Live from the Lilith Blog

June 9, 2010 by

A Voyeur's Garb

I admit it–I’m an Orthodox voyeur (fetishist, you might call it). As in, I am guilty of a certain degree of exoticization of the Orthodox community. For a while, I was convinced that in spite of my relatively non-observant upbringing, I could become part of it (see “Pants Embargo, 2003-2005”). I was wholly unsuccessful at it- I didn’t become more religious, I just didn’t wear pants- although I think on the outside, people bought it. At least, they were quick to comment as soon as the jeans made a reappearance.

Some vestiges have remained, in the form of what I can describe as situations in which I feel like an anthropologist in communities that I am theoretically supposed to be a part of. Example most recent: the JOFA conference (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). I love this space, every time it comes around, I rearrange things so I can go. It’s a strange place for me to find comfort and inspiration, because I often also feel insanely frustrated by what I perceive as collusion with a system that consistently, actively and aggressively subjugates and invisibilizes women.

I’ve been listening to the recordings of the sessions I didn’t attend while at the conference, and thinking about the creation of space as I do it. I thought a lot about what to wear this year. Ultimately, I wore a skirt, which in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done. I felt like I was in costume, undercover, but also, fake. With the exception of a few people I knew, everyone who saw me that day thought I was an Orthodox woman. In the past, I would have been okay with that, even grateful for the association, but no longer, because it’s not who I am, or who I ever was.

Ultimately, the genius of the JOFA project, whether purposeful or not, is the opportunity for ingathering of all different types of Jewish feminists, the welcoming of the lenses and the narratives. In doing so, we (okay, me) have to confront what we find most disturbing, meaningful and joyful about Judaism, as well as put our heads together to change it. It requires patience and commitment, but it also requires an unpacking of assumption-about Orthodoxy, Jewish women, Jewish communities, and ultimately, what it means to be Jewish ourselves.

-Chanel Dubofsky


  • Elana Premack Sandler

    Chanel, this sentence resonated so much with me: “I felt like I was in costume, undercover, but also, fake.” I struggle to make the choice that you, too, struggle with on a very regular basis, probably just about every time I attend any remotely Jewish event (including birthday celebrations of Jewish friends at non-Kosher, very non-Jewish establishments). I like (and also relate to) how you speak of yourself as “like an anthropologist.” It’s far easier to be an observer than a member of (I think there’s a parallel in being a journalist/writer – you can attend, but you don’t have to participate).

    I also agree with you about JOFA. JOFA is such an open organization, and I do think that has something to do with its founders, including Blu Greenberg (who I kind of adore), being very confident in their individual positions, but not “cocky” so as to push those positions on others. The conference, when I attended, was a very positive experience for me, as it showed clearly that there are many others who wrestle with what it means to be Jewish ourselves.

    Though he is a man and has different issues, my husband also has had interesting experiences with perceptions of him based on his daily choice of Jewish garb, which is limited to a knit kippa. The majority of people assume he is Orthodox. He has said, just as you did, “It’s not who I am, or who I ever was.” Particularly as a feminist who has actively, strategically chosen to participate in a fully egalitarian community of Jewish practice, it hurts him to be assumed to be anything other than that, based solely on the wearing of the kippa.

    Modern Judaism, particularly as lived in the U.S., makes it hard for all of us to make choices that allow us to be who we really are, which makes me very sad. I think that does mean something for the future of Judaism, when our choices are limited by being perceived incorrectly by others (i.e., would anyone assume that a non-Jewish woman wearing a skirt was Orthodox? But, the combination of Jewish+woman+skirt has such implications…).

    Thank you for your post – as always, excellent and thought-provoking.