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December 21, 2020 by

7 Jewish Feminist Highlights of 2020

Let’s face it—2020 has been a clusterf**k of a year, and I can’t wait to see it recede in the distance of my rearview mirror. While most Jews have observed Passover, the High Holidays, and Chanukah virtually, the national COVID fallout from Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s is likely to be heartbreaking, even more so given that a vaccine for most of us is just months away. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor tragically reminded us that we must continue to fight to make the truth that Black Lives Matter self-evident. And among the many, many hits that democracy took this year was the ramrodding of Amy Coney Barrett into the Supreme Court seat that Ruth Bader Ginsburg honorably and notoriously held from 1993 until her death on erev Rosh Hashanah. 

Yet, even with all its tsuris [Yiddish for trouble, and not the good kind], 2020 had some bright spots for Jewish feminists. In the spirit of persistence and resistance, I offer my annual seven Jewish Feminist Highlights (seven being the number associated with creation and blessing in the Jewish tradition). 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
(Photo by Joan Roth) Ruth Bader Ginsburg

1) Even posthumously, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of blessed memory, shattered glass ceilings: she became the first woman and the first Jew to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. “This was Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work, to insist that the Constitution deliver on its promise that ‘We the People’ would include all the people,” Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt said at her funeral. “She carried out that work in every chapter of her life.” In a moving Zoom Kaddish organized by Hey Alma and Kveller, Rabbi Sari Laufer memorialized this “short Jewish lady from Brooklyn” as one who “moved laws closer to compassion.” RBG was a real-life superhero, and statues of her will grace the streets of the New York borough so central to her origin story. 

2) Another Jewish institutional glass ceiling was shattered this year when Shuly Rubin Schwartz became the first woman chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As one of the first women to join the faculty, she played a key role in establishing gender studies at JTS. A scholar of American Jewish History, Dr. Schwartz received the 2006 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern Jewish Thought for The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbitzin in American Jewish Life. 

3) This year, history was made when Kamala Harris, a Black, South Asian woman, became Vice President-Elect. Jewish feminists kvell when this California Senator and former Attorney General of California talks about the blended family she has made with soon-to-be Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. To her stepdaughters Cole and Ella, she is “Momala,” a title she includes in her Twitter biography. Looks to me as if the incoming second family is a case study of intermarriage as a loving coalition rather than Jewish betrayal. 

4) Speaking of Presidential politics, Ruth Andres, a 91-year-old longtime Dallas political activist, inspired her grandson Ezra Andres-Tysch to found Bubbies for Biden. Andres-Tysch, a digital organizer for the Texas Democratic Party, trained Bubbies to phonebank and get out the vote for Biden. As an antidote to the dog-whistling of the Trump years, Andres-Tysch proclaimed on Twitter that Bubbies for Biden was all about “harnessing the immense power of Jewish Grandmothers to save our Democracy.” 

5) Ezras Nashim, an Orthodox women’s EMT service based in Brooklyn, finally has an ambulance of their own. The group was founded as a response to the established EMT service, Hatzalah, refusing to admit women to its fold. Ezras Nashim has faced licensing backlash from Hatzalah at every step, including the acquisition of their first ambulance. However, these trained volunteers are determined to serve women in the community who often feel their religious commitments to modesty are at odds with emergency medical assistance offered by men. 

6) “Makom,” which literally means “place” in Hebrew, is often used as a euphemism for vagina in the Talmud, in rabbinic literature, and in observant communities. Calling upon and particularizing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, Sara Rosner Lawrence organized a Monologues from the Makom event at Stern College in 2016. During this event, Orthodox women performed pieces they wrote about sexual guilt, shame, violence, and pleasure. Other events, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and Jewish Queer Youth, followed, and in 2020, Ben Yehuda Press published Monologues from the Makom. Included is a poetic letter from Eve, written by Jina Davidovich, that celebrates the “first day of creation” in which she is “Not sorry for my voice, not sorry for the tree/Not sorry for wanting more.” That poem wonderfully represents this collection’s commitment to sexual and bodily assertiveness rather than apologetics under the guise of modesty. 

7) The documentary They Ain’t Ready For Me, directed by Brad Rothschild, follows Tamar Manasseh, a Black Jew, as she does the work of tikkun olam that she is called to do, “repairing the crack [in the world] that’s called gun violence.” Manasseh founded MASK, Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings. Her strategy was both simple and audacious: she, along with other volunteers, set up shop in Chicago on 75th and Stewart, a South Side corner where Lucy Barnes, a young mother, was killed. Manasseh’s goal was to make that corner “not perfect but safer” during summer afternoons. Her guidebook for living in general and for this grassroots activist work in particular: the Torah that she learned to love at her home Ethiopian Hebrew congregation, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, where she is a rabbi in training. 

Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University in Texas. Her book Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in Fall 2021. Find her on Twitter at @helene_meyers.