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Tag : feminist

November 5, 2019 by

The Closer You Get, The Farther You Are

Let’s say you are a girl born in the 1950s. Born after the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people since the destruction of the Temple. And let’s say you are the eldest of four daughters and no sons, descendant— so you are told, frequently—of a lustrous rabbinic family, one that includes a revered scholar of the 17th century, Shabtai Ha-Kohen, the ShaKh.

Let’s say, as well, that you inherit the luster of this estate without the prestige that might have accrued to the eldest son of such a family in the world of Before— before the Enlightenment sheared off some of the brilliant ones to heretical ideas and ideologies; before the Nazis and the Poles and the Hungarians and the French murdered one third of the rest.

Born after that intact world but ahead of the era when women donned the garment of sacred scholarship that had not previously been their birthright, you become an ardent, mystical young woman who yearns to be closer, much closer, to God; who has an unaccountable instinct for your family’s lost authenticity, but without the sanction, power or pathway to retrieve it and bring it to life. Except, sanctioned only by yourself and the pedigree of centuries of commentators, as a writer of poems who has begun to discover her voice.

You are a seeker, in quest. But you have been given the gift of Jewish literacy and are in love with the Jewish story. Beneficiary of your parents’ commitment to a day school education, to Hebrew, to joyful holy days, the beauty of summer camp, and the miracle of Israel, you launch yourself into the world to deepen the profundity of the ecstatic and grieving communal experiences that your then-exceptional upbringing has bequeathed you.

You are not alienated. You do not feel parochial. You are not trying to escape.

You come of age at the dawn of Jewish feminism, the essential idea that allows you to claim a legacy that is only beginning to find an equal place for you; that grants you and a community of peers the confidence to defy the universalist feminism of Jewish women who reject a presumed and indicted patriarchy—a Judaism whose riches they were not given the learning to savor—in favor of the way of the biblical daughters of Tzlofchad, who appealed directly to Moses for the right to inherit their father’s portion.

And so, you do not leave. You do not become a Buddhist. You do not make the counterculture your religion or India or liberation theology. Instead of the expected Ph.D. in English literature, you drop out of graduate school, forsaking the Anglo-Saxon, Christianity-laden writing you were meant to teach someday, to embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

You are looking for a teacher to guide your soul, to quiet your turbulence, to meet your longing for God with a vocabulary, and—you suspect—boundaries, as your passion is consuming and, at times, terrifying. You are very alone, occasionally afraid you might go mad.

What do you find?

At every turn, your gender is an unscalable deterrent. You are not a young seeker. You are, it turns out, merely a young woman. You cannot become the talmid muvhak, the chosen pupil of an acclaimed rebbe. You cannot attend a yeshiva that teaches women advanced Talmud, for such an institution does not exist—although, decades into an unimaginable future, it will. You can scarcely be alone in a room with a rabbi or master teacher who has the knowledge and the wisdom for which you thirst. You find quirky avenues, a man who is not Orthodox to teach you Zohar privately; a class open to men, women, observant and secular Israelis given in Heichal Shlomo by a Talmud prodigy; a weekly gathering in the dining room of a gentle Bratslav hasid who opens his home in Me’ah She’arim each Thursday night to offer Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav’s teachings, to the women of Jerusalem. You don a skirt and long sleeves to learn these eloquent, paradoxical texts at their source. (The teacher will die young, some say because he taught women.) You join a meditation group of women who speak only Hebrew to meet at night in Jerusalem’s winters in a shudderingly cold apartment where you are never sure you understand the instructions or what is meant to happen.

It is a motley education, self-assembled, that does and does not appease your hunger. You are a Canadian and a New Yorker, but your essentialist identity is: Female. You have hundreds of conversations to analyze and channel your yearning, but none can mitigate the barrier of gender.

In New York, an ocean away, women are awakening to their autonomy and ambition. The first National Jewish Women’s Conference has taken place in 1973. The air is electric with new stories, a cornucopia of women’s voices. Young women are thronging to law school and applying to rabbinical school. Your friends are entranced by vistas of possibility, for it turns out that in our own tradition, unbeknownst to us, women are permitted to put on tefillin; women are allowed to say kiddush.

In Israel, you are told, again and again: “We don’t have time for feminism. We have to worry about security.”

You meet women you deem holy, women whose faces are alight with the joy of serving their Creator. There is no doubt that they are happier than you are. Their hair, arms, and legs are covered— and they have a single prescribed path: To have many children and be the spiritual counterparts to their learned husbands. You were taught that “Jews are never too learned to outgrow the need for printed words of prayer in their hands, or the need to encircle their heads and wrap tefillin around their arm every day— because Jews require these concrete aids to link them to the ineffable.” But Jews turn out to mean male Jews. As a woman, you are told, you do not need any physical manifestation of your bond with Hashem, with God. You were taught that the task of Jews is to raise up biology to an altar of intentional holiness. But Jews turns out to mean male Jews. As a woman, you are told, you have an innate biological sanctity that is higher than a man’s, even though you cannot be a witness, or be counted in a minyan, or initiate a divorce. (Forty years later, in Modern Orthodoxy, you still can’t.)

 

I am a witness to the fact that life for women is exponentially better than when I was a girl, but the legislation of Jewish women’s bodies is worse. Before feminism and before Jewish feminism, we wore whatever we wanted in my Orthodox Jewish day school, including mini-skirts that were one foot long. Now to be an observant girl-woman in an Orthodox context means to be given exhaustive lists about what to wear and how to wear it, to be instructed in shomer negi’ah—no touching a boy or even being alone with him—to be stopped from singing before a mixed audience, to be told that you, in your body, as you go about your day, are the sexual temptation to men.

Who cares? a reader might wonder. Leave this traditional framework for the parity of other denominations or none— the start-up minyanim, the halakhic-egalitarian ones.

The answer depends on how much solitude a woman should be asked to endure. Because if you want a life of observance, of Shabbat, kashrut, fast days and feast days, you need a community. And if you join a community of true equality between women and men, you are less likely—sometimes much less likely—to find as well a community of observance. In current North American Jewish life, the two do not, except in a few enclaves, align.

The brochures of gap-year educational experiences will speak of pluralism, but you will be in Israel programs where you may be the only one left on campus on Shabbat. You will be part of an engaged, vital Jewish community, but you will be invited to dinner parties where the food is not kosher or that begin before Shabbat has ended. You will explain what you do and cannot do, and you will grow tired of explaining.

Why should a person have to choose between an encompassing community of practice and equality before Jewish law? Why, if an American woman’s life expectancy is 86.6, should her childbearing years—if she has children—determine her secondary Jewish legal status for all her days? Or, if she joins a community that attempts to live in the world and practice Jewish law, why should she be equal in the eyes of the law in her American daily life but not in her sacred Jewish life?

Generally, those communities where women speak actively of a life of holiness— where the quest to be close to God and discern what we are obligated to do in the name of the Name is articulated and constant and considered a sufficient reason for daily choices—are more likely to be settings whose members devote themselves to halakhah and its detailed stipulations. But the more that those communities place God’s will, as manifest in Jewish practice, explicitly at the center of their values and behavior, the more a woman like the young woman I was will have to abide by tightening strictures over her body, her nature, and her purpose.

We live in an unredeemed world, where the interpretation of Jewish law in observant Jewish life is owned by one gender that can still tolerate the cries to heaven of women who cannot leave their abusive or mentally ill husbands without paying a ransom or forfeiting their children. In mediated middle age, the young woman I was is more than ever in love with the Jewish story and the Jewish homeland. My ardor has been tempered by a complexity earned by decades of being alive, but far more by the sobriety of the chief realization of my embodied experience as a Jewish woman: The closer you get, the farther you are.

We live in the second creation story, dreaming of inhabiting the first. We live in a world man enters alone, where woman is still a part taken from the whole of him. But all of us can dream of paradise, of a universe where God creates a person first, in the divine image, and only then, and only equally, gives gender, blesses us, and sees that all is very, very good.

Nessa Rapoport is the author of a novel, Preparing for Sabbath; a collection of her prose poems, A Woman’s Book of Grieving; and a memoir, House on the River: A Summer Journey. Her new novel will be published in 2020. ©Nessa Rapoport.

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April 2, 2019 by

Words from New Feminist Picture Books

“Are you ever too scared to say something because you might be wrong?”

From Raise Your Hand, written by Alice Paul Tapper, illustrated by Marta Kissi (Penguin Workshop, $17.99). The author also came up with the Girl Scout “Raise Your Hand” pledge and patch program.

 

“On haircut day, I go first. ‘Not too much, Mama I like it swingy!’ But Jackie says, ‘More, more, more!’ So Mama cuts and cuts. ‘Stop, Mama, stop!’ I shout. ‘Now Jackie looks like a boy.’ Jackie says, ‘I am a boy!’ Mama is quiet. Finally she says, ‘Well, Jackie’s been trying to tell us that for a long time’.”

From Jack (Not Jackie) by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Holly Hatam, (Little Bee, $17.99).

 

“Temple did not like scratchy socks, whistling teakettles, bright lights, or smelly perfumes And Temple really didn’t like hugs.”

From How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Giselle Potter (Simon & Schuster, $17.99).

 

“In high school, my teacher assigned my class a book about boys on a deserted island who went wild because there were no rules. The boys hurt each other in the chaos of a land without laws. This book opened my eyes. I saw why we need laws and rules to feel safe, so that people have the freedom to grow and flourish. I did not yet know that I would end up working in law, as a lawyer and later as a judge, but I was learning why laws mattered.”

From Turning Pages: My Life Story, by [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Lulu Delacre (Philomel, $17.99).

 

“Her parents worried. Such a life for a well-brought-up Jewish girl!”

From Hedy & Her Amazing Invention by Jan Wahl, illustrated by Morgana Wallace (Penny Candy Books, $16.95). This is the final book by the prolific author, who died in February. It’s about actress Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000), who found her way to Hollywood, where she took unwearable movie costumes home and secretly adjusted them. She liked to make things, and what she called her “frequency hopping” invention is used in many hi-tech gadgets today.

 

“Soon Gittel and her mother reached the head of the line. ‘Stick out your tongue,’ a burly man with a bristly beard ordered Gittel. ‘Blink your eyes. Show me your hands.’ Gittel did as she was told. The man nodded and then turned to Mama. ‘What is wrong with your eye’?”

From Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Abrams, $17.99).

 

“When Levi got home, Papa had tears in his eyes. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked Levi. ‘It was your first day at a new school,’ said Papa. ‘I was scared. Papa…big boys do cry,’ said Levi. ‘And that’s okay,” said Papa.”

From Big Boys Cry, written and illustrated by Jonty Howley (Random House, $17.99).

 

“Girls need to know they can break the rules.”

From Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote, and Changed the World bJessica M. Rinker, illustrated by Daria Peoples-Riley (Bloomsbury, $17.99).

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The Lilith Blog

August 21, 2018 by

The Patriarchy-Free Paradise of “Mamma Mia!”

greece-2824611_960_720This piece contains spoilers for Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again. Not a spoiler: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll dance poorly to ABBA.

Ten years ago I wandered into a movie theater on a hot summer weekend and was surprised to fall in love with the bell bottoms and thudding beat of ABBA-musical-turned-Meryl Streep vehicle “Mamma Mia!”. At the time, I was especially charmed to discover the “feminist heart beneath its cheesy 70s kitsch exterior”—given that the movie hinges on woman’s freewheeling sexual past without shaming her for it.

A lot has changed in a decade; whereas the original “Mamma Mia!” passed skeptical critics by, only to become a smash hit with audiences, its long-awaited sequel now flows into the culture with the natural ease of olive oil in a Greek dish. In the era of female-driven shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin” that combine elements of camp, fantasy and genre with sensitive exploration of women’s lives, viewers are primed to enjoy this kind of entertainment unironically, while a more open-minded group of critics are bolstering their pleasure with praise.

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The Lilith Blog

August 15, 2018 by

The Book That Teaches Children About a Jewish Prima Ballerina

An Unlikely Ballerina

Young Lily Marks loves to stand on her tiptoes. When her parents notice there’s weakness in her legs, her doctor suggests dancing lessons to strengthen them, and Lily falls in love with ballet. But can this fragile girl ever become a serious dancer? When the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova comes to town, Lily just has to meet her. Maybe Pavlova—small, delicate, and Jewish like Lily—holds the key to Lily’s future. Fiction Editor (and lifelong balletomane) Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Krystyna Poray Goddu about her informative and charming new picture book.

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The Lilith Blog

May 29, 2018 by

What It’s Like to Publish Your Debut Novel… at Age 90

All this week, in the grand tradition of Victorian periodicals, Lilith will be serializing an excerpt of Sadie in Love, the debut novel from 90-year-old former magazine editor Rochelle Distelheim. Look out for new installments every day this week.

Sadie in LovePart 1Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


Sadie in love

Sadie Schuster—fortyish, plumpish, a suffragist, and recently widowed—spends more time now talking to her late husband, Fivel, than she did when he was alive. Sadie keeps Fivel informed of her daily activities—especially her pursuit of a husband—because “An empty bed is a cold place for a hot-blooded woman.” A lover of ballroom dancing, the moving pictures, and night-school English words, Sadie’s true talent lies in the magic love-knots she artfully crafts for lonely, unwitting, immigrants willing to purchase hope wrapped in a schmattah for fifty cents.

Selling love-knots while seeking love, Sadie consults with her magic spirits to woo Herschel—the muscled ice peddler who reads poetry and pines for his newly departed wife. Her daughter, Yivvy, sells secondhand, possibly “pinched” tchotchkes in her antique shop and plans to marry the Irish cop on the beat. Enter Ike Tabatnik, the “Dance King of Riga, Latvia,” just off the boat and ready to take on America—and Sadie’s heartstrings. Comedy and chaos follow.

A stunning confession, following the wedding of one of her love-knot clients—which begins with one groom and ends with another—pushes Sadie to make a surprising choice. She then throws herself at the mercy of her magic spirits, asking them to do quickly for her what they have been doing for her customers—before it’s too late.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Rochelle Distelheim about what it feels like to have her debut novel published when she’s in her nineties. 

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The Lilith Blog

July 14, 2017 by

This Website Helps Progressive Female Candidates Run for Office

Eliza Cussen was on her way to see “Wonder Woman”, and listening to an episode of her favorite podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend.” This one focused on women in politics (or the lack thereof). Like many would in this situation, she was wondering: what can I do?

Right then, she decided to create what is now Project Sheila, an organization dedicated to helping female politicians launch campaign websites. Cussen has been interested in web design for most of her life, and was working as a digital communications specialist when she had the idea. She saw that although she did not have significant funds to donate to campaigns, she could use her expertise to help in another way. She put out a call to friends in her network, asking if anyone needed help with web design, and received several requests right away. Around three weeks later, Project Sheila went live.

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