The ride up to the northern Galilee offered my eyes a generous quench of color. Lush green mountains carpeted with purple sage, yellow buttercups, and even the tail end of the famous red anemones – kalaniyot – that people travel all around Israel to see this time of year, felt like the flowers were escorting me on my journey. They encouraged me with their passionate thirst for life, reminding me that all creatures can be reborn, even after what feels like a deathly cold frost or dark winter. If they can burst out from the ground with the push of a mere seedling into the new birth cycles of spring, maybe there is hope for me, too.
This is not the first time I’ve traveled far from home searching for a way to give my body and soul a healing reboot. I have, over the past 10 years, spent a month at an ashram in Rishikesh, a year studying yoga at an ashram, three weeks at a raw-food-and juicing retreat, a weekend with a Greek yoga guru, some magical time on Maui, a week at a life-coaching seminar in Northern Ireland, a year in rabbinical school, another year studying pastoral care, a memorable weekend of intensive Biodanza, and probably a few less memorable events. Maybe I’m a spiritual seeker. Or maybe I just like trying new things. Or maybe I’m searching for something that I haven’t yet found and think that spiritual-healing environments will fill the hole. Or maybe I’m plagued with a constant sense of inadequacy and that I need to fix things in myself. Or maybe I just like finding an excuse to get away from home. Or maybe, deep down, I’m just hoping that one of these places will magically help me lose weight, and then I'll be happy with everything.
I always seem to be on the lookout for spiritually pampering programs, but sometimes the travel itself is all I need. Especially after this past year, the urgency of leaving home by myself has never felt so acute. Something about the stepping out is, in itself, a crucial part of the journey.
Last week, the Israeli news site Ynet ran an article with the encouraging yet infuriating headline: “Mothers who travel by themselves.” I thought to myself (or possibly yelled at the screen), Yes some of us are eager to travel but, come on! Why is this news? When are mothers going to start being referred to as ‘people’? What other group of people is assumed to not move through the world alone? It was a reminder that as if the second a woman becomes a mother – which is also assumed by much of our cultures to be the only correct outcome for us – we stop being actual human beings with our own contours and identities, and are only interesting for our relationship to the people we are tasked with caring for indefinitely. Once we enter parenthood, it’s like we cease to exist as our own. Meanwhile, the same doesn’t happen to men who parent. Who would ever consider fathers’ solo travel to be news? Just one more double standard to add to the list – a very, very long list.
Unfortunately, if I’m going to be honest with myself, well, it is news. I know many women who rarely if ever travel on their own – and in fact the mother of one of my daughter’s friends keeps asking me to take her back to my ashram in Rishikesh. Another friend of mine started to cry when I told her that my family was making adjustments in order to accommodate my travel. “My husband would never put me first that way,” she said. I wanted to cry, too.
Even when women go out into the world, we are often still not alone. When I was in Rishikesh, a group of Canadian women who stayed at the ashram for a week asked me for some site-seeing tips. I told them about places that I had been too, and the response was shock. “You traveled by yourself? Even at night?” Yes, I did. These adult women had come halfway across the world but were still hanging on to each other for dear life. Afraid to be alone.
It is a challenge for women to be alone. We are so deeply trained not to be.
The Corona world has made this much worse for women. Not only are people not traveling around the world much, but people – especially women, especially mothers – have been less likely to get out of their house on a regular basis, and have been more likely to be tasked with 24/7 parenting. A a single mother who I love dearly recently ended up in the hospital having collapsed after a year of non-stop childcare with no help or support. She hasn’t been alone in twelve months. Another single-mother friend of mine, who is struggling financially from Corona and whose son is currently hospitalized for a chronic health issue, told me she is at the end of her rope. “I feel broken,” she said to me. Women stuck at home for such extended periods with their children – even when they have partners – are having mental, emotional, financial crises. The Washington Post reported that the pandemic will likely set women’s advancement back by a generation.
I think about all this, and about the many women I know in various states of crisis, as I head off to my next adventure. Part of me feels guilty for getting away for three weeks while so many others cannot. But I quickly let go of the guilt, an emotion that I learned a long time ago is unhelpful and even destructive. I do the spiritual thing and replace guilt with gratitude, considering myself lucky and wishing that all the women who want and need this will get it, too. Plus, I know that if I don’t get some alone time myself, I may start to lose my mind.
Of course, I realize it’s not all women. Many women travel alone regularly without any guilt, and many do not carry the kind of baggage that I do when it comes to socialization into correct femaleness. As with all the pains that I discover in the cobwebs of my soul, there is a possibility that all this is just me. This issue in particular may be related to my life trajectory. I got married at the age of 21, following many years of non-stop urging at home and in school and at every communal event, to marry “early” because that is vital for the Jewish people and also for women. In high school, we learned the famous Talmudic passage that says that a woman would “rather sleep with any body than sleep alone,” an assertation made by rabbis some 1600 years ago and reinforced by our male teacher to us, room full of impressionable girls without ever bothering to ask us whether we feel this way. It was assumed that this is true, somehow the way girls and women feel about life and ourselves. All we want is to be in relationship. We are not fully whole unless we are attached to others, or rather unless others are attached to us.
It is hard to push back against your entire culture. Especially when you’re young and impressionable. It took me years to unlearn some of this. And I’m not done.
I remember the first time I slept by myself as an adult. I was 28 years old, I had three children under the age of five, I was living in Israel, and I had a wedding to go to in New York. My best friend from college was getting married – to a man she met in the middle of undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Roberta had always sworn off marriage and children, until life threw her some major curveballs. As a result of her illness and miraculous recovery, her hair turned a bit curly, she warmed to babies, and fell in love with one of the nicest guys in the world. There was no way I was going to miss this wedding. Well, except for a few little things that were standing in my way.
For starters, I had no money for a ticket. I had recently started a part time job that paid roughly $1500 a month, barely covering child care costs. I had a small savings account in the states from some money my grandfather left me when he died, but my father who was an investment banker at the time controlled my money market account. Actually, my cousin Ronnie who worked for my father controlled the money. So I had to go through my father to get to the money to buy a ticket.
And there was no way my father was going to let me take out money to travel by myself. That just wasn’t done.
I know what you’re thinking. I was 28 years old and should have been able to make this decision by myself. But that’s not how things worked in my family. For the four daughters, no matter how old we were, all major decisions were expected to go though my father. Especially ones involving money or movement. Especially ones that may entail women/girls stepping out of our correct roles.
I came from a world in Brooklyn where girls and women were not supposed to go out at night by ourselves. When a woman was raped on the next street at 9PM one night, our dinner conversation was not about crimes against women but about what kind of women is out alone that late at night. When my father visited me in Jerusalem and discovered I was going by bus to the gym, he was horrified. Women and girls are not meant to be in the world alone. That was the message.
I couldn’t even articulate all this back then. All I knew was that going to America by myself was something beyond anything I was possibly meant to do.
So I did what any self-respecting dying-to-go-to-her-friend’s-wedding would do: I lied. First, I bypassed my father and called my cousin Ronnie and told him I needed my money for my education. I knew there was a good change he was going to report me, so I needed something foolproof. Ronnie was, as expected, hesitant to help me, even though it was the correct moral and legal thing to do, because, well, my father was his boss. But eventually he did it. I got the money for the ticket. And then, for the first time in my life I bought myself a plane ticket. Really, I had never even made a major purchase before on my own. Never. Handling money was, as I said, another one of the things that girls weren’t supposed to do on our own.
Then I told my family in New York that I was coming to visit. But I did not mention any weddings. Instead I said that my work was sending me to New York for some meetings. A ridiculous thing to say because I was just a lowly part-time research assistant. But whatever. It played.
Back then, I had just starting going to therapy, for the first time in my life, and my vehemently secular therapist, Maxine, was baffled by all this.
“Why don’t you just tell your father the truth?”
The truth? I was like, you don’t understand.
To be fair, it was a good question. But, you know, she just didn't understand.
Anyway, I went to New York, went to the wedding, danced my heart out, and had the time of my life. It was thrilling. I was unencumbered and unattached, for the first time since becoming a mother. I could feel my contours, both viscerally and figuratively. I could hear myself think – well, almost, except for all of my father’s sexist chatter that was still cluttering up my brain a bit. I was on my own for the first time since I could remember.
I went to visit my sister on Long Island and made the mistake of sharing my thoughts with her. “Traveling by yourself is utterly freeing,” I said. “I highly recommend it.”
“Oh, no, no. no, I would never travel without my husband,” she replied.
Perhaps the Ynet article was onto something. After all, I was once one of those mothers who did not travel by herself. I came from a world with that assumption. And it’s taken me my entire adult life to let go of that persona.
Even though I’ve been traveling by myself now for quite some time, I still carry around with my remnants of my father’s messages about girls. That we are weaker, lesser, and more dependent. That we need men to protect us. That no normal woman would want to be on her own.
Little things. I still ask my husband to do all the handiwork at home, to reach for high shelves, to hold me when I’m going through things.
I still question my okayness at every turn – am I doing this right, do I know what I’m saying, isn’t there someone who knows better than me.
And of course even when I travel, I still tend to worry about lots of other people. This morning, I cleaned the house before I left, including the toilets and the floors. I left emergency numbers with everyone, even though we all have phones and Whatsapps. I checked with my pregnant daughter to make sure that this was okay that I was going. When I worked in New York for a while, traveling back and forth every fortnight, I used to call home from my office, find out what was everyone was eating for dinner, place an order with the supermarket long distance, arrange carpools to basketball and bar mitzvahs, and even once called a neighbor to check in on the kids because nobody was answering the phone. (They were fine.) Even when I travel by myself, I’m not necessarily unencumbered. I still carry my peeps with me.
But I’m learning to let go. And more importantly, I’m healing.
Because growing up in the patriarchy is not just an intellectual exercise of an ideology that has entered your brain. It is a visceral experience. It is being socialized and habituated in a culture that defines you, a woman, as lesser. Less strong, less free, less able, less worthy. And undoing all that takes more than unpacking thoughts and ideas. It takes tending to the deep, psychic wounds that infect every corner of my soul.
Because in this entire process of being socialized into womanness – or in my particular case, Orthodox Jewish womanness – something deep inside of me got damaged. I missed out on a few key aspects of my own development, one of which is the experience of living on my own, working and supporting myself, and figuring out who I am in this world in a way that is unencumbered by the opinions of men or babies who need me or expect something from me. Sometimes I feel like a loaf of bread that was never allowed to rise first. Something about it will always be off.
I guess I’ve been at this job of healing the trauma of being socialized into womanness for over twenty years. That feels like a long time to be trying to make a wound better. But the process is more like a spiral than an escalator. Each time I come back to issues from a different place, a higher vantage point. I no longer hang on to the idea that women shouldn’t travel. I haven’t for a while, I’ve been to many cool places, and I strongly and frequently encourage my female friends to pick up and fly. But even as I’m released from those messages, I still face the challenge of completely detaching as I do it, of allowing myself to be in the place of freedom, of trusting my family or the world to get along without me for a while, of not feeling like I have things on my shoulders that I can’t put down. That remains tough – especially after this past year of Corona when women all around the world found ourselves sheltered and burdened and unable to leave home never mind fly. This is what it means that the pandemic sent us back a generation. Suddenly we’re reliving old notions of what it means to be a woman. I still struggle against those voices in my head, the realities of our current world.
I struggle, and then I go anyway.
That is where the healing lies. In seeing the wound, noticing where it sits, paying attention to the pain, and then living the way we want, scars and all.
I think about all this, about the tensions in my body and my life between stopping and moving, between hurting and living, between my buried self and my current self. I gather my strengths as my loving husband drives me up north to the latest chapter in my healing journey. He drives all the way to the most northern tip of the country, to a wellness retreat where I am going to spend three weeks being fully tended to. Tending to myself. Someone else is doing all the cooking, laundry, shopping, dishes, cleaning toilets, checking how school is going, and overall worrying, planning, and list-making. I’m not making any lists.
Today, my doting, compassionate, husband, who has been through a lot of shit in my journey and yet still miraculously is in love with me after 30 years, is ushering this moment for me. For that I am deeply grateful, and do not take that for granted.
I thank him, we say our goodbyes and I love yous, and then he is off. And now my story begins.
Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist anthropologist, author, educator, speaker, activist, and book publisher. Her latest book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman, is available from Lioness Books at www.lionessbooks.com/shop