Tag Archives: feminism

Challah Covers

by Maureen Rubin (Los Angeles, CA)

My family endlessly obsessed over my brother’s bar mitzvah.  Guest list, menu, music, clothes.  Were burgundy velvet tuxedos too much?  When it was over, I was only ten, but started counting the days until my own bat mitzvah.

Not going to happen.   In my hometown shul in 1960, girls could not get bat mitzvahed.  Instead, we would take part in a group confirmation.  Fifty Jewish girls in white dresses–without blue satin sashes.

Spurred on by the injustice of bat mitzvah prohibition, I drifted away from Jewish studies after my dull confirmation.  In college, my Jewish connection was limited to attending Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel so I could meet Jewish boys from ZBT.

But the one event I looked forward to each year was the Passover seder where we reconnected with our huge, loving family. Our seder was the Reader’s Digest condensed version.  No haggadahs and we completed the story of Passover in record time.  Jews, slaves, Moses, plagues, burning bush, Red Sea, freedom. Done. Then we ate.  And ate.

My freshman year I went home for Pesach with a friend whose family finished the entire haggadah with a discussion on each part.  The in-depth dialogues around the table set off brain sparks.  I could suddenly relate the history of Pharonic oppression to what was then happening to American women.  I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but clearly there were parallels.  OK, we weren’t building pyramids and eating dirt, but we could legitimately protest how women’s futures were being sculpted by everyone but them.  Women in America were living our own form of Egyptian slavery!

Years later, I married a wonderful man who was proud of my career and life choices.  We had two daughters.  When our eldest was 13, we decided to give her the bat mitzvah I never had, but would have loved.  She would be bat mitzvahed on Mount Masada, where King Herod had built a complex that sheltered the last survivors of the Jewish revolt.  Masada remains a symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

The ceremonies were unforgettable.  We sat in a stone amphitheater and looked down on our beautiful children. Ten 13-year olds, five girls and five boys, all wearing white, took turns reading from the Torah on the very spot where our ancestors chose mass suicide instead of Roman oppression. There wasn’t a dry eye in the dessert.

When the ceremony was over, the “new adults” received gifts.  The boys received beautiful hand embroidered tallitot and the girls received–challah covers! Suddenly, we saw movement below us, we heard buzzing from the girls. A voice rang out, demanding “fairness of gifts.” It was our daughter.

“We girls do not want challah covers,” she said.  “These gifts are not fair.  We are being treated differently.  Why did the boys get things they can wear to synagogue while we got things that keep us in the kitchen? We want to be treated the same.  We want tallitot.”

How proud we were.  Her act of civil disobedience reminded us of Biblical midwives who defied the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn baby boys.  In this sacred setting, it became clear that my daughter and her generation did not have to be told to remember that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, nor that their foremothers were allowed few life choices.

The girls got their tallitot.  My daughter’s tallit became the chupah at her wedding and she will pass it on to her beautiful Jewish feminist eight-year old when the time is right.

Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. In her 30 years on campus, she taught writing and media law , served in a variety of administrative positions, published widely and received numerous teaching and public service awards.  Prior to joining the university, Rubin was Director of Public Information for President Carter’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the White House, and held similar positions for a U.S. Congresswoman and several non-profits. She has a JD from Catholic University School of Law In Washington, D.C., an MA in Public Relations from University of Southern California and a BS in Journalism from Boston University.

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Sanctify (Veyakhel-Pekudei)

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

God, that very exacting architect, tells us seven times
What we need to build a Mishkan –
The skins, the acacia wood, the stones
The gold, the oils, the lapis lazuli —
And post by post,
Socket by socket,
Loop by loop,
How exactly to put it together
Or risk unspoken but surely imagined repercussions
(not the least of which might be a volcano or tsunami
that would force us to start from the ground up
and go searching, again, for copper and silver, etcetera).

And each one of those seven times
that we’re told about building that Mishkan
God, that very exacting fashionista,
Tells us what to use to make the clothes for the priests –
The yarns, the chains, the linens,
the agate and crystal and sapphires —
And braid by braid,
Sash by sash,
Hem by hem,
How exactly to put it together

All of which makes me feel a whole lot better
About how much I like jewelry.

And I’m not talking diamonds, by the way.

(I also have a many-color jacket I call Joseph
As in, “I think I’ll wear Joseph today.”)


I like the idea of adorning myself
Not so much because I’m such a beauty
(although my husband thinks I am – and,
no surprise here, I have my own body-image issues,
just like almost every other woman I know)

No, I like the idea of adorning myself
(And I just realized that if you get rid of the “n”
you’re left with adoring and,
no surprise here, I don’t always feel so great about myself
just like almost every other person I know)

I like adorning myself
Because, as they tell me, I’m made in God’s image
And when I imagine Her I no longer see
That severe old man who looks like Santa without his suit
Wrapped, instead, in a white sheet
That billows in the wind like a March in-like-a-lion afternoon

Instead, I see someone tall and elegant
Like the Statue of Liberty if she softened into flesh
with silver hair and lots of silver jewelry
that shimmers by sun and glows by moon,
decorated with stones that breed in earth’s belly.
She’d have what people call “bearing”
She’d be what people call a handsome woman

So to sum all this up,
if I look like God
And God is a looker,
Who cares, apparently, about appearances,
Lord knows I’d better look good.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes — including journaling and creative expression — at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania.  She leads a non-fiction writing group and works with individual students, and is continuing to write Jewish-themed readings for what she hopes will become a book, In the Spirit of the Holidays.

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Following the Lead of My Radical Foremothers

by Dina Ripsman Eylon (Thornhill, Ontario, Canada)

The idea to start an academic journal on Jewish women came to me while researching the lives of Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, Mania Shochat and Netiva Ben Yehuda for an article on women in the military in pre-state Israel. I realized that despite the fact that these women were instrumental in military organizations prior to the establishment of the Jewish state, nothing about them was mentioned in history textbooks of the period. Growing up in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s, I was not aware of the contribution of any of these women, except for Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, (the wife of the second president of Israel) even though during this time in North America, the Second Wave of the feminist movement flourished.

Confounded by personal reflections and undefined theories forming slowly in my mind, I devoured books in the fields of women’s history and feminism. I wanted to know more about complex issues like Jewish marriage and divorce, and the role women were expected to play in the family. I wanted to understand political and social structures that propagated discrimination and inequality.

Through this personal quest for enlightenment, I was introduced to the works and philosophy of the renowned novelist and author Virginia Woolf. In the late 1920s she explored the subjects of women’s history and writing. Woolf delivered two lectures on the topic of women and fiction at the Cambridge women’s colleges of Girton and Newnham. She examined women’s writing from all possible angles and famously concluded that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” and inevitably, if she is to write anything at all, or be written about. In A Room of One’s Own, her subsequent work, she articulated women’s inopportune historical exploits and boldly stated: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

In Israel, the question “what does it mean to be Jewish?” does not surface except for the need to affiliate oneself with either the secular majority or the observant minority. When I arrived in Canada in 1980 to pursue my graduate studies, I learned that being a Jewish woman was not limited to being merely secular or religious. Jewish identity was not inherent but actually a product of one’s self-search or desire to belong socially. Assuming a Jewish identity was a choice that many women wanted to make.

As the eminent Jewish feminist Susan Weidman Schneider wrote in her seminal work Jewish and Female, “the tension for Jewish women today comes from the struggle to stay within the tradition yet not compromise one’s identity and integrity as a woman.” Weidman Schneider described a variety of ways in which these identities are sought: changing and feminizing known rituals, “rediscovering” new aspects of Judaism that may relate to women, studying sources and texts to discern women’s input, and moreover, “transforming traditional Judaism and Jewish institutions so that they include women…”

Schneider’s book was another milestone in shaping a more defined view on the life of Jewish women in North America and helped to crystallize my feminist ideology. It was an ideology based on a determination to empower women by the only weapon I had – education.

As the founder and editor-in-chief of Women in Judaism in 1997, I wanted to help create ‘a paradigm shift’ within the field of Jewish Studies and build a new one reintroducing the findings to what is considered now the ‘mainstream’ or “malestream” study of Judaism. Since its inception, the journal has gained international readership and is listed in dozens of directories and indexes. In addition to publishing prominent scholars, the journal promotes young and emerging scholars and makes it a priority to give a voice to materials that most likely would have never been published by “malestream” Jewish periodicals. The journal welcomes a diversity of points of view, conflicting or harmonizing, in order to develop a genuine dialogue.

Our primary goal is to give Jewish women an uninterrupted voice, a place where all voices are heard and listened to, devoid of any patriarchal sponsorship or censorship.

Author and publisher, Dina Ripsman Eylon has a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She has been teaching various undergraduate courses at Carleton University and at the University of Toronto. For the past twelve years, she has served as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal (http://www.utoronto.ca/wjudaism/journal/journal_index1.html), a gender-related publication, which has engaged and promoted new feminist scholarship in Jewish Studies. Her book, Reincarnation in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism, was published by Edwin Mellen Press (2003). Eylon founded the Vaughan Poets’ Circle and serves as the Thornhill branch manager of the Ontario Poetry Society.

This piece is based on Dina Ripsman Eylon’s “No More Anonymity,” which appears in Living Legacies: A Collection of Inspirational Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women (edited by Liz Pearl). It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Kallah Bereishis

by Jeanette Friedman (New Milford, NJ)

On my 12th birthday I wasn’t standing in front of a Torah scroll to make a blessing but in a darkened sukkah with some friends and a birthday cake without candles. (There were no candles since I wasn’t permitted to blow them out).

It wasn’t fair.

I could stand behind the curtain upstairs in the musty women’s section of our Crown Heights shul and peek down at the men, including my twin brother, as they recited the  blessing over the Torah as “Chassan Bereishis”– The Groom of Genesis.

Why, I wondered, couldn’t there be a “Kallah Bereishis”– The Bride of Genesis?

I was a Beis Yakov girl, a student at the ultra Orthodox girls-only school where they taught us the Pentateuch and Prophets and only the halacha we needed to know about running a household and being a good wife.

But we had TV at home, and I had a high school teacher, Shirley Jacobson, who taught civics and spoke about political action and talked to me about going to college.

She inspired me to convince my parents to let me to go to Brooklyn College, as long as it didn’t cost them anything except the bare minimum.

Brooklyn College saved my life.

It’s where in September, 1970, in the middle of my battle for freedom and my escape from the Orthodox women’s ghetto, that I met my husband Philip, a Vietnam vet, and we’ve stuck together through thick and thin for 37 years.

At Brooklyn College, I learned how to be a Jew and a citizen of the world without suffocating ritual.

I learned how to use my Jewish values to make the world a better place for other people, and how to make the world a better place for me—from marching against the war in Vietnam in 1965 to marching in the Women’s Lib parade in 1970.

When I joined the school newspaper, I met a group of people who gave me courage to move out and up. They were the first to appreciate my writing ability, and taught me a trade that still pays the bills. They taught me how to look for an apartment and drive a car. They taught me how to dig for information and to use the power of the pen.

Whenever I was in conflict with myself or my ethics, the first person I turned to for advice was Sol Amato, a kid from the Lower East Side who used to wait tables in the Borscht Belt. He was the dean of the special baccalaureate degree program and a very gentle man.

I remember Sol’s office and the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet filled with papers about the great philosophers and minds of the world. Sol always asked the right questions, gave thoughtful answers, and pointed me in the right direction.

And then there was the late Dolly Lowther Robinson, a sharecropper’s daughter who went to law school and became Secretary of Labor for the State of NY and a Model Cities Commissioner under Abe Beame.

Without Sol and Dolly, above all others, the road I was on would not have led to Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Chavura Beth Shalom, and this bat mitzvah ceremony in Alpine, New Jersey

When Phil and I moved to Teaneck, we had four kids, ages 1, 2, 3 and 9. We had been in town about two years when, in 1979, someone painted swastikas on the synagogue where my kids were going to nursery school.

That’s when I started down this road– with my fellow sons and daughters of survivors–which has led to meeting amazing people, including world leaders, and travels around the world.

Eventually, the road, twisting and turning, led to Rabbi Jack, who has taught me much, though I’m sure I frustrate the hell out of him because he has had to uncross all the ultra-Orthodox hardwiring in my brain.

It’s because of Rabbi Jack that I’ve looked into the Talmud.

And it’s Rabbi Jack who I want to thank for helping me with my new beginning.

That’s because as we begin the Torah cycle again on Simchat Torah, and I step up to the bimah on my 60th birthday to read the Creation and the First Day, I feel like the bride that I dreamed of when I was 12 years old.

The bride of Genesis–kallah bereishis.

A freelance journalist, editor, and author, Jeanette Friedman serves as communications director for the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. This essay appeared in slightly different form as “My Bat Mitzvah Speech, Simchat Torah 2007: Today I Am A Woman” at her blog, http://www.jeanettefriedman.com/ It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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