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.
My first Women's History Month Event took place in the spring of 1985. I was a college student in Syracuse, New York and yet I was unaware of the importance of Seneca Falls, just down the highway. Lucretia Mott was the name of a woman I heard on School House Rock.
Way back in 2012 when Lena Dunham’s Girls first aired, I admired Dunham’s sincere portrayal of broke young women with artistic ambitions. I could barely watch the show without cringing at its painful accuracies. Since then—since the show’s quick rise in popularity, the magazine photo shoots and Adam Driver’s Gap advertisement, Dunham’s perspective seem more stylized than real. Film and television portrayals of the lives of struggling twenty-somethings feel increasingly less unique and my experiences as a woman of the Girls generation—going to Brooklyn bars in a crop top etc.—feel aspirational and contrived.
I remember in my second grade classroom where the “History” bulletin board sat. It was in the far left corner, front of the room, right in my eye line. And I have a very clear memory of being infuriated as the “Black History Month” board was taken down and then replaced by “Women’s History Month.” My early feminist and anti-racist indignation was not kept silent—I often asked my teacher why we had only one month for African American history or women’s history…my question, as many have asked before and since, was:
Shouldn’t it all be the same? Shouldn’t we be learning everyone’s history?
In traditional society, men are seen as the risk takers, while women are supposed to be docile homemakers. When women step up to the plate, it stands out. To me, the women who bravely put aside their fears and take matters into their own hands are the ones who make the difference and are role models for all people.
In the Torah, there is a story of two women, Shifra and Puah, and the risks they took to save the lives of some children in Egypt. These midwives worked for the Israelites and took orders from Pharaoh, who knew the two of them and specifically told them to kill any male children born to Hebrew mothers, but they chose to not listen to him. It’s not clear if these two women were part of the Jewish people or if they were Egyptians. Still, their story takes place for a reason, not just to explain how Moses survived, but also to bring a lesson to future Jews about courage and the impact of the risks they take.
The idea of Women’s History Month is relatively new. National Women’s History Week only became an official event in 1980 and was expanded to Women’s History Month in 1987. But here’s the surprising thing: unlike Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, which come every year, Women’s History Month is renewed year after year by a presidential declaration. It’s not automatic that we set aside time every year to think about women’s history and women’s roles in society; it’s an ongoing, conscious process.
This Women’s History Month, we invite you to think about women and change. Has Women’s History Month made a difference? Have you noticed a difference in how you live your life or perceive the world? Differences between your outlook on the world and the way your mom, your aunt, your daughter view things? Do we still need Women’s History Month?
The New York Times had an interesting article today on how female politicians are leveraging offensive and sexist remarks by Republicans to mobilize their base and help with fundraising campaigns. It’s an empowering and deeply satisfying act of political judo, using your opponent’s attacks against them so their smear campaigns only leave them covered in muck themselves.
The feminist movement is a de facto community. Feminists tend to work in groups, be they virtual or physical, as we unify around our shared convictions. As people committed to ostensibly similar goals, we concern ourselves with the statements made by others who claim the same title. Any time a major article is published by a prominent feminist writer on a feminist site or in a mainstream publication, it immediately draws criticism. Much of this criticism is from those who don’t identify as feminists; these critiques tend to be mixed, some offering interesting new ideas while others simply express sexism. Feminists, however, also engage in a substantial amount of internal self-criticism.
The new Reform version of Mi Chamocha specifically mentions the prophet Miriam alongside her brother Moses. It’s one of several changes in recent years to help make the traditional prayers more balanced in gender. This one stands out, however, because Miriam has without a doubt become the star of the Mi Chamocha. At my temple, we often segue from that prayer right into “And the women, dancing with their timbrels...” We joyously praise God and women at the same time, and it is all thanks to Miriam.
Over the past few decades, Miriam has become the most prominent symbol of feminism in Judaism, and I am proud to say that I share her name.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Blog." (Viewed on October 1, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog>.