Decompartmentalizing Jewish and Feminist Identity
In continuing with the Jewish Women’s Archive’s goal of elevating the voices and sharing the stories of Jewish women, I decided to interview and profile Yael Marans, a childhood friend and overall mensch. I’ve spent countless hours poring over JWA’s profiles and encyclopedia, and reading up on Jewish women, whether they be famous or (almost) forgotten. It has been incredibly empowering to read about Jewish women, not unlike myself or others I know, who have made lasting impacts on their communities. This got me thinking about Jewish women I know from my own life who have made a difference, which led me to Yael.
Yael has had a lasting impact on my life and the lives of many others in my communities. This is most humorously exemplified by one of my favorite games, Jewish Geography, during which I almost always meet someone who knows Yael. The chances of this happening only multiply when I am in specifically Jewish and feminist spaces, something that is a testament to her character and her value in these spaces. Yael possesses many stellar qualities besides her well-connectedness in specific circles, but I would go so far as to say that these aren’t mutually exclusive.
To begin, I wouldn’t be a Rising Voices Fellow if it weren’t for Yael’s influence. From a young age, she has always identified as a feminist. Growing up alongside her was my first introduction to what a Jewish feminist could look like and inspired me to question the norms of my communities. Her pursuit of dignity and equality for women within the Jewish community peaked my interest in feminism and led me to the beliefs I hold today. A self-described young woman and observant Jew, identifying as a feminist was never a question for Yael. Despite its constancy, her feminism has evolved significantly over the course of the years and manifested itself in different ways.
Yael has always perceived inequality among the genders, especially within the Jewish community. This was only augmented by her realization at a young age that her mother, a rabbi, was not taken as seriously in the rabbinate as her father, also a rabbi. In middle school, as she was preparing for her bat mitzvah and thinking about the ritual obligations she would take upon herself, her opinions on contemporary secular and religious issues began to solidify. Role models like her older brothers, camp counselors, and teachers were pivotal in helping build her identity as a Jewish feminist. They expanded her consciousness and brought to her attention various issues that women face in modern American society; for example, negative media representation, the wage gap, beauty standards, and the double standards on women’s sexuality.
At the time of her bat mitzvah, Yael decided to take upon the mitzvot (commandments) of tallis and tefillin. Despite the fact that we attended a school with an egalitarian prayer space, Yael was the first of the few girls in our grade to do this. It was around this time that Yael first became tangibly aware of what she describes as “the loneliness of girls performing positive time bound mitzvot,” something that would follow her into her Orthodox high school.
Yael describes how some people have the ability to compartmentalize their secular and religious feminist identities, but that is always something that eluded her as a feminist and a Jew. This became especially apparent as she entered high school and realized that she no longer felt comfortable or spiritually fulfilled when davening without tallis and tefillin. This conflicted with her high school’s policy, so she spent close to two years davening (praying) at home with tallis and tefillin and then also davening at school without them. During her sophomore year, after many months of asking, she and another classmate who also sought to wear tallis and teffilin at school were given permission to do so. As word spread around the school’s community and the wider Jewish community, Yael found herself at the center of countless articles, op-eds, and think pieces, being lauded or vilified by rabbinic authorities and religious leaders. In using Yael, her choices, and those of her school’s administration as a springboard for a much larger conversation, many of these articles breached Yael’s privacy and made harmful assumptions about her.
Despite the unwanted media attention, Yael has led a fairly normal, yet very impressive life in high school, thanks to a strong support network and her own grit. She is full of depth and vivacity, traits that I have had the pleasure of experiencing as her friend, but also aspects that were sometimes overlooked by exploitive news sources. Yael’s contribution to the Jewish feminist community is not limited to her passionate fight to be able to wear ritual objects traditionally restricted to men—I look forward to seeing what she’ll do next.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Green, Noam. "Decompartmentalizing Jewish and Feminist Identity." 25 May 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 5, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/decompartmentalizing-jewish-and-feminist-identity>.