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People of Valor

It's Friday night. I'm sitting in a big tent, surrounded by some of the greatest friends I've ever made. The smell of chicken soup wafts under our noses. A man walks to the front of the room, and we smile and link pinkies with the people next to us. This is it. The moment we’ve been waiting for all week. I take a deep breath and close my eyes as he begins in Hebrew...

Eshet, chayil, mi yimtza?
Verachok mipninim michra.
Batach ba lev baala,
Veshalal lo yechsar.

A Woman of Valor, who can find? 
She is more precious than corals. 
Her husband places his trust in her,
and profits only thereby. 

Eshet Chayil, generally translated as “a woman of valor” is a song traditionally sung at Friday night dinner. The song praises a wife for all that she does for the family. The lyrics themselves are, if anything, outdated. It’s just not very 2016 to have a special song written about wives’ housework. For this reason, in my traditional Conservative household, we skip it. Camp Ramah, which I have attended for the last five summers, does not. The truth is, the tune sung at camp is beautiful, and I usually allow myself to forget the words and just enjoy the music and the moment. 

Within this camp tradition lies a second, once-a-summer tradition. On the second to last Shabbat of camp, the boys in the oldest edah (age group) sing it to the girls of the edah. There are a few oddities in this tradition. This song being sung at an egalitarian camp is strange because it contradicts many of the values of the camp. A bunch of sixteen-year-olds singing a song to each other that is meant for a husband to sing to his wife is also quite strange. My wonderful counselors felt similarly, and decided to change it up. They let us know that this year, the opportunity would be open to whoever felt that they wanted involvement. 

Many boys were angry. This was their thing. There are girls’ traditions at camp- why couldn’t they have theirs? Any girl who participated was bound to have a stressful final week of the summer filled with many tense interactions with annoyed boys. I wasn’t going to do it. I decided that I’d stand on the sidelines, and sacrifice what I thought was right for a perfect last week at camp. The time came, and I saw the group of boys get ready to sing. Two or three girls walked by me to join them. “Are you going to sing?” I asked, knowing very well what they were doing. When they answered, I realized that not joining would go against everything I believed in. And so, I stood in front of the camp, singing to a group of a couple hundred eyes, all looking forward to the day when they could do what I was doing.

I had so much fun. Looking at the rest of camp, singing the song that had become so definitive of my Shabbatot- this was what it meant to be a leader. All summer we’d been taught how to take the things we’d always loved when they were given to us, and make them our own. Missing out on such an opportunity based on centuries-old gender obsession would have been, for me, an enormous mistake. I have great respect for all the girls that just wanted to listen- that was their tradition, and that’s ok. But I do believe it’s time to shake things up. My decision to sing this song was an imperfect one; in an ideal world, as a community, we’d build new traditions that fit the times. However, the greatest change comes gradually.

For many, summer camp, specifically Jewish summer camp, is a rite of passage. The personal growth, the total Jewish immersion, the relationships- these are all things that wouldn’t and couldn’t be the same anywhere else. But the incredibly strict gender binary of Jewish summer camps needs a 21st century re-assessment. Because in the most important place in many kids lives, we can and we must do better.

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2 Comments

When I was young, I thought the words/concept of Eshet Chayil were in conflict with my egalitarian beliefs and told my husband he dared not refer to, or address me, in such terms. At around 50, I changed my mind. Today, I consider the words to embody love and respect for the role of women a historical context. Though the roles and responsibilities have changed dramatically, the expression of love and respect is every bit as valuable to the relationship between husband and wife.

So let's sing something appropriate right back at 'em. The problem is being sincere. A shande auf mir, I've had a few husbands. None of them deserved a song. (and I've got a very nice voice). Who's going to sing: "OY, you shmendrik, why don't you talk to me?!" (dayenu?)

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How to cite this page

Fish-Bieler, Hani. "People of Valor." 22 April 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 15, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/people-of-valor>.

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