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Friday, August 29, 2014

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Building bridges through unexpected kinships

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Lately I have been pointing people to an intriguing column I came upon about marriage and Jewish women. Written by a young Orthodox woman at Yeshiva University and published in the New York Times, the column considers the gulf that the author believes sets in between married and unmarried female friends.

The subtext – which is not deeply buried – is the ambivalent mix of yearning for and wariness of marriage, and the struggle to understand why some women remain single, despite their desires find a life mate.

The author, Avital Chizhik, muses about these matters while sitting in a café and working on a term paper about marriage in the work of British writer Virginia Woolf. Chizhik cannot help but overhear a conversation taking place at a table just behind her about precisely those matters. Two unseen young women fret about why they have not yet met “the one.” Chizhik identifies with the bits of conversation that waft toward her: the brother who grew a beard, young men who are looking for more religious women, what happens on the “men’s side” of a wedding reception.

Certain she knows just where these women come from – Jewish high schools, religious girls with secular education and ambition – she’s startled when she finally catches a glimpse of them: two women, her own age, in hijabs. Chizhik is struck by the commonalities: modest garb, longing for, yet wary of, marriage, connection to an ancient tradition and a regulated way of life, but with legs in the modern world (even if covered). 

The column, in its reaching across boundaries to find unsought, unexpected, yet resonant connections, brought to mind a scene in a movie I once saw that also evoked strong connections for many viewers. In She’s Gotta Have It, directed by African-American filmmaker Spike Lee, several accomplished black women sit in a Brooklyn living room and talk about the problem of finding a man who is their professional, social and intellectual equal. They wanted to marry men from their own community. But, they complain, successful black men married out of the community. The women in the scene analyzed their problem. Perhaps they were simply too picky. Perhaps they should not insist on marrying a professional equal, but simply look for a good man from their community.

For Jewish viewers, the film resonated deeply. So many single women commented that if you replaced the black women in the scene with Jewish women, the conversation would be the same. At the time the movie was released – the mid-1980s – the intermarriage rate was much higher for Jewish men than for Jewish women. Unmarried Jewish women who were educated and accomplished were often told that they set their sights too high. Many expressed a strong and unexpected kinship with the women depicted in Lee’s film.

They felt this connection, which had to do with ties to community and tradition, yearning for love, and wanting to be valued, at a moment when the Jewish and African American communities were often at odds with one another, especially in Brooklyn. In a similar fashion, Chizhik felt a tug of kinship with these young Muslim women whose community is often at odds with her own.

Readers’ comments on Chizhik’s column on the New York Times website were revealing. Many were written by self-identified Jews and Muslims who were moved by the vignette and by the sensitive and lyrical writing. A significant number of postings took issue with religion itself as a system that restricts and demeans the lives of its followers (especially women). But other commentators noted that finding in religion a source of abiding, if complicated, meaning is what Chizhik describes as uniting her with the women she overhears in the café. And in following the cyberlife of the column, I noted that it had been posted approvingly on both Jewish and Islamic websites.

As an educator at a diverse university, I am often struck by the way students reach across divides they had once believed impassable, seeing points of commonality in another community’s ways of being, doing and thinking. Especially for women negotiating modern options while contending with ingrained social dynamics in their communities, these kinships can be enlightening and fortifying. And they can build bridges.

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