When people find out that you grew up as an observant Jew, a game I like to call "20 Questions About Orthodox Jews" is inevitable. Here are a few couple of prime examples: "Is it true that you guys have sex through a hole in a sheet?" Or: "Why do married women shave their heads and wear wigs?" And once, they find out that I took gymnastics classes about as often as I went to temple they ask, "How did you tumble in a skirt?"
Leaving aside the first two questions for the moment, I'll address the third. No, I didn't flip in a skirt. I wore leotard, which made gymnastics easier but Orthodox Judaism a lot more complicated. And for seven years, I worked through my athletic and religious issues — where else — but in the basement gym of a synagogue.
Every Sunday morning, I was coached by Nina, a former New York State champion on several events. A college student with braces and rubber bands, she was the most feared instructor in the gym, which was no mean feat since the rest were Russians. Nina dressed in army fatigues and pulled her baseball cap low. She stomped across the mat in shit kickers in spite of the fact that shoes were not permitted on the equipment. And when she yelled at our group, which was often, the entire gym stopped to watch.
Despite the harshness of her coaching style, we wouldn't have gone to any other group. Tis a far, far better thing to be pushed too hard than told to simply do your best, which is something Dickens would've written had he done gymnastics. Nina drilled us in the basics but then coached us through much more difficult skills, such as flyaway flips off the uneven bars and back walkovers on the balance beam. We didn't see Nina's demands in a malicious light. Rather, we understood her purpose — to make us better gymnasts.
I took whatever Nina said as gospel. When she advised me to do extra pushups and sit-ups at home in order to master a new skill on the uneven bars, an event that demands an excess of upper body strength, I did them every night. A few weeks later, I successfully performed it on the bars, which shocked her. I didn't understand why. "You told me that if I did pushups and sit-ups every night for a month, I would get the trick. So I did," I informed her.
"You really did them at home? Every night?" she asked, incredulous.
"Of course," I replied. For a coach who demanded such utter respect inside the gym, she seemed to have no expectations of her pupils once we were outside of her purview. She seemed oblivious to the power she wielded over me. My mother once yelled as we locked horns over the mess in my bedroom: "I bet if Nina came here and told you to clean it, you would!"
While that was probably true, I doubt I would've hero-worshipped Nina the way I did had she been encouraging housework. The reason I followed her Pied Piper-like over the vault and off of the balance beams was precisely because what she asked me to do didn't seem at all ladylike.
Unwittingly, Nina was showing me a different way to be female in the world. I could be strong to the point of being aggressive. My mother, who had been the first in her family to go to college, intellectually conveyed her ideas about feminism to me, insisting that if I got an education, I could do whatever I set my mind to. But what about whatever I set my body to?
Through gymnastics, feminism was communicated physically, which turned out to be much more powerful than its intellectual demonstration. If ideas about inferiority or separateness of women are rooted in our different bodies, then the best way I found to overcome these ideas was by using this same body to accomplish feats of strength that were not considered natural for us.
My teachers at school were always trying to rein me in physically. I was often chastised when I did cartwheels at the back of the room during recess because my skirt flew up as I turned on my hands. "It is not befitting a daughter of Israel," I was told.
They chose to ignore the strength and coordination and prowess it took to perform the skill. Rather, they sexualized it by characterizing it as indecent. Modesty in clothing and demeanor, I was taught at school, was supposed to accomplish the exact opposite. It was supposed to prevent women from becoming sexual objects, but its enforcers, in their zeal to get us to cover up, overlooked the other traits of the female body. My teachers and rabbis were the ones who sought to turn my body into an inanimate object, suitable only for gazing or averting one's eyes.
Nina was also teaching me a different method for interacting with men. Rather than deferring to them, she playfully challenged the male coaches to handstand or handspring or chin-up contests. Watching her compete with the men (and often win) reminded me of the years before I started wearing skirts full-time when I challenged the neighborhood boys to footraces, often outpacing them. I'd pump my legs and arms as hard as I could, until they were moving so fast I felt practically out of control, like a boulder picking up momentum as it rolls down a hill. The more out of control I felt, the more I became aware of my physical power. I was not circumscribed at all — not by fear, concerns about my gender, or by the suitability of my clothing.
However when I started the first grade, I stopped wearing pants. My yeshiva demanded that students dress modestly all of the time. Unlike Nina, my school's administration believed that its dominion extended beyond its doors.
Running in a skirt simply isn't the same. Even if it's flared enough so as not to shorten your stride, when you're in a skirt, you're always glancing down, worrying that the hem might fly up and expose your underwear or knees. Skirts impose self-consciousness, a keen awareness of the femaleness of your body. Anxiety and wind drag slowed me down and I started losing more races than I won.
Yet inside the gym, I continued to wear the skimpy attire of gymnasts. I acted as though the gym was outside the jurisdiction of Jewish law. Even if it was my own personal Green Zone, my behavior engendered no small amount of cognitive dissonance. I had been taught that modesty wasn't really context dependent — if I couldn't walk down the street in a leotard then I couldn't leap in one on the balance beam —but for the time being, I was protected by my relative youth. The full brunt of Jewish womanhood wouldn't hit me until I turned twelve and became a bat mitzvah. So I continued doing flips and tried not to think about what came after.
In the months leading up to my twelfth birthday, I desperately wanted to talk to Nina about what I should do. Should I quit the sport once I became too old to wear a leotard around men? Or should I continue doing the sport in defiance of the rules? I knew what her answer would be. She would tell me to stay with gymnastics, which is what I hoped to hear. Yet even in these imaginative conversations, I'd hear myself rejecting her permission. "But you don't understand," I'd say.
And she didn't. Though she coached me and some other Orthodox girls over the years and knew some of the rules we lived by, she didn't understand why they were important. To her, they were merely lists — things we could eat, things we couldn't; stuff we could do on Saturdays, stuff we couldn't do. She probably didn't see the big deal of moving one item from the forbidden to the permitted list. But in my reality, these items were more like threads in a quilt. If you tugged on one, you end up snagging the whole.
So when I turned twelve, I disappeared from the gym for a few weeks. I did not, however, stop thinking about gymnastics. I watched tapes of competitions I had recorded off of the television and tried my best to mimic if not the acrobatics of the elites then at least their choreography. I practiced my beam routine on the lines of the kitchen linoleum. My mother, after watching a few weeks of my self-directed practices, asked if I wanted her to take me back to the gym. I shook my head. "Do whatever you want," she said, returning to her coffee and newspaper.
Whatever I want. As if! I internally scoffed a la my newest pop culture messiah, Cher Horowitz. In abstaining from gymnastics, I wasn't doing what I wanted. I was doing what I believed I had to do. Rules, I reasoned, weren't there to help you honor deep-seated desires. If that were the case then I would be perpetually walking on my hands and eating ice cream right after a steak while watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Instead I moped and started listening to Sarah McLachlan CDs. But before I completely and mournfully resigned myself to a future of overly sincere pop music and without a sport, I switched tacks. I got mad.
I started thinking about boys. I wasn't yet in the throes of puberty so these weren't sexual thoughts. Boys were still sort of an abstract concept to me, like calculus and space travel. How come, I wondered, didn't they have to worry about modesty? While there were proscriptions regarding the way men dressed, they were mere recommendations, like tipping your barista or flossing. They could play basketball regardless of who was present. Why was no one asking them to give up something they loved? (Though to be fair, they were taught not to masturbate, which was undoubtedly something they loved to do.) I knew that I was never going to be an Olympic champion or even a varsity athlete, but that's hardly the point. I wanted to see how far I could go. It's one thing to hit the brick wall of your own abilities whether they're physical or intellectual. It's quite another to be told what those limits are before you've had a chance to test them.
Once again, I felt like I was six years old, racing the boys down the block. This time, however, I didn't care about winning. I simply wanted the chance to play.
And so I returned to the gym dressed like the boys. I wore baggy clothing — loose fitting sweatpants and oversized T-shirts over my leotard. This, I reasoned, was more modest than the skintight clothing I used to wear. If not the letter of the law, I was trying to observe its spirit.
While Nina said nothing about my attire at first, she finally insisted I had to return to my skimpier clothing for safety's sake after the third time I slipped on the heel of my pants while on the beam. At this crossroads, I quickly took stock of the men in the gym. There were only a couple of coaches and a handful of male athletes, and the gymnasts were likely younger than thirteen. Without consulting the texts, teachers, or rabbis, I decided that it was okay for me to strip down to my leotard and shorts and do gymnastics just as I had a few months prior.
Though this was a relatively small decision that affected only ninety minutes out of the week, it was one of the first times in my life that I assessed what I knew of Jewish law and made my own choice. I had taken stock both of my love for gymnastics and the rules that governed my life outside of the gym. My passion for the sport had arisen organically, from within, whereas the law had been imposed on me from the outside without any regard for who I was as an individual. One felt right; the other I was told was right. On this occasion, I chose myself ahead of Judaism.
From that point, I started to trust myself at least as much as I did the male authority figures that parsed the Talmud and interpreted the law. After all, when you boil it down to basics, isn't that what feminism is about — women who insist on figuring out how to define themselves rather than being told by men who they are? Judaism told me one story about myself — about a modest, young woman who could be smart but not too aggressive about it, and ambitious but within certain limits. I, however, was discovering that this character outline was a work of fiction, at least in my case. I was intelligent and arrogantly wanted everyone to know it. My teachers would argue that I should work to curb these impulses and desires, but not because they were inherently bad. Rather they weren't appropriate for me as a woman. Had a man presented with my traits, he would've been handed the pulpit of a synagogue and a grant from a Jewish federation.
This doesn't mean that I won't listen to anyone, that there are no authority figures in my life to advise me in matters of faith and religion. I have a stable of mentors I trust, but none have earned my implicit trust merely because they hold rabbinic certification. "Because they are rabbis" — the answer my teachers frequently gave when I demanded to know why I had to follow their rules — which is really another of saying "because they said so." That line didn't work when my mother tried it on me at eight, and that was before I had even heard of Gloria Steinem.
However if Nina showed up on my stoop today, more than fourteen years after she last coached me, and ordered me to drop and give her twenty, I probably would. After all, the sages said, "Make yourself a rabbi." Mine just happened to be a Panamanian Catholic woman.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.
This post is excerpted from Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, available for Kindle. Republished with permission.
Image via Shmel/Shutterstock.