Tag : gender

July 27, 2020 by

A Beloved Sci-Fi Novel Says a Lot about Gender and Politics

Kids today. (This isn’t going to be what you expect.) They navigate the world of gender fluidity freely. They don’t stumble upon words or terms. They are the natives in this world, and it can feel like we—the older generations—are immigrants in this land. We seem dated to them, from another time and place when things were needlessly complicated and needlessly cruel.

I was struck, when the pandemic led me to pick up the classic science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, by how prescient it is about this generational split. Once we were all the protagonist Genly Ali, an envoy from another world struggling to communicate with the Gethenians, struggling to convince them that his and other worlds exist, struggling to get them to understand the value of what he is offering them: knowledge, power, peace. And he’s struggling partly because he cannot understand their world, in which there is no war (but it’s coming); in which there is no gender.

Even as the novel seems timeless, and prophetic, and even as it offers us hope of another way of being as both individual beings and as citizens, there are reminders that it comes from another time and place. The default pronoun for the genderless Gethenians is “he,” and most of the scenes involve traditional male labor. We read nothing of childbearing, and little of cooking, cleaning, and nurturing, even as we bear witness to moving moments of kindness, all the more powerful for the backdrop of a harsh, cold, and cruel environment. Quite literally: this is a freezing, freezing land.

It’s also a land of great hospitality. In the land of snow and ice, that’s a necessity, but it’s also a value. This kind of hospitality for strangers in a strange land alongside family and friends is another radical lesson, even as it is one that for many of us within the Jewish community is easily understood. When you have a long history of being outside, you create a world that welcomes others in. Including outsiders (and gender non-conformers!) like Genly Ali, who don’t quite fit in and can’t quite understand or be understood.

We are all—but not The Kids today— Genly. We too, reading this now 51-year-old book, struggle to understand a world in which there is no gender; in which sexuality is limited to a set time each month—called Kemmer—for which one gets time off to satisfy these needs without embarrassment or judgment, or even pause; in which everyone can be both a mother and a father; in which there is no division of labor, no division of professions, no division of value, no division of desire.

When you remove gender, it turns out, you change everything.

That’s one of the enduring lessons of this remarkable novel, but it’s far from the only one. It’s also a finely drawn portrait of daily life and a great quest, with world-altering stakes. It’s a political treatise, musing about the relationship between nation-state and aggression, and asking whether those stages can be skipped entirely through a model of Enlightenment that is both aspirational, and, to these despairing eyes, impossibly naïve. And yet also deeply prescient. The novel asks: would you work with someone you hate to save the world you love? And, as it progresses and that hatred abates, the novel asks: would you sacrifice your life to save someone you love?

Sharrona Pearl is an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other

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July 27, 2020 by

Women in the Shadow of Corona •

Times of crisis may deepen existing gender inequality and disproportionately affect women as compared to men. Data from the Israel National Insurance Institute (parallel to the U.S. Social Security Administration) illustrates that their status in the labor market is considered lower than men’s—women earn less, work more in part-time jobs and in sectors that lack job security—and they are the first to lose their jobs. At the same time they carry an increased burden of caring for children, adults and other dependents when state care and educational institutions are closed. “The Covid-19 Crisis,” a report from the Israel Women’s Network, tells how some international organizations have issued warnings along with policy guidelines on including gender perspectives in crisis management. “The crisis has two sides: a potential to erode hard-won achievements to women’s rights, but also an opportunity to use gender equality as an engine for strengthening the entire society.” iwn.org.il

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The Lilith Blog

July 16, 2020 by

“Better Things:” Your Jewish and Frankly Feminist Review

Better Things reached season 4 and protagonist Sam’s kids are still assholes: the formerly angelic Duke a little bit more, the always caustic Frankie a little bit less, and we barely see lovely wild child Max anymore. Time, in the world of this funny, melancholic, and moving show about raising three daughters as a divorced single mom in LA, is progressing. And Sam – played by director and creator Pamela Adlon, herself, like Sam, a single divorced mother with a Jewish father – is moving on too.  This season is all about movement: in the water that forms the backdrop to every episode in one way or another; in the lingering camera shots that dwell on paintings, or facial expressions, in an expected black and white silent movies; and in the interviews of women that dwell lovingly and joyfully and painfully on their words as if to insist that these words matter. 

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April 20, 2020 by

Gender & Ritual

I started many mornings at Camp Ramah in Northern California by inviting campers to try on tefillin, and I tried to make space for campers to think about their own connection to the ritual.

It didn’t work. Or, at least, not yet—almost no new staff members or campers tried on tefillin last summer. [These are the small leather boxes and strips that a religiously observant Jew—usually a man—is to wind around the arm and head for weekday morning prayers.] Even in my conversations with camp staff members, many of them just laughed when I asked them if they would be interested in trying on tefillin. These open, thoughtful conversations are just the first step—they won’t get my community all the way to full ritual egalitarianism. But having them now, even years overdue, might mean that the next generation of staff members won’t be asking the same questions that I am.

 ELANA REBITZER, “When I Tried to Get Girls to Wear Tefillin,” The Lilith Blog.

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April 20, 2020 by

Fiction: Driving Lesson

CELIA SASSON stopped the car. A dirt road twisted around tall pines. It was morning, still cool, the sun just a glint of light on metal.

“Your turn,” she said.

Seated next to her in the passenger seat, Sam ran his hands up and down the front of his trousers.

“Are you sure about this?”

“I told you, Sam, I can’t marry a man who doesn’t drive.”

It still shocked her. Here was the broad-shouldered boy who’d tended his family’s farm in Kokomo, Indiana. The man who was so good with numbers, he became the bookkeeper at the largest lumberyard in Mobile, Alabama. The man the Bank of Michigan had employed less than a week after he moved to Detroit last year. He stood six-foot-one, dwarfing the other Jewish boys she knew in brains as well as inches. And yet, he had never driven an automobile.

He didn’t have a father, he explained. There was nowhere to
drive to, where he was from. Still, it was unacceptable. And so,
when he’d declared his intentions, she’d set him straight. “Not
until we fix your problem.”

“Why does it matter so much to you?” he had asked.

It was like asking why wings mattered to doves. Celia remembered the day, almost two years earlier, when she bought herself a Tin Lizzie. She had saved six months’ profit at her hat shop on Woodward. Then she went to the Ford dealer’s and placed a stack of bills on the counter. The sum was $825.

“Your husband didn’t want to see it before he sent you?” asked the dealer, a baldhead in a suit with a glass eye.

She smiled. “No husband. This motorcar is not for any man.”

“Oh! Well, let me show you this fine electric automobile. Henry Ford himself just got one for his wife.”

“An electric car might be right for Mrs. Ford, but I’m here for a gas automobile.” She had no intention of purchasing some dainty car for the “fairer sex.” She wanted to feel the speed and smell the gasoline.

When the dealer hesitated, she held up her green wad.

She drove her Model T back to Hastings Street. How it pleased her—the horrified look on Papa’s face. Nafka, he yelled. Tramp! The same slur he used when she told him she was opening her shop.

“Nu, Celia?” her mother lamented. “What kind of man will want you?”

Her parents didn’t know about her nights dancing with a gambler named Alan. Alan went once a week to the whiskered bubbe who ran the numbers behind the Yiddish Playhouse.
His numbers never won, but he was as determined as he was unlucky. She didn’t care. She adored his brown curls, his brawny frame. He loved to dance the Turkey Trot as much as she did. Most importantly, he didn’t try to restrain her.

Mama and Papa wanted her to marry a man like Sam Perlman, someone who might save her from herself. Not unless the boy learned to drive. And even then, she’d made no promises.

Now, Sam wedged a cigarette between his lips and pulled a brass lighter out of his pocket. He turned to light hers first. So polite, this one! Alan would have leaned over and pressed his
lips against hers.

Sam’s hands—his large, smooth hands—were shaking. She let him take a drag and blow smoke into the crisp air.

“That’s enough,” she said. “I don’t have all day.”

He opened the door, letting one leg dangle off to the side as though he were testing the temperature of bathwater. He stepped out and extinguished his cigarette on the trunk of one of the great pines.

“OK, I’m ready.”

“So what are you standing over there for?”

She handed him her spare pair of goggles and buttoned her duster. It fastened at her neck and came down below her ankles. She had designed a veil that held her auto-cap firmly in place. The sign in her shop window read: “Becoming AND Practical— For the Well-Dressed Motorist.” She hadn’t sold many—yet—but as more women drove, it was sure to be a hit. With Sam’s eyes on her, she tied the ends under her chin.

“I hope you brought gloves, like I told you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He reached inside his jacket and held up a leather pair.

He looked at her like a Labrador who’d fetched her a bone and now wanted a pat on the head.

She yanked open the door on the driver’s side. He took slow strides toward her, put a foot on the running board. He might have looked elegant with his long legs and slender build, if only
he weren’t so stiff. She had noticed it the first time he showed up at her store.

“A man’s here from the bank,” Rachel, one of her shop girls, had whispered.

“The tall one with the serious face?” Celia had asked. Rachel nodded.

In an instant, she was cloaked in his cologne. He wore a blue tailored suit. He had the mouth of a pouting child, little, round, and puckered. She would come to learn that his expression
rarely changed, even after sex.

“I’m up to date on my payments,” she said.

He removed his bowler hat. “I’m not here about your payments. I’m Sam Perlman. Your sister Ethel sent me? I thought you might like to have dinner sometime.”

“Oh.” That was so like Ethel—her beautiful, blonde baby sister—to give Celia one of her throwaways. Ethel had so many suitors she could fill her dance card every Saturday for a year. Even the boys from the German families—the first Jews in Detroit who considered themselves superior to the later arrivals from Eastern Europe—wanted her. But Ethel couldn’t marry until Celia did; their parents, still tied to the traditions of the shtetl, forbade it.

At night, in the bed they shared, Ethel would beg. “Come on, Cele, you’re practically an old maid!”

“I’m twenty-two,” Celia told her. “There’s still Time before my hair turns white.”

She was prepared to turn him down, this Sam Perlman. She
could tell right away he was too quiet, too intellectual. And yet
there was the gold watch, the tailored suit, the promise of comfort.
There was, too, the earnest way he looked at her. Unlike Alan, her
partner in adventure, he was a gutte neshuma, a good soul.

She reminded herself of his goodness as she stood in front of the car. Why shouldn’t she want a man like Sam Perlman? She had to overcome the uncertainty that stirred her awake at three o’clock in the morning. Every other night, she rose from bed and ran to the outhouse to scream where no one would hear.

She got in position to crank the engine, always a gamble with a possible broken arm. This was her brother Ernie’s job on Sundays, when she made her weekly trip to Belle Isle. Last
weekend, someone from the Detroit Free Press had snapped a photo of her on one of her jaunts around the island. “Young Milliner Drives Automobile on Belle Isle; Scares Horses,” the
headline read. Papa had nearly dropped dead.

“When I get in,” she yelled, “move the hand break forward and put your foot on the clutch pedal.” He gave her a weak wave.

She cupped the crank with her left hand, grabbed the fender with her right. She was four-foot-eleven and barely ninety pounds. In her shop, she lifted boxes, built shelves, nailed
wooden signs above displays. “Men’s work,” Papa said. He didn’t see that so-called “women’s work” was harder on the body. Just look at Mama, her youth gone at forty-three, already stooped over from chasing after her children, slitting chickens’ throats to feed them, grinding soiled clothes against the washboard. Sometimes, when she stared down, Celia pictured Mama’s hands—cracked and calloused—attached to her wrists. The vision made her shiver.

After one vigorous half-crank, the engine started and Celia
climbed in. “Now, Sam. Go!”

The car lurched forward. With the sudden jerk, her shoulders knocked against the back of her seat.

He turned. “Are you alright?”

“Of course,” she shouted. “Keep your eyes on the road.”

Sam faced the path ahead, pressing onwards. Dirt flew into their faces, and Celia brought her own goggles down over her eyes. Although he maneuvered the road’s sharp turns, she felt
him hesitating, even after she urged him to go faster or else the car could stall.

It was his first time, she reminded herself. He would grow more confident after another lesson or two. And yet, she couldn’t forget what the Ford dealer told her before he handed her
the keys to her brand-new Tin Lizzie: “People drive the way they live life.” The man could
tell Celia was the type to drive without inhibition. And he was right. She had pushed down the
throttle lever—and the wind, the dust, the speed had been the most thrilling feeling of her life.
“Like flying,” she told Alan later that night. They were parked behind the ballroom. It was pitch-black. There were stars in his eyes. And so, the day of her first drive was followed by another
first: She had taken Alan’s hand and guided him up her dress to stroke her breasts.

How those exhilarating moments contrasted with what she felt now, with Sam at the wheel. He drives the way he lives his life, she thought, with no fire.

There was nothing ablaze in this godforsaken place with its endless rows of pines. How could she live out here with him, miles away from the loud Yiddish bursting through the opened windows on Hastings Street, or the tumult of her shop on Woodward?

“Enough!” she yelled, placing her hands over her ears.

Sam pulled over. “My god, Celia, your face is white! Now, just breathe…That’s it.”

She did as she was told, following his instructions, this time.

“Just picture it,” he whispered. “Where those trees are now, we’ll build a beautiful brick home. Can’t you see the fireplace and the mantle?”

She did like the sound of it. In fact, she could think of little else since meeting his mother just a week earlier, when Sam decided it was time to bring Celia home.

“Don’t you know who his mama is?” Ethel had asked as Celia brushed her sister’s hair. “Mrs. Greenberg, you know, the landlady who lives in the big house on Elliot Street?”

Of course, Celia had heard of her. The Raycha Mrs. Greenberg. The Rich Mrs. Greenberg. But Sam’s name was Perlman, not Greenberg. Was she really his mother?

As they’d approached the stone steps of the landlady’s home, Sam had told her the whole story: “My father died before we left the Old Country. She married a farmer and moved us to
Kokomo. Then he died, so she married Greenberg and moved to Detroit. Now, Greenberg’s dead, too.”

“Did she kill all of them?” That was one way to deal with a husband who bored you.

Sam didn’t laugh. He had no sense of humor, as far as she could tell.

They found the Raycha Mrs. Greenberg on a velvet seat, her own private throne, fox furs draped around her shoulders. On her pinky was a ring adorned with an enormous sapphire.

“Mother, this is Celia Sasson,” Sam said.

The woman clucked in Polish, A skinny little chicken, this one!

“Even a little chicken has wings to fly,” Celia said.

Mrs. Greenberg’s eyes widened, surprised Celia had understood. She must have assumed the Sassons were a lower kind of Jew. In fact, they hailed from a village near Warsaw, though they retained the Sephardic name of their ancestors who’d been expelled from Spain long ago.

Sam’s cheeks reddened, but he stood there without a word. A
kuni lemel, he was. A fool. And Celia knew in that moment that
she would never respect him, not because of his cowardice, but
because he was simply incapable of outrage.

And yet, as she looked around at the paintings in their gilded frames, the polished silver candlesticks, the maid scurrying into the room with a china bowl filled with sugar cubes, she thought she might go through with it anyway. She was a milliner, after all. She had the taste for beautiful things. The possibilities tantalized her.

They tempted her still. She sat in the car with Sam, picturing the home Mrs. Greenberg would build them, imagining a life she wanted but didn’t want.

She put her hand on Sam’s arm.

“Would you like me to show you how it’s done?”

He got out and she took her place at the wheel, her throne. She watched him bend over and place his handkerchief over the crank to protect his hands from the grease.

When the car started, she did not wait for Sam to join her. The moment he stepped back, she was “off to the races,” as Alan would say, Alan who had shown up at Sam’s office with a rifle. It
was the last time she saw him, the day two Irish officers dragged him, beet-faced, from the Bank of Michigan shouting, “Celia’s my girl! Mine!” Alan, her love. But what good was love, really? She was never his. Celia Sasson belonged to no one.

She drove off, gaining speed until the pines were only streaks
of green and Sam was a speck of dust in her mirror. With one
hand, she loosened her veil.

She couldn’t see the end of the road, but she could see her
future hedging her in, her old life flying at her like pieces of
dirt kicked up from the tires. What if she simply drove on to
wherever this path led?

She could leave him there in the field, she thought. He got
out of the car to relieve himself and disappeared in the woods, is
what she would say. His death was an accident. Mrs. Greenberg,
with her three husbands in the ground, might know a thing or
two about spinning these kinds of yarns.

Reaching the clearing, she thought of what Mrs. Greenberg
had said that night, when Sam left them to have “ladies’ talk.”
Mrs. Greenberg was stunned to hear Celia had no intention of
closing her Woodward store after she married, even though,
with Sam, she wouldn’t need the money.

She pointed at Celia with her pinky, the one with the sapphire ring. “I know your kind. You’ve been fighting your whole life, haven’t you? But wouldn’t it be nice to rest?”

Celia Sasson stopped. She considered her 12-hour workdays. Difficult customers. Mama’s calloused hands holding a pot of boiling water, trying to keep them warm in a house without heat or plumbing. Mrs. Greenberg leaving the Old Country with a baby, alone. And this: a house with a fireplace, silk curtains, a vase of fresh lilacs on top of a grand piano. And him. Every day, him.

SAM WAS SITTING at the base of one of the pines, near the spot where she had left him. He
was reading his pocket dictionary. His goal was to memorize every word, he had told her on one of their first outings to Belle Isle.

“Oh, there you are.” His politeness exasperated her. What a kuni lemel.

The clouds had retreated, the sun unleashed. Celia took off
her goggles, squinted at him.

He got into the car, handed her another cigarette. Before she could take one, he grabbed her wrist so hard it startled her. “Listen Celia,” he said. “There’s something I want you to know about me.” His nails were too long. She felt them digging into her skin. “You know, I spent my childhood till I was 18 working my stepfather’s farm in Kokomo. It was my whole life, that farm.”

“Yes, you’ve told me.” She tried to wriggle free, but he tightened his grip.

“Well, my mother sold it behind my back after my stepfather died.” Celia stared at him, surprised by the bite in his voice, and listened to his story:

When his mother told him the farm would never be his, Sam had kept quiet. But the next morning, at the rooster’s crow, he’d packed a bag. He carried his boots by the laces, crept down the hall. His mother’s door was left ajar and he found her snoring underneath her quilt. He lifted the mattress where he knew she kept a cloth pouch and took all the money inside. Then he made his way outside to the barn. He turned over an empty pail and began to milk Dora, his mother’s favorite cow. He dipped two fingers in the pail and sucked them dry, and he knew he’d remember that sweet taste. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing his rifle from behind the barn door and shooting Dora right between her large brown eyes. The sound of his shot, of animal screams, had surely reached the house, so he scribbled a note and left it on the blood-soaked floor where Dora lay: “Your son is dead.”

Heading south to Alabama, he let Mrs. Greenberg believe the worst for five years until he decided she’d been punished enough and showed up at her doorstep in Detroit.

Now it was Celia who couldn’t speak. Even on the days when Mama had slapped her with a wet dishrag and Papa had called her a whore, she couldn’t have dreamed of such an act. Sam Perlman, who knew? Maybe he had invented the tale, but still, he had more chutzpah than she realized. She was a little afraid of him, and this, she understood, was what he wanted. Or rather, what she wanted: an undercurrent of danger.

“Shall I try the drive again?” he asked, releasing her.

Celia Sasson gazed out at the road, scanned the treetops, the
stranger’s eyes.

For the rest of the afternoon, she did not let go of the wheel.

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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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The Lilith Blog

January 22, 2019 by

This Jewish School Tradition Needs to Change.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see the problem with the Imma (mother) and Abba (father) of the classroom Shabbat ritual until a friend pointed it out. The opposite, honestly: when my three kids came home from school on Fridays, I eagerly asked who in their classes was given that honor. I made a big deal of it, especially when it was their turn. Because it is kind of a big deal: in kindergarten and first grade, every week one boy and one girl get to make the blessings over the candles, grape juice, and challah. They are given a sticker. They get to show off their knowledge. They love it.

I love it too. Or I did, until I realized that not every kid has an Imma and an Abba. And that not every kid will be an Imma or an Abba, or be an Imma in partnership with an Abba. And that, really, no little kid should be inhabiting the role of an Imma or an Abba.

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July 15, 2014 by

A Feminist Camp Counselor Unpacks Her Baggage

Photo credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp

Photo credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp

The summer after my sophomore year at Barnard, I had just begun to crack open this thing called gender, hearing and welcoming the exciting voices that are part of the canon of a women’s college curriculum . I learned a new language, that of Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, Judith Butler and Alice Walker, and became more fluent with every class discussion, every conversation with friends over potluck dinners of quinoa, Brussels sprouts bathed in balsamic vinegar, and vegan desserts. The glossy Barnard brochures had assured me that I would become the women I saw in the pictures: confident, well-read, transformed. Finally, after two years, it was beginning to happen.

Then, suddenly: Summer! In the middle of my college career, already feeling like a changed person, I was returning to a place that seldom changes, a place that I loved deeply—my Jewish summer camp. I’d gone to camp nearly every other summer of my life, so I knew the feeling of returning to a powerfully familiar location as someone new. With colorful braces when I was 10, finally without braces at 15, and with a different haircut when at long last my curls developed. Camp could always embrace superficial changes like these. As campers, we relish that moment when we step off the bus bearing these new parts of ourselves, knowing that friends will embrace us warmly whether our acne has cleared up or not. And counselors are taught to create a space where a camper can return year after year and be his or her truest self. But deep internal change is harder to accommodate in a space that must remain the familiar and idyllic home for the hundreds of campers who return every summer.

That summer after my sophomore year, my third on staff, I arrived with more than just a new hairdo and an updated wardrobe. This time I came with new ideas as well, and I found it far more difficult to ease comfortably back into a world where girls spent hours in front of a mirror primping for Shabbat, where boys shot “Go clean your kitchen” jokes at the girls across the dining hall, and where the sexual histories of campers past and present were documented on cabin walls in pink nail polish and Sharpie ink.

I had been transplanted from my haven at Barnard, where every class took an intersectional approach to history, sociology, and literature, where professors invited students to discuss everything from politics to prostitution, where my friends and I stayed up late talking about gender and Judaism until we realized our papers on the same subjects were due the next morning and hadn’t been written yet. In Women in Israel, we discussed the complications of women in the public spaces of a religious democracy. In American Women of the 20th Century, I uncovered the U.S. history that I’d never found in my high school textbooks, their pages shining with the feats of our country’s founding straight white men. In Sociology of Gender, I learned that gender is performative, something that is built in the social interactions of our everyday life. Through it all, I simultaneously learned how to recognize the ways I had been held back by my various identities, how to reflect critically on life experiences and interactions with peers, friends, and superiors, and—yes—how to check my privilege.

At camp I quickly became the token feminist on my staff, struggling to reconcile all that I had learned at college with certain stark realities of camp life: Living spaces were designed and assigned in accordance with the gender binary. All boys at our Conservative camp were required to pray in tallit and tefillin, while girls were given a half-hearted, non-obligatory opportunity to do so. The rampant heteronormative hookup culture fueled peer pressure, caused campers who had no interest in participating to feel isolated, and threatened the idea that camp is a safe space to try new experiences.

How could I be my truest self in a place that no longer seemed to embrace all that I believed in?

Now it’s two years later, and on the cusp of my graduation from Barnard I packed up once again for summer at camp, this time as a division head. My love for camp has clearly endured, but I haven’t stopped thinking about that challenging summer after my sophomore year. So this spring, in anticipation of the summer to come, I decided to better prepare myself for the transition into that world. On a sunny Shabbat afternoon, a few weeks before the end of my last semester, I invited friends and peers — a diverse group of campniks who spanned the Jewish and gender spectrums,–to reveal their own concerns and experiences similar. Sitting in a campfire-style circle on the main lawn of Barnard’s campus, surrounded by academic conversations and urban traffic, the feel of the grass beneath our toes seemed to bring us back to our respective camps, allowing us to relive similar frustrations, but also the pleasures and transformative power of camp. We started with a simple question: What is the one space in your camp where you have always been most aware of gender dynamics? In classic camp fashion, we went around the circle. One young man who had spent many summers at a Reform movement camp discussed the implications of showering with friends, recognizing now what he hadn’t as a boy: that this was an environment unwelcoming to potentially queer cabin mates. Another man chimed in that communal showering at his Conservative camp always seemed to him to be a “mark of true manhood,” a bonding activity, and he now regrets shunning friends who’d seemed uncomfortable with the ritual.

Ritual was a word that came up often, whether to describe moments of single-gender bonding – like “army night” for men and “spa day” for girls – or to discuss the gendered nature of specific Jewish activities and practices. A woman who’d attended Orthodox camp every summer interpreted the gendered clothing restrictions for children of all ages as body-policing, at times even slut-shaming. Several women expressed their frustrations at being one of just a few females at their camps to wear tallit and tefillin every morning. I was one of these women at my own camp, which espouses egalitarian principles, and I still struggle with the idea of ritual obligation, and with the fact that girls who take on the mitzvah report feeling immediately othered, and a little alienated from their peers, starting that very first morning when they show up to services ready to wrap themselves in prayer along with the guys. That afternoon on the college lawn, in a space we’d created for ourselves that never seemed to exist at camp, we hashed it all out. No one was the token anything.

Through all these topics, we kept coming back to role modeling. How do we extract from camp these damaging social structures without destroying the sacred, necessary realities of tradition and familiarity? How can we bring all that we know into our jobs as role models in this specific context, in a place with certain established values, religious and otherwise?

Here is the paradox: While camp is theoretically a place where children are free to explore all aspects of their identity, and where every child’s unique personality is meant to be celebrated, it is also a place that strives for sameness: in Jewish ritual and values, in behavior, in a shared agreement to live life in a certain way for eight weeks of the year, with the hope that campers will bring those values home with them come August.

One woman joining us on the grass that day spoke about being aware of a clear divide among her campers. There were those girls who seemed made for camp: they presented as straight, they enjoyed the daily activities of camp, they were outgoing and funny, they participated in the prevalent hookup culture, and all the while benefited—albeit passively—from the intense and totally immersive Jewish environment. And then there were the other girls: shy, quiet, girls who preferred reading on their bunk beds to gossiping over manicures, girls who slept through the night instead of sneaking out to the boys’ side of camp, girls for whom counselors had to work hard to insure their summers were fun, fulfilling, and safe. “Who am I a counselor for?” this staff member asked. “Am I a counselor for the kids who live and breath camp, who are maybe the camp ideal? Or for the kids who don’t easily conform to the sameness camp tries, in some ways, to achieve?“

I’m taking her questions along with me on my way up to camp this year. Given camp’s unique power to take children out of their habitual environments for two months out of the year, to give them the space to grow in a place free of parents, school pressures, and limitations on living engaged Jewish lives, these questions are especially important..

In this liminal space, we focus heavily on giving children a taste of ideal Jewish living: we discuss the weekly Torah portion in circles similar to the one my friends and I created just weeks ago, we pray in beautiful natural environments, we sprinkle Hebrew into every conversation, and we strive to create a kehila, a community of meaningful relationships.

Just as we strive to open up our youngsters to new modes of Jewish practice, we also have the opportunity to use the transcendent space of camp to challenge other limitations the modern world places on us, not only as Jews but also as gendered beings in a binaried culture. At camp this summer, and every summer, I want us to gather in circles to ask the questions that matter. Let us diversify our notions of gendered ideals within Jewish tradition. Let us think critically about the messages conveyed by dress codes, obligation, and same-sex bonding activities. Let us create positive changes instead of the tired sexism so common among camp experiences.

This summer, I’m adding these ideas to my packing list, along with a well-worn Barnard sweatshirt: Be the counselor who does not assume heterosexuality of your campers or their parents. Be the counselor who pushes for more meaningful gender-based activities.. Be the counselor who welcomes open conversations about Jewish practice, who is honest about your personal journey with ritual. Be the counselor who can mediate sensitively those situations that unintentionally shut out some campers. Be a leader.

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July 15, 2014 by

Religion and Gender in the Israeli Defense Forces

When twenty-five-year-old Shani Boianjiu served as an infantry instructor in the Israel Defense Forces, her job occasionally involved having to touch other soldiers—teaching her students how to hold a gun correctly, how to lie on the ground in position, or how to protect themselves from enemy attack. Although this was an acceptable part of the job and made her an excellent instructor, it also caused problems for certain soldiers, specifically religious ones.

In an essay in the New York Times in September 2012, Boianjiu described the first time this happened. She was teaching a soldier to sit correctly in the field. “I came up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders, gently shaking him. I wanted to explain, ‘Look how easy it is for me to shake you out of position,’ but I couldn’t, because the soldier was yelling at me like he was on fire. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’ What this meant was that he couldn’t touch or be touched by girls or women. I was his superior and trainer, but I was also a girl.”

Female soldiers have made tremendous strides in the IDF over the past two decades. According to the IDF spokesperson’s office, women make up 33 percent of the IDF, female officers with the rank of colonel doubled from 2 percent in 1999 to 4 percent today, and the percentage of female officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel has grown by 70 percent in the last decade, from 7.3 percent in 1999 to 12.5 percent today. Moreover, over half of all soldiers in officer courses are women. During the last three years, an average of 55 percent of all staff officers in the Officers’ Training Course were women, an average of 53 percent of those OTC graduates went on to become officers in combat support positions, and an average of 3 percent of all combat officers were women. Perhaps most significantly, in March 2011, the IDF appointed Brigadier General Orna Barbivai as the first-ever female major general.

From the statistics, it’s clear that women are still a small minority of officers, but their numbers are rising. But as a country with mandatory conscription since its founding in 1948—the only country in the world in which women are also subject to this conscription—these advances for women are significant. Gone are the days when women in the army are relegated to jobs of making coffee and typing men’s memos. Also, even though, according to the IDF, some women only serve in 69 percent of the 93 percent of all roles that are open to them, they are present in far more areas of the Israeli military than ever before.

But as Shani Boianjiu’s example shows, women’s advances are also potentially problematic for religious men. And this could signal the beginning of a troubling trend for women in the army. 


Reprinted with permission from The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014). 

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The Lilith Blog

June 20, 2014 by

A Feminist Camp Counselor Unpacks Her Baggage

Photo credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp

Photo credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp

Summer camp. For some kids, a yearly ritual that fills them with dread; for others, a place of infinite possibility. How can we bridge the gap between kids who were “born ready” for camp, and kids who feel marginalized there? Some camps institute a “no body talk” policy, so kids can relate to other (and to their own emerging identity struggles) in ways that are more than skin deep. Lilith intern Maya Zinkowjust out of Barnard and now a unit head at summer camp, has lots of ideas about how camp can be a more welcoming place for those kids who question everything–from gender norms to religious tradition.

The summer after my sophomore year at Barnard, I had just begun to crack open this thing called gender, hearing and welcoming the exciting voices that are part of the canon of a women’s college curriculum . I learned a new language, that of Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, Judith Butler and Alice Walker, and became more fluent with every class discussion, every conversation with friends over potluck dinners of quinoa, Brussels sprouts bathed in balsamic vinegar, and vegan desserts. The glossy Barnard brochures had assured me that I would become the women I saw in the pictures: confident, well-read, transformed. Finally, after two years, it was beginning to happen.

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