First Frissons of Feminism
Let me start with the bat mitzvah. The scene is clear in my mind. It was in the evening, probably in the fall of 1954 or 1955. As a student at Boston’s public Girls Latin School, I was having my private war with Latin composition. The Latin book was open as I sat in the kitchen of our Roxbury apartment — there was no desk in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister– and tried to learn it. My mother, a fine Latin scholar, was probably coaching.
Our rabbi, Israel J. Kazis, phoned me. He was apparently on the point of introducing the bat mitzvah — or was it the bas mitzvah? — at our Conservative shul, Temple Mishkan Tefillah, and he offered me the honor of being the first. I was polite, as I sat cross-legged on the floor, phone in one hand, book in the other. After all, he was my rabbi. But, stubborn and independent- minded, I knew, better than did he, or so I thought, that halakhah, Jewish law, circumscribes women’s participation. I turned down his offer of the opportunity to chant a haftarah at the late Friday night service, followed by a reception — cake, cookies, punch in the social hall. I firmly maintained that women had no business on the bimah, on the pulpit, but generously counter-offered a recital of Hebrew poetry in the social hall after the davening. He deemed that unsatisfactory. The result of this impasse was that, when my closest friends marked their Jewish coming of age, I was there to celebrate only their achievements, but none of my own.
How did I know my mind with such conviction? A year or so earlier I had suffered public humiliation in my synagogue’s Kabbalat Shabbat Friday sundown chapel service. My father used to take my younger sister, my brother, and me with him every Friday night. We generally sat at the back in the crowd of old men, but got to drink the sweet kiddush wine at the front of the chapel at the end of the recitation of kiddush. That week one of the men, noticing my developing body, had loudly told my father that I was no longer a child and should therefore remain in my place at the back. I smarted at the public nature of this pronouncement, at the gaze at my body it reflected, and at the loss of childhood privilege it presaged; but I accepted my new status as divinely mandated.
Growing up as an observant, Shomeret Shabbat Conservative Jewish girl — a small niche in postwar Irish and Italian Catholic Boston — shaped my identity in many ways. Like the rest of my family, I was clearly not part of the mainstream, and felt little need to assimilate into the world of my classmates at Girls’ Latin School, where my French teacher kept track of students’ attendance at Mass. At the same time, I loved the women’s community there where all the students and virtually all the faculty were women, but what I learned there was more memorization and discipline than independent thinking.
In all areas my family was the central educating force. It was a three generation family in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. My maternal grandmother had traveled by herself from Bialystok to Boston at age 12. Bubbie so valued learning that when my mother, her baby, entered high school she went to night school to earn an eighth-grade certificate. Her spoken English was fine, but she would read the Morgen Journal aloud, unintentionally teaching me Yiddish. That was augmented by my parents, both excellent Yiddish speakers, who used Yiddish for their secrets, so I just had to decode it. My parents, both born in Boston to immigrant parents and educated there, both Phi Beta Kappa, both educators, shaped the experience of growing up in an atmosphere where learning, both Jewish and secular, and Jewish observance were primary. I didn’t realize at the time how special my family’s focus on education was.
On the surface it might seem that I have done an aboutface since my non-Bat Mitzvah through my vigorous support for equal rights for women in Judaism, particularly in the Conservative movement, but that’s just the surface. In truth, the lessons I learned about values, integrity and standing for what one thinks is right remain with me — they are just differently applied. When my sister and I as adults had both decided to daven in tallitot in our own communities, we were a bit wary of outing our parents in their then adamantly non-egalitarian Conservative shul, Kehillath Israel, forcing them weekly to face the opprobrium of having produced such offspring. We asked our father, the more consistent shul-goer, how he felt about our appearing the next morning in our tallitot. Abba thought for a minute and said: “Do you think it’s the right thing to do?” We nodded. “Then do it.” That’s what I really learned.
Anne Lapidus Lerner’s new book is Eternally Eve: Images of Eve in the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, and Modern Jewish Poetry (New England University Press, 2007). A version of this piece was presented at an NYU conference session sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive.
It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to recall what I thought when this photograph was taken. I can look at the image of my 16-year-old self life-size in a museum, but it’s very hard to access what I was thinking behind those huge glasses. I remember that the photo shoot took forever, that it was terribly uncomfortable — my head tilted at an odd angle, my arm held stiffly to better display my tefillin. I remember feeling honored to have been chosen, to be in the picture with some of the rabbinical students I knew and admired, among whom I hoped someday to study. I remember feeling somewhat exultant that the make-up person had insisted on applying lipstick to my mother, who never indulged in such frivolities, and who was constantly puzzled by my passion for make-up and glitter. But I don’t really know what I thought would come of it, and once that long shoot was over, I don’t think I thought of it much at all. I finished high school, spent a year studying in Israel, and returned to New York to start college.
That October, Frederic Brenner’s Jews/America/A Representation was published, and the picture was suddenly everywhere. In the pages of Lilith. In the Jewish Week. In Life magazine. I was getting phone calls from friends, “I saw you in the doctor’s waiting room!” Although the book featured over 800 photographs, inevitably it was ours — mine — that was included when the book was reviewed.
As I looked at the picture over and over again, I felt used. I didn’t see myself in it, nor my mother, nor the other women I knew. Instead I saw the photographer’s projection of what women in tefillin must be like: angry. He hadn’t let us smile during the shoot — I did remember that — but I hadn’t foreseen the effect of our unsmiling faces. We looked, to me, like a caricature of angry, scowling feminists. I called it the “Scary Amazon Women in Tefillin picture.” Brenner had insisted that we all wear striped talleisim, instead of our own more varied individual ones. He’d said at the time that he wanted a unified look, but when I looked at the picture, I saw angry women in the traditional, very “masculine” tallis — women grasping at male ritual symbols, where I had never thought of talleisim as gendered before.
For me, davening in tallit and tefillin has never been about women demanding the right to engage in rituals that had been limited to men. To me, the tallit and tefillin are how Jews should pray, and I had never, until I saw myself in that picture, seen them as an act of feminist defiance.
My mother began davening in a tallit before I was born, and has been davening in tefillin for as long as I can remember. Most women who take on the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin must reach past an assumption of these ritual articles as masculine; to me they were Jewish — and mine.
The photo was unexpectedly on display at the Diaspora Museum in Israel while I was there one summer as a counselor. I talked to my campers about my conviction that Jewish observance need not be gendered. Tefillin aren’t about defiance or about making a point.
But over time, something unforeseen began to happen. I started to get angry. I saw the female professors I admired in college not get tenure while their male counterparts were promoted. I saw the Jewish community blame highly educated working women for a declining birth rate. I saw women who had entered the Conservative rabbinate struggle for acceptance and for equality even 20 years after that historic decision. I saw my friends have babies and struggle to afford child care. And I realized that the optimistic feminist I was at 16 had been a bit naïve. There was much more left to be done than I had realized when I was entering college. And I am far angrier about the treatment of women than I ever thought I would have cause to be.
I don’t think Brenner was somehow prescient in his portrayal of us. I certainly don’t think that he was predicting my own personal disillusionment. While I still think that his photo doesn’t capture the essential love of Judaism, of prayer, of God, of ritual — whatever it was that had brought each of the ten very different women in his picture to take on the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin, I now recognize myself in that minyan of defiant women, and that is a terrible disappointment.
Rahel Lerner is a book editor in New York.