Changing Our Spiritual Narrative

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Photo by Dina Brookmyer

As I ushered Shavuos in, the table was beautifully set, the house was sparkling clean and the food was all prepared. I felt a wave of ease settle over my body. Finally, I could relax and enjoy the chag.

But utterly exhausted, I also felt a bit of disappointment. Another yom tov was here, and while I had completed all of the physical preparations, the spiritual ones had fallen by the wayside. As a mother of two young children, rebbetzins and teachers had told me, “This is your avodah now. To be at home with your children and create the atmosphere of the chag in your home.”

Telling a young mother like myself that our only avodah is to stay at home with our children and physically prepare for the chagim creates a burnt out, overworked and disconnected generation of young Jewish mothers.

While I enjoy the planning, the shopping, the cooking, the decor and a clean home, I long for the days when I felt spiritually prepared to enter into a yom tov. Now, the holidays look far different than they did prior to having my children. Incredibly grateful to the Creator for their existence, I equally mourn the woman who used to prepare for and spiritually enrich herself before chagim. These days, I can be found under a pile of toys, crumbs and stickiness when my husband returns home from two plus hours at shul. And as he leaves to go learn on Shavuos night, I close my eyes and pray to Hashem that my children wake up at a reasonable hour. I think to myself, Is this really my avodah?

I take the privilege I have been granted as a wife and mother extremely seriously. I recognize and believe that Hashem created men and women with different roles and avodahs in this world. I know that it is not my job to leave my children and be at shul all day long. However, I also recognize that the frum world has sorely left behind the young mother on chagim. We are fed a narrative that suits our duties. “You will be at home with Hashem’s children!” While, yes, I will indeed stay at home with them while my husband fulfills his mitzvah to daven with a minyan, does that mean I have to be entirely ignored?

While I enjoy the planning, the shopping, the cooking, the decor and a clean home, I long for the days when I felt spiritually prepared to enter into a yom tov. Now, the holidays look far different than they did prior to having my children. Incredibly grateful to the Creator for their existence, I equally mourn the woman who used to prepare for and spiritually enrich herself before chagim.

On Shavuos, there were two shiurim offered in my community for women (B”H, we are in Israel, and could have them right now!)—one at 11:20 pm on Shavuos night and one at 5:00 pm the following day. If any young mother is reading this, or even an older mother, you know that those times are a huge no-no for mothers with young children. As it was impossible to stay awake that late, and impossible to get away at 5:00 pm, I did not attend either.

Women with older children, perhaps, could slip away, or women with grown children may be able get to shul and festivities. Even women with children who are slightly older can usually spare a few moments to daven or rest. If I want to do any of those things, it requires a lot of pre-planning. Again, I recognize the gift of motherhood, but it does not mean I need to spend my chagim without any spiritual opportunities.

Telling a young mother like myself that our only avodah is to stay at home with our children and physically prepare for the chagim creates a burnt out, overworked and disconnected generation of young Jewish mothers. I read in a magazine that a recently niftar rebbetzin had encouraged her students to marry men who learned Torah, but insisted that the only way they could truly appreciate Torah was to learn it themselves! So, where has that ideology gone?

Is it simply easier to tell young mothers their avodah is in the home? What if they do not enjoy cooking, cleaning, decorating and hours on end with their children? What if they feel spiritually unfulfilled? What if each yom tov feels daunting, overwhelming and dissatisfying? What if this generation’s avodah contains different needs?

Does anyone approach these questions in the frum world? I have to wonder—what about me? But more than just me—what about all the other women who travel through chagim without feeling a single surge of connection? Something needs to be done.

Telling a young mother like myself that our only avodah is to stay at home with our children and physically prepare for the chagim creates a burnt out, overworked and disconnected generation of young Jewish mothers.

As leaders of Jewish communities continually emphasize that women fulfill their avodah at home, they neglect the fact that, for most women, all of these tasks are extremely challenging, and, in some cases, unenjoyable. The idea that women who are at home with young children magically gain chizuk from that narrative is simply unrealistic. We need to provide these women with a better narrative.

The women of today’s modern world, including those in frum communities, are highly intellectual and dynamic. They represent the full package—a yiddishe mama with a yearning to desire to grow. How can we serve these women better? They too deserve the right to learn Torah and to feel spiritually enriched on holidays. I love coordinating my children’s clothes and baking a cheesecake as much as the next mom, but I do not enjoy the lack of opportunities presented to me as a young mother with children.

For those of us who do not enjoy household work and endless hours of unstructured time with our children, we should not feel ashamed to speak up. We should not feel ashamed that we have a need for spirituality. And, we should demand that our spiritual leaders stop glorifying it so we feel better. It is not helping.

So what do we do?

First of all, we demand that the narrative change. Mothers need validation. Here are some examples:

Yes, it is exhausting and difficult to physically prepare for a chag and be with your children for hours at a time while your husband is learning or at shul.”

Yes, your husband is your partner in life, and should contribute to the physicality of yom tov preparation, while still maintaining his obligations at shul or in the beis medrash. He is a parent, not a ‘babysitter’.”

Yes, it is normal to feel no spiritual connection to a chag after being home for most of it and feeling like you did not get a second to breathe.”

Without question, there are many more one-liners that leaders of our communities could offer to mothers.

In addition, there needs to be programming and opportunities which are in line with young mothers’ schedules and capabilities. It is not realistic to offer a shiur at 10:00 am on a yom tov morning, without accounting for the fact that a mother will need to bring along her children. It is not realistic to offer a shiur at 5:00 pm on Shabbos day, without recognizing that most women will need to be home at that time or shortly after. Perhaps communities could create shiurim or other spiritual opportunities which will include children’s participation, childcare or be at more appropriate times. Obviously, in the times of COVID-19, it will take more creativity to accomplish these goals, but I am sure if people are determined, they can do it.

I daven that, one day, young mothers will have access to the spiritual resources and opportunities they rightfully deserve. After all, are we not the ones who need to inspire and fuel the next generation?

Furthermore, the level of shiurim given needs to change. Yes, I love a cooking demonstration, a shiur on tznius or a vaad about chinuch. These are all lovely things. But, come on, we can do more than that. We need more substance, more depth and more actual learning.

Now, one could argue mothers with young children are physically and mentally exhausted, so we do not “need” or “want” a heavy shiur with sources. I beg to differ. It does not need to be overly complicated or entirely esoteric. Learning in a deep and meaningful way, through the text of our Torah, will keep us inspired throughout our journey, when we are knee-deep in mundane tasks.

In my seminary, which largely catered to a ba’al teshuva population, we were taught with text in almost every single class. The rebbetzin who founded the seminary felt it was important for us to work within the text and to see it with our own eyes. I will never forget when we learned Sefer Yonah. It was the first sefer I had learnt cover-to-cover with sources. Mincha on the following Yom Kippur was simply incredible. Each year, I feel a tinge of sadness on Yom Kippur, knowing that I will not make it to shul as they read Yonah. Learning Yonah, and then experiencing it on Yom Kippur, has truly affected me for the rest of my life. In fact, my son, who had his bris on Rosh Chodesh Elul, was given “Yonah” as his second name.

I hope and daven that things change. That more opportunities and better opportunities are created for this important demographic. That the narrative changes for mothers with young children. That the leadership in our communities starts helping mothers navigate their burn-out and focus on keeping them spiritually connected. I daven that, one day, young mothers will have access to the spiritual resources and opportunities they rightfully deserve. After all, are we not the ones who need to inspire and fuel the next generation?

Let us start today.

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Tzivi Nochenson
Tzivi Nochenson is a wife, mother and proud olah chadasha. She balances the unique role of a returnee to Torah Judaism and a modern-day millennial woman. She is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Tzivi lives with her wonderful husband and rambunctious children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

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