The smell of the sheets, freshly laundered and crisp, reminded me of when my babies were born. The sterile hospital, the smell of the soap, the notion that I would be taken care of for at least 24 hours and I would not have to take care of anyone else.

Many people are put-off by the scents in a hospital but not me. Perhaps because I have spent my life developing independence and nurturing others, it is symbolic to me of a time off, when someone would at last take care of me.

In the last months of my marriage, my recurring argument was that my husband had nothing nurturing to offer me. “At least, if you aren’t going to support me financially, can’t you in some way take care of me?” I pleaded with him.

But I appear too independent, it seems, to inspire that emotion. At least in him.

Last week, on a field trip with my eldest, another mother told me a horrifying story. As is the trend, her older son wore his hair long-ish – not heavy-metal-rock-star long but skateboard-fan style. A principal at our children’s school approached the mother to complain.

“Your son’s hair is too long,” he said. “He must cut it. It’s not appropriate for our school.”

Nowhere in the dress code is there mention of a boy’s hair length. There is the notion in Torah-Judaism that a Jew represents God in his or her appearance and so it’s a good idea to be put-together and clean. Perhaps it is that rabbi’s opinion that for a boy, this includes short hair.

The mother smiled at the rabbi and politely said, “It doesn’t bother me. He likes to wear his hair that way. It’s fine with me if he keeps it.”

I’m sure it was not the answer the rabbi wanted, but what he did next is still inexcusable.

The next day, the rabbi went to the boy. “Your hair is too long,” he said. “You are not representing this school well with the way you look. You must cut it.”

Shamed and embarrassed, the boy told his mother when she picked him up after school that it was imperative to cut his hair. Nothing she said could change his mind.

In a community, are we supposed to negate the self for the collective? I do not believe so. We have an obligation to the whole, but an equal obligation to the self, to meld the interests of the two.

When I wore only skirts and covered my hair with hats, I became depressed. I did not recognize myself. I felt cut off from my family. But it was what the rabbis around me believed I should do.

Only when I took off the hat and pulled on a pair of pants on a camping trip with my children did I feel the wind in the trees and hear the call of the birds. Isn’t that God’s world, too? Dare I say even moreso than our manmade structures and busy highways?

Hospitals and hotels, that smell of fresh sheets I can sink into, when I will have a brief respite from obligation. Religion should be nurturing, not punishing. Like a good book you can’t put down, it should be a journey whose pages you turn to see what comes next.


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