I remember in my second grade classroom where the “History” bulletin board sat. It was in the far left corner, front of the room, right in my eye line. And I have a very clear memory of being infuriated as the “Black History Month” board was taken down and then replaced by “Women’s History Month.” My early feminist and anti-racist indignation was not kept silent—I often asked my teacher why we had only one month for African American history or women’s history…my question, as many have asked before and since, was:
Shouldn’t it all be the same? Shouldn’t we be learning everyone’s history?
The New York Times had an interesting article today on how female politicians are leveraging offensive and sexist remarks by Republicans to mobilize their base and help with fundraising campaigns. It’s an empowering and deeply satisfying act of political judo, using your opponent’s attacks against them so their smear campaigns only leave them covered in muck themselves.
The new Reform version of Mi Chamocha specifically mentions the prophet Miriam alongside her brother Moses. It’s one of several changes in recent years to help make the traditional prayers more balanced in gender. This one stands out, however, because Miriam has without a doubt become the star of the Mi Chamocha. At my temple, we often segue from that prayer right into “And the women, dancing with their timbrels...” We joyously praise God and women at the same time, and it is all thanks to Miriam.
Over the past few decades, Miriam has become the most prominent symbol of feminism in Judaism, and I am proud to say that I share her name.
I live in Vermont. There are no Jewish day schools here, no Jewish Community Centers, no kosher restaurants. I’ve been the only Jewish kid in class, having to sit and listen as a (non-Jewish) teacher explained that a mensch is someone who just “schleps through life.”
We have a Jewish community here—I am heavily involved with my synagogue and with Vermont’s branch of Young Judaea—but not a Jewish culture.
Then I accidentally found Fran Drescher’s show The Nanny while channel surfing at my Zayde’s cottage, and there it was, a culture I could take with me anywhere, as long as I had Internet or a DVD player.
We all deal with the misconceptions of other people about our passions. For me, those misconceptions repeatedly touch on my identity as a Jewish feminist dancer. Now when I mean feminist, I do not mean the stereotypical kind that burn bras in trash cans, but rather somebody who thinks equal empowerment is morally correct. Being a teenage girl, I believe girls like me should, and have the right to, feel empowered. Which brings me to my passions for dance and Judaism—the two things that have always allowed me to feel strong.
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’re all familiar with the stereotype of the zaftig Jewish bubbe, stuffing her offspring with chicken soup and brisket, shouting, “Eat! Eat! You’re skin and bones.” We love to talk about these mythical kitchens of our childhoods—tables overflowing with kugels and babkas, tsimmus and kneidlach. But for many Jewish women, there was another, more painful, side to this abundance. Our bubbes didn’t just say, “Eat! Eat!” they also said “Why are you eating so much? You’re getting fat!” I don’t think this contradiction is unique to Judaism, but I do think there’s a distinctive cultural spin to this schizophrenic relationship to food. And considering the prevalence of eating disorders, if there are cultural roots, we need to weed them out.
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.