What the Jewish community often is when it comes to teenage girls

The Teen Girl light now is a target for commercial interests in ways we haven’t seen since Beatlemania. From clothing catalogs to music, movies and television, teen girls have been rediscovered as the hottest market for new products just as the teen population in the United States is expected to mushroom to its largest number in history.

What Jewish message are we communicating through all this noise?

In The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg points out the psychological risks if we leave girls to be buffeted by this relentlessly secular commercial culture. A spate of recent studies by Mary Pipher, Carol Gilligan and others show that girls, who feel good about themselves in their elementary school years, suffer diminished self-esteem in early adolescence and don’t recover those positive feelings throughout high school.

Yet when LILITH set out to survey what programs exist for Jewish girls between bat mitzvah age and the end of high school, we were surprised to discover that very little of the current thinking about girls’ development had penetrated the Jewish community’s thinking and planning. Despite all the recent psychological research on how girls’ lives and experiences are different from those of boys, research on Jewish youth is rarely broken down by gender.

Teen girls in these years turn out to be the most vulnerable segment of the Jewish population, worrying about meeting parental expectations of academic success, struggling to understand both the competition and the bonding they feel with their friends, defining themselves independently from their mothers, trying to shape their bodies to some unattainable ideal of female pulchritude.

What do Jewish girls need within their families, in their intimate relationships, their spiritual lives (yes, girls have them) and in their educational choices and career goals? We need to listen carefully to the teens in order to find out.

In the Jewish world we rarely consult with the consumers of our products to find out what they really want. A classic example: A few years ago, LILITH was preparing to publish an article a woman wrote about a celebration her Rosh Hodesh group had created to mark the first period of one member’s teenage daughter. As we were editing the article, it occurred to us that we didn’t know how the girl had felt! We phoned her. She told us, “It was OK, but it felt like it was more for the women than for me. And I sort of would have liked my Dad to be there.” Who would have guessed? We published her words, too, under the title “I Got My Period at Pizza Hut.”

In the next few pages, and in the next issues of LILITH, we’re going to alert you to girls projects we’ve looked at through a gender lens. We’ve scanned these programs with help from our student interns—all still in their teens—with support from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Chicago. Welcome to the lives and times of teenage Jewish girls. Hold on to your hats (or whatever), and turn the page.

Tell Us About It!

If you are involved with a terrific program for girls, we want to know about it. We’re interested in what’s out there for girls—and what’s missing. We want to know which programs they like and which ones they wouldn’t in a million years attend. Contact us: LILITH, 250 West 57th St., Suite 2432, New York, NY 10107, (212) 757-0818; fax (212) 757-5705;

Responding to pleas, demands, requests and general interest from our readers, we have created a reprint packet of original LILITH articles on body image, Jewish hair, eating and dieting, and more. This packet is made possible through the generous support of the Seth A. and Beth S. Klarman Foundation.

For OUR BODIES send $15 (check or credit card); to LILITH, 250 West 57 St., New York, NY 10107 or fax your credit-card order to (212) 75-5705.