Why do some women wear Tallit? Why shouldn’t women wear Tallit? What’s the big deal?
If you’re like me, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time pondering these questions. As someone who falls somewhere outside of regular observance, a tallit, or prayer shawl, isn’t usually on the forefront of my thoughts. (Even defining a tallit required a quick search of myjewishlearning.com.)
Last week I was lucky enough to join hundreds of Jewish educators at NewCAJE, a peer led conference that brings together educators from all walks of Jewish life. One of the highlights of my time at the conference was attending a session led by Ronni Ticker entitled “Women of the Wall- What’s the Big Deal?”
Even as it’s the start of August and the middle of summer, it’s also about to be the start of the Hebrew month of Elul.
I’m particularly conscious of the timing because my Grandma died – ten years ago this month – on the last day of Av. Confusingly the last day of Av is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul; ie the day before the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, which is in fact the first day of Elul. That in turn is the first day we blow shofar, and thus the official start of the season of teshuva – of returning to our best selves. So, in honor of my grandma, and lest the holidays catch you unawares, a few things to think about in the forthcoming season of teshuva.
It’s one thing to swap stories (the guy who didn’t understand personal space on the subway, the guy who wouldn’t stop talking to you despite the headphones in your ears and your nose in the book, the guy who shouted something about what you were wearing) and, well, it’s another thing to take action. While great resources exist online—like hollaback, an app that exists in 64 cities across 22 countries—support can feel hard to come by. Harassment can feel isolating.
I knew when I went to get my first tattoo that the hardest part wouldn’t be the pain (although it did hurt quite a bit), it would be telling my mother. I had the idea when I was living in Israel, where I fell in love with Hebrew–it’s twists and turns and calligraphy were captivating to me. Chazak, strength, meant to me that I would always be strong, even in moments of weakness or distress.
Since its inception, Yad Vashem has been in the forefront of identifying and honoring Righteous Gentiles saved Jews during WWII. Many of these individuals hid Jews in their homes or organized hiding places that allowed Jews to escape the Nazi dragnet. Stories like those of Oskar Schindler (of Schindler's List fame) and Raoul Wallenberg are well known. Others, no less amazing, are only now beginning to come to light.
Abby Mohr lives a stone's throw away from Boston, but her take on education is global. Barely even in her teenage years, and she cares deeply about making sure girls all over the world can get an education. “I really like school,” she says. “Boys get to go to school all over the world, and girls should too.” Most teenagers probably do not realize just how lucky they are to be educated, but Abby is not one of them.
When I first began writing this piece, I wanted to explain why I got an abortion. But then I remembered it’s no one else’s business. And that’s what’s missing from the conversation in North Carolina. I don’t think its a bad thing for all health clinics to uphold a certain level of standards, both in hygiene and practice; in fact I want that to be the case for any place where I or my loved ones receive medical care. But it IS a bad thing to attempt to limit my right, or the right of any other woman, to make decisions about their body and pass it off as “protection”.
The struggle for social justice involves going beyond what is easy, taking actions that are often risky. I find it helpful to have role models to remind me of the work that needs to be done and often is done by people of privilege. The Jewish Women's Archive website is brimming with just such role models—hundreds of examples of women who did not let their privilege positions keep them from taking courageous action. JWA gives us a look at how our foremothers reconciled the complicated relationship between privilege and activism.
Probably the only thing better than reading a thought provoking piece in a major publication is realizing it was penned by a colleague. Leah Berkenwald, the former editor of our blog, wrote a fantastic article about sexual assault and responsibility. Her message veers away from the traditional, and unfortunate, message of placing blame on women who drink too much and open themselves up for violence, and instead asks the reader to think about the sexual culture of college campuses. Today Leah is the Wellness Education Coordinator at Wentworth Institute of Technology, where she is implementing an original bystander intervention campaign to prevent sexual assault called "Be a WIThero."
As the words of Eicha echo in my ears and the tune gets stuck in my head, I think about how next summer we will still be lamenting same historical tragedies. The crusades and the inquisition and the Holocaust and the siege of Jerusalem all still will have happened. But additional tragedies, of children going to bed and waking up and going to bed again still hungry, of brains not being fed by education, and of bodies forced to bear children they do not want or cannot take care of, are still ahead of us.
As a white, cis female, I’m aware of my privilege. As a Jew, I’m especially aware of how we as a people and community have had first hand experience with more than our share of both privilege and persecution. Perhaps it is because I am so aware of my own privilege and so motivated to move beyond feelings of helplessness that Jacqui’s writing so moved me.
As a Reform Jew, I have long struggled with the meaning and ritual of Tisha B’Av. I have learned and studied over the years; this week at the Hartman Institute, we wrestled with the notions of and texts on communal mourning. I do not wish to see the Temple rebuilt speedily in my day, and so what do I do with this holiday?
While we aren’t still wandering the wilderness of Maob, or navigating the hard working conditions of the lower east side, we must not forget what it means to be a newcomer to a foreign land. And we must take alongside us the reminder that we are the links to our past and our future. We serve as the reminder to not take for granted our ability to be both freely Jewish and American at the same time and to empathize with the conditions new Americans face today. For just as we were slaves in Egypt, so too were our families the ones who paved the path for great opportunity.
It’s been two weeks since our New York Educator’s Workshop, and I am still amazed at the places we visited and all that was taught by Etta, Ellen, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, and all the participants and presenters in attendance. It occurred to me recently how connected I feel to the labor rights movement, which we discussed as we stood in the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Of course there’s the Jewish connection: Jews made up a large percentage of the population of advocates and protesters in the fight for labor rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America. Jewish teachings and Yiddish phrases were often incorporated into the battle cries of the rioters. For me personally, there is much more to it than that.
Earlier this month the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project shared a video of Helen Yelen, who reflected on her time working in a factory alongside Ethel Rosenberg. Rosenberg was executed alongside her husband, Julius Rosenberg, for conspiracy to divulge atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
David participated in Women of the Wall's Rosh Chodesh Av service in Israel. Using the tool Storify, David weaves together his own tweets, reflections, and photos from the experience.
A few years ago, after moving to Cincinnati for Rabbinical School at HUC, I saw a sign along the interstate with a quote from the book of Jeremiah that stated “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you. I have appointed you a prophet unto the nations.” The quote refers to God comforting an incredulous Jeremiah after being told he will be a prophet to all the people at an almost impossibly young age.
Since April 29th of this year, citizens of the great state of North Carolina have been engaging in an ongoing event called “Moral Mondays.” Coordinated and led by the NC-NAACP, Moral Mondays represent the true essence of the Tarheel State—a state and a citizenry who is not afraid of standing up to oppression. It was only 53 years ago that Greensboro, one of the largest cities in NC, experienced this civic action first hand when four African American students from NC A&T staged a sit-in protest at a Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter.
Someone with a sign that read “ask me about my abortion” told me her story with tears in her eyes. She was finally escaping a physically and emotionally abusive relationship when she discovered she was pregnant. She already had a child from a previous relationship, and she was scared for his life as well as her own. An abortion saved her life, and allowed her to escape. After the procedure the doctors discovered a malignant tumor on her ovary, one that had been missed at her previous gynecological checkup. The abortion she received to escape her abuser not only saved her from her hell, it saved her from cancer as well. Those tears in her eyes? They were tears of joy, not sadness. “I can’t help but cry,” she shared, “when I see the entire community out to support women.”
The young actors learn about each other’s cultures (through a Passover seder, Spanish lessons, and more) while learning about themselves. I am constantly amazed by the power of theatre, even after experiencing it personally throughout my education. Watching Liz Swados and her production team interact with the teens reminded me of all the incredible teachers and directors I had the pleasure of working with in high school and college. Theatre gave me self-confidence and taught me the importance of community, and it’s clear that the teens involved in Sosúa learned the same. This fascinating movie provides great insight into the magic of theater as well as into a little known aspect of Shoah history.
Although my friends usually come into the conversation unable to comprehend why nice, Orthodox girls would want to enter the rabbinate, I certainly hope they leave the discussion slightly more enlightened. They don’t have to agree with me at the end of the day; Judaism is very fluid, and no two people must come to the same conclusion regarding the interpretation of halakha. I just hope they can understand why women like the recent Yeshivat Maharat graduates may want to choose the rabbinate or a religious leadership role.
A Jewess isn’t like other women – the word alone makes her stand apart. There’s a slight sense of both shaming and warning in the label, as if it’s her fault that she’s different and she should feel bad about it, and also, you should probably stay away from her—she’s a little different, that one. “Jewess” has connotations of too much: too loud, too pushy, too big, too different (or, according to OkCupid, “more aggressive). She doesn’t perform her femininity as well as non-Jewish women for these reasons—while she’s still recognizable as a women, she’s a different kind of woman. Because of this, “Jewess,” to me, feels more than a little queer.
As a Queer, Jewish, Woman of Color, the ironic thing is that my labels – diverse and full of Otherness as they are – have not been my biggest life-barriers thus far. My SELF has. When I decided to forgive everyone, myself and all past experience, my old self moved aside, and the new, better version of my Self emgerged:
Shiny. Perfect (with a lil’ bit of the roughness on the edges for effect). Whole.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Blog." (Viewed on March 1, 2015) <http://jwa.org/blog>.