Parents Speak – Shabbat and gender in my daughter’s gan

  • by: Jacob Sztokman

Jacob Sztokman, proud father of four, works as Operation Manager for IDT Global and lives in Modi’in.

One Friday morning, I had the pleasure of accompanying my four-year-old daughter, Meital, to a party in her preschool, her gan. I am often at the gan doing drop-off and pick-up – and I enjoy gan parties mostly because they give me an extra opportunity to play with my children.

The theme of this party was Shabbat. The party began with songs about Shabbat and all the boys and girls sang together. After around ten minutes of singing, the teacher invited all the girls to take their mothers and light Shabbat candles. My wife happened not to be there that morning, so my daughter naturally went straight to me and we started approaching the candles. A few mothers stared – one laughed, “Oh, Meital, you’re taking your Ima to light candles? Ha ha.” Meital looked at me and looked at the table, and decided very diplomatically that perhaps it’s better not to participate in this particular activity.

Later on, the teacher invited all the boys and their fathers to “walk to shul” – they stood up and went to the corner, where they shokeled as if in prayer. Then she told them to walk to the other table where the girls were waiting, and to make kiddush. My daughter stood up with her kiddush cup, and started to sing the kiddush in a loud voice. But she quickly saw that only boys were standing, so she sat down. Still, from her seat, she continued to sing loudly and enthusiastically.

The teacher then began to tell a story about “The Perfect Shabbat”. She began by saying that the girls and mothers spend all day cleaning and preparing for Shabbat, and then the Abba comes home from shul with his sons, and when he opens the door and sees his wife and daughters standing there, he claps with delight and says, “Thank God that the house is sparkling clean for Shabbat, that the table is set, that my wife and daughters are all dressed so beautifully, and that we can sit down now and enjoy our Shabbat meal. And may every single Shabbat from now on be just as beautiful as this one.”

This story completely dumfounded me. On Friday nights, my wife and I go to shul together, with our son and daughters. We come back and together set the table. Shabbat is lovely not because of how pretty my daughters look or because of how polished the silver is, but because the family is all together expressing care and love. However, in the gan, the entire narrative about Shabbat was swamped with unnecessary gender messages that the meaning of Shabbat – and perhaps the meaning of their religious lives in general – is dependant on fulfilling their strict gender roles. I felt during the story that while husbands and boys are supposed to be out doing the “manly stuff”, of working, praying, meeting other men and their sons, when they come home, they are waited upon by women whose job is to look pretty and keep the house looking pretty, which they have done all week. It’s assumed that all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping is done by the women. And then of course, when the men come home, they take over and are in charge of the official proceedings, doing kiddush, hallah, divrei Torah, and leading birkat hamazon. In fact, anything having to do with appearance is done by women, and anything having to do with substance and content is done by men. The message is that men are the active, public participants, and women are responsible for appearances and service.

When Meital’s party was finished, the teacher invited all the parents to go outside for refreshments, where the women were asked to help prepare the food while the sprinkling of men who were there stood around. Thus, the messages that men are served while women serve was reproduced and reinforced in real life.

How easily could it have all been different.

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