My Daughter Takes Gymnastics in an Orthodox Jewish Gym -- and Men Can't Come to Her Spring Showcase
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Since last fall, Heloise has been taking gymnastics. My daughter did not particularly want to take gymnastics, but by August of last year, was desperate for some kind of organized physical activity. With no leagues available in either soccer or volleyball, we hunted for something that was open – and found a little gym here in the Pico-Robertson that was defiantly holding group classes through the lockdowns. Heloise has gotten hooked, and has found she’s good at gymnastics, despite our worries that her height (she is 5’6” at age 12, with no signs of slowing down) might be an obstacle.
There will be a “spring showcase” next month to display all that she and her fellow tumblers have accomplished. Eira can go, David can go, Victoria can go – but I cannot. It has nothing to do with my schedule, either. About three-quarters of the girls who attend this gym come from the Orthodox Jewish families who constitute the majority of the neighborhood, and modesty rules prevent these girls from performing for men over 13. (Boys below bar mitzvah age are free to attend.)
Heloise already knows how to live in multiple worlds. When she works out with her mother at the park, she wears a sports bra and leggings. When she works out at the Orthodox gym, she wears a long-sleeved t-shirt that comes down almost to her knees; the other girls have shown her how to move deftly on floor and apparatuses without getting caught up in the excess fabric. We have raised her to be adaptable to varying expectations of propriety. Just as it’s good to be flexible when tumbling, it’s good to be flexible when moving between secular and religious society. Everything has its time and place.
My girl was worried I’d be disappointed that I can’t come to the spring showcase. I told her that I was immensely grateful that this gym had been open and available through the hardest times of the past year, and it would be churlish to criticize the values of its teachers and the majority of students.
Heloise has spent this past year at a public middle school. Though a few of her friends there are Jewish, none are Orthodox. When she told one of her secular friends about the modesty rules at the gym, this friend was outraged. “Some people are very into social justice, but they have a hard time actually accepting anyone who is different from them,” observed Miss Mouse. “I think it’s okay for different people to have different standards for what’s right. I’m okay dressing differently in different places.”
That declaration earned the firstborn a high five from a beaming father – and a reminder that it can sometimes be difficult and exhausting to do the necessary, sacred work of being at home in multiple, often radically conflicting spaces.
My children are multi-racial. The traditions that animate their lives are drawn from the WASP upper-middle class and from Afro-Colombian folk customs. They can cumbia and they can waltz, and because we have raised them as Jews, they can daven (pray) with the best of them. This isn’t affectation – their very genes, as reported by 23andMe, are a glorious mix of the Northern European, Ashkenazi Jewish, West African, and indigenous Colombian. We could have erased any one of those legacies, but we’ve chosen to honor as many as we can. And where there are contradictions or conflicts, their mother and I have always emphasized that truths are better understood as plural rather than singular.
There is beauty and power in the values by which her ultra-Orthodox friends at the gym live out their lives. There is beauty and power in the values that animate her secular, liberal friends with their earnest, activist parents. There is beauty and power in the values of my WASPy grandmother, and there is beauty and power in the folk magic that my children’s abuela brought with her from her little Colombian village. There is special glory in being able to be at home in all these worlds, and many other milieux besides.
Next summer, I may be sitting in the sand, watching my daughter play a beach volleyball match in her bikini. This summer, I won’t be allowed to see her end-of-the-year gymnastics showcase, and any disappointment I feel is subsumed into a deep respect for the reasons why.
I couldn’t be prouder of a daughter who can move between those gloriously distinct, equally sublime domains, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be raising children in a city where so many wildly different moral universes exist side by side.
The song of the day comes from Gillian Welch, a Santa Monica gal who sings red dirt country better than anyone. Here, she and her partner David Rawlings reinterpret a classic Robert Earl Keen song; it’s a good, albeit bleak, anthem for those of us whose brains work a bit different from those of most folks.
Got clothes in my closet, new shoes to wear
Got all that I wanted, more than my share
The man who loves me is more than a dream
So why am I feeling so lowdown and mean
I gave up on smoking, two years ago
And I ain't been drinking for a month now or so
I tell everybody, nothing to hide
While I keep the Devil locked deep down inside
But tonight I'll be out there running around
Tonight by the light of the moon on the ground
Tonight while the neighbors are sleeping so sound
Tonight I’ll slip off and I’ll go on downtown.