The Rising Voices Fellowship is a collaborative program created by the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) and Prozdor of Hebrew College. The fellowship is open to female-identified teens with a passion for writing, a demonstrated concern for current and historic events, and a strong interest in Judaism—particularly as it relates to issues of gender and equality. Learn more here!
I set the water on my stove to boil and flicked on the kitchen radio, which was, as usual, set to NPR. The announcer was giving an update on the ebola crisis, now listing fatalities from a recent accident, now discussing the stock market—I changed the channel. I’d had a long enough day already and had no desire to sit and listen to the ongoing string of bad news. I flipped through channels until I hit a pop station that wasn’t in the middle of a commercial break. As I pulled out plates and pasta sauce, a new song played in the background.
In my hometown, December means more than just early evenings and the optimism of an impending winter break. It takes on significance beyond any of the holidays, concerts or changes in the weather. Instead, December means Cotillion, the prom-like event that has groups of high school students talking endlessly of dresses and limousines, pre-parties and after-parties, and definitely not the etiquette that the dance is supposed to teach.
For most of my life, my fashion sense has been dictated more by what I don’t want to wear than what I do want to wear. Socks with seams? Nope. Tight jeans? No way. Itchy sweaters? Out of the question! I feel almost nothing towards clothes, and when I do feel anything, it is usually frustration at tedious trips to the mall and or the seamstress shop. Sure, I enjoy looking “good.” But I have never really had any idea what “good” actually means.
I was leading the feminist crusade toward an era where women would be judged not by the cuteness of their clothing but the content of their character. I, clad in ill-fitting yet fully functional attire, was the ascetic monk of the religion of Not Caring What Other People Think.
It was sixth grade when I started to feel like a child among women. Up until that point my wardrobe had consisted mostly of gaucho pants, t-shirts, and Converse sneakers, which suited my perfectly boyish body. But the dreaded halls of middle school eventually caught up with me and walking into school the first day I was caught up in a flurry of flowery perfume, tight leggings clung to early curves, lip gloss, and straightened hair flipping over shoulders. Hormones were raging and silly crushes became relationships while“hook up” was introduced into my vocabulary.
When I shop for clothes, I try to purchase tops that are not exceedingly cropped, low-cut, or sheer. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been excited about a cute dress or shirt, only to flip it over and find that the back is completely cut out. This is disappointing, but it also makes me question my own tendency to judge the Girl with the Crop Top. If the majority of clothes at the mall are cut out, cut-up pieces of fabric, it might not be fair to judge consumers for buying what is being sold.
The little girl races to unwrap it and gasps when she sees what the package contains. It’s Slumber Party Barbie™ and she couldn’t be more thrilled. All of the girls in her class have the doll, and now she can’t wait to bring her new Barbie in to school to show them! With the silky haired icon comes an accessory set including a pink satin robe, hair curlers and a pajama set. But what Barbie would be complete without a matching pink scale permanently set at 110 lbs. to keep her slim and fit? Oh and better yet, Slumber Party Barbie™ comes with her very own diet book, solely containing the advice “Don’t eat!”
One of the best ways to write poetry is to read poetry: this is common knowledge probably spoken at every writing class in the world. However, this advice is not specific enough. The leader of the class should instead announce to the group of rookie writers that one of the best ways to write poetry is to read the poetry of Adrienne Rich.
I am a junior in high school. I’m involved in the mock trial team, the drama department, the creative writing program, and a music club. I’m also on two sports teams: water polo and swimming. I could have also chosen to participate in basketball, or cross country, or tennis, or volleyball, or soccer, or a dozen other sports. I definitely take for granted my opportunities to participate in the athletics and activities of my choice.
Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca was not a women’s rights activist. She was a people’s rights activist.
She understood the problems of the working class—people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds—and sought to improve conditions for workers.
It just so happened that along the way, she became a leader in a way that was unprecedented for women of her era.
Our world is a broken place.
It’s important to acknowledge this, to be aware of what is going on around us, because only then can we begin to pick up the pieces and try to make repairs. One of the points of brokenness in the world right now is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an ongoing struggle between two groups of people fighting over the same land.
It is no mistake that when people think of the 1950s, a very specific image comes to mind. A slim white woman wears her kitten heels as she holds a baby on her hip with one hand and pushes a vacuum with the other. That same slim white woman flashes a smile while placing a cooked meal in front of her husband and children, family programming playing on the television. This ideal housewife was present everywhere, dominating women’s magazines, advertisements, TV shows, movies, and literature. Women were supposed to be simple, kind, doting, dutiful, and, of course, selfless.
As a student applying to college, my peers and teachers regularly ask me what I am interested in studying. However, when I excitedly answer “business and political economics and foreign affairs,” people often raise their eyebrows or look at me as though I have something in my teeth. One recent encounter stands out as particularly shocking.
Sophie Tucker was a heavyweight performer—in every sense of the word. Right up to her death in 1966 at age 82, Tucker, the so-called “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” took her act worldwide, combining her singing talents and bawdy humor into a legendary act that would manage to survive the demise of vaudeville and the dawn of the television age—all while remaining determinedly and definitively plus-sized.
Long before Emma Lazarus’ words were immortalized on that great copper statue, she was a young Jewish American girl growing up in New York. Throughout her life she produced numerous poems, essays, letters, translations, and even a novel.
I knew I was getting older when my mom stopped letting me bring Archie comics and Crayola crayons with me to services. These kept me entertained, even if it meant hiding my comics behind the prayer books, peeking over them periodically to see if anyone had noticed the offending material.
In March 2014, I went to Israel for two weeks with my entire grade. On our first Shabbat there, we were given the choice to attend three different services: Sephardic Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. As a member of the “only goes to services on High Holidays and doesn’t keep Shabbat” school of observance, I would usually go directly to the Reform service but I thought to myself, “I’m in Israel, I should live a little!” I had heard Sephardic services were full of music and dancing, so that’s where I decided to go.
My mother is Jewish and my father is not. As a very active member of the Jewish community who just begun her twelfth year of formal Jewish education, I do not consider myself interfaith. I am Jewish through and through. As confident as I am about my identity as a Jew and my place in the Jewish community, I am insecure about my role in the feminist community.
So how in the world was the rigid, traditional, millenniums-old practice of Judaism in any way connected to feminism, a movement that aims to restructure societies’ ideals and question tradition? How could I identify as both a believing Jew and as a feminist, not to mention lumping them together into one phrase? The more I repeated them to myself, the more the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘feminist’ sounded incorrect side by side, like “candied broccoli” or “kind bigot.”
Although I wish they were, feminism and Judaism are not congruous in my life. I am a feminist. I am a Jew. But when I put them together, they clash. In my life, being Jewish means that I am a part of my Modern Orthodox community, it means that I go to shul every week and sit in my designated place on the left side of the mechitza, the low wall that separates men and women during prayer.
Why am I both burdened and liberated by the rich history that precedes me, and how do I identify myself with it accordingly? I remember sitting in a car outside of a Dunkin Donuts when I first pondered this question. Watching the cars drive along the highway, I tried to discern the faces of the drivers—discover their races, religions and genders in order to associate their appearances with stereotypical status and privilege. I wondered about myself—how I could fit in among the mosaic of peoples when my own identity seemed so misshapen.
A few Saturday mornings a month, my Dad and I go to synagogue to read Torah. We drive there, even though my synagogue is within walking distance; my Dad often has errands to run, or I have a dance class I need to make, two activities that cannot be accomplished efficiently through walking. We pull into the parking lot, pry open the synagogue’s heavy wooden doors, and take our seats at the very back of the sanctuary. Within thirty minutes, as the Torah is being lifted in the air for the ritual of hagbah, we are out of there.
Many things about my lifestyle confuse my grandmother.
She does not understand why I wear white after Labor Day, how I can text so quickly, or why I’m vegetarian.
And four years ago, she could not understand how my name would be read as I was called to the Torah to become a Bat Mitzvah.
Traditionally, I would be Ilana bat (my mother's Hebrew name, which happens to be Rachel) and (my father's Hebrew name.) The issue with that formula was, I only had one parent. I have only ever had one parent.
The Rising Voices Fellowship was an experience unlike any other I’ve had before. It offered new insights on so many areas of life: feminism, Judaism, writing, working with others, personal growth, community... and I could go on. Needless to say, I’ve learned more things this year than I can list. But I can still offer a small sample...
I honestly had no clue what type of psychological boot camp I signed up for when I agreed to participate in JWA’s Rising Voices blog. This was nothing like the physical endurance that I face at school when I dance; writing for the Fellowship has carved every possible theme, issue, and interest that could be put into a blog post out of my cranium. Yes, we fellows technically had a month to write our pieces, but for perfectionists like me, this was nothing!
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Rising Voices." (Viewed on March 29, 2015) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices>.