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I Got It From My Mama: Feminism, Judaism, and Me

Many things about my lifestyle confuse my grandmother.

She does not understand why I wear white after Labor Day, how I can text so quickly, or why I’m vegetarian.

And four years ago, she could not understand how my name would be read as I was called to the Torah to become a Bat Mitzvah.

Traditionally, I would be Ilana bat (my mother's Hebrew name, which happens to be Rachel) and (my father's Hebrew name.) The issue with that formula was, I only had one parent. I have only ever had one parent.

To assuage my grandmother's anxiety, I asked my rabbi what my Hebrew name would be, considering I have a single mom.

“Well,” he responded, “I guess you would just be Ilana bat Rachel.” And so it was. As I was called up to the Torah, my name echoed throughout the synagogue, announcing, “this is a Jewish woman, daughter of a single mother.”

My name, both in English and in Hebrew, is a symbol of Judaism and feminism. There is no denying the inherent Jewish-ness of a name like Ilana Goldberg, let alone Ilana bat Rachel. When my mom named me, she labeled me as unmistakably Jewish. Additionally, both versions of my name indicate my child-of-a-single-mother status: in Hebrew, the single name Rachel, in English the last name “Goldberg,” my mom's maiden name. Through my name I inherited Jewish heritage and my mother's convictions that a single woman can raise a child. When it comes to my feminism and my Judaism, in the famous words of Will.i.am, “I got it from my mama.”

The more I learn about Judaism and feminism, the more I begin to question exactly what they mean to me, how they are supposed to influence my actions, and how I want to be perceived because of them. Questions like, “How Jewish are you?” or “What do you mean by ‘feminist?’” have made me realize that the words “Judaism” and “feminism” are labels we give to umbrella terms that are less umbrellas than they are circus tents.

When I get overwhelmed by the prospect of having to pinpoint exactly what it means to be Jewish or to be a feminist, it is reassuring to remember that these are just labels, or, the way I see them, names. I have always been Ilana Goldberg, but my definition of ‘Ilana Goldberg’ has varied greatly throughout my seventeen years of existence. So too have my definitions of feminism and Judaism: I am constantly exposed to new opinions on Judaism and feminism, some of which I can easily agree or disagree with, but most of which just lead me to realize how nuanced these terms are. This can be challenging because I see feminism and Judaism as huge parts of my identity, and I know that they are large parts of the way others perceive me. It would certainly be easier to have a simple answer about who I am as a Jew, or as a feminist, or just as Ilana, but I’ve come to accept that that may never happen, and I believe that my inability to see myself in simple terms indicates not indecision, but interest.

And so, although I may never have a single definition of what Judaism and feminism mean to me, I can still allow myself to say, “I am a feminist. I am Jewish.” I can tell my grandmother, “Don't worry. I'm Ilana bat Rachel.” 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Feminism
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How to cite this page

Goldberg, Ilana. "I Got It From My Mama: Feminism, Judaism, and Me." 14 October 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/i-got-it-from-my-mama-feminism-judaism-and-me>.

Program from Ilana Goldberg's Bat Mitzvah.

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