By Sam and Shira Glaser
At the risk of sounding sexist (too late!,) there are certain rituals in Judaism that are considered the territory of women. Rather than pontificating from this man’s point of view, I thought I would interview my wife Shira to obtain her enlightened perspective. Shira and I took the journey of mitzvah observance together beginning in 1991. She runs a joyful, well-managed kosher household and is adored by her grateful husband and three kids. Shira is whip-smart, high functioning, athletic, maternal and giving. She is the type of generous guest who will bring half the meal and won’t leave until she cleans up your whole kitchen. She is a reliable resource for countless friends in need and is a pillar of strength for all who are lucky enough to know her. I should add that she has an MBA, spent years in finance and marketing for major corporations and makes incredible humus. Who better to interview on the subject than my overachieving wife?
Shira, darling, can you describe your weekly Shabbat candlelighting ritual?
OK. The panic and rush of Friday comes to a shrieking halt. I set up five candles (two plus one for each of my three kids) on the silver candlesticks that I received for our wedding. I light, cover my eyes, sing the blessing and then daven (pray.) Shabbas candlelighting is a special time of focus for me. First I take time to recognize God as my creator and provider, then I request the things I need and hope for. I then pray for you, for our kids one by one, for our extended family, friends and the Jewish People. I take an extra moment to cover specific family and friends that need refuah (healing,) parnasa (income) or a shiddach (spouse.)
I enter a totally new space after I light. All distractions are gone. It’s very freeing. No matter how much is going on, I can’t worry about whatever didn’t get done. It’s nice to just let it go. I try to light at the official eighteen-minute mark so that I’m taking on Shabbas with the whole community. Sometimes I’m not quite ready so I keep in mind that I’m not taking on the laws of Shabbat for another few minutes while I finish all the details.
It takes discipline to be present for candlelighting. Some of the time, especially when we have a big table, I’m panicked. Over the years the Shabbas hustle (a tense time in the hour before Shabbas comes in) has become more manageable. I pace myself and I feel that it’s disrespectful to Shabbas to rush it. Of course there are unforeseen circumstances so it’s not always so smooth. The yetzer harah (inclination to blow it) is very powerful before Shabbas…we all have be careful to not lose our cool.
Candlelighting is one of my main prayer moments of my week. The fact is that I’m praying most of the day. One thing that makes
candlelighting so sweet is that since her Bat Mitzvah I share it with Sarah (our fifteen-year-old daughter.) She lights two candles of her own and we sing the bracha together using the Glaser family melody written by Max Helfman
at Brandeis Camp. When Bubbie (Sam’s mom) and any extended family members are lighting with us, it’s a really amazing scene. Bubbie lights over twenty-five candles…for her sixteen grandkids, all her kids and siblings. Quite a sight!
Why do you suppose candlelighting is considered a woman’s mitzvah?
Well, our tradition tells us that Sarah the matriarch was the first to light candles and that her candles stayed lit miraculously the whole week. They brought peace into her tent with Avraham and weren’t extinguished until she died. Then when Rivkah took on the custom and the miracles reoccurred, it was clear that she was Sarah’s righteous successor. I guess that women bring light into the household. It’s the woman’s domain. Especially the kitchen! I’m pretty traditional in that I like to have my hands in every aspect of the house. I maintain order, keep things stocked, cook and do the laundry
Obviously the traditional roles aren’t for everybody. They work for me. I think women have a more inward focus…just look at our bodies. The way we were created is inside-oriented, more loving and nurturing. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a homebody. For example, I like doing laundry because touching your clothes lets me learn about you…what you did that day, if you worked out, what you ate. I impart love into the laundry! Having clean clothes lets you worry about other things because the fundamentals are taken care of. I think kids need a sturdy platform from which they can spring. Our kids don’t need to worry about what they are going to eat or wear, and that builds security, gives them a sense of confidence. It’s important to me that our kids can trust us to be reliable, to always provide the essentials. When they learn to be trusting of us, I think they will be able to trust others and have intimate relationships in their own lives. There are many languages of love, and cooking and cleaning are how I love you.
Speaking of cooking, doesn’t it get old always having meals ready for your hungry family?
I get pleasure when my family eats with gusto. I really strive to make things that everyone likes, the common denominator dishes. There’s something very intimate about feeding your family. People feel love towards the one feeding them. It’s an intimate bond our kids have had with me since they were babies. It’s connective…that’s just my gut feeling. Also, I’m using recipes that have been passed down from grandmothers. The food I make ties us all moms together…it’s so deep…beyond lifetimes! If we relied on take out food I feel that something maternal and sentimental would be missing. And if we relied on you to cook, we would all starve!
Thanks. That brings us to another famous woman’s mitzvah, baking challah. Any thoughts?
I can’t seem to get organized enough to make it and I’ve had too many disasters in the past. Making challah makes me feel A.D.D….I just can’t get it right. We’re lucky in that we live in a place where there are lots of bakeries that make delicious challot. Someday I hope to make it myself.
In the challah baking workshops that I’ve attended I’ve learned that it’s a special, spiritual food. It’s one that requires significant human interaction in partnership with God. Apples, bananas, veggies, meat…those things don’t require so much partnership. But going from seed to plant to harvest to threshing to grinding to kneading and baking…that’s an awesome symbol of human effort combined with God’s gifts. In the desert our people were dependent on Manna from heaven. The motzi blessing thanks God for bread from the ground. When they got to Israel it amazed the Israelites that bread didn’t just fall from the heavens but instead came from the ground…wow! Challah teaches that all our achievement is never really our own; that everything happens with only God’s help.
Every ingredient of challah is symbolic. The oil is the medium for anointing and when adding the oil you can feel like you are anointing every member of your family like royalty. Let the sugar overflow so the goodness and sweetness overflows for the family. I’m sparing with the salt since it represents judgment. Eggs represent the human lifecycle and the preciousness of time. When we go to a friend’s home where the challah is homemade I can sense all the blessing that these women have invested. I watch you guys in consuming in glutenous ecstasy. Without a doubt our favorite is bubbie’s onion challah. The taste is indescribable.
How do you avoid feeling burdened by all the cooking and entertaining for Shabbat and holidays?
Some of the women in our community set the bar so high that even my best effort is going to fail in comparison. I realized that I have to make Shabbat MY best, not THEIR best. If you’re Martha Stewart, then great, go for it. It’s important not to get trapped into thinking that the festive meals have be high level or not at all. My Shabbas and Yom Tov (holiday) meals are my expression, my creativity. I like things clean and simple, so I keep things simple. Light and healthy…that’s my style. We don’t stuff ourselves or eat fried and processed food during the week, so we’re not going to do it on Shabbat.
My meals usually have sumptuous, fresh appetizers and great, homemade desserts. I like to start and end with a bang. One thing that I’m obsessed about is making desert. I don’t bake challah but I make everything else. (One time when we were all invited to a neighbor’s home for lunch my daughter asked, “Excuse me, but do you have anything homemade?” Yes, our kids are spoiled!)
Do you feel compelled to have guests most of the time?
We do our best outreach at our table. You run the proceedings, keeping everyone engaged in conversation, words of Torah and music. I keep the food and drink flowing. Our tables have become so popular that they are the places that people want to send first timers or bring their parents when they come to town. I love sharing our family’s unique gifts. I think we make Judaism look good and we give singles something to emulate in their future households. Yes, I get burned out. Everybody does. I have to pace myself. Sometimes it’s just our family and it’s more casual. Still, Shabbas is a big step up from weekdays. We always eat in the dining room, have multiple courses, use tablecloths, fresh flowers and use the fancy glassware.
Our kids have grown up seeing that having guests is an important mitzvah. I know they will want this feeling for themselves. I do a lot of meals for community members who are sick or have just given birth. I always get you and the kids to help in the preparation or delivery so that they share the mitzvah and have a learning experience. One thing I realized with our kids is they always must be the focus at meals. Since our tables are mostly outreach oriented it’s tempting to put the kids at the “kids table” and concentrate on the guests. Whenever possible I include them in the proceedings, sitting them next to you, making them part of the adult conversation. They love telling our guests jokes and often initiate the games we play and the songs we sing. This way they have grown up loving having guests and they don’t feel excluded when others are invited. And for our guests who don’t typically have kids around, they relish in joining the mischief of “Anger Bottle” and “Ghost in the Graveyard” games (email Sam for the rules!)
Nowadays I’m very aware of the brevity of the childrearing years. With one kid out of the house and another about to graduate, I’m a bit selfish with sharing them. Shabbas is the time when they are undistracted by media and cell phones…we have them to ourselves and they really open up and share with us. Therefore I’m not so compelled to be entertaining as much. This is truly a precious time.
Since you keep track of the finances in our family that puts you are in charge of tzedakah (charity), making sure we always give at least ten percent. Any comments on this mitzvah?
Tzedakah is not just about giving money. It’s about giving time and attention to the needy. Tzedakah is justice. God gives us our income as a test to see what we’re going to do with it. I want to live in a world where people look out for one another. So I start with me.
There are so many charities competing for our attention. I think of them as balls flying through the air that need catching. You can’t juggle all of them and must remember that only certain ones have your name on them. Catch that ball and make it yours. Make it personal and meaningful. We have friends and relatives that have burned out on tzedakah. I’ve heard it said, “If yes to them means no to you, then the answer is no.” Part of the giving process is knowing when to say no and I know you have a hard time saying no to anyone. As it stands we pay dues to four synagogues and by now we should be partial owners of two Jewish Day Schools. By the way, there is also a law that states one shouldn’t give more than 20%. Halacha recognizes that you want the giver to retain the ability to give in the future.
For me the big priority is Jewish day
school education. As we are witnessing in our rapidly assimilating country, there is no Jewish continuity without it. This is my mission: to have substantial subsidies available for any parent in the Diaspora that wants to give their kids a day school education. Middle Class families should not have to endure dire economic sacrifices to raise Jewish kids. That said, I think it’s one of the most worthy sacrifices.
Can you comment on using the mikvah and what it has done for our relationship?
For me, the experience has evolved. At first I was nervous and self-conscious, worried that I’d do something wrong. Then as I grew more confident I learned to love it. I have always enjoyed the preparation. I feel like I’ve accomplished something sacred and I feel elevated when I come back. When I’m in the bath scrubbing, plucking, exfoliating, shaving, I feel just like a regal Queen Esther. Who wouldn’t want a monthly spa treatment, to spend such concentrated time on oneself?
Of course the best part of the anticipation and preparation is that it makes our relations so special. I think it’s natural to want to separate for a period of time. It’s probably harder for you than me to be apart. During those twelve days (five days of menstruation plus seven clean days) we manage to build up a sweet tension and it makes the monthly honeymoon so passionate. It makes us relish the time we are able to be together, knowing that it’s not forever. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. The more careful we are with details of taharat mishpacha (family purity) the more intense our reunion. Part of that feeling of getting back together is the satisfaction that we are doing the right thing in God’s eyes, that we are living holy lives and sanctifying the family. Hopefully it creates a holy environment for our kids…so far so good.
Using the mikvah also implies that sex is a crucial aspect of a marital relationship. Participation in a relationship means participating in sex. I believe I heard Dennis Prager say on the radio that twice a week is the bare minimum! A loving couple makes time for relations. They should never be rushed. It’s a chance to focus on each other’s needs, to light candles, relax, to fall asleep in each other’s arms. When couples lose their desire for one another I know they are in trouble. When only one member wants abstention for any given period of time it can cause feelings of abandonment. This ritual keeps the passion hot by building mutual abstention into the fabric of the relationship. It’s genius.
What are you thinking about in the mikvah?
The way it works is that after preparing at home I do the final touches at the mikvah. Then when it’s my turn I enter the soothing water and submerge completely, making sure that every strand of hair is underwater. I keep my eyes and mouth slightly open so that the water goes everywhere. If all looks good when I come up, the mikvah lady says “kosher” and hands me a washcloth to cover my hair and make the “al hatevilah” bracha (the blessing over the mikvah mitzvah.) Then I give back the washcloth and dunk two more times. My kavanah (focus) when I’m underwater is very intense: the first time I dunk I daven for specific friends that I hope will meet their besheret (soulmate.) I pray that they too will have the opportunity to use this ritual to sanctify their relationship. The next dunk I daven for all my needs and then the third time I daven for you and the kids. For the record, this is my custom. What one does and how many times they submerge could be very different based on what was taught to them during their kallah (bridal) classes or what was handed down from mother to daughter.
Going to the mikvah is such a private, personal opportunity for prayer. Friends of mine who no longer use the mikvah have empowered me to daven on behalf of people who are childless or in need of healing. Nowadays I never know if it’s my last time to the mikvah. Many of my peers have been through menopause and I know my turn is coming. That makes me appreciate the whole process even more.
I know some women think it’s sexist to be considered “niddah” or impure, but I prefer the idea that my period makes me “unavailable” for relations, not dirty or impure, God forbid. It gives us a chance to learn to function in a non-sexual manner. Taharat Mishpacha isn’t pejorative, it’s simply about appreciating the monthly gift of the ability to create new life and the conscious awareness of when that opportunity departs.
How do you feel about davening with a mechitza?
I don’t mind it. As long as it’s practical, not a huge barrier. It’s ok for us to see the men. I like those shuls that have one-way glass or fabric. The fact is that I’m in shul to daven. Not to socialize or hold your hand. That’s just a distraction. I tell women who are gabbing away that they should just come to the Kiddush. A mechitza clarifies what we are supposed to be doing…our attention shouldn’t be going horizontally, it should be going vertically!
There’s a feeling of sisterhood just having women together. It’s good to be in a “girl zone” once in a while. It’s so rare that the genders are separated in our society and there’s certainly a place for it. I just read an article that researchers have shown that guys need nights out with the guys. Certainly women create powerful camraderie when they are on their own.
Do you ever wish you could be called to the Torah for an aliyah?
I personally don’t have a desire to be called to the Torah. But I can certainly understand that there are women who would want to do that. It’s a modesty issue in traditional Judaism. We have shuls in the neighborhood with women’s services, it’s just not my thing. I do like to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah so I go to the shuls where that’s the custom. Once again, I’m a traditionalist on these women/men separation issues.
I think egalitarianism as a sacred Jewish value is a slippery slope. One compromise leads to others and eventually that movement is so far away. The fact is that women can do everything. We are the pinnacle of creation, the final being created and the most God-like in our ability to give life. If women are so involved with the prayer leadership that the men get pushed aside, it’s not a good thing. I’ve seen in many of the synagogues that I’ve visited on your concert tours that the men have opted out. It’s like they are saying, “Oh great, you women have this handled! I’ll just watch a ball game or get more work done.” Men clearly need to have their participation compulsory. To be wrapped up in leather and bound to synagogue leadership and mitzvot. Women are connected to God more naturally. Men just won’t show up unless they feel that it’s up to them to keep Judaism going. I vote that we not take their job away.
How do you feel about the emphasis of separate roles for men and women?
I believe that the genders are VERY different and efforts to blend them are foolhardy. I heard Lori Palatnik, the incredible founder of the Jewish Women’s Initiative say, “Men need to be respected and women need to be loved. I don’t know why!” In other words, there are God-given realities here that we shouldn’t mess with. Most men want to be head of the household and get respect from their wives and children. Women want to be worshipped, to be made to feel that they are their husband’s only priority. If they don’t feel like they are number one, they feel hated. If their husbands are always busy with their buddies, obsessing over their hobbies or up all night with porn, it’s sending the message “you are not enough for me.” I’m sure that our forefather Jacob loved both Leah and Rachel. But because he loved Rachel more, the Torah tells us that Leah felt hatred.
I’m comfortable with femininity and support your masculinity. I like that you take initiative in guiding our family’s destiny, plan our vacations or that you get the guys to go out on the town for your “Pico Men’s Club” outings. I’ve learned not to criticize you in front of others or to gossip about you. I like that you take a leadership role on Shabbat. I’m careful never to undermine you with our kids or say, “Who cares what dad says” when making decisions. I see friends roll their eyes when their husbands make dumb comments. It’s all about body language. I’m not perfect but I do feel you flourish when you feel respected. And you do a great job in complimenting me, expressing desire for me and making me feel loved. And you take out the trash, as long as I remind you.