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.
If you want me to learn something that I don’t care too much about, the solution is simple: teach it to me in Spanish. Over the winter break, my two-year-old cousin visited for a day and we went to a children’s science museum together. The highlight of the afternoon was spending time with my cousin and seeing her enjoy the museum; the museum itself was underwhelming, especially since I’ve never been much of a science person. At least, that’s what I thought until we got to a temporary exhibit that was presented in both English and Spanish.
I was so focused on trying to translate all the Spanish without looking at the English that my cousin lost interest in the exhibit before I did.
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.
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.)
For as long as I can remember, Rosa Parks has been the star of every social studies lesson. In third grade, we learned about the nice lady who worked as a seamstress and boarded a bus to go home from work. In eighth grade, she was the strong woman who stood up for herself and played a significant role in the civil rights movement. In eleventh grade, we learned that her historic refusal to give up her seat was not random, but planned by civil rights leaders.
But the message of Rosa Parks goes beyond the classroom.
Just the other day I took part in a big rite of passage for many suburban teens and braved a very imposing vacant parking lot to tackle one of my larger anxieties: manning an automotive vehicle. I clearly failed when it came to predicting the required amount of tenacity needed to control that metal monster, but like most teenagers that golden fantasy of independently cruising down the road in a glorious car overrode the shaming jerks, scratches, and damaged vegetation. I cannot deny that driving is scary; with just one misplaced press of a pedal I could jeopardize the safety of many people (and my parent’s car). But in the end, my rallied courage was worth it—now I can confidently drive without my eyes glued to the gearshift!
Though my anecdote is whimsical, the theme of persistence is relevant to next week’s MLK day.
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.
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.