Standing with Letty
As we head into January, the month where we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights, our Rising Voices Fellows will be celebrating equality. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
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.
At the point in my life when I read this book, I had just begun to identify as a feminist, spurred primarily by the injustices I saw in women’s exclusion at my family’s Orthodox synagogue and my school. In Pogrebin’s book, I discovered that women older and wiser than myself had been struggling with the same issues that I was newly discovering. Pogrebin, a heroine of Second Wave feminism and founder of Ms. Magazine, wrote about her rejection of organized Judaism after her exclusion from her mother’s shiva minyan, and her later return to positive identification with Jewish practice. Unlike Pogrebin, I have chosen to struggle with religious sexism from within a life lived according to the dictates of halacha. However, the anger and resentment she describes feeling towards religious sexism resonate deeply with my own experiences.
She describes the indignity of her experience as an extremely Jewishly literate woman who knew the prayers backwards and forwards not counting in her own mother’s shiva minyan, shunted to the side and replaced with a random man. While, thank God, I have never been in mourning, I often am insulted by being passed over or not counted, while my male peers who are significantly less invested or interested in Judaism automatically “count,” both literally and figuratively.
Deborah, Golda, and Me was the first of many books I would read in which I would discover that I was not alone. Imagine—other women disturbed by language in which God was always male! Other Jews imagining the tradition in ways that were freeing instead of oppressive!
I had been struggling, at the time, with images of God in prayer. Pogrebin quoted Susannah Heschel, pointing out “if God is male, then the male is God.” In that simple sentence, I heard my countless classroom arguments echoed back to me, albeit in a much more poignant and concise phrase. Simply put, reading Pogrebin’s book provided me with not only company, but validation; I wasn’t crazy for thinking as I did, and not only that, but women had been thinking about the same issues I had for years before I thought of them!
I’ve now read more about Pogrebin and her work, and I know that her contributions to feminism number many more than just a book about her encounters with Judaism. I’m sure that many decisions I am able to make in my life are the result of her activism and that of her peers. However, I will always owe her a debt of gratitude for Deborah, Golda, and Me; in its pages, I discovered for the first time that I was not alone. That knowledge of years of Jewish feminist activism and scholarship was and is profoundly strengthening; thank you, Ms. Pogrebin.