Dear Ora: An Open Letter to My Younger Sister
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!”
We’re really pretty different. You go to camp—real camp—in the woods, not in air-conditioned libraries. You sing, dance, and act, while I prefer to just watch and applaud. You simply have a nicer temperament than I do. While I’m decisive about what I want, you often are unsure. While I’m abrasive, you’re kind and diplomatic. But to everyone who asked, feminism became the common denominator between us.
Having lived with you your entire life, I can guess that your response to comments about our shared feminism would, in all likelihood, involve an eye roll and a comment about fundamental human rights. But feminism is broad and confusing, and while I’m sure that as you grow your understanding of what it means to be a feminist will grow and change, I’d like to give you a bit of a head start.
On a basic level feminism is, at least to me, about destroying patriarchy. On a personal level, though, it will have many meanings. At the risk of sounding like the overbearing big sister who so annoys you, I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned in my first three years as a proud feminist:
1. Call people out. Really. Your friends and teachers will still like you even if you contradict them when they’re sexist. They might even start calling others out in turn.
2. There’s a difference between a sexist joke and a joke about sexism, but often the difference is in the tone. People close to you might make jokes about sandwiches and kitchens; often it’s because they like needling you—and because they find sexist expectations ludicrous. You can laugh, and you can also be offended. You’ll be able to tell when the joke is sexist, and when it’s about sexism.
3. Makeup is fun. There’s no shame in that. However, when you choose to wear makeup, your decision buys into a sexist industry. Keep both of those things in mind, and know that it is okay to make your own distinctions.
4. Pick your battles. If you have too many frustrating, circular arguments, you’ll be out of stamina for the times you can actually be able to educate someone. Your patience is a limited resource—treat it as such.
5. Don’t start an email or exchange with the phrase “Sorry to bother you.” You’re worth people’s time and attention.
6. Perpetual niceness is optional. Be respectful towards those who deserve your respect, but you never owe anyone a smile or a peppy tone. There will be many reasons in your life for you to be happy, and there will be many reasons to be sad, upset, or angry. You owe it to those around you to be polite; you don’t owe it to them to act happy.
7. Finally, Feminism is confusing. The more you read, the more confused you’ll be. That’s totally fine.
As a senior in high school, I get to leave home soon.
The effect this knowledge has had on me is to, essentially, make me ambivalent towards most of the day-to-day interactions I have in high school. I prefer to puzzle through feminism at home, writing questions in the margins of bell hooks’ and Mary Wollstonecraft’s books. But, you have almost three and a half years to spend in the Axe-scented halls of our shared high school.
These years are just as much real life as any other part of your life will be, and they matter. When I was a freshman, I still lacked the vocabulary to articulate my convictions. Hopefully, I’ve given you a head start on that. It’s likely that you often won’t be able to pinpoint what your beliefs are—your convictions will shift and change, but that doesn’t undermine their validity. You’re allowed to be confused, to evolve in your thought. That might be the most important thing you do in these next few years.