In Parts 1 & 2, I plan a year abroad in the UK (which doesn’t end up working out), and I speak to a rabbi in Neve about my misgivings and doubts. He advises me to contact Aviva Zornberg, who has a PhD in literature from Cambridge and has written books that weave together Torah, literature, and psychology.
I paid for a night’s use of Neve’s computer lab and internet, and I contacted Aviva Zornberg via email and arranged to go to her home in Old Katamon.
The bus ride to Old Katamon felt surreal. The other girls in the Post-Shalhevet program were constantly arranging group trips on our day off and our half-day. But I didn’t tell anyone about this trip. No one knew where I was going, and I felt equal parts apprehension and anticipation about what might happen.
Her husband opened the door, invited me in, offered me a glass of water. I perched on the edge of the couch and left the glass of water on the table.
He was wearing shorts. It was Israel during the summer, after all. But I had never seen a rabbi wearing shorts. Then again, I reflected, I don’t know if he’s a rabbi. His wife is a rebetzin, but that doesn’t mean… I was getting confused.
But then the “rebetzin” came in and told me to call her Mrs. Zornberg.
I explained to her my misgivings about studying literature – I really really want to, but I’m not sure it’s what I should be doing.
“Why wouldn’t it be what you should be doing?”
“Well, I mean – it has no clear application to Jewish life. And it’s not like a degree in special education or in speech therapy – the things my father wanted me to do – because those are just jobs. You need training and a degree to get them, but it’s different than literature, because – well, a literature program makes you think, and it makes you think about things that aren’t totally okay according to Torah… Even now, when I was in college, not a PhD program, it was like I was shuttling between two worlds. And my mother keeps saying that I’m staying more and more in the ‘other’ world and leaving the Jewish world behind… I just don’t understand why Hashem would make me so interested in something that’s so wrong!”
“First of all, you need to decide what you think about this, not what your parents think about this,” she said. “Second, who says that they’re two separate worlds? Who says it’s wrong? You’re right – Hashem made you interested in this. Hashem gave you the intellectual abilities and the passion for pursuing this. So you figure out how it connects to Yiddishkeit. Nothing in this world is completely separate from Torah and Judaism.”
I told her then what Rabbi Kass had said – make sure that what I’m studying isn’t against Torah. When Rabbi Kass said this to me, I responded as if I thought he meant Christianity. I thought he really meant queer studies, but I was afraid to even let on that I knew about queer studies.
Mrs. Zornberg waved a hand. “There is nothing you can study that would be against Torah. You just have to find the connection and figure out how it fits into Judaism, that’s all.”
I finally let out the breath I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding, settled back on the couch, and took a sip of water.
“Let me tell you something else you need to keep in mind about graduate study,” Mrs. Zornberg said. “You’ll be in a program of other people who are interested in the same things you are. You’ll be working closely with your colleagues. And you’re an attractive girl – people are bound to notice that, and will want to date you. You might even feel close to them. You have to remember to keep boundaries in place, and not let anything happen.”
That made sense to me at the time. It was also the first time anyone had called me attractive and hadn’t told me to cover up or wear less makeup or put up my hair.
It also severely affected how I interpreted any male colleague’s interest in me for a long while.
We chatted for a bit longer, and then I caught the bus back to Har Nof.
On the ride back, I pulled out my pad of yellow Post-It notes and scribbled down keywords to remind myself of the many twists and turns of the conversation. I kept that yellow Post-It in my wallet for over a year.