Deenie’s Story: Two Worlds, Full Life
What first drew me to Deenie’s story, was the fact that she mentioned that she was the daughter of a Rabbi and that she wanted to share how she understood that communal role, and how it interacted with her dating experience. As a child, my parents were also in the rabbinate as Rabbi and Rebbetzin, of several shuls, and I am particularly curious about the role of the “PK”- or as we say, “Preacher’s Kid.” By the time I became a teenager, my father left the pulpit, and so the pressures and eyes that were always watching me as a child ceased by the time I grew up. Obviously, I am particularly fascinated by what it would have been like to grow to be an adult in the communal spotlight, and so I was eager to hear Deenie’s perspective.
“I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I am number three of six siblings. My father is a rabbi of a shul, which makes for an interesting childhood. In an out of town community especially, your whole life in public. We were different than everyone, and that was ok. We were expected to be more religious, or act a certain way. Growing up in the public light you get used to people looking at you and your life all the time. Some people resent it, but I think my parents did a great job at both giving us the attention we needed and teaching us the importance of community and communal roles. I was used to having a public life, and a private life- though for us, the unobserved part was very small.”
Deenie graduated from high school at 15 and went to Israel for her gap year. “I figured I would never move back to Pittsburgh. I thought I had grown out of it, and I would go off on my grand adventures- be independent.” She went to YU for college and stayed for a year after college in NY, and ended up back in Pittsburgh for med school. The stars aligned that it was the best school, deal, and opportunity- so she moved back home. “No income in medical school- home seemed like a good idea.”
Already in college, half of her friends had already been dating and gotten married – but because Deenie was much younger than her peers, she never felt rushed or behind. Moving back home was a challenging adjustment. “When I moved back home, though, I felt like I was taking a step back in independence and that irked me. Already the fact that I was single made people feel that I was less of an adult. Compared to my siblings – a brother right above me who got married a week after we graduated from college (at the same time), and my younger sister who got married the week I started medical school – It frustrated me that people looked at them more like adults, but treated me like I was still in this limbo phase.”
Many also criticized her choice to move out of New York. “I was never enamored with New York anyway, it was so fun for college but the scene didn’t feel very much like me long-term. Moving out gave me a lot of time for finding myself- for the first time I felt that I had to figure out what made me tick, to figure out what would make me happy, independent of the social scenes. So I guess it was a new kind of independence, after all, just one I didn’t immediately appreciate.”
When Deenie moved back to Pittsburgh she was also inadvertently placed back into that communal role of “Rabbi’s daughter.” “I felt I needed to live up to that in my actions. Not to be fake, or because anyone was forcing me, but because I was raised respecting that role and communal responsibility.”
This time as an adult, the experience was different. “This was the first time in my life I wasn’t just the Rabbi’s daughter (or granddaughter)- I had my own sphere. At PittMed I was one of three Orthodox Jews in the school – I had two lives and I loved it. It wasn’t that I was hiding one life from the other, nor was I two different people. It was just nice to be myself not in the context of having to live up the expectations or confines of my family and communal responsibilities; to just be anonymous for once and see how that affected me.” Being in this new environment gave her the space to discover that the values that were given to her and expected of her, were truly things that she had internalized – that were genuinely her own views and perspectives. “I got to know who I was as a person- in any setting- and being single, it made me understand that I needed to do that in order to be myself when I would be in a relationship with someone else.”
She found some disturbing misconceptions of herself were being assumed in the communal sphere. “The fact that I was the older single sister and I was in medical school – there were some people who just assumed that my religiosity had ‘dropped.’ Maybe it’s true for some, but it’s definitely not true for all. Because I had this other life, in a school without a large Jewish presence, I think there was this perception of ‘What is she possibly doing?’ People would come up to me and say, ‘Oh you’re not dating right now because you are too busy and you’re focusing on your career.’ It always made me feel frustrated – I couldn’t understand how people thought they knew more about my life than I did. They would say things like they were fact and I would wonder why they would tell me instead of asking me. Why were these things mutually exclusive? Why is the fact that I’m going to be a doctor mean that I can’t want to be dating and be married and have a family life, too?”
Deenie boiled it down to this communal bias for women, “Why is ‘career’ a dirty word?”
She went on to explain, “If you are academically inclined in the frum world, and you have a desire to do something that might take up significant time for schooling or a job, then automatically you have this career mind and you won’t fit into the expected traditional family mold. The fact that my career doesn’t fit the pattern of what is expected seems to somehow carry this message that I “must not be as religious.” As religious as what? My sister? My mom? My friend who is a high school teacher? Myself at age 20? Why do we feel the need to compare? I am the same person I was, merely piling on more layers as I gain more experiences, and if you’re confused, just look in the mirror because it’s happening to you, too. Why can’t we just figure out that people don’t fit into molds? We’re all complicated. I’m becoming a doctor because it’s what I personally need to do, and what I love. I’ll be a better person, daughter, friend, wife and mother because I will be doing what I enjoy. My family will be happier, I will be happier – it will be the best version of myself. This is the way I need to leave my mark on the world.”
She also expressed her frustrations on the misconceptions about her priorities. “I’ve gone very long periods of time, where people don’t set me up. I’ve been told through the grapevine, that the reason is that people think I’m too busy, or that I’m not dating. They don’t call me and ask me, they just assume. Maybe I’m busy, but everyone is busy. If there is something or someone who is important to you, you make time; it might just take a little bit of creativity and flexibility.”
Then she mentioned something that I had never thought about before, but knew she was correct in her assessment. “I was in Pittsburgh so I wasn’t really meeting anyone on my own, and I didn’t have time to travel. Maybe people genuinely didn’t have anyone for me. I’ve known people who have said, ‘I don’t know any guys who would want to date someone who is a doctor.’ Which is a problem too. A lot of the pressure is put on women to compromise – relocate, pause school, or switch schools or jobs, when they are in relationships. So guys don’t realize that it’s not ok to just assume that she will accommodate your life. It needs to be a conversation. It was baffling to people, I was asked many times both during medical school and residency, ‘Oh but you could transfer, right?’ and I said, ‘No, I can’t transfer. This is not something I can do.’ Why do I always need to be the one who needs to move?”
Deenie summed up the problem in general, “It’s hard to set people up in general. It’s especially hard to set up people long distance. It was frustrating, and a little depressing. I don’t blame anyone – I don’t have control over this process, and I think that most people don’t have a good sense of how to deal with it either.”
People have criticized her for “not putting in enough effort”. “People have said to me, ‘Dating is a full time job.’ Yes, you have to put effort into everything, but I don’t ascribe to that thought. I’m out there and living my life, I tell people I’m single, I go out. I tell people that I am busy and working, and they get discouraged. I’ve been told to not date right and wait till I’m ‘less busy.’ Therefore making it easier for everyone involved. Thing is, I don’t think I will ever actually be less busy. If it’s not one thing, it will be the next one.
But I think, why would you wait for your life to start? Just live it.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.