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!
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!
I didn’t expect much when I first joined the Rising Voices Fellowship—I thought I’d meet some fellow writers and have a good time blogging. Yes, both of those things ended up happening for me, but I ended up getting so much more out of the fellowship than I had originally expected. I’ve participated in many meaningful activities, but joining the Rising Voices Fellowship was one of my favorites. I’ve been able to explore who I am as a writer and as a Jewish feminist.
Before this year, I had always viewed writing as a solitary process. I wrote alone, revised little and only sought feedback after a piece was complete. Rising Voices has given me the gift of community both inside and outside of the Fellowship—writing has become a collaborative process and I and my work are better for it. I’ve learned three primary lessons in this area from my peers, from my teachers, from my editors, and from my friends.
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.
The first books I ever fell in love with were the American Girl books. The American Girl Company as a whole was a big part of my childhood, and its influence is still with me today: if it weren’t for it and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” I don’t know if I would have passed US History last year. Educational value aside, the books have held up as fantastic examples of children’s literature, with their beautiful illustrations, interesting historical notes in the margins, diverse characters (including their cast of thirteen young female protagonists), and, most importantly to me, simple but solid stories.
Even though the snow has persisted through and beyond the winter season, I am glad to acknowledge that spring is finally here! But before my junior year of high school comes to a close, I still have to cross some bridges before I can sail into summertime mode. Along with my upcoming AP exam, finals, and SAT test, I will shortly face the ultimate Jewish challenge: Passover.
For those who follow the Passover tradition where all grains are cut from the daily diet for eight days, then you certainly know that blissful feeling during break-fast when you take a big bite into that challah and think “wow, I will never take bread for granted again.”
When I was younger, if you had asked me which of the many Jewish holidays is my favorite, I would never have said Passover. The restrictions that Passover requires made it hard for me to enjoy the message behind the Passover story. Plus, the drama that Passover created in my family, with my parents running around the house cleaning, only added to the stress. My grandmother changed this feeling for me.
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.
I have always struggled at my family’s Passover Seders. My difficulties have not been emotional or spiritual, religious or psychological. My troubles have been purely physical; every year, I wrestle with the giant stack of haggadot next to my plate, which seems intent on toppling over. I spread the books around me, trying to follow my family’s traditional Seder in five or more disparate texts, a linguistic comment here, a poem there.
It was August of 1970, and a group of 50,000 women marched proudly together in New York, marking the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Betty Friedan, a feminist activist, organized the event and was asked to address the crowd. At one moment during the march, she recounted, she suddenly found herself quoting a Hebrew prayer: “Down through the generations in history, my ancestor prayed, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was not created a woman’. From this day forward women all over the world will be able to say, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman.’” Later, she explained that she was surprised that she drew upon Jewish text when expressing feminist ideas.
At that very moment, two of Friedan’s worlds collided—her Jewish and feminist worlds. The biblical quote connected the two—and ultimately created one powerful experience.
I consider myself a feminist, and I also strive to combat other axes of oppression in my daily life, but sometimes I fall through. Far too often, I’ll stay quiet when I hear someone make a transphobic comment or a misogynistic remark. Some days I’m really not up to challenging that person, but other times I just let myself believe that it’s not my battle, that it doesn’t matter, that someone else will take care of it.
“Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.” —Bella Abzug
Bella Abzug held office in the House of Representatives some forty years ago, and since then, what she said has been proven: those days are over. Women aren’t being trained to speak softly anymore, at least not uniformly. Outspoken women are allowed to put themselves out there.
Adults may scoff, and my friends may hypocritically mock me, but I can never deny that I would want to stand out in a crowd. Whether a college application, a creative thesis for school, or even the food that I bring for lunch, I want to discover a personal uniqueness that I carry so I can have some special pride in my stride. Luckily for me, I can already claim an artistic and spiritual individuality that I bring to the table as a female Jew.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Rising Voices." (Viewed on May 25, 2015) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices>.