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On Campus: Powerful Act of Jewish Feminists At Brown University

As March approaches, thoughts at Brown University turn to women’s struggle for equality and recognition, and moreover, our plans for Women’s History Month. Two years ago, student Ayelet Cohen of Kol Ishah, Hillel’s feminist group, conceived the idea of Jewish Women’s Week, a week of programs during March devoted to celebrating Jewish women, our culture and our spirit.

Last spring, a group of us put together the Second Annual Jewish Women’s Week which consisted of 10 programs including a service project, an interfaith discussion with the Christian women’s group, and a forum on Jewish women’s particular speech patterns with Brown professor Barbara Tannenbaum. The opening event was a feminist Kabbalat Shabbat service followed by a discussion led by Connecticut College professor of Religious Studies, Judith Romney Wegner. Since Jewish Women’s Week fell on Purim, we invited Gabi Lev of the Jerusalem Theatre Company to perform her interpretation of the story featuring our fave women, Vashti and Esther.

All these events, however, were only building to the culmination of the week: our Saturday night event, the Second Annual Jewish Women’s Cultural Celebration entitled ACTS OF POWER, where we ourselves exhibited our strength and talent as Jewish women. An evening of performances of poetry, song, dance, music and drama by Jewish women from all circles of the Brown community, it was a unique occasion for Jewish women on campus to feel comfortable expressing both the female and the Jewish parts of our identity.

The title of the event, ACTS OF POWER, was drawn from a commentary on the Book of Esther. Although at Brown we weren’t performing acts for the sake of our lives and our people, we did feel as courageous as Esther—self expression rarely finding a forum as accepting as the one which we had created. Over 175 audience members, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, sat by candlelight at cloth-covered tables and enjoyed food and acts as varied as a comic feminist rewriting and performance of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” a southern fiddler, and an Israeli folk dance.

As organizers, we made a concerted effort to include those women who were not affiliated with Hillel but often expressed their Judaism through other venues. The evening began with Olivia Schanzer, a creative writing concentrator, reading her own poetry in English and Yiddish and the work of the Yiddish poet Anna Margolin. Amy Sohn (who later delivered the commencement speech at Brown University graduation using the same material she spoke about that evening) moved me to tears as she shared reflections on her senior thesis. She spoke of her grandmother’s experience at Pembroke College (the women’s college at Brown until they merged in 1971) and the silent discrimination she and other Jewish women endured as Jews in an institution from which they gained insight and education despite the obstacles they faced. Her research into the stories of Jewish women at Pembroke (in the first half of the century) gave us, students of the ’90’s, insight into our own position at an institution where we are welcomed (quotas now a discarded practice), but where patriarchy still reigns, where the Board of Trustees is overwhelmingly white Christian males, and where the school emblem displays a cross.

Other rich talent of the evening included a one-act play written for a play writing class by Jennifer Zwiebel, which was a contemporary commentary on the talmudic character of Bruria. Three women with a common love for performance and Judaism were thrilled to have the exceptional opportunity to combine these passions and perform Jennifer’s emotional and disturbing play.

The energy which filled the room was inspiring. One woman in the Israeli dance ensemble who had not been actively involved in Jewish life on campus said, “I haven’t done anything Jewish since high school because I don’t feel comfortable at Hillel. I’m so excited that I was invited to be a part of this. I hadn’t realized how much I missed being in a Jewish environment.” Her feeling was echoed by many.

Although the success of the evening, the sheer joy felt by spectators and participants alike would have been enough for us, as icing on the cake, in August, we received the Elie Wiesel Award for Outstanding Artistic Programming for the Campus Jewish Community.

So, what are YOU doing for Women’s History Month this year? We’d love to help you plan a Jewish Women’s Cultural Celebration on your campus or in your community. For information (from budgeting to where to buy table candles to how to recruit performers), contact me at LILITH (212)757-0818, or Ayelet Cohen at Brown University Hillel at (401)863-2805.