I grew up with no religious background. So I was never aware of the common stereotype that Orthodox women are considered second-class citizens and that these poor unfortunate creatures are barefoot, always pregnant, and chained to the kitchen. After meeting observant women of all stripes in Israel, I returned to New York only to be informed by my secular friends of the actual state of affairs. If I hadn't seen the reality for myself, I would have believed what they said and dismissed subsequent Jewish exposure as archaic and out of touch.
For those of us who question unproven stereotypes, let's get something perfectly clear: Jewish women work. And they have always worked, whether as shopkeepers, teachers, or professionals, whether in Babylon, European shtetls, and twentieth-century America. And nowadays, like women all over the Western world, they work in every field. Some run their own businesses or are part of a larger corporation. Here in Israel one of my neighbors is a nuclear physicist. Another is a school principal. Several good friends are lawyers. One's a pediatrician. Two are successful artists. I'm a zoo veterinarian.
Many of these professional women have been religious since birth; equally as many are newly returned to traditional Judaism. My point is, little is forbidden to us. We work in the fields we want. We have open choices. We can choose to work part-time or full-time. We can choose to stay at home with our children, and no one will pooh-pooh us because this, too, is a valued choice.
I first came into contact with traditional Judaism while working at the St. Louis Zoo as senior keeper of the Aquatic House. My brother introduced me to a college friend of his who'd just spent six months in a Jewish beginners program in Israel. Nice guy. We got religious and we got married.
Actually, my return to Judaism took longer than that. My boyfriend wasn't doing anything Jewish when we met, but he talked about it. And kept on talking about it. I found it somewhat interesting but decided that it could never be relevant to me. Four months after we met, I moved to Colorado to start veterinary school. Three months after that we became engaged. Since my fiancé was determined to do this Judaism thing, we agreed to explore it in Israel before the wedding, and I agreed to keep an aborted form of Shabbat for the school year. That meant no schoolwork on Saturdays and no telephone. Frankly, Shabbat saved my sanity that first grueling vet year.
Soon I realized -- with Judaism increasingly, surprisingly relevant -- that we needed to live near a Jewish community. I arranged a transfer to Tufts Veterinary School for the following spring. We then flew to Israel to work out our various issues.
My mother, upset at my new religious bent, predicted that I was going to drop out of vet school, get married, get pregnant, and in twenty years get divorced with no way of supporting myself. The truth is, I did drop out of school and get married, and I did get pregnant right away. Mothers may always be right, but they're not always prophets: I graduated vet school, and I'm still married and still happy. And I can even support myself.
Everyone thought I was undergoing chemotherapy because of the scarf and wasn't that a shame because I was pregnant.
After our learning time in Israel, we moved to Boston and Tufts. This was my first professional outing as an Orthodox woman. I was visibly pregnant with a scarf on my head. I was nervous about how people would accept me. But since vet school was what I had wanted my entire life, I plowed ahead. For six weeks no one spoke to me. Many years later, I learned that the vet students thought I was a medical student, the medical students thought I was a vet student, and everyone thought I was undergoing chemotherapy because of the scarf and wasn't that a shame because I was pregnant. It took a while to sort things out.
What surprised me most during my five years at Tufts were the many people telling me how much they respected my melding of Jewish and professional life. Even the dean helped. When I told him, I couldn't work or take exams on Sabbath or the holidays, he typed out: "Elizabeth Kaufman will be making requests for religious reasons. Please comply with everything she asks." He handed me the paper, saying: " Don't abuse this." To reciprocate, I worked every Sunday and all Christian, Greek, and Armenian holidays. I always tried to be polite and friendly. I always tried to behave better than I would have otherwise. Because, lets face it, I looked weird: the only one in a dress on night duty during large animal rotations.
By the time I left on aliyah, after a residency at Tufts New England Wildlife Clinic, my colleagues threw me a party. They had done their research and were proud of the fact that it was a completely kosher affair. And because I ate Yodels constantly, they bought me a case for a going-away present. The truth is, Yodels were the only kosher snack in the vending machines, and I haven't eaten one since.
Time was forever tight. No time for phone calls, for correspondence, for errands. I was always racing home from classes to nurse the baby and see the husband, who did all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and childcare for five years. He insisted he wasn't a house-husband and preferred to be called a housewife. I bought him flowers on Mother's Day.
Sixteen years later I'm working at four part-time jobs in two cities. I work for the Biblical Zoo and a private clinic. I teach at the Veterinary School of Hebrew University and for Jewish outreach programs throughout the country. I've found my present colleagues responses akin to those of my student days -- people go out of their way to accommodate my religious requirements and do so happily. I try to be cheerful, professional and religiously tolerant in return.
No matter what work requires, my children come first.
But priorities remain husband and kids. I'm always home by one, when my youngest child arrives. I reschedule my workweek if there's a school party or performance. No matter what work requires, my children come first. Because without a family-first priority solidly in place we cannot expect our own lives, or our children, to be successful.
You might ask, if family is so important why should women work at all? The answer is different for everybody. For some it is an economic necessity; given a choice they would rather not work. For others, the challenges present in pursuing a professional career add a dimension that can help round us as balanced human beings. We can pursue additional interests and discover hidden potential.
The Western world defines success as being at the top of ones field, wielding power and making lots of money. In stark contrast stands the Jewish definition: To what degree have you become a developed human being? How do you treat your spouse? Neighbors? Business partners? Are you honest with yourself? Are you emulating God's attributes? Are you raising children to do the same? Because in Judaism, building caring, principled people is an equally valued career for a woman -- and a man.
This article originally appeared in the book, "Jewish Women Speak on Jewish Matters."