In recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of books addressing all kinds of needs in our community. We have books for parents of special needs children, women who are divorced or childless, women in midlife. These books tend to combine personal stories of inspiration from famous and less famous people who articulate their emotions, normalize their feelings, and share the steps from surviving to thriving. What is different about the new anthology from Ahava Ehrenpreis for the single adult woman is that it has a substantial section that addresses halachic questions on religious obligations and practices such as Kiddush and Havdalah as well as lighting the menorah and holding a Seder. A handbook and a resource for single, divorced and widowed women, the book includes selections on guardianship, financial planning, social security and legal matters.
The author is no stranger to the reader of Jewish periodicals. Ehrenpreis, a writer for several publications, has a dry humor and uses memorable imagery that illuminate her personal essays. Neither is her personal situation a secret. She has written about the loss of her husband, the late professor, distinguished mathematician, marathon runner and international scholar Dr. Eliezer Leon Ehrenpreis, as well as other personal challenges. [She recently lost a son to coronavirus.] In On My Own … But Not Alone, she addresses her peer group and the general Jewish public with straight, unembellished talk about what it’s like to be a single in today’s family-oriented Jewish community.
Divided into sections on sensitivity—the spiritual, the emotional, the halachic and the practical— the compendium includes articles from rabbis, rebbetzins, educators, psychologists and leaders that address existential challenges confronting a woman on her own, such as: “Why me? Why isn’t Hashem listening to my prayers? Does my pain have purpose? What does Hashem want from me? How do I deal with my jealousy of other people who have what I want so badly? How much hishtadlus for shidduchim do I have to do? What is my legacy if I don’t have children?”
Each section provides Torah and psychological perspectives for differentiating between pain and suffering, choosing health and finding a reason to get up in the morning.
Acute loneliness, invisibility, lack of a definite role in a family-centric faith, socializing in a community of couples, invitations and the lack thereof are real struggles for single adult women, with and without children.
These foundational pieces are illuminated by personal narratives that are designated as “Women’s Voices.” The individual process of internalizing a specific strategy or Torah precept, each according to her personal experience, makes these essays compelling. These journeys carry the reader through each grueling step, from the rawness of grief and suffering to acceptance and growth. These pieces are an important reminder to all of us that internal spiritual work moves the needle very slowly. Blending families successfully, parenting a child with developmental disabilities, crafting a satisfying singlehood, and leading a family alone take ongoing, deliberate and painstaking effort to show results on the outside.
A woman in her sixties once showed me a poem she wrote when I came to pay her a shivah call. “Not a Widow, Not a Wife” was the title. Her poignant expression of the ambiguity of her position as an isolated caregiver with needs was unforgettable. The proliferation of women in this position, who are responsible for spouses with long-term cognitive and physical struggles, is a relatively new phenomenon. Developing support groups and encouraging self-care for these women are not the only responses. Listening to their narratives of daily life is perhaps just as important. “Come see what my life is like,” another woman invited me. She showed me into her former den where her husband was sitting in his recliner, blankly holding a Tehillim in his hand while a recording of the chapters played. “This is how he spends his sixties while his brain is long gone,” she told me. Participating in show-and-tell is sometimes what our friends find supportive. It’s not only about the crises.
Acute loneliness, invisibility, lack of a definite role in a family-centric faith, socializing in a community of couples, invitations and the lack thereof are real struggles for single adult women, with and without children. The articulated goal of the book is also to increase understanding and respect for women’s feelings and practical needs. Anticipating their dependency on others for repairs, helping with shidduch homework, providing hospitality and assisting with avos ubanim programs, for example, are all pivotal.
The book includes the thoughts of rabbinic figures familiar to the communities of the widowed and divorced, such as Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rabbi Yosef Eisen and Rabbi Henoch Plotnick, all of whom are committed to organizations such as Samchainu (supports Jewish widows); Sister to Sister (addresses the needs of divorced Jewish women) and Links (assists children who have lost a parent). Other contributors include Rebecca Feldbaum Steier, author of If There’s Anything I Can Do . . . (New York, 2003) and What Should I say, What Can I Do? How to Reach Out to Those You Love (New York, 2009), books about helping others cope with illness and loss, and Risa Rotman, author of Terror and Emunah in Har Nof (Brooklyn, New York, 2017), which details her personal story of grief and courage in the aftermath of terror. I would have liked to see more geographic diversity in the rabbinic group as well in the personal narratives. Experiences of women in smaller communities where community networks are smaller would have provided more balance to this valuable volume.
A co-founder of Rachel’s Place for runaway and homeless girls and JWOW! (Jewish Women of Wisdom) for midlifers, Rebbetzin Faigie Horowitz of Lawrence, New York, is an activist, board member of several organizations, columnist and health care professional.