Ten Women Tell… The Ways We Are
“What choices and changes have you made to live life as a Jewish feminist?” We decided to ask women this question, since every woman is an expert on her own life. Ten responses are printed below.
The women vary in age, backgrounds, geographical locations, sexual preferences, politics, living arrangements and occupations. They are in no way intended to be “representative” of the North American Jewish woman or to serve as “models” for a “new Jewish woman,” They are, however, struggling with important issues of concern to all of us and will hopefully inspire others to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in LILITH MAGAZINE. LILITH expects to publish many such personal autobiographical pieces in future issues. These are the first…..
The experience which made me a Jewish feminist was my grandmother’s death. I loved her greatly and I wanted her to have a kaddish (prayer for the dead). Since she had no male relative, I asked if I might assume this responsibility. I was told that I could not say kaddish because I was a woman, but that for $350 I could hire a man to say kaddish for her. For a teenager that was an astronomical sum. I told the rabbi I could not possibly pay it but pleaded that someone say the kaddish just out of compassion, because she had been such a good a person. The rabbi refused.
That was my first lesson in Jewish feminism: where there is exclusive privilege, abuse of privilege is inevitable. If only men can say kaddish, then kaddish will become a racket. If there must be mehitzot (barriers between men and women in Orthodox synagogues), the mehitzot will be built higher, thicker, further from the men, until women can neither see nor hear. If Torah may be learned only by men, men will use the Torah to the disadvantage of women. One can’t blame them. It is simply in the nature of exclusive privilege that the unprivileged will be victimized. The victimized, moreover, are bound to start wondering why it should be the will of Heaven that they lack privilege. In the case of my grandmother’s kaddish, I wondered why the prayer of someone who learned her whole morality from the deceased and helped nurse her through her last illness should be less pleasing to God than that of a man who had to be paid $350 for his services. I have never been able to submit myself to the idea that halachah (Jewish law) alone is the determinant of justice and injustice, and that my own deepest intuitions of right and wrong (conscience, if you will) are to be disregarded.
All this makes a firm and consistent basis for Jewish feminism— or would if it were all that I believed. The problem is that I am not anti-nomian, nor am I intellectually dishonest enough to make a halachah in a my own image. I want there to be a real halachah. I want to commit myself to it. For the most part I do commit myself to it. My observance of kashrut, Shabbat, mikvah are indistinguishable from that of an Orthodox Jew but I go to a service where I can participate equally with other Jews, and I will not sit behind a mehitzah. If anyone would accept me as a witness, I would act as a witness and if I were learned enough to sit on a rabbinical court I would not let my gender stop me. Finally, I disapprove of the whole structure of Jewish marriage and divorce law with its assumption that women must be acquired or discarded by men.
I am convinced of the Tightness of these responses and yet I cannot delude myself as to their significance. If you have not accepted the whole Torah, you have not accepted the Torah at all. It is very painful to me to be denying the Torah. It is not only painful but embarrassing to be denying it in the name of conscience. I had always hoped I would not be one of those people, usually as ignorant as they are arrogant, who talk so confidently about what God wants.
In short, I’ve fallen between the two stools. My halachic commitment pulls me one way, my feminism pulls me another, and I don’t know how to reconcile them. Sometimes I suspect they’re irreconcilable. Frequently I ask myself how long I’ll be able to live with such a tension. It’s grim, but I can’t see any alternative. I cannot affirm laws which are morally offensive to me without being a liar, while to be a feminist at the expense of halachah is idolatry.
Consequently, I am a woman without a community. I can no longer go to the Hasidic shtieblach I loved, but I could no more daven in a Conservative synagogue than I could in a mosque. (I don’t mean that disparagingly; it’s simply that such services are alien to me.) I pray with a tiny egalitarian minyan (quorum for prayer) which never has a minyan by anyone’s reckoning. Sometimes I think I would do almost anything to hear a kedushah again, and I ask myself if my refusal to sit behind a mehitzah is false pride.
I find myself in the same bind, dealing with my three-year-old son. I am frustrated to think that I’ll be sending him to an Orthodox day school where he can imbibe all the sexism I’ve fought against, yet I am haunted by the fear that I may be teaching him to be an irreligious Jew. I try to give him both sets of values, I tell him stories about the mothers and fathers of the Jewish people, teach him that God both incorporates and transcends masculinity and femininity, and show him by example that women as well as men learn, daven, and do the mitzvot that define a Jew. I’m hampered by the lack of non-sexist Jewish literature for him, although the Waskow family’s non-sexist creation account, Before There Was a Before, has been a boon. I find myself writhing when my son asks me questions I can’t answer: “Can I wear a dress?” “No, the Torah says men and women aren’t allowed to dress like each other.” “What’s the difference between men and women?” “A man has a penis and a woman has a little bag inside her to grow a baby in.” “Is that all?” “I don’t know. I wish I did.”
Most of all, I ask myself how I can justify giving my child values which I myself can’t reconcile. Do I want him to inherit my tug of war?
I console myself that he may very well take after his father, who is troubled by these questions as befits a man of principle, but has managed to preserve the wholeness of his Orthodox faith. It is probably wrong and futile anyway to try to feed a child a predigested faith. I keep hoping that if I tell him the truth as I see it and, more importantly, show him how his father and I are always struggling with the Torah, I’ll be giving him the tools with which to forge his own Jewish commitment.
It’s very distressing to me that I no longer share the religious beliefs of my husband, whom I love very dearly, and that every time I speak or write on feminist questions I am advertising our difference. He is quick to defend my right to differ, but it can’t be any pleasure to a man as bright and creative as he to be known as “the rabbi who can’t convince his own wife.” (He is also known as “the man who can’t control his own wife,” a charge whose transparent sexism we dismiss with contempt.)
Between us, religious differences have caused no friction. Our observances, with the exception of communal prayer, are quite alike, so there has been little effect on our lifestyle. We feel each other’s struggles too deeply to indulgle in cheap oneupmanship. I understand perfectly why Moshe doesn’t count women in a minyan or let them lead services, and he understands fully why that is insufficient for me. We can stimulate and challenge without trying to convert each other, but the questions we pose to each other have a steadying influence. We keep each other both from stagnating and from going off the deep end.
I try to remind myself that my concern with Jewish feminism has given me more than a dichotomizing tension. Under its stimulus I have learned to respect other women, to learn from them and to share with them. Without it I would never have learned the synagogue skills nor had the synagogue experiences which have so greatly enriched me. Through its inspiration I have learned how inadequate my learning is. I have always been so quick to theorize and now, as I learn more, I see how often I am wrong. The mikveh article I did for The Jewish Catalog, for example, contains some very unscholarly assertions. I’m trying to learn to be more tentative in my conclusions, as I become more aware that my knowledge is insubstantial.
It’s ironic. I was always so convinced that my faith was a product of my reason. Now I have no reasoned defense for my faith, no consistency in halachah, no trust in intuition. I hold to the mitzvot I do and hang on for dear life. Am I a dreadful example of what happens when a wholesome Orthodox lady espouses feminism? I doubt it. I can see that I am stuck, but I can’t help believing that a woman less obtuse or more learned than I could extricate herself, and possibly me, from the impasse. Maybe I’m a warning that if you’re a stubborn and less-than-Iearned Orthodox lady, becoming a feminist will teach you and enrich you, but it may also let you in for a lot of loss and pain.
by Rachel Adler
It seems I have always been out of phase with the times. I was born to middle-aged parents who had already despaired of having children. I spoke Yiddish as my mother tongue when the streets of Brooklyn were filled with English-speaking, Americanized Jews. My mother and father lived in a psychological shtetl-ghetto even when they ventured forth into “the wilderness” (i.e., outside New York City).
I was out of phase physically. At nine I had breasts, menstruated, and read on a eighth-grade level. I was the tallest, heaviest, most physically developed, and most academically advanced person in my class until everybody else caught up during adolescence.
I was out of phase socially, too. While my girl friends accepted their roles as enablers, working for a few years after high school to enable their brothers to continue their studies, then marrying young and having children right away, I went to college and to the Hebrew Teachers Seminary. My father was opposed: girls should get jobs, help out at home, and wait for the “basherter” (predestined match) to come along. My mother fought for me, begged for partial scholarship from the Hebrew school and went to work in a factory as soon as my brother and I were in our teens.
My career seemed to have been chosen for me as much as my brother’s was for him. He was a brilliant Talmud student; therefore he would be a rabbi. I was a brilliant Talmud student; therefore I would be a Hebrew teacher. I never questioned this.
I entered my profession full of ideals and illusions, bubbling with enthusiasm, at $30 a week. Disillusionment with the attitudes of parents, administration, physical surroundings, came quickly. I was a critic of Jewish Estahblishment’s underfunding of Jewish education back then in 1951.
A fervent Zionist, I went to Israel in 1953 and married an Israeli the next year. Again, out of phase with the times, we started out as a fully liberated and egalitarian couple. We both worked, went to school, and did the minimal housework required in a one-room apartment. Then, by my own volition, without even consulting my husband, I switched majors so I could get a teaching certificate so I could get a job so I could help him through school. A liberated woman in the fifties, I became an enabler.
I grew into the role. Bit by bit I became more responsible for the housework, got a full-time job, while he quit his job to devote his self to his studies. There I was, working full-time, going to school full-time, keeping house full-time, and there he was, sitting in the library!
When the opportunity arose for him to continue graduate studies in the United States, just when I almost had my Masters degree, I blithely concurred, stating that I would write my thesis in the U.S. But, newly pregnant with my son, working full-time (as an underpaid Hebrew teacher) and keeping house full-time, I did not have any energy left. Besides, my Israeli husband needed help with his studies. I was supported in my life style by my Gentile neighbors, all wives of graduate students they were putting through school. They defined themselves by their husbands’ status.
After my husband’s graduation, he found a job near a small town where there were about 50 Jewish families. I was accepted with open arms into Sisterhood and Hadassah. The two years there were my first contact with third generation, middle class, high-income Jews. It included bridge (I don’t play), golf (ditto), tennis (I sprained two ankles and I was pregnant a lot), trips to resorts (my husband made $5,000 a year), beautiful homes (we rented an apartment for $65 a month), new wardrobes (I wore maternity dresses passed along by Hadassah members), and interior decorating (we bought two new chairs for $15 each). I did several hours’ research a day for my degree and wrote book reviews. Once it was discovered that I was a good speaker when asked to talk about Israel, I was soon invited to lecture all over (no fee, of course).
The week my daughter was born, my husband was offered a scholarship to get his Ph.D. in another city. Once more Mrs. Enabler rushed to the fore! I started teaching again part time, leaving my nursing daughter with assorted baby sitters, helped my husband with his research, typed his papers, and, once more, postponed my own studies. I continued my organizational, writing and lecturing activities (all unpaid of course). My rationale was quite clear: a family’s status is based on the status of the husband. Doesn’t Mr. and Dr. So-and-So sound ridiculous? It’s always Dr. and Mrs. So-and-So. After he gets his Ph.D. there would be plenty of time for me to get mine. In fact, it would be easier, for it would be my turn.
It never was my turn. By the time my egalitarian Israeli husband got his Ph.D., he had become Americanized. His male colleagues spent their free time talking about their female conquests, betting on horse races, and criticizing their spinster supervisor. They had wives who beat me at the enabler game—they had lots of children, worked full- or part-time, cooked gourmet meals, sewed everybody’s clothes, decorated their homes and kept their figures! And none of them ever seemed to think that it was “her turn” for higher degrees. When I finally did go back to school for my advanced degrees, it was on a part time basis, “walking the tightrope” as housewife, mother, Hebrew school teacher and organization woman.
The turning point for me was the First National Jewish Women’s Conference in New York in February, 1973. I realized there that I had been the source of my own oppression, that I had made the key decisions about which I was griping. I had chosen the enabler role, it had not been imposed on me. Unfortunately, no such eye-opening consciousness-raising process has been experienced by my husband, who mouths “liberationist” jargon without comprehending it.
Theoretically, I should use my own self-enslaving experiences as lessons to liberate my children. It doesn’t work that way. My son is a yeshiva bokher (student) black-hat variety (someone once said he is living out my alter self, or alte self, to use the feminine form). My daughter rejects academic work, resentful of having two graduate student parents most of her life (“Why don’t you just be a mommy?”) She loves food, rock music, television and fan magazines, and refuses to speak Hebrew.
My three dreams when I was growing up were: to be a Rhodes Scholar (I was so liberated, I did not know this was open to men only); to write books; and to live in Israel. My childhood ideals were very liberated. I forged my own chains as an adult, and bound myself tighter and tighter. There may have been environmental factors which encouraged this tendency, but I take responsibility for my choices. Now, in my mid-40’s, I am free in mind and spirit, if not in body. I am a Jewish feminist, joyfully accepting the paradox, for Halachah (Jewish law) does not acknowledge the possiblity of such a concept.
The Jewish feminist movement is the source of my support, not, sadly, my husband or children. “If I’m not for myself, who is”—yes, I am finally, now, in phase with the times.
by Annie Lee*
*”Eem ayn ani lee, mee lee” (If I’m not for myself, who is?) – Sayings of the Ancestors
I am a Jew of Russian descent. I have thick, wavy black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. I spent twenty years as a Californian praying I could be what I was not meant to be: a beach-girl blond. I ironed my hair straight, but cried in frustration when it would not swing and sail like the hair of the blond models in the fashion magazines. I dreamed of and agonized over the blond, blue-eyed teenage boys in my class who unknowingly inflicted wound after wound upon my pride. I suffer even now to think of so many others like me; how they cried as I did, night after night.
When I was 15, another boy in a series of many excused himself for a minute during a party and left me waiting for an hour. I remember in complete detail crying hysterically, “Oh how I wish I was somebody else!” I remember, too, the words of an older, pretty blond girl who was trying to comfort me. She said, “I wish you were, too.”
Growing up was full of incidents like this. My childhood was littered with insults, times when I felt something was terribly wrong. I was sure my life was a tragic mistake, yet I was helpless to fix it because I didn’t know what was wrong.
Was I Italian or Spanish? people often asked me. I even considered buying a little gold cross or a Saint Christopher medal. Everyone was wearing them then. I’d even gone to church a few times with my friends. I rather liked dabbing a finger in the holy water and crossing myself. But it was a game. I knew that this wasn’t me.
Sometimes people asked me questions related to being Jewish. I never had any answers to them. Being Jewish didn’t feel like me, either.
In classroom after classroom, I heard my last name being fumbled around by a different teacher’s effort to pronounce it. I was humiliated by the grating, awkward sounds they made of it. It was a name that seemed ugly. I wanted to forget I had a last name, to be nameless.
Finally there was the period of encountering Jews and Jewishness. It was all quite accidental and as wrong for me somehow as the world of the WASP.
When I was 17, an older Jewish man I was dating looked into my eyes and said with a miraculous tone in his voice, “You are only the second Jewish girl I have ever liked!” I didn’t know whether to laugh, walk out, or kiss his hand for the “compliment.” Four years later, certain lessons being obviously difficult to learn, I sat patiently listening to another Jewish man tell me that I was the first Jewish woman, since his unbearable first wife, that he had even considered dating. Much to his astonishment, he told me, he even liked me!
I arrived in Israel for the first time at 21. With no concept or expectation of the country, I was amazed to find how popular I suddenly seemed to be. In my kibbutz shorts and sandals, my dark hair and athletic body couldn’t have fit more perfectly. I felt right. I felt attractive. I was strong and worked well under the hot Middle East sun. I felt popular because I was no longer trying to be and look like someone else. It was finally all right, I realized, to be and look like just who I was.
Still half-lost during a quest to understand what womanhood should really be, I stumbled onto feminism. I discovered that it was right to be whatever I was born to be; verbal, athletic, and Jewish. I happily stopped squandering my precious energy on imitating a stereotyped attractiveness. Unlike the blonds I had once longed to be like, most women I admire today are dark, strong, and often Jewish.
Now, seven years after the first bewildering comment directed towards my Jewishness by Jewish men, after serious self-examination and a few years of total independence to sharpen my thoughts and visions, I see the incidents with these men as the truly dangerous signs of potential shame and oppression that they actually are. The sterotype of the naggy Jewish Mother is an invention of jealous, insecure men. It isn’t who Jewish women always are or who we have to be. Having become acquainted with numerous American Jewish men and their various complexes which they blame on Jewish women, I have only one thing to say to them or to any others like them who may seek my advice or affection: “This Jewish Mother doesn’t live here anymore!”
I now live my life aware of my personal as well as my collective history. I am proud to be a Jewish woman. The strength of purpose I feel because of what I have experienced makes me want to call out to so many Jewish women who may have felt what I have. “Be proud of who you are! Let all the dark hair, strong laughter, strength, and heritage become a part of you. Believe that what you are, whoever you are, is a privilege.”
by Gloria Averbuch
I first encountered the ritual mikvah (ritual immersion) as an adult at a Jewish Feminist Conference in the Midwest in 1973. If I had thought at all about mikvah and niddah (abstinence for a week during and a week after menstruation) before then, it was only in a derogatory sense, as a vehicle for oppressing women and fortunately relegated to the past. The workshop, given by Nahama Liss-Levenson, acquainted me with the concept of tum’ah and taharah (ritual impurity and purity) as life-death nexus, a totally new idea for me. I then read Rachel Adler’s articles on the subject, and began to think that mikvah could be a positive ritual for women to mark the variations in time occurring in our own bodies, not unlike the bracha (blessing) recently composed by women to mark the beginning of the menstrual flow.
It was 18 months before I decided to act on any of these thoughts. I was afraid that going to the mikvah would somehow co-opt my feminist self-concept; I was afraid (or didn’t know how) to discuss the issue with my husband; I was uncertain how I felt about two weeks of sexual abstinence.
I’m still not sure how or to what extent I overcame my hesitations, but several things helped. I heard a rabbi in a class I was taking say the solution to the problem of rituals’ losing their meaning was to reinvest old rituals with the kavannah, the intentions which arise out of our lives. I met more women who were strong, intelligent people “even though” they observed mikvah. These encouragements touched only the first, the feminist fear; the other two were more difficult and more personal.
My husband and I had been having sexual difficulties for most of our married life. The problem was that our urges rarely coincided and that because we chose to respect each other’s “no,” we ended up making love very infrequently. This was a constant source of tension even though we love each other very much. I expect that other couples, married or not, have this problem, too. Products of the “sexual revolution,” we are reluctant to admit that there are times when we’d rather not be intimate; at the same time we try not to violate each other’s privacy. The result is a tremendous awkwardness and tension which no amount of concern, sensitivity and talking it out (which we must have done hundreds of times) seems to help.
When finally I worked up the courage to broach the subject again with mikvah in mind, we agreed that perhaps the imposition of an external, religiously-sanctioned time frame might relieve the stress of a complicated decision every night. We agreed that though we would continue to share our double bed during the niddah period, my husband would not approach me for sexual gratification. Conversely, during the permissible times, I would wear my diaphragm each night and not refuse advances or hold back from making them unless one or both of us were really exhausted or under an extraordinary amount of stress from other parts of our life (work, school, family). At the end of our discussion we thought we had a good scheme, and felt the potential of relief from the guilt and frustration of pressuring, the guilt and depression of refusing.
Still, when I set off for the mikvah the first time, I was nervous and scared, and not at all sure I was doing the right thing. Driving over, I had a little conversation with God. I said, “Look, here I am, feeling silly and nervous. I’m going to begin something very traditional for some very untraditional reasons. I’m not going to pray for my will to become subordinate to Yours; I will only hope that in this act my will and Yours will come a little closer together.” It was helpful to direct my conversation to the motherly, sisterly aspect of God instead of to the fatherly one.
Once at the mikvah I found a very clean and modern facility and a very kind omedes (mikvah attendant who watches your immersion). I’m sure she guessed immediately that I was new at this, but did not let me know that she knew, and was helpful without being patronizing. I also found complete and detailed instructions on how to prepare.
I enjoyed the preparation immensely and still do. Never in my daily life do I allow myself the luxury of a half hour in the shower and complete attention to my physical self from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. I’d given that up long ago as being pubescent, vain and a foolish waste of time. How wrong that was! How happy I was to rediscover myself! When I went into the mikvah the water was warm, friendly and accepting of my body. I said the bracha, submerged myself a second time, and came out, feeling really renewed. The only shock was the chlorine in the water, a necessary (I guess) modern intrusion.
The ritual of going to the mikvah had the hoped-for effect on our marriage. We each have two weeks free from sexual pressures and demands. I find that during this time I feel closer to God, meditate more often, study more easily. The together time is really together, precious because it won’t last forever, treasured by both of us. During that time, I feel closer to the material human world and seem to have more energy for all people—not only my husband. The result of the whole cycle is a de-emphasis of the sex-object aspect of the relationship between men and women.
It may be that we were only lucky that our personal rhythm coincides with the traditional one, but I think not. Like other rituals we have taken on (Shabbat, kashrut) the more we do them, the more we see that they are healthy patterns corresponding to rhythms of the universe (i.e. the moon) and the rhythms of personal need.
Moreover, the mikvah-niddah ritual should not be open only to married women. My daughter, if I have one, will start going to the mikvah when she begins menstruating. We will try to have her Bat Mitzvah occur near that time. The point is not to emphasize the reproductive and sexual aspects of woman’s life, but to bring them fully into a whole Jewish life, in the same symbolic way that circumcision integrates a man’s sexuality and reproductive life into his Jewish being. I would guess, too, that if we observed mikvah and niddah as single women, we would respect our own bodies much sooner and therefore respect ourselves, and out of self-respect, grow healthier relationships whether we chose to be married or single, straight or gay.
In sum, the ritual of mikvah provides for three needs unique to Jewish womanhood: it marks the passing of time and changing seasons, the life and death of our bodies. It celebrates our female beings in our preparations and in submerging our wombs in the fluid womb of the mikvah. Most important, it provides a framework for a time to be physically alone and a time to be physically together that we need to order our lives and bring them into concert with the natural, God-given flow of time.
by Evelyn Huttv’Dodd
Coming out at age 43 was like being reborn. I began to love myself. I loved the way I looked and felt. I was free to love other women. I felt younger and more alive than ever before, and my energy seemed infinite. I knew I was a beautiful, intensely vital woman. No more repressing, no more games with men. I was free at last!
Since age 10, when I had my first crush on a fifth-grade teacher—a woman—until I came out to myself 33 years later, I lived with this deep, dark secret, always guarding against anyone’s finding out and always thinking there was something terribly wrong with me. There was no one to talk to about it because it was simply not talked about. Nor did I even have a vocabulary to put these feelings into words. I played the games girls played with boys (and later with men), feigning interest in them.
“Coming out” often means simply acknowledging to one’s self, instead of denying and repressing that overflow of feelings towards another woman. For many, this self-acknowledgement has always been there, and their closet exists to shield them against the scorn, humiliation and oppression of a society which insists on heterosexuality, and considers women loving women and men loving men an abomination.
Some 20 years before I came out, I got deeply involved in the Zionist movement. I studied for a year in Israel and then returned to join a kibbutz. Although I enjoyed many aspects of kibbutz life, I was unhappy. I did not understand why. Now, in retrospect, I know. Israel, and particularly the kibbutz, is fanatically family-oriented, and the pressure to marry is very strong. I knew marriage was not for me and that a single woman is never fully integrated into a kibbutz. I left, came back to the United States and became a professional Jew, climbing the bureaucratic ladder and achieving a measure of success and satisfaction. I worked for several national Jewish organizations over the years on behalf of the Jewish people, doing something I felt was important as well as fulfilling many of my needs.
But when I came out, I simply could not continue my 30-year pattern of deceiving and playing games. I did not feel my Jewish associates were ready for my coming out to them. I had three choices. I could stay in the closet on the job; I could come out publicly; or I could drop out of the environment which forced such a decision. To stay in the closet, when every fibre of my being was reaching for openness and expression of the joy I was feeling, was psychicly impossible. To come out publicly would force many people to deal with something I felt instinctively they were not ready for (perhaps I, myself, was not ready, either). So, I had to drop out. I could no longer channel my energies into and produce the kind of work I had produced in the past in an atmosphere which I felt could not appreciate who I really am, and which was, therefore, oppressive to me.
The catalyst which changed my life was a TV talk show featuring four gay couples—four women and four men. I watched and listened intently. These were beautiful, intelligent people who loved being just who they were and who articulately affirmed their lifestyles. For the first time in my life I saw positive role models for the me I had spent a lifetime elaborately disguising to myself and to. others.
The next day I set out to make contact with the gay community. I found a cultural discussion group and paced up and down at length before gathering the courage to venture inside. I was scared. Both men and women, recognizing a new face and the usual terror of the first step, came up to me and tried to ease my anxiety. They talked to me. They offered me coffee. They showed me around. I was eventually seated next to another woman. It was then that I froze up completely. I wouldn’t speak to her or even look at her. Later I found out that this was also her first step into the gay world and she was just as scared as I was.
After the formal program, the group broke up into what could just as well have been an Oneg Shabbat. People drinking coffee, talking with each other about everything and anything. What also surprised me was the preponderance of Jews.
As for me, I was clinging to the woodwork, not speaking to anyone and answering in monosyllables when spoken to. I stuck it out for a half hour and then fled.
On the way home, my anxiety gave way to a warm glow. I had taken the first step into realizing myself.
Since that time, I have become involved in women’s and gay activities. I co-founded a social/cultural group for women over 30. I was somewhat involved in the Gay Synagogue—Beth Simchat Torah in New York—and enjoyed the close connection to Judaism this congregation provides. It is hard to find another congregation of people with more intense and knowledgeable Jewish expression and devotion to Judaism and to each other; a number of Jewish scholars belong to BST and the scholarly level of the divrei (discussion of) Torah is unique among synagogues. The spirit of the Ongei Shabbat can only be compared with that of young Zionist movement kids. Such singing, such dancing! Such love!
But I have not been attending the Gay Synagogue very often because it is composed of and run predominantly by men, and for now, I want to expend my energies with other women. For the past two years I have conducted gay women’s seders on Pesach where we are rediscovering Jewish women heroes throughout the ages. Jewish history has been a record of men written by men, and it is only the occasional outstanding woman who is recorded for posterity.
I enjoy being with other Jewish lesbians. Some of us who know Hebrew speak with each other in that language and it helps us to feel out Jewish roots profoundly. Of course, there are many Jewish lesbians who feel that Judaism is so patriarchal at its very core, and that the roles for men and women are so precisely defined that there is not much to salvage. They feel that recent attempts to “include” women by creating new rituals and by certain concessions allowed us by the male-run institutions such as women in the minyan (quorum of worshippers), and the glorification of woman’s role as queen of the household do not really give us the psychic equality which we lesbians—perhaps the most independent of all women—need and want. We are rejecting in the man-created myths that which diminishes us as equal participants in our heritage as Jews. In digging deep into the sources of these myths, we are finding that our ancestors, in order to firmly establish the patriarchy, rejected and suppressed much which came before them; following their precedent after some 2000 years, we are reworking existing myths for our own edification as women. We pin our hopes on the evolutionary nature of Judaism and in this age of future shock, feel it must evolve more rapidly than it has to embrace a wider range of human experience. I believe that the various Jewish countercultures will save Judaism from its present slide into obsolescence.
It is noteworthy that I have no trouble affirming my Jewish identity in mixed groups of lesbians, even though there might be much disagreement as to the salvageability of the Judaic and the Christian traditions. I’m not sure I could express my lesbian identity in the mainstream Jewish community. I don’t believe there would be the same appreciation of who I am.
While the entire heterosexual world finds it difficult to relate to homosexuality in general, some segments of the Church have been making efforts to come to terms with their hitherto pejorative attitudes about homosexuality, as more and more practicing Christians who are homosexuals arc coming out of the closet. As a Jew, I find it painful that the Jewish community, often at the forefront of liberal causes, has not as yet risen to this particular challenge, even as Jews count significantly in the emerging homosexual community. (It is estimated that homosexuals number 10% of the population. My own experience would indicate more.)
If there is a group of people who can claim more oppression than Jews, it is homosexuals. Although there are few Jews alive today who do not know about the yellow Star of David patch which Jews were forced to wear under Nazi-dominated Europe, there are probably few Jews who ever heard of the pink triangle patch which the Nazis forced known homosexuals to wear, identifying them and leading them to the same crematoria as Jews. We were consumed together in the fires of the Holocaust and were united in our ashes. We Jews will never forgive or forget ordinary Germans who looked the other way as the smoke rose from the crematoria incinerating Jews. But I can’t help wondering how many Jews, had we not been targets in that period of monumental evil, would have stuck our necks out to save homosexuals, or even uttered mild words of protest.
Many Jews have been in the closet, concealing their Jewishness (often behind changed names and noses) for business, social and personal reasons; many lesbians and male homosexuals have been hiding their true identity in the closet for similar reasons. Just as the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and Jewish self-love through Zionism brought many Jews out of the closet, the women’s movement of the 1960’s and the gay liberation movement of the 1970’s brought many lesbians and male homosexuals out of hiding.
The Zionist movement, the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement have been the most important factors in affirming myself and my identity as a Jew, as a woman and as a lesbian. Zionism brought me out as a Jew. The women’s movement brought me out as a feminist. The gay liberation movement brought me out as a lesbian. All are self-affirming. All are life-affirming. All have made the difference between the denial of who I am and the affirmation of who I am.
by Batya Bauman
I didn’t start out in life as a Jewish feminist. I started out 48 years ago as the daughter of Orthodox parents. I lived with them and my sister in Brooklyn on the same block with my Grandpa and a single aunt. Ours was what is termed today an “extended family situation” . . . then it just meant that my mother cooked all the meals for Grandpa and my aunt, and made Shabbat and the Jewish holidays in his house.
Sometimes I used to go to shul, always leaving my father and Grandpa downstairs. My mother and I went upstairs to where the women sat behind wooden screens, looking down on the men and the bimah (platform from which prayers are conducted). I remember asking, “Why do the women have to sit upstairs?” And my mother answering “Because women aren’t allowed to sit with the men.” Grandpa used to get angry with me because I asked so many “whys.”
The holiday of Sukkot (the fall Feast of Tabernacles) when I was 8 stands out in my memory. The sukkah was filled with Grandpa’s friends. They used to pray and sing and eat and it looked like so much fun. I sat and watched, thinking that it’s a men’s club, a very special men’s club. Where were all the women and where was my mother? They cooked the food, but they never came to the sukkah except to clean up. I asked why, but my mother never answered. I was already in trouble with my whys.
I grew up in an adolescence of unaswered questions so my doubts became part of my life. Prayers were made in Hebrew, which I couldn’t understand, but the wine was sweet and homemade, apples and honey were a treat, and the house smelled so clean. I was an obedient daughter and granddaughter. But where was I as a Jewish girl — and then as a woman? No place. I sat in the synagogue, separate and apart from it all. Did God know this? All the books were directed to He… Him … Father . . . King of the Universe. But where was I . . . She . . . Mother . . . Person? The words in the prayer books negated my being as a woman. I and my sister, my mother, aunt . . . all my women were upstairs, behind die screens … in the back of the bus … left out. I could never get a seat of honor by the eastern wall.
I met a nice Jewish guy, and got married like all nice Jewish girls. And the next 25 years were filled with 4 children and making a life for them and a home. I did all the charity work and volunteer work that is part of Jewish life and part of the American system and that keeps women down and out. And I didn’t live happily ever after, like MGM said I should.
All my “whys” began to come back at me in terms of my being a woman. I tuned out on my Judaism because Jewish society, it seemed, didn’t want me except to make coffee or run the bazaar and to make Bar Mitzvahs for my sons. My view from the back of the shul followed me, and I politicized myself through the women’s movement. I left my Conservative temple because even though I sat with my husband, the invisible mechitzah (partition between the sexes) was there, separating and dividing. I took my youngest daughter (maybe there was still time for her) and she and I joined a schule, a Jewish secular school, to learn about Yiddishkeit—Jewish culture, tradition, music, literature, and politics. It was an equal place with no separations. But something was missing.
At 45, I went back to college and earned a BA degree in Women’s Studies. My consciousness and my sense of womanhood was and is at an all-time high. The only low I have (and it’s a big one) is that all those years of my first and most important career, that of mothering, housewifery, volunteerism and life experience, don’t count toward a paying career. Prospective employers still look at me and say, “What did you do?”
I became interested in the subject of Women and Judaism through a course on Women in the Middle Ages. I researched Jewish women in history, and I found them (a very small group) with much difficulty. My interest grew and I began reading about 20th century immigrant women. I got involved with a committee on Women and Religion, and then went to a meeting of the Jewish Feminists in Long Island. I found other women who didn’t want to give up the synagogue but wanted to change it, to bring it into the 20th century. I found myself reactivating all my “whys” again. But this time I had some answers, and this time people were listening. The women’s movement had done that.
The men who have the political power in the synagogue, the men who head the ritual and religious committees, are listening—and wringing their hands. When we walk into shul on Shabbat morning, they cry, “Girls, what do you want from us? Don’t we give you everything?”
No, not everything!
I want to share equally in the decision-making of the synagogue . . . I want the honor of an aliyah (call to recite blessings on reading the Torah) … I want to be counted! I don’t want to be on that pedestal that says “do for me … buy for me … give to me.” And I want my daughters and sons to come back to the synagogue.
Sitting in shul gives me the space and the time I need for me. I like it. But I don’t like what I read or hear. I have to tune out some of the words, chapters, and phrases because again they negate my existence. As I have chosen to remain in Conservatism Judaism, I want the Conservative movement to become united in accepting me, a woman, and all women, as equal participating members of the congregation . . . On the bimah . . . politically . . . economically and socially.
I don’t want to have to wait any longer. I don’t have the time.
by Estelle Sirlin
In the Brooklyn of the 1950’s and 1960’s, where I grew up in a Jewish-oriented but not observant family, girls were taught to zealously obey the commandment “Thou Shalt Find a Husband.” The only exceptions were the terribly unfortunate girls who “went bad” and the fanatical Catholics who became nuns. My parents expected all three of us girls to excel in school, go to college, marry college men and have children, and maybe become teachers or social workers—our careers weren’t important.
During my senior year of high school, when I was 16, I joined Brooklyn Student CORE, where I met B., and got involved in left-wing politics and drugs. When I was 18, B. and I decided to live together. My parents collapsed, crumbled. It meant they said, that I was dropping out of college to “live in sin” with a man. They begged, pleaded, did everything to stop me, and when I went with him to Madison anyway, they stopped talking and writing to me. They figured to boycott me until I cracked. And it worked. I cracked and four months later, B. and I got married.
We decided to travel, hitting the high spots of Europe and heading toward India, the only place to find “real spirituality.” But having run out of money, we found we could get to Israel cheaply and stay there until money came through. Of course, I had learned from B. that Israel was the outpost of imperialism and was angry that I was finally being a good Jewish girl by going there. I figured they’d have a brass band waiting, but, instead, Hashomer Hatzair sent us to a kibbutz near Gaza which was dogmatic, idealistic and poor. It was very hot. Nobody cared whether we were there or not. I began to be curious about the country.
We left after seven months, continued East, having a running debate about what it meant to be Jewish. I said Israel was the only place to be Jewish; he said Jews in America could organize into their own communities. This seemed as ludicrous as feminism, which I’d heard about from his sister the year before. I remember thinking: Vietnamese peasants, they were oppressed, but middle-class American women???
Meanwhile, as were traveling, I began looking at my own life and saw that while we were living out of packs, in sleeping bags, cooking on camp stoves, I was doing the shopping, cooking, running to the brook to wash the one set of clothes we had. I started asking why. Every time we had to make a decision, I would push down my aggression and intelligence, thinking, “Be a real woman, let a man handle it.”
I traveled in Spain without B., with a bunch of midwestern American hippies, hearing anti-Semitic stories and jokes for die first time in my life. For the first time, I wanted to identify with the Jewish people. I stood up and told them I was a Jew.
Back in New York, B. had joined the Brooklyn Bridge, a group trying to build a left-wing Jewish community here, and I was seduced by the power of their argument and the excitement of their ideas. They were very dedicated but almost completely ignorant about Jewishness. I also got involved in a women’s group at the Alternative University which was into lesbian separatism.
The Brooklyn Bridge men encouraged the women to start a women’s group in 1970, early 1971. We invited women we knew from the feminist community and left-wing circles. The women who were three months into being Jewish were like the rabbis of the group. Most had never given much thought to being Jewish. Almost every woman reported that, when asked where she was going that evening, she had said, “to a (mumble) women’s group,” unable to admit it was a Jewish women’s group because that was like joining Hadassah. After an agonizing hour, we hit upon the idea of talking about our mothers and how they had led more Jewish lives than we and how we’d ignored the way we’re connected to that kind of life. That opened up a lot of excitement that continued for a year.
I had become more and more dissatisfied with Brooklyn Bridge because they refused to deal at all with Israel, fearing it would split the group down the middle. I took a job in a Habonim (Labor Zionist youth movement) summer camp and was turned on by everything there. I had never had a real Shabbat before or heard Hebrew songs (we didn’t even have a napkin holder with the word “Shalom” on it in my parents’ home). The ruach (spirit) was high and the people my age had a positive Jewish identification besides also being involved in the anti-war movement.
When I came back to New York I ended my connection to the Brooklyn Bridge and later that year got involved with Network (North American Jewish Students umbrella organization) and was elected to the Steering Committee. Even though I and the other women at the Network convention didn’t want to be on the Committee, we felt that women had to begin to take responsibility for getting involved, with learning how to work our way through the Jewish establishment. The tone of those meetings was absolutely male and oppressive, and it was hard for us two women to follow the heavy debates where the men were throwing a-round abbreviations we didn’t understand. They had advised us not to run more than two women; by the next convention, half the delegates and the Steering Committee, were women and Network had a woman chairperson.
By 1971, I couldn’t hack being married, facing the same kind of pressures that I’d had from my parents, of having to account for every move I made. B. and I separated and I found myself alone out in the world. I knew only that I needed total freedom to find out about my sexuality. I discovered what kind of sexual encounters are satisfying to me. I don’t think that without a whole lot of lovers—I’ve had 34—I would’ve found that out.
I am completely convinced that I can’t be taken over by a relationship with a man, that no man is going to force me into the kitchen or the bedroom or the house. I’m into having my own space around me so much that now I’m beginning to think of sharing that space. At 26, I know I can stand on my own two feet and that my needs come first.
I am very involved with being Jewish, I am still learning about it, talking about it all the time, especially among non-Jews. But there is no organization I belong to at present, that I’d want to belong to, that I could integrate into my lifestyle. So, although I am always thinking about being Jewish, concerned about Israel, there is no place for me in the Jewish community, no place I can feel comfortable in.
by Arlene Cohn (pseud.)
If I speak now from the point of view of the individual’s obligation to the continuity and creative survival of the Jewish people, I didn’t start out that way. As a young girl I was thoroughly programmed to expect that the major definition of my life would be that of a wife and mother whose responsibility was to the care and feeding of her family. I graduated from college and married a nice Jewish boy.
It is now ten years later. I am 37, divorced and without children. However, during this decade I have come around from being the ardent advocate of the rights of the individual. For several years I lived in Israel. There I grew to understand the real essence of the Jewish community was each individual’s commitment of the future of the people. Rather than being turned off, I grew to understand this and to feel an added depth to my own Jewishness. I returned to the United States, where for the last four years I have been director of missions to Israel for the UJA-Federation Joint Campaign of Greater New York, and am working on a Master’s degree in social work at Yeshiva University.
Instead of being able to relax in this Jewish environment, I have run smack into a paradox. On one hand there is a Jewish community that needs all of the creative input that is available. And on the other it has chosen to close its eyes to the changing aspirations of Jewish women. What I see happening is that the community is forcing women to choose between marrying and having children (bringing them up to be productive and contributing members of the Jewish community), and pursuing professional goals (which to many women means-foregoing a family). Consciously or unconsciously, I am sure this is partly the reason I have resisted remarrying. I find myself part of a remarkable statistic: that Jews have the lowest fertility rate of any religious group in the U.S.
While I view the adoption of what is termed alternate life styles—the singles life, or marriage without children—to be wholly self-centered and a denial of any obligation to the Jewish community—it is the Jewish community that has forced women, and men, into this situation.
I am not suggesting a revolution or an extensive search for unknown solutions. To the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin just by instituting the simple, even mundane programs that are known: in addition to the Sisterhood that meets only during working hours, each synagogue should have a day-care program; every Jewish institution and Jewish organization in addition to closing early for Shabbat should have a policy of flexible working hours for mothers and fathers; university programs that train Jewish community workers should be responsive not only to the calendar of the university, but to the calendar of the students’ children as well. Perhaps once efforts are made in these “physical” areas, there will grow the emotional acceptance of the idea of a working mother.
I may be overly optimistic, but I do not doubt that I will eventually remarry, and I hope that I will be able to have children. I do not fear for the success of this second marriage. What I do fear is that I will be forced to make unnecessary choices that will affect and limit my professional contribution to the Jewish community. It is in this forcing of a choice that the Jewish community is the loser.
by Jane Rogul
One of the most important parts about being Jewish is the element of communalism. The first time I experienced the sense of being a part of a community was not while growing up—suburbs are pretty devoid of a sense of community—but while attending a Jewish camp when I was 15. This camp became my Jewish community for 5 years, to be replaced in part by Jewish activities during college.
I didn’t realize how much I associated “Jewish” and “community” until I lived in a commune. I had not been involved in any Jewish activities, observances, environment for over a year while working on an underground newspaper. However, shortly after moving into a commune of 10 persons, none of whom was Jewish, I found myself humming old Hebrew folk songs, having a yen for Israeli folk-dancing and missing the observance of Shabbat. It dawned on me after a while that this was due to the strong connection I had made between Jewish and community; when I felt myself involved in a community, I missed what had been the elements of Jewish living in the previous communities—camp, campus and kibbutz—I had lived in.
It was around this time that I became involved in the embryonic stages of what has become a stable, alternative Jewish community—Am Chai (a living people). It was also around this time, about five years ago, that I became aware of the conflicts I felt as a Jewish woman between being a strong, positive important being as a female, and feeling semi-invisible within a Jewish environment because I was a woman. For a year I had been a strong, assertive, valued member of a collective that published a newspaper. I had participated in political debate and editorial decision-making; I had acquired editorial, graphic and photo skills; I had enjoyed an important role in the countercultural community. I had also become gradually familiar with many aspects of the women’s movement and had had my “consciousness raised” in terms of sexism and sex-role limitations within my own life.
Now, upon becoming involved in a Jewish group again, I found disturbing things happening. At times I felt invisible, that what I had to say wasn’t as important as what others (male) had to say; at times I felt like “one of the boys”; and at times I felt myself slipping into an old familiar role I hadn’t experienced for a while, best characterized as “playing up to men.” Similar things were bothering other women in Am Chai so we formed a rap group. Besides talking about tensions within Am Chai, we discussed parental pressures we felt, differences we experienced in the way we were treated in Jewish and non-Jewish environments, feelings and bonds with other women. We began to deal with tensions around sexism and sex roles within Am Chai as a whole. When some of us within Am Chai with similar politics formed a collective to put out a newspaper—Chutzpah, Radical Jewish Journal—feminism was one of our founding and continuing political principles.
I have always felt that my leftist politics connected to my Jewishness, stemming out of and flowing from the ethical principles and humanism of Judaism. The quotation from Hillel: “If I am not for myself who am I? If I am only for myself who am I? If not now, when?” is to me a call to revolution. For the past six years, political activity— leftist, Radical Jewish, feminist and Jewish feminist—has been a central focus to my life and activities, and has been, in a sense, my career. It has not, however, been how I have earned a living.
I have felt conflicts, partly due to parental pressures, over how I have supported myself. I have been told that I am “wasting my college education,” that I “could be making a lot more money,” that I should “get into something and develop a career.” Some of these pressures come directly from my parents, others I have long recorded in my head. I have not felt terribly enthralled over teaching Hebrew School or nursery school, and have felt positively bored and frustrated transcribing other persons’ words all day long while attached to a dictaphone and a typewriter. I console myself with the knowledge that millions of people out there are engaged in meaningless labor to earn a living and with the feeling of relief that at least I don’t have the conflicts I’d have politically over holding down a high-paying, comfortable, effortless job.
The most significant way I have altered my life because of parental expectations is in getting married. For years I felt with conviction that I would never get married, that I wanted to have children at some point but that marriage was unnecessary and possibly detrimental. Eventually I decided, however, that if I were to have children I would get married, because it would hurt my family—parents and grandparents— deeply if I did not, and more importantly would create open conflict and tension in our relationships that I would have a hard time dealing with. So after I discovered last winter that I was pregnant and went through some agonizing decision-making with my roommate and lover over whether to have a baby or an abortion, we got married—and had a baby!
After living in a mixed commune, a women’s commune, by myself and with a lover, I am living for the first time (since childhood) as part of a nuclear family, with my husband and my one-month-old son. Our family is part of a Jewish housing cooperative project, an outgrowth of Am Chai and Chutzpah, and hopefully within the next year we will be living in an apartment building which we will own with 10 to 20 others who are already members of our extended family. Like I said, one of the most important parts to me about being Jewish is the element of communalism.
by Maralee Gordon
I’ve loved two men in my lifetime, now one sometimes. I’ve loved three women and one child, now always.
I grew up in Boston in a family of seven children, I being the oldest, a mother and father. My father having died when I was thirteen, I only remember short takes of him. Then, he was gone and it opened some door to my mother and me. We did everything together; shopping, dinners out. lunches and brunches. We even asked each other what to wear.
Life went along smoothly for the first year and then Mother was in a bad car accident. She was a cripple for two years. I became the person to lean on and yet never felt any appreciable change in my life. The question arises, how could I? For me it was as it should be: coming home after school, making sure dinner was made, kids washed and put to bed. In many parts my life is a blur, not because I refused to acknowledge what was happening, but because I was too busy to know that anyone else lived differently.
In 1966 I became a wife in the first part of the year and a mother by the year’s end. Busy keeping house, taking care of a man ten years my senior and a new baby again reinforced my earlier activity of arranging and caring for other people’s lives.
Now it was different, though. I remember crying for one whole year and making numerous trips home never knowing I was leaving or going back. I started to bury myself in social activities, and found it was important for me to not only join women’s organizations but to then prove my generation had a lot to say by moving into leadership positions.
By 1968 I had had enough. I began to organize women I knew in the community to meet once a week to discuss how our feelings about our roles as mothers and wives were changing. Our men were less concerned about us meeting together, and needing to, than we cared to admit. Women came into (he group and left with various excuses. We discussed each woman’s leaving and felt anger and frustration when we could see that the man meant so much more than the self.
A year passed, and during this time I began to emerge as a self-contained woman. I had had enough of the whistles, the invitations to lunch and bed and the perfect parties. New women came into the group and it changed again. This time the women were students, teachers and professors. Some had been in movement groups in major cities and brought with them their organizational skills, their anger and their love.
The world changed for me. A real flower opened and dropped warmth and love around me. I felt I was now getting everything I had given in those years of struggling just to keep other women interested.
Edith called asking what I needed or what she could do. I moved to the woods, to the lake, atop a 40-foot cliff and realized that before 1970 I could have never been left alone there, with a husband, and not jumped off.
In the meantime we set up a house for women to retreat to and to laugh in. Sisters were moving out of their homes and into the haven and along with them came the knowledge that no longer would we have to go back to our home towns, but that we could create our own home town and leave only when we wanted to.
It has taken all these years, and yet so few, to realize that our bond is not only that we are women but that we are Jewish women. That the renaissance had been promoted because we had to know that our link with our families has not been futility, our link with our religion has not been all pain. We know that religion need not be patriarchy, but that through the vision of religion as matriarchy we can love our sisters, women, children, and men. We have moved out of the structure that was pressed upon us and into a new spiritual opening that women alone could and have created.
by Deborah Nagle