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Putting Religious Feminism Into Practice

Last week I wrote about the way that the ideals of religion and feminism have the potential to come together to create a new breed of woman – the religious feminist – who plays by her own rules, not seeking approval from either secular feminists or right-wing religionists. This week I present a real-life example of this convergence of ideas, a Jewish women’s only performing arts company called Nishmat hatzafon.

Formed in 2005 by religious young women who met in Washington Heights, Nishmat Hatzafon is “designed to promote the expression of Jewish women’s artistic talent and creativity.” It provides an outlet for Orthodox women — who do not feel comfortable performing in front of men — to pursue their passions without compromising their religious convictions. (Though many company members are not particularly religious and have joined just for the sake of the creative outlet. Non-Jewish women are welcome, too.)

Nishmat Hatzafon’s full-length shows incorporate song, dance, and dramatic readings all centered around a particular Jewish-flavored theme, to convey a message along with an aesthetically pleasing experience. They also do shorter “gigs” for women’s organizations and synagogue groups, which incorporate an interactive, educational component, in which audience members get to sing and dance, too. In this way, the group empowers other Jewish women to express themselves creatively, in a “safe” environment.

No one else is doing exactly what Nishmat Hatzafon is doing (as far as they know) but there are a few other women’s only Jewish arts-oriented organizations that have popped up in the last few years, and I think their emergence can be attributed to this new religious-feminist paradigm.

Today’s 20 or 30-something, self-identified modern Orthodox woman is much more likely to cover her hair when married than her mother was, but she is also more likely to have grown up with a sense of feminist entitlement (whether or not she attributes it to feminism) that she should be able to do and achieve whatever she wants to and not feel limited by the fact that she is a woman. And that combination has produced a woman like Dalia Lockspeiser, Nishmat Hatzafon’s artistic director, who covers her hair but has refused to give up her passion for dance, which she has been pursuing since the age of three, just because she no longer feels comfortable performing in front of men.

Women making their own opportunities, establishing their own terms, and empowering themselves and other women in the process, that’s what feminism is about. And these women are doing so in a way that respects and highlights their religious beliefs. Sounds like religious-feminism to me.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman