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Shira's Corner

Living on an Expedited Timeline: What I Learned Studying Young American Orthodox Jewish Women

By January 7, 2022January 10th, 2022No Comments

If young American women in general struggle with the idea of “leaning in” and “having it all,” consider the challenge of their Orthodox Jewish counterparts, who live on a timeline that expedites their emerging adulthood even as other young women are postponing marriage and childbearing ever later.

More than perhaps at any time in history, Orthodox Jewish women are pursuing higher education and jobs to support their families financially, while hewing to traditional ideals of motherhood, domesticity and beauty standards that can feel impossible to attain.

My new research, along with my own experience as a 20-something American Orthodox Jew, shows the challenges these women face from their own perspectives, with one foot in the rituals and traditions that give their lives purpose and another in the expectations of an evolving society.

I graduated at 17 and went to Israel for seminary. For me, the period of emerging adulthood was a pivotal moment in establishing myself as a grounded person. Those were the most confusing years of my life, with a lot of questioning, a lot of uncertainty. It was rough. I thought it was just for me, but later I realized those years are hard for many others as well. I wanted a career path where I could help normalize those feelings of being unsettled.

I chose a career path in psychotherapy in part because of how deeply I connected with the feelings of insecurity, confusion, and inadequacy so common among girls and young women at this life stage. My work in psychotherapy gave me the opportunity to help girls find their own paths, on their own schedules.

When I went on to get my PhD, my research subjects were young women in their seminary year in Israel. I think they could relate to me because I was from the same culture and also because I had experienced some of the same things they were going through. I conducted in-depth interviews with 12 young women and analyzed recurring themes from our conversations.

Some of them were coming at emerging adulthood with frustration; others with sadness. Some had both. One just broke down in tears. Others had experiences that were really empowering. I enjoyed every minute as I sat with them and watched them unpack their experiences and put the pieces of their life into place through talking and processing.

An overarching theme was this sense of living life on an expedited timeline, and confusion about what would come next,  what choices they would make, the anxiety of the unknown, and the desire to slow down.

While Orthodox Jews are not monolithic, there are sequential markers of adulthood that are typical in the culture. For example, after high school, girls typically attend a year or more of seminary, often in Israel and sometimes in the United States. Then comes the expectation of marriage through the shidduch (matchmaker) system and having children, running a household, while simultaneously pursuing higher education and culturally suitable work to support the family financially.

According to the Pew Research Center (2015) Orthodox Jews are often married before the age of 25. On average, women marry between the ages of 19-23. The young women I interviewed felt this pressure — not necessarily in a negative way — but still with the sense of the hurried timeline. Many had a strong desire to create an identity, yet the only or main vehicle to do so is through marriage, because it is such a strong marker of adulthood. One told me: 

There is more preparation in emotion, marriage, and raising children in the Jewish world and an emphasis on these things so there’s an accelerated development in those areas; therefore, people can do things earlier (like career, marriage, and family) because they have been prepared for it heavily.

Being married kind of guarantees you a certificate into adulthood regardless of your age, and what your character is and what your actual status is in life. In society you’re viewed more as an adult if you’re married. But I don’t think it’s instantaneous, the way society sees it. I don’t think it’s an overnight change, marriage does change a person, but I just think it would take a little more time, it’s not as automatic 

While these women recognized their young age, they felt their community had an emphasis on these things and an expectation of readiness.  It was also clear from the interviews that young women in the Orthodox Jewish community feel pressure as they enter adulthood to look and present themselves in a certain way, such as covering their hair with a headscarf or wig (sheitel) once they marry. Image is vital and a hyperfocus of this time period; “You are what you look like,” I heard again and again These women feel a tremendous amount of pressure to portray an image of perfection, and they feel their appearance influences their future.. One said:

There are expectations of how married women look externally, and what that represents, and there’s definitely expectations of having children. Even the way a person is supposed to look and how a person is supposed to dress is a huge factor as well. 

Another woman put it like this: 

We are artificially accelerating. In our minds and psyche and character, we are still transitioning, but the community already views us as adults. We try to complete everything; college, marriage, parenting, everything when we’re still very young. If we look at someone who’s 23, and they seem to be already all settled in their adult life, they’re still really in the same place as a 23-year-old in the non-Jewish community or the secular Jewish community, but they have very different expectations. Orthodox Jewish societal expectations are so strong, and people want to conform to them. For the most part, everyone just does what’s expected of them and they’re all right. But sometimes that’s just not the case.

So, what can be done by the community and as individuals to address this area of emerging adulthood, the expedited timeline, and the impact that has on young women? How can the community help its girls address these pressures in positive ways, to process their feelings, slow down, and build the strong foundation they will need in their futures? Did I find answers in this research or at least questions that can be considered when looking at this life stage for all young women? 

There are no one-size-fits-all answers. Yet I heard, and have personally experienced, some themes that may shed light. In my practice I see clients who are Orthodox, clients who are not Jewish at all. I think some young women’s anxieties have been amplified because of the Covid pandemic, with the isolation of working from home and not having the same personal connections as they did before. The pressures of social media and those images of perfection make the world more and more confusing for girls in their emerging adulthood.

One step we can take as members of our communities is identifying the problem, acknowledging it, naming it, saying, “We need to do something about this; how can we help our girls better adjust to this life stage?”

My ideal would be to create process groups where girls could talk about these things, so at least they have each other. Down the line we can come up with a curriculum, a pathway to how we can help girls with these issues. We need to say the unspoken. It has to start somewhere. If we address this now, young women will be able to set that self-determination for their lives. If you set them up with a good foundation, hopefully we can save them from entering into bad marriages, having parenting problems, or turning to self-harm behaviors like addiction or eating disorders. 

I asked the women in my research what they would tell other girls on the path to becoming adults, and I thought about that question myself.

I heard them say they wish they had somebody who came to them and said, “You’ll be OK. It’s hard, but you’ll get through it. I got through it. You’ll be OK.”

I believe there are many ways of being OK. I share with my clients my own perspective: That I wish I’d known things take time.Life is an organic process. You don’t have to make it go quicker. You can be in the present and enjoy what’s happening now. And when you get to the other side, with those who are already adults, you see that not everybody knows what they’re doing. They don’t all have their life together. 

I don’t have all the answers, but I know that the first step in getting a solution is identifying the problem. All I know is that I’m noticing something. And I urge everyone to listen to the girls and young women in their lives, to help them find their paths, to embrace them as they are. 

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