Raising My Hand

"The Invisible Hand," by Quentin Cohan

At sixteen years old, I’m entering that phase of my life in which I have to state my personal qualities fairly often, whether in a personal essay for school or in a conversation at a Yom Kippur break-fast. Depending on whom I am speaking to, my answer varies, but it almost always includes a few basic attributes: I am a reader, a writer, an athlete … and I’m a feminist Jew. I’ve gotten more than a few questioning looks when I state this part of my identity, this blend of two hugely influential but seemingly irreconcilable schools of thought—women have not exactly been seen as equals for all of Jewish history, after all. My response to this confusion usually runs along the lines of, “you should meet my family!” One could say that that I was raised at the crossroads of religion and women’s empowerment. At Pesach, my mother and aunts plan the Seders down to the last napkin, lead the music and discussion in a traditionally male-dominated ceremony, and spearhead the mountain of washing-up afterwards—then board planes to return to university teaching and theater direction the next morning.

My own inclination towards leadership was fostered at a young age on alongside an early proclivity for Judaics and Hebrew. At Hebrew school, teachers learned to count on me to jump into any conversation with both feet, despite the other kids’ eye-rolling. I had been taught to be proud of the space I took up, and to value my contributions to conversations. My family belongs to the Reform Jewish movement, so my problem wasn’t an issue of contradicting Halakhah, Jewish law. It was simply that I was outspoken and invested where few other people, especially girls, were.

As I got older, this made religious school much more challenging. I remember looking around a classroom in 5th grade and realizing how many people were staring at the ceiling, while others displayed flashes of passing interest, but quickly rearranged their faces into expressions of disinterest. Seeing this display of apathy, whether real or pretended, I wondered whether any of my classmates been raised as I had—to question, to debate, to make noise? Here, I realized that I had reached another crossroads: to be embarrassed about raising my voice, or to take pride in what I had to say. To silence myself or consciously make myself heard, following the example of the women in my family and in the literature I was studying. These women were not not easy to deal with or soft-spoken, or classically attractive, but they are the ones we remember, the ones who made history.

Continuing to speak up in religious school was a tiny rebellion against the “rules” that governed the dynamic between the cool kids and the decidedly uncool ones. Unabashedly intellectual girls are not just “uncool,” they’re often quickly perceived as dangerous: ruthlessly competitive, or worse, annoying. Am I academic? Absolutely. Do I have ambition? Certainly. I frequently think of an instruction from Joan Didion’s Run, River, given to the female protagonist to help her be more outgoing: “You say what you want and then you go after it … You come from people who have wanted things and got them. Don’t forget it.” I try to remember this at all times—the generations of women who asserted themselves, however quietly—who held their families together through the unimaginable and put down roots in new places and kept the house and kept their faith as well, to whom I am indebted for the life I now lead. I raise my hand in class because sure, I’m ambitious and I want to reach my goals, but more than that, in order to break down the idea of the dangerously outspoken woman and help others that follow to make themselves heard. This fight for equality—gender, religious, or otherwise—is so much more than I am, and yet I am integral to the battle.

This is where my feminism and my Judaism intertwine most closely: strong females and Jews have both been feared and attacked at multiple points in history, despite not wanting much at all. Both groups have entered the mainstream in recent years, and yet some still see them as threatening because they ask for the same things that others have, such as equal hiring opportunities or comfort in spaces where they are the minority. As a feminist Jew, I’ll forever be pursuing the day when it’s okay to want things and go after them, no matter who you are.

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

Topics: Feminism
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How to cite this page

Kubzansky, Caroline. "Raising My Hand." 1 October 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/raising-my-hand>.

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