I was tutoring a group of freshman girls at a Modern Orthodox Jewish high school last year when we ventured into a conversation about my upcoming move to Manhattan. “I can’t wait to move to the city when I’m married,” one of them retorted. Granted, at that age my thoughts must have resembled that of hers more than I’d like to admit. Still, she was not a girl after my own heart if she thought that life starts once you get married, or that moving out only happens once you’re coupled up.
I wanted to tell her that, but I didn’t want to deflate the proverbial helium balloon nestled neatly in her childlike mind. I didn’t want to tell her that for as long as I could remember, I had so many qualms with the way our religious denomination and heritage *mostly* dictates who we date, where we live, where we go to college, and so many other life altering decisions. I never understood why it seemed Ashkenazi women were encouraged to go away for college or to seminary in Israel for a year — as if it was their right of passage — while most women in my Sephardic heritage were not.
Most girls from my Sephardic community in Brooklyn attend a college close to home; it’s a rarity if they dorm or leave the state. State colleges are stereotyped so much that when I tell people I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology they call my choice of schooling “basic,” with the assumption that every girl who attended doesn’t do anything with their degree because women get married shortly before or after graduating in their early 20s.
Going away for college was never something I dreamed of; I liked coming home to cooked meals, clean laundry, and a hug from my mom at the end of a stressful day. I often wondered though if the reason I didn’t want to move away for four years was because I was conditioned to feel that was never a realistic pursuit. It’s like telling girls from a young age, whether overtly or not, that the only occupation they could pursue is one that can accommodate their future family, so in turn they strive to marry CEOs in lieu of becoming one themselves.
Even though I traded the opportunity of living in a college dorm for my childhood room, I was set on going to Israel for the year with the rest of my friends after graduating high school. But my father didn’t let me go, and it was like the 11th plague had hit my household. I did what any good Jewish girl would do by completely and utterly rebelling, just like the Maccabees did way before my time. At 19, I went to Israel for a few weeks, became super frum (we’re talking skirts and no deodorant on Shabbat frum), met an equally frum 28-year-old Baal Tshuvah (someone who wasn’t raised religious but becomes so later in life) and started dating him back in New York.
My parents were besides themselves. Not only was he not from our community; he was from a different state with an unheard of last name and they were convinced he wasn’t even Jewish (they’ve come a long way since then). To make a long story short, we broke up not because my parents forced me to, but because I ultimately realized we weren’t right for each other. I traveled to the Holy Land two more times that same year — even coming back once with a nose stud just to see my parents’ reaction when they picked me up from the airport.
A therapist pointed out that I was using traveling as an escape of sorts, and she was right. I didn’t just want to go abroad, I needed to go abroad as if my sanity depended on it. Moving the needle in a more progressive direction, however I could, made me feel closer to finding myself and finding my tribe. What I realized was that I didn’t have to travel halfway across the world to find like-minded people; I could find people in my community who understood me and my values. They, too, needed to ask questions like: Why is it socially acceptable for Sephardic men to move to the city before they’re married, when it’s still generally taboo for women? Why is it that when a woman gets married at 28 she’s considered old, but men are still in their prime?
Ever since I graduated college, I was determined to leave my house in Brooklyn for Manhattan. But with my job situation at hand, it was merely a far away fantasy. When things started falling into place over a year later, my friend texted me at a rather opportune time that she’d be moving out of her current space. I signed a lease before I even saw the apartment or met my roommates. And I’ve never looked back since.
Since I moved to Manhattan, I’ve had countless people ask me how my parents allowed me to move out. Granted, some of these commentators are part of an older generation, like my great-aunt, who stopped me in the nail salon and before uttering a hello, asked, “How could you move out? Are you crazy?” as if I was committing a sin. Knowing that it’s not common for a Sephardic woman to move out before marriage, one Ashkenazi man outright asked me: “How did your parents let you?” And I think it’s sad that I have to represent my people by defensively saying: Because I have a job. Because I’m 23. Because I’m not on their ball and chain.
Truth be told, I think moving out before I’m married will actually make me a better wife when the day comes. As someone who couldn’t cook, do laundry, or pay bills until I was forced to on my own, I can’t imagine going from my parents’ house to a marital house without having lived on my own, whether that be for a month or a year. It’s given me a better sense of independence. If anything, moving out has given me more occasions to socialize and meet new people.
I went to a rabbi’s class years ago, where he waxed poetic about the disadvantage of women studying abroad before marriage. And I quote: “If girls continue to study abroad the way that they do now, will there be anywhere else to go with their husbands?” I wanted to scream back, “There are 195 countries in the world, Rabbi! Surely a married women will find a place to travel with her husband that she hasn’t seen yet. And besides, men are travelling for work before they’re married. Why aren’t you asking where they will go with their wives once they’re married?” But I kept silent, because I generally don’t scream out outlandish proclamations in the middle of a rabbi’s sermon.
There’s a silver lining in all of this, though. After moving out I started a Whatsapp chat for “City Jews” that now boasts a little over 50 people. Last week someone from our group organized a rabbi class that consisted of mostly Sephardic Jews. He opened his lecture by saying, “People think that if you move to the city, you’re running away from religion. But that’s far from the case.”
It’s right then and there that I realized moving to Manhattan wasn’t another one of my ploys to escape reality. Manhattan hasn’t affected my Judaism or level of observance. Instead, it’s given me a better sense of what kind of Jew I want to be, what kind of wife I want to be, and what kind of mother I want to be — one day. Because if I had a daughter who lived under the pretenses that life begins when you’re married, I may have to put that nose ring back in and tell her the tale of a young girl who did what she wanted because she could.