A Woman's Voice Sweet Changes
By Naomi Mark
Last fall, my daughter, Elana, turned three and had her first experience as a budding Orthodox feminist agent of social change.
Growing up with three older sisters and a jewishly active mother, Elana has always been able to enjoy all aspects of Jewish life. As her third birthday approached, Elana was excited that her actions would soon be taken seriously by her family and by Hashem.
A few weeks before Elana's birthday, another child in her class turned three and enjoyed the recognition of family, teachers, and classmates i n a tender ceremony traditionally held at the right-of-center Orthodox preschool, marking the child's first conscious embrace of the sweetness of Torah. At this event, a cake in the shape of the letter Aleph — baked and prepared by the teachers at the school — is shared by all to celebrate the onset of the child's learning of Torah. Perhaps the most moving part of the ceremony is the pouring of honey onto sheets of plastic under which are enlarged Hebrew letters. The child is encouraged to lick the honey from the page, and is blessed to uncover the sweetness in the letters and in forthcoming Torah study.
Knowing that she was next in line to turn three, Elana imagined herself at her own celebration. However, I quickly realized that her assumption was an innocent one. The previous child had been a boy, and no precedent yet existed at the school to recognize a girl's initiation into mitzvot and learning.
Struggling with years of frustration brought about by incidents similar to this one, and in an effort to take a proactive stance, I met with the rabbinic head of the pre-school.
As we spoke, I highlighted the confusing disparity between the two types of celebrations: when a boy turns three it had been viewed with religious and spiritual significance, but girls were offered a standard "secular" birthday party (Even here there is a crucial difference: at the girl's party the cake was provided by her parents, while the teachers made the boy's cake for him!)
Since all the children were being taught the Aleph-Bet, shouldn't the Torah be made to seem just as sweet for the girls?
Because the presentation of tzizit to the three-year-old boy is an integral part of the event, I suggested another ritual mitzvah — shabbat candles — which could be given to the girls at their party.
To my surprise, nothing else needed to be said. The rabbi was genuinely receptive, acknowledging that it had not occurred to him and that, of course, a comparable mitzvah party could be organized and set as policy for the school.
And so Elana unwittingly opened another door for her classmates and those to come.
Not an inauspicious beginning for a girl turning three!
Naomi Mark is director of training at the Human Resources Administration's Office of Crisis Intervention and Stabilization.