When I became a Woman of the Wall, I became more fully Jewish.
I had been a rabbi for almost 20 years the day I was detained, with nine other women – including my seventeen-year-old daughter – by police for wearing a tallis and praying out loud at the kotel. We were singing the psalms of hallel when a young police officer waved for me to follow her out of the women’s section. I shook my head. She approached me, her hand outstretched. I reached for my daughter who is named for the prayers we sang – Hallel --and together we sat down. The police officer squatted in front of me and asked me to come with her.
I went to Charleston, South Carolina during the week of Passover to escape the fact that this year my holiday didn’t really feel like a holiday. My three kids were with their father for the week, according to the custody schedule. My parents and siblings were in Israel, and I’d decided not to join them there.
My boyfriend and I had picked Charleston because it was a city I’d never been to and as a Southerner myself, I’d always wanted to visit. But until now, it had never made it to the top of the list – and indeed, my own sense of myself as a Southerner was fading. The longer I lived away – in New York and now in Boston - the less present that personal and family history felt, more a piece of where I come from, but less and less who I am.
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.
Here at JWA, every day we celebrate the lives of American Jewish women and their contributions to our history. We commemorate their lives and accomplishments and share their stories with visitors from all over the world. For this Jewish American Heritage Month, we are partnering with Kveller.com, a parenting website with a fresh Jewish twist. JWA and Kveller are teaming up to bring to light lesser-known stories of Jewish American women whose legacies live on—and inspire-- today.
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.
What does it mean to remember together?
Silence. That’s what I remember. Silence coated in hazy sunshine and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I spent most of the week of the Boston Marathon Bombing feeling alone—at my desk at work, on the couch or laying in bed at home. I woke the day of the lockdown to the news on WBUR coming from my alarm clock and I sat quietly, anxiously, in my apartment all day. I heard nothing outside, no sirens or cars or people shouting in the alley outside my window. It was totally surreal. I didn’t sleep well for weeks after that happened. I felt scared and alone.
Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to catch the final performance of Underground Railway Theater’s Brundibar & But the Giraffe, which was actually two plays separated by an intermission. The first of which, But the Giraffe, by multiple-award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, is about a little girl given a choice; her family is frantically packing up their belongings, and there is very little room left in their suitcase, and she must choose between bringing her beloved toy giraffe or the score of an opera for children, Brundibar.
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.
I recently experienced the multi-media performance The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book composed by the Bosnian-born Merima Kljuco, which expressed freedom at so many different levels and with such fervent passion. History was recast through a dialogue of accordion and piano, synchronized with artistic renditions of corresponding historical events. The 12 movements started with the creation of the Haggadah just before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, to Venice in 1609 where Jews were confined to the ghetto, to Sarajevo in 1941 where Hitler’s goal was to establish a “museum of an extinct race” and a Muslim imam hid the book until the war was over, through the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, finally ending with the Mother’s Benediction in Ladino when the Haggadah ends up back home.
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.
"Kindly Peruse This Cordial Invitation" read the email’s subject line; the "Ladies of the Milk and Sugar Club" were inviting me to tea. On Wednesdays at 5:00pm we met in crowded dorm rooms, sipping chai and swapping stories. The invitation’s anachronistic language nodded to the oddity of holding Lady Tea Time in our liberal arts college setting—most of us had performed in The Vagina Monologues, after all—but each week our conversations were unironic, unarchaic. During Lady Tea Time, it was safe to voice my deepest, darkest gynecological fears. Finally, those fears could meet the raw laughter of recognition. Lady Tea Time helped me turn "Women’s History Month" into a weekly practice, rather than a yearly one.
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’m a scholar of women’s history, so you’d think March—the official Women’s History Month—would be the highlight of my year. You’d be wrong. As I (and many others) have written about before, it’s insufficient to devote one month a year to the story of more than half the population, and problematic to ghettoize women’s history as if it isn’t integral to our understanding of all history.
But you’d also be right. Because a governmentally proclaimed Women’s History Month presents the opportunity—one that I gleefully embrace—to engage people in the work of making women’s history. By “work” I don’t just mean study. Sure, it’s great for teachers to use March as a time to focus on women’s stories in their classrooms. But women’s history also suggests a model for radically shifting our understanding of history from an academic subject to a worldview, and even a social justice imperative.
There was a moment in my late twenties when I seriously considered rabbinical school. I was changing careers, trying to figure out what my next step would be, and becoming a rabbi would have allowed me to blend my love of Jewish ritual, my intellectual curiosity, and my passion for helping people into a calling. It made sense, on a deep level. But the more I talked about it with friends who were already rabbis and rabbinical students, the more they cautioned me, “As a woman, if you become a rabbi and you’re not married yet, you need to accept that you’ll probably never marry. Men don’t want to date women who are authority figures; it’s too emasculating.” I wanted to be a rabbi. But I also wanted marriage and children. When I believed that I needed to choose between them, I couldn’t bear the thought of never having children of my own. I quietly turned my focus to other graduate programs.
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.
Women who make history rarely feel the need to adhere to others' narratives—and that goes double for Jewish women. So it's not surprising that when Radia Perlman, architect of many of the routing and bridging protocols that make the modern Internet possible, discusses her childhood, she casually disposes of the standard geek-culture heroic origin story: "I did not fit the stereotype of the 'engineer.' I never took things apart or built a computer out of spare parts." Irene Greif, a fellow computer scientist who brought ethnographers, anthropologists and sociologists into systems design through her field of computer-supported cooperative work, cheerfully admits: "I have a whole history of always choosing marginal roles and in marginal subjects of research and so on for myself." Her work, though, has turned out to be anything but marginal.
By the time Ronald Reagan declared the first Women's History Month in March, 1987, I was a college junior. Women's history had already changed my life. In college I realized that women's history could do more than add an exceptional famous woman or two into the stories of famous men; asking about women could change the whole picture of history. Of course, it took me a little longer to realize just how many famous women's stories I didn't know.
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.
Every year, college campuses and feminist institutions set aside one month to celebrate the trials and achievements of women throughout history. Many of these women are virtually unknown to the public due to their absence from most history books. To combat this issue, Women’s History Month was established to shed light on these unsung heroes.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Blog." (Viewed on October 25, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog>.