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Archive for December, 2009

Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a term I’ve thrown around on this blog a few times now, but I have yet to truly define it. Intersectionality can best be defined by Stacy Ann Chin, revolutionary spoken word activist, when she proclaims, “ALL OPPRESSION IS CONNECTED, YOU DICK!” And trust me – this is best to hear performed:

Granted, Stacy Ann Chin is speaking of her mixed identity as Chinese Jamaican American lesbian feminist, but this connection of oppression applies to all forms of intersectionality. Jewish feminism is certainly a form of intersectionality because it is the connection of anti-semitism, sexism, and the oppression created by some Jewish traditions. When this blog was a mere idea and I told people of its cultivation, I received questions like “Why so specific?” or “Will you have enough to write about?” or “Doesn’t that exclude people who aren’t Jewish?”

The truth is that I asked myself these very questions before I realized that the purpose of this blog is to explore the intersection of Judaism and feminism, the connection of oppressions that is rarely recognized. Sometimes, specific attention to a specific set of issues is necessary to make people think of their actions within their individual communities. Sometimes, society is too large a structure to blame and sometimes – like in the case of this blog – the connection of oppressions allows for the realization that every movement is contingent on another.

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Sometimes, I want to be told what to think; I want to be given an opinion ready-made on a silver platter so I can do the fun job of protesting without the hard work of assessing the why. That is, after all, why I will read the op-eds before the front page and why I absolutely adore inhaling the wealth of beliefs given to me by savvy blogs.

But now I have my own blog and I must do the dirty work of finding out where I stand. And guess what? Today, I disagree with a post on an opinion source I otherwise agree with. Jewcy usually provides a refreshingly progressive and stylish take on Jewish life. With categories like sex, lifestyle, and artists, this young source for Jewish media has some great opinions I am more than happy to latch onto, but this post entitled “Jewesses: Officially Hot” doesn’t sit so well. It seems like a poorly allocated celebration of the acknowledgment of Judaism as sexy. But let me say this: objectification does not connote sexiness.

I believe this

(and this)

to be appalling. The men’s magazine Details in their oh-so-classy “dating + cheating” section has published an article that depicts “why American men are lusting after women of the tribe.” This is yet another sexist portrayal of stereotyped ethnicity where the given ethnicity is fetishized for being “exotic.” Not to mention that Jewish women come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, which this article certainly does not acknowledge in a physical and sexual stereotyping tirade.

Jewish women who assimilate into a predominantly Christian society/workforce are neither “cultural mutts like Rachel Weisz, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and Rachel Bilson” nor are they “like the Catholic-schoolgirl fetish” and it is unbelievably creepy to think of  this apparently common “desire to dominate a Jewish chick” simply because she is “one of the tribe.”

This whole article terrifies me because through it, Jewish women are objectified as this one homogeneous group that is there only to serve/be dominated by the patriarchal WASP consumer culture with subscriptions to this sexist stereotyping magazine.

So I have formed my own opinion and it is a strong one and through writing (a whole lot) about these sexist wrongs, this Jewess Jewish feminist has gotten stronger.

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This summer, I was blown away after I read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which tells the story of Dinah, biblical daughter of Jacob. This 336 page book stems from a single footnote in the Torah, which simply states that Dinah was raped. That is the only mention of the only daughter of a religious dynansty. I feel like I can never take the Torah too seriously because, like many old-school textbooks I have been assigned, half of history is omitted. This one beautifully-written novel seeks to redress this wrong by providing the reader with a detailed description of the women’s lives in the Red Tent, along with body acceptance woven into the descriptive words.

The physical red tent, which was the setting for the majority of the novel is where women went when menstruating or pregnant. By the sound of that, it seems as if that would be a gross display of sexism – shutting women up when “impure” or when society deems them unable to have sex. But the red tent described in this book is a symbol of empowerment, ritual, religion, and feminism. It is a place for celebrating womanhood, a place to rejoice over gender, sex, coming of age, and new life.

I propose that we create our own red tents. These do not have to be (and probably should not be) physical spaces women go to when they have their periods or are pregnant, but they should be meetings through which Jewish feminists gather to discuss and rewrite forgotten histories and acknowledge the women society forgets even now. Some synagogues have already created such groups and they make a tremendous impact in the attempt to equalize Judaism. This is just one way a book can transform history and one way we can hold ourselves accountable for remembering women.

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So I thought I’d give this book due credit on the blog it inspired me to write. I have already quoted the introduction, which only provides a peek into the insight and pluralism present in the personal essays. Edited by Danya Ruttenberg, the collection explores Jewish feminist awakenings within individual women, ranging from a Jennifer Bleyer who goes from riot grrl to rabbi, Ophira Edut who wonders why so many Jewish girls have eating disorders, and Ruttenberg herself who explores trans theory in relation to the mikveh.

What I love most about this collection is the way in which all of these personal accounts which are starkly different from one another work together to form a comprehensive definition of Jewish feminism that does not exclude anyone. At times, specific movements can exclude groups of people, which goes against the very purpose of creating that very movement. Jewish feminism is not for only Jewish women who happen to be feminists. It is for all the diversity within Judaism that must be recognized and it is for everyone who is not Jewish, but desires to see intersectionality in practice – for everyone who wants to see contradicting values interact to form a movement that has the power to improve communities.

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Michelle Bayefsky, senior at Ramaz, wrote this article for The Jewish Week about reconciling societal sexual expectations and teenagers’ real sexual experiences with religious teachings and Jewish law. Bayefsky provides a comprehensive take on how Jewish day schools teach “the birds and the bees” to students from varying religious backgrounds and sexual experiences/desires. As the mainstream culture becomes more and more progressive concerning sexual education, much of Judaism, an ancient religion, remains static.

Michelle shows her understanding of the seeming contradiction, “Jewish schools must find a balance between teaching sexual education courses that inform students of halachic laws while teaching the necessary substance in case a student deviates from those laws.” The purpose of an education, broadly speaking, is to make students aware of all the options available to them and then leave the results to the individuality of the students. It is true that this does get tricky when these options contradict, but the options must still be communicated for the sake of safety nonetheless.

A Jewish education should encourage us to question and to interact yet when this questioning is concerned with sexuality and this interaction is concerned with bodies, we freeze and that very freezing excludes people from joining a religious body (pun intended). Every single school – Jewish or not – has the responsibility to educate its students on their bodies and on how they could have sex safely with whomever they choose. Only this type of education can remove the fear and stigma surrounding the human body that seems to be ingrained in too many minds. Only this type of education can truly give students the options to choose from and all of these options can – if we work hard to incorporate them – work within a Jewish context.

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Defining Jewish Feminism

It took me a very long time to come up with a name for this blog. It was suggested to me to make a word wall where I brainstormed every word I could come up with in terms of Judaism and feminism and write them on post-its. I then tried to mix-and-match. This was difficult because experience has told me that Judaism traditionally excludes parts of feminism. My goal in a name then became to challenge that exclusion, to reclaim, to subvert, to question.

How can we define Jewish feminism? How can we define two indefinite -isms that fuse together when everyone defines each differently in terms of their own individual identities? Susannah Heschel proposed, “Jewish feminism is not about equality with men. Why should we women want to define ourselves by imitating male Jewishness?” Already this contradicted my definition of feminism yet it made sense. I define feminism as a movement for equality through the empowerment of choice. The choice part rings true for Jewish feminism yet we should also be encouraged to make our own rituals, our own causes, and our own equally-empowering roles within Judaism. So yes, we should strive for equality, but our first goal is to make a name for Jewish women, to give each and every one of them an identity that can be seen, heard, and read as wonderfully unique.

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Yesterday, the Stupak-Pitts amendment was put into action, which allows states to choose to stop including abortion coverage in insurance plans. The bill requires women to purchase separate accounts that would only pay for abortions. If you look at the front page of The New York Times this morning, you will see the headline “Catholic Health Group Backs Senate Abortion Compromise.” Contradictions within the Catholic community are often explored in the mainstream media simply because they are shocking portrayals of a dominant religion. Catholicism is often thought of as cohesive and this split over Stupak shatters the stereotype of Catholics as people who do not use birth control and do not get abortions.

But I am not writing this post about Catholicism. Where faith-based abortion debates are concerned, the media lacks coverage on Jewish opinions and values. Jewish women are particularly divided amongst themselves because the ultra-Orthodox do not use any form of birth control and – though abortion is not strictly prohibited – consider it a sin amongst themselves. The Jewish liberals of New York make up a large part of the local pro-choice movement and those Conservative, Reform, and post/inter-denominational Jews elsewhere…well…you just don’t hear about them too often.

But as for the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW), a belief in the pro-choice route has been published and disseminated in a statement to the senate. NCJW president Nancy Ratzan said,

This Stupak-Pitts amendment is an egregious assault on the rights of women and an enormous step backward for those who believe in the separation of religion and state. It enshrines one religious view of abortion into law and enlists the federal government to enforce it. It jettisoned a compromise already worked out that would have maintained the status quo in regard to government funding for abortion care. The Stupak-Pitts amendment would apply a new far-reaching ban — barring women from even using their own funds to purchase comprehensive coverage that includes abortion services through the new insurance exchange. In doing so, this amendment ignores the reality that one in three women will in fact have an abortion by the time she reaches 45 years of age.

Sometimes I forget that Judaism is a minority religion in the United States. Women are a minority in the government, making Jewish women a double minority that rarely gets a voice in faith-based politics (which really should not exist in this country anyways – HELLO separation of church and state?!). This bill, which was crafted by men, detrimentally affects women. It is up to all the organizations out there with even the slightest pro-choice inkling like the NCJW to oppose this healthcare “reform.”

Not to mention that this bill makes absolutely no sense because, as Ratzan said, “This provision is alarmingly out of touch with the reality that women do not anticipate unintended or untenable pregnancies.” Hear that, Senate? No one PLANS an UNPLANNED pregnancy!

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