At eleven years old the time came for me to learn what every orthodox Jewish girl needs to know about ensuring blood doesn’t get anywhere it shouldn’t: Mrs. Weinstein was going to teach us how to kosher a chicken. So one rainy afternoon in the autumn of 1971 four classmates and I went to our Hebrew teacher’s home and came face to face with a raw, bloody, dead bird and its wrinkled, angry purple gizzards.
Actually, the gizzards weren’t yet visible. It was our task to reach into the slimy opening of the chicken and pull them out. Rachel offered to do it and the rest of us heaved a sigh of relief. After she extracted them, we huddled around the sink in Mrs. Weinstein’s kitchen as she placed the bird and its innards carefully into a large plastic bowl, covered them with cold water and left them to soak for thirty minutes.
I should have been grateful that I was learning about the inner workings of bird blood-draining at such a young age. Other girls had to wait until their mothers saw fit to teach them. But our class was special. Mrs. Weinstein was the young wife of a visiting professor and had requested that she be permitted to teach a bat-mitzvah class. This was revolutionary. There was no such thing as a bat mitzvah in orthodox Judaism. Everyone knew that while boys blazed into adulthood publicly with their bar mitzvahs, girls were expected to slither into it unnoticed. (We had heard rumblings that in America some girls had bat-mitzvah ceremonies in synagogue, but honestly, what could you expect from Americans?) Mrs. Weinstein petitioned the synagogue board and won them over by assuring them that in addition to completing a bible project we would learn how to be dutiful wives. The Board made it clear that we wouldn’t participate in any part of the Sabbath service and our graduation would be held on a Sunday afternoon so that most members of the community could remain blissfully unaware of it. So, while the boys spent the year prior to their thirteenth birthday learning how to become men by reading from the Torah, we girls went to Mrs. Weinstein’s home that rainy afternoon to learn how to ensure that our chickens never dripped blood.
While we waited for the next stage of the koshering process, Mrs. Weinstein led us into her living room, hurriedly pushing aside the myriad books and papers that lay scattered on the sofas and chairs. The room was like a pool at the bottom of a waterfall of documents that had overflowed from the wall-to-wall bookshelves. Sarah, Rachel, Jenny, Paula and I perched awkwardly on the edges of the sofa and the hard arms of the upright chairs hardly daring to sit down lest we disturb something important. We smiled at each other surreptitiously. Being in the home of a teacher almost made up for having to handle dead poultry.
“Tell me which biblical heroine, which Woman of Worth, you’ve chosen for your Bat-mitzvah project,” Mrs. Weinstein commanded, as she pushed a stray strand of her black, curly hair back beneath her headscarf.
“I’d like to study Sarah. Not just because she’s my namesake but because she’s one of our foremothers,” said blonde, blue-eyed Sarah. She was an anomaly in our world. Every other Jew I knew had dark, usually-frizzy hair.
“I’m going to focus on Rachel,” said Rachel, disingenuously. “She was the mother of Joseph, who saved the Israelites from starvation.”
My middle name is Ruth, and certainly Ruth could have been a worthy choice.
“I choose Jael,” I said.
“Who’s Jael?” my classmates chorused.
“She delivered the Israelites from the army of the King of Canaan by killing Sisera.” I didn’t add that the way she did it was to crush the army general’s head with a workman’s hammer. Most of the bibilical females I’d read about were heroines because of their female wiles or because they mothered important men. But Jael was different. ‘She crushed his head,’ the bible description told me. ‘She crashed through and transfixed his temples.’ Even though I was fully content with my role as second fiddle to the men, there was something very satisfying about that story.
If Mrs. Weinstein was surprised at my choice, she said nothing.
We returned to her kitchen for the next part of the koshering ritual, where she took the chicken out of the water and dumped it on a perforated, grooved, wooden, salting board.
“It’s essential that you slant the board so that the blood drawn out by the salt can drain away freely from the chicken,” she explained as she handed Paula the salt and showed her how to sprinkle it in all the cuts and folds of the goosepimply flesh.
“Make sure that no piece of salted flesh drops back into the drained liquid and make sure the liquid drains right into the sink,” Mrs. Weinstein admonished before we returned to the living room to wait for another hour.
While we sat, Mrs. Weinstein asked us if we had any questions.
Rachel, the boldest of us, spoke up. “How come men get to do everything that matters?”
“They do?” Mrs. Weinstein looked surprised and shocked.
We nodded in unison.
“They lead services,” said Sarah.
“They get called up to the Torah,” said Jenny.
“They say Kiddush. And Kaddish. And everything else,” I muttered.
“But who has the babies?” asked Mrs. Weinstein.
“Who makes the home a warm and loving place that everyone wants to be in?”
“Who teaches the children how to be good Jews?”
“The men,” we chorused.
“No. The women.” Mrs. Weinstein tugged on her three-quarter length sleeves and adjusted her headscarf. “The men teach prayers. The men teach yiddishkeit. But it’s we women who educate our children to be good people. We are the ones who spend our days with the babies and toddlers, bringing them up to be obedient, helpful and kind. We are the ones who teach the children how to prepare the home for shabbat. It is the women who create shlom bayis—peace in the home. Isn’t that more important than anything else?”
I felt the knot that was always in my chest, the one tied with resentment and jealousy towards the boys, begin to dissolve. Suddenly, I felt important. It was the first time anyone had explained women’s roles as essential, maybe even central, to Jewish life.
“You all know that Jews pray three times a day,” said Mrs. Weinstein. Of course we did. We knew many of the prayers by heart, even though we could only say them silently to ourselves. Women’s voices were not meant to be heard. “And you also know that while women are encouraged to say their prayers three times a day, only men are obligated to do so.”
Yes, we knew that it didn’t even matter if we showed up for services or not.
“That’s because we might be breast-feeding, right?” I said. “Since you have to have ten men for a minyan it wouldn’t be right to drag a mother away from her baby just so someone could say their prayers.” The rabbi’s wife had told me that just a few weeks earlier, when I complained that women’s presence at services ought to count for something.
“Saying prayers is very important, but you’re right that we would never want to ask a woman to choose between serving her child and serving God. However, that’s only part of the reason women don’t have the same prayer obligation. The other reason is that women are already so much closer to HaShem. We don’t need to pray as often as men because we’re already elevated spiritually. We don’t have to study as much because intuitively we understand how to get closer to God. Men are logical and rational while women are emotional and spiritual. Men need to pray to feel uplifted and holy. We don’t.”
She paused and I waited, thirsty for her next words. My heart felt as if it were bursting with joy and pride.
“Our job of educating the children in the home is so much more important than the men’s job of praying. If it weren’t for the women, the Jewish people would cease to exist! We are responsible for the continuation of the entire race.” She sat back and smiled. “And all the men get to do is lead prayers. It’s amazing that they haven’t figured out how short-changed they are!”
Mrs. Weinstein’s eyes were shining, and I felt a lump in my throat. What an incredible role I had in life. For weeks I’d been stewing over the fact only boys could lead parts of the service, and that once they were bar-mitzvah their presence would be counted to make up a minyan, the required prayer quorum. Now I thought, what did it matter? Let them have their puny victories. Bigger things were planned for me. I would be responsible for the continuation of the Jewish race!
And it all started with cleaning up a chicken.
Alison R. Solomon grew up in the U.K. and lived in Israel and Mexico before settling in the USA. She is the author of four mystery novels, Before She Left, Timing Is Everything, Devoted, and Along Came the Rain, and has been published in numerous anthologies and academic books and journals. (For a full list, go to her website.)