Hannah Elbaum is spending her summer learning and writing about Jewish ritual and connection in her Communications Internship with Advah Designs, which offers a collection of handcrafted tallit and chuppahs. She was a member of the pilot cohort of the Rising Voices Fellowship and has participated in many Jewish teen programs in the Greater Boston area, including the Diller Teen Fellowship and the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). In the fall, Hannah will begin her first year at Smith College in Northampton, MA.
My grandmother, my mother, and I walked into a store. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? Actually, the three of us were on a mission to find a tallit for me. My bat mitzvah was approaching, and, since neither my mom nor my grandmother had a tallit of her own, they both wanted to accompany me.
As my year in the Rising Voices Fellowship comes to a close, it is time to look back on the experience and look forward to my next adventures as a student, a writer, and a teenager. RVF has allowed me to explore Judaism, feminism and blogging in ways I never have before. I have learned many small and meaningful lessons over this year, but I found the most important material taught about writing—and life—that I learned from Rising Voices fit neatly into three parts: looking back, living in the present, and moving forward.
At every Passover Seder, there are the traditional items on the table: the Seder plate, a place for Elijah, and that gnawing hunger before finally feasting. On my table there is another item that makes a quiet appearance every year. A Kiddush cup, the same one my family uses for Shabbat, is given a new name for Pesach. The Kos Miriyam, or Miriam’s Cup, has its own part of our Seder rituals. After a certain number of parody songs about the holiday, and some acting out of the plagues—aided by ketchup (blood) and sunglasses (darkness)—the Kos Miriyam finally gets its turn. Passing the cup around, we listen as my mother tells us about Miriam’s well and the divine healing power held by the water. This water brought the Jewish nation from a place of physical and emotional slavery to a free, spiritual, lively community. She explains that as Jews and as individuals we are still on journeys to a better place.
There are times in our own lives when we try to reach a land of milk and honey, but often there are roadblocks, speed bumps, and detours along the way. We can take on these challenges single-handedly, but if we do, we are more likely to work ourselves into the ground, unable to continue moving forward. Instead, we can choose to reach out to the women surrounding us for assistance. With their help, we can overcome obstacles and continue on our individual journeys. The women in our lives provide support to each of us, as Miriam supported the Israelites on their grueling journey to the Holy Land.
In traditional society, men are seen as the risk takers, while women are supposed to be docile homemakers. When women step up to the plate, it stands out. To me, the women who bravely put aside their fears and take matters into their own hands are the ones who make the difference and are role models for all people.
In the Torah, there is a story of two women, Shifra and Puah, and the risks they took to save the lives of some children in Egypt. These midwives worked for the Israelites and took orders from Pharaoh, who knew the two of them and specifically told them to kill any male children born to Hebrew mothers, but they chose to not listen to him. It’s not clear if these two women were part of the Jewish people or if they were Egyptians. Still, their story takes place for a reason, not just to explain how Moses survived, but also to bring a lesson to future Jews about courage and the impact of the risks they take.
I became bat mitzvah on May 1, 2010 in front of my congregation. I wore a tallit, chanted Torah, and gave a d’var Torah. To me, that was normal. My mom became bat mitzvah before me, on the same bimah, years before.
For a long time in my world, “feminist” and “Jewish” existed in separate spheres. As far as I knew, feminism did not exist in the Jewish world because everything there was about as equal as you could get. Women were rabbis and cantors, educators and students, same as the men. Feminism was for the corporate world, where women did not make as much as men, or were excluded from managerial position jobs. Needless to say, my definition of feminism was narrow, as was my understanding of Judaism, and as I widened the circles of each, they began to overlap.
We were sitting in a circle, but the teacher spilt the class down the middle. Half received stickers, an apparent reward, while the other half sat and watched. No one knew exactly what was happening. We had always been told to work cohesively, so we recognized that the division was significant.
Lately social media has been flooded with articles and images regarding the many indiscretions of female pop icons. While this is not a new phenomenon, more and more articles and videos offer harsh criticism of every aspect of these women’s characters. Miley Cyrus, for example, has been known to appear in a variety of venues only half dressed. Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan have become infamous for their rapidly changing hair colors and frequent arrests. Christina Aguilera, despite her immense success as a singer and position as a judge on The Voice, receives criticism for her fluctuating weight.
Today we welcome our first post from Hannah Elbaum, one of our Rising Voices Fellows. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from one of our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
My parents don’t talk about feminism.
It’s not a taboo topic, just not one we typically discuss around the dinner table- or ever, for that matter.
But, feminism is not lacking in my household. My parents equally share responsibilities of taking care of a house, three kids, and their respective jobs. Still, the words “equality of opportunity,” or “feminism” have rarely been said aloud under this roof.
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Jewish Women's Archive. " Hannah Elbaum ." (Viewed on June 26, 2016) <http://jwa.org/blog/author/hannah-elbaum>.