Avigayil Halpern is a Rising Voice Fellow and a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, Connecticut. She is a 2013 Bronfman Youth Fellow, and a member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Teen Leadership Committee. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. In her spare time, she fangirls over Mary Wollstonecraft and overuses semicolons.
I have always struggled at my family’s Passover Seders. My difficulties have not been emotional or spiritual, religious or psychological. My troubles have been purely physical; every year, I wrestle with the giant stack of haggadot next to my plate, which seems intent on toppling over. I spread the books around me, trying to follow my family’s traditional Seder in five or more disparate texts, a linguistic comment here, a poem there.
The feminist movement is a de facto community. Feminists tend to work in groups, be they virtual or physical, as we unify around our shared convictions. As people committed to ostensibly similar goals, we concern ourselves with the statements made by others who claim the same title. Any time a major article is published by a prominent feminist writer on a feminist site or in a mainstream publication, it immediately draws criticism. Much of this criticism is from those who don’t identify as feminists; these critiques tend to be mixed, some offering interesting new ideas while others simply express sexism. Feminists, however, also engage in a substantial amount of internal self-criticism.
Somewhere towards the end of my freshman year of high school, I became the class feminist. You know, the girl who always has to speak up about slut-shaming and rape culture and “where are the women in this narrative?”
I had begun to read feminist blogs, and the critical gender lens they used on everything from history, to clothing, to everything in between rapidly became part of my worldview. Right as I was hitting my stride as “that angry feminist,” I studied in the Dr. Beth Samuels High School Program at Drisha in New York. In addition to being a feminist, I was (and remain) a lover of Talmud. Spending the summer with other girls who took Judaism and Jewish text study seriously was a formative experience for me.
The erudite feminist women who taught us became my role models. (It was not unusual for us “Drishettes” to enthusiastically exclaim to one another that “I want to be insert-name-of-teacher-here when I grow up!” after a particularly great class.)
Towards the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, I was sitting in my school’s library when I caught sight of a book whose spine read Deborah, Golda, and Me. Being the nerd that I am, I am fascinated by the biblical prophetess Deborah—she is one of a very few women leaders in the Bible who are clearly respected for their power and autonomy, and rabbinic treatment of her character is a fascinating test case for differing attitudes towards women in Jewish law and literature. The book’s title was enough to get me out of my armchair to take a look. I had never before heard of the book’s author, Letty Cottin Pogrebin.
I cannot walk out of my house (or open my laptop) without being bombarded with suggestions for Hanukkah (this year, often Thanksgivukkah) merchandise. (Ironically, I am simultaneously presented with ads for “Catching Fire” themed goods, in contrast to the movie’s message.) The Hanukkah narrative has the power to be subversive; it is a story of a minority making themselves heard, of an oppressed group claiming their rights. When those of us who are privileged to be able to buy gifts (and menurkeys) focus on the commercial elements of the holiday at the expense of the holiday’s story, we create a bubble like the Capitol. Hanukkah should be a call to remind us that we should be the districts, not the Capitol; our power should be channeled into fighting injustice, not simply consuming what is provided to us.
Editors note: If you haven’t read The Hunger Games (or seen the movies), you’ll be safe from any major spoilers in this post from one of our Rising Voices Fellows. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
For our first post from our new class of Rising Voices Fellows, we present an open letter from Avigayil Halpern to her younger sister, Ora. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from one of our fellows—and check out the great educational support provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
Because of our similar (to other people, at least) appearance and relative closeness in age, it’s often assumed that we’re very alike. Last year you related to me a frustrating incident, where at a prospective student event at my school many people approached you and asked, “Do you like Talmud? Are you a feminist?”
When you responded in the affirmative, the response you got was always “Oh, You’re just like Avigayil!”