people. I had no problem wearing a small kippah sometimes when making blessings as a child, and one of my cousins in Israel even crocheted me one with my name on it which I treasured and still have and treasure. I saw nothing strange about women wearing kippahs, since in Reform and Conservative circles, it was acceptable. Why not?
My black hat.
When I started taking on more observance in college, the notion of religious women’s head coverings scared me. It signified a big step, a public declaration of religiousness that I was scared to embrace, especially since I didn’t have religious friends and my boyfriend (who later became my husband) wasn’t at that level of religiousness. I had taken on observing Shabbat and kashrut, and I knew that something about head coverings attracted me. I liked the notion of a shift in identity when one got married. I liked the fun choices of hats (as long as they weren’t adorned with “Blossom”-like sunflowers). I liked the notion of identifying as a religious woman. But I wasn’t “that” religious, and my marriage, although very traditional, did not follow the classic trajectory of Orthodoxy.
Before my wedding, I traveled to visit my family in Israel. My aunt took me to a fancy milliner in Jerusalem where I bought four hats: a simple black one, a “sexier” red one, a wide-brimmed navy one with a velvet stretch of fabric around the rim, and a creme colored one. I loved my hats and could not wait to go to synagogue wearing them once I was married.
My collection of tichels.
The week after the wedding, we celebrated seven nights of blessings where the “Sheva Brachot” are recited, and I happily wore small bandannas or kerchiefs for those dinners. It felt right to acknowledge that I was married, but I made sure not to look “too” religious, since my parents and husband might have started to worry that I was becoming a religious fanatic.
As my marriage proceeded, I wore hats or tichels when in synagogue or when I was anywhere men might cover their heads: weddings, in Jewish meetings at Hillel, and the like. I became a skilled tichel-tie-er. I owned a dozen in different colors and even added to my hat collection a few “funky” crocheted hats. I loved covering my head.
My divorce has thrust upon me so many changes. I knew head covering would be one of them. Traditional women continue to cover their heads after a divorce in some circles, since head coverings show a change in status from virgin to not virgin and you can’t technically go back…I know a lot of more liberal Orthodox women who don’t cover their heads at all, and some who don’t cover their heads after a divorce even if they did cover them when they were married. I assumed I’d be one of those women.
The first time I prayed after the divorce, I assumed I would not cover my head. But I couldn’t bring myself to bare my head. As I prepared to recite the blessings over the candles and wine and challah at the Shabbat table, I knew I had to cover my head. I had been doing it since I was a child. And as a married woman I continued that. My growth in Judaism had led to a profound respect for the learned men who cover their heads in reverence to God. It felt wrong to not cover my head. I felt naked. I couldn’t do it. I cried as I tied my tichel. I thought, “Why am I doing this? I’m not married anymore. This is stupid. Maybe I’m not ready to move on?” But I couldn’t not do it.
I see covering my head as a sign of honoring God and honoring my place in God’s world. I know I’m not married. I know it every second of every day. I also know that I love that traditional Judaism has given me a wonderful way to transition from the kippahs of my youth to the recognized female head covering of our religious tradition which I love.
I feel strange when people who know I am divorced see me with a covered head; they must wonder what my deal is. I’m not “that” religious to need to cover it all the time, so why not discard it now? I don’t know. I can’t. Not today. Not with everything I’ve been through.
I have traveled a long way to find God and to feel connected to God with every fiber of my being. It started when I stood at Sinai and saw the sounds, I guess. I wandered a long time to get here. I love where I am: divorced, conflicted, respectful, hopeful, and reverent. And scared.
I may stop covering my head at some point, but I don’t see that day coming any time soon. Covering my head is a part of my journey that I don’t want to leave behind. Not now. Not after I’ve traveled so far to get here. No way.
Going Through a Divorce in Public & Private
The last post I wrote about head-covering after divorce was the first in a four-part series of posts I have written about Jewish aspects of divorce.
My goal with these posts is to be educational without being excessively emotional; I am told that I am an emotional writer and so it’s hard to separate those. As a writer and public person, I don’t share “everything” and I choose very carefully what to share, always trying to think of my motive. Do I share things just because I can? Or can my writing serve a purpose which is not strictly narcissistic!?
I hope that these divorce posts will accomplish two things. First, I hope they educate people about aspects of divorce in the Jewish community they may not have heard about or thought about. I love that we have Jewish and non-Jewish readers on Kveller who like to learn about how other people live religiously. It’s wonderful for us to have this forum to share. And second, I hope to give support to women who may be similarly struggling with some of the more subtle aspects of divorce by talking about the uncomfortable and inevitable decisions that often come with being traditional in a nontraditional situation.
In other news, I am doing great. I am not a sad sack of potatoes, at least not all of the time. My boys are doing great, their dad is doing great. We are okay. The struggles I am sharing are struggles that I hope have universal aspects to them, but I am working through all of it with support of friends and a great therapist and lots of nourishing myself with time for music and art and adjusting.
I appreciate the virtual support I get from everyone who knows me from Kveller and in the media, and I also appreciate the privacy being given to me and my family that is so important in this transitional time.
The Jewish Divorce: Getting a Get with Mayim Bialik
As a woman who is observant-ish and has led an observant lifestyle, divorce presents some very interesting challenges. I don’t know that I am yet ready to present my personal decisions about some of these challenges, but I wanted to share what the challenges are in hopes that other women might find them helpful.
Jewish weddings are held in a religious ceremony that has its own set of laws and rituals. A Jewish wedding is sealed with a ketubah, a marriage contract ensuring protection for the woman in case of mistreatment, neglect, or refusal of rights, such as–not kidding–the right to be sexually satisfied by your husband. Judaism is one of the first religions producing a document (thousands of years ago, mind you) that held the woman’s rights in any esteem, so it’s a very big deal.
A get is the legal way of releasing the husband from his contract. Historically, men could marry several women, so the main point was freeing her from the union. A get is a written document that has to be composed by a sofer (scribe) in the presence of a Beit Din (court of Jewish law). Ironically, men are the ones who grant a get, even if a woman is the one who initiates it. This has led to the circumstance of countless women being “agunot” or “chained women,” not allowed to be released from their marital contracts and, thus, unable in religious circles to remarry or have children without their children being deemed illegitimate if their husbands don’t want to let them be free. It’s a mess, and I actually narrated a documentary about the lengths some women go to get a get. It’s called “Women Unchained” and it’s a very good documentary.
Anyway. There are ways to protect yourself from becoming a “chained woman” and many Orthodox rabbis are creating halakhic prenuptials so that this situation does not happen. But let’s say you are not a religious woman. Why should you care about a get?
First of all, the halakhic prenuptial should be included in every ketubah, no matter the couple’s denomination, since you never know where you will end up religiously (really, you don’t), and it doesn’t hurt to have this extra tiny bit of protection just in case.
Second of all, civil divorce is lengthy and can be legally complicated and miserable, and a civil divorce is mainly nuts and bolts. Once you complete your divorce papers and child custody agreements, you are done and simply wait for your divorce to go through. In the State of California, we wait six months after filing for a divorce to be final.
In contrast, a get proceeding is one of psychological and emotional completion. A get is performed by a select group of rabbis who create a Beit Din, typically in a synagogue, and they complete the divorce in a historically and emotionally authentic environment. The term “closure” has never made more sense to me than in the get proceeding. It provides a tremendous sense of closure for both parties. Just as you are married according to the laws of Moses and Israel, so will you be divorced.
When people tell me, “Oh, I could never sit in a room with my ex for that amount of time. That’s ridiculous,” it makes me think of what a powerful thing it would be if throughout divorce proceedings, we almost-divorcees conducted ourselves in a manner which would eventually lead us to a get proceeding. Meaning, what if your interactions were all predicated on the fact that at the end of it all, you would sit in a room for 90 minutes and watch your divorce contract be written? Would you curse at each other as much leading up to it? Would you try and draw things out, or would you look for the simplest and kindest resolutions as you could? Wouldn’t it be great practice to be civil and polite considering all of the years you will have to be around each other if you share children?
The get process is the last joint venture you partake in as a couple, but it’s a great model for your future relationship, especially if you have kids together. I’m not advocating for sitting nicely and demurely in a room with a man who abused you or your children; I am simply pointing out that those cases aside, if you can’t imagine sitting for 90 minutes in a room with your ex, how do you intend to conduct yourself for the next years as you co-parent?
The get process, like much of Judaism, forces you to not run from grief. It’s the mourning process for your marriage, and just like the period of
shiva which Jews observe for the seven days following a death of a spouse, child, parent, or sibling, the get allows you space to grieve, a place to put your grief, and a set of rituals designed to help you through it.
Since My Divorce, I’m Missing the Mikveh
I didn’t grow up knowing anything about the mikveh, the ritual bath religious women enter before their wedding and each month after their menstrual cycle ends. When I learned about it as a teenager, it sounded gross. It sounded like women were treated horribly there, and it sounded like Judaism thought I was dirty and it did not appeal to me at all.
As I increased my Jewish learning at UCLA and specifically through UCLA Hillel, I learned that there were movements of women who were “taking back” mikveh as a transformative and mystical experience. Women who, after divorce or cancer treatment or miscarriage or abortion, were entering the sacred waters to rejuvenate and start again. They were liberating the experience from halachic restrictions and were making a new world of mikveh open to all women. It was beautiful, I thought.
As I grew in my observance and in the months leading up to my wedding, I studied with a kallah (marriage preparation) teacher and learned that mikveh was not a punishment or a judgment of uncleanliness. Rather, it was an affirmation of spiritual purity and possibility, and that it could be an empowering and special experience to engage monthly in this ritual and the halachos (Jewish laws) of not engaging in sexual activity for the days of your menstrual cycle and the week following. As I have written about here, I embraced the mikveh and the surrounding halachos with great reverence and appreciation.
This makes it all the more complicated that, as a divorced woman, I do not go to the mikveh anymore. Since the regulation of your menstrual cycle and ovulation is primarily what I used the mikveh for, I do not need the mikveh anymore. And I suppose in some fascinating turn of events, it doesn’t need me.
I miss the mikveh. I miss the rhythms of it, and how it marked the loss of an egg and the potential to create life when I was trying to get pregnant, and how it marked the phases of my cycle even when I was not trying to get pregnant. I miss it.
Why, you might ask, don’t I go anyway? If certain “progressive” women go after life cycle events, why not go to mark the end of my marriage? Or the new phase of life I am embarking on? (You may also want to take note of the recent debate about whether unmarried sexually active young women should or shouldn’t be permitted to use Orthodox mikvehs… After all, mikvehs in Orthodoxy are for married women, but what if a young woman from a religious family wants to immerse? It’s tricky.)
I am not a perfect observant person, and my observance has shifted a lot since the divorce and will continue to. However, I still identify as a halachic person. I like the regiments and structure of Orthodox mikvehs. It’s important to me to honor and respect that. I would not feel comfortable immersing in an Orthodox mikveh as a divorced woman. And I don’t know that I’d feel at home at a mikveh that wasn’t designed for those purposes.
I will never get tired of writing about the complexity of tension in our lives as Jews: respecting tradition, being bound to it, feeling trapped by it, feeling overwhelmed by it. In a perfect world, I might have made halacha different. I might have made a lot of things different. But I’m not God and I don’t want to change rules just because they make me uncomfortable. I want to struggle within the limits of my understanding and my devotion.
I don’t have a daughter. I will never know the joys of taking my daughter to the mikveh before her wedding the way my mother did with me. And I don’t know if my sons will marry a woman who wants to go to the mikveh. If they do, I hope they will allow their future mother-in-law to come with them and sit in the waiting room.
If that happens, I will likely cry as I remember scrubbing my own young skin clean before my wedding; inspecting every inch of my body for anything that would separate me from my Creator in the waters that have the power to make me born again, soaking in anticipation of being loved and desired when I am most vulnerable and most pure.
And I hope that when my future daughter-in-law dries herself off after emerging clean from the waters, she will forgive the wet tears of this old woman. She will have to dry herself again, shaking off the waters of regret and sadness and loss that only a woman who has not been to the mikveh in decades can shed.
How Many Shabbat Candles Does a Divorced Woman Light?
As a child, I lit two Shabbat candles with my mother every time she lit Shabbat candles. I felt like a little Ima (mother), like they make you pretend in preschool or kindergarten Hebrew school. It’s practice, you know. For when you are a “real” Ima. Imas light two candles.
When I got married, I had not been consistently lighting Shabbat candles for years. After leaving my parents’ home and going to college, I stopped, but I would light them with the other girls at Hillel when I attended services there and looked forward to a day when I would light them as a married woman.
I bought antique Victorian candlesticks for my wedding. I was not the typical Jewish girl so I didn’t buy the typical expensive silver kind that many religious girls dream of.
Lighting candles as a married woman was very nice and gratifying. I felt I was creating light for me and my partner in a sacred space. When my first son was born two years after I was married, I added a small candle for him, as is the custom; one for each additional child. That first time I lit that little candle for my son was a very special Shabbat. My husband and I blessed him so that he be like “Menasseh and Ephraim,” and we stumbled over the Hebrew, so new to both of our lips.
Since I had grown in observance in college, I had seen so many women lighting one for each of their children as I became more observant, imagining that one day–God willing–I, too, would light many candles for my many children.
I am now a divorced mother of two. My sons are accustomed to lighting their own candle every Shabbat since they were old enough to hold a match. “I want to light my candle!” they remind me as we set them all up on Friday nights.
The first time I lit candles and blessed my sons after I was alone in my house with no husband was a very complicated and emotional experience. It’s not something I ever wanted to do alone. But I am doing it. It’s very hard.
It occurred to me a few months ago–the first time my sons referred to the second candle I light as “The Dada Candle”–that maybe divorced women don’t light two candles anymore. Maybe we are supposed to retreat back to the tradition of being single and lighting a single candle for ourselves, as is the custom among religious women.
After some investigation, I found out that the halachic answer is that divorced women still light two for themselves.
I wish my sons would stop calling it “The Dada Candle.”
I wish that I could stop crying when I look into their eyes and ask that they be like Menasseh and Ephraim.
I wish that I could stop my voice from shaking when I ask that God bless them and keep them and cause the Countenance to shine upon them and always give them peace.
I sometimes wish this wasn’t my life.
I wish that God should bless me and keep me and that God’s Countenance will shine upon me and always give me peace.
And I wish that for my son’s father, too. Because when he has them on Friday nights, he stares into the same eyes I stare into. And one son has my eyes and one son has his eyes.
And the “Amen” we say is the same. No matter what house you say it in.