To My Bais Yaakov Education,
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I made the jump from a coed, Modern Orthodox elementary school to a Bais Yaakov-type high school. In truth, I had no concept. However, I do not regret attending such a right-wing high school for a moment, and am proud to affiliate myself with you.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: there were points where, as a feminist, I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through. There were many lessons, speeches, and offhand comments about women in Judaism where I had to roll my eyes and remind myself not to take things so seriously. The hashkafa (philosophy) rabbi whose biggest blessing was “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah, but the gematria of tov is seventeen—the Sages say eighteen is an auspicious age to wed, but the numerical value of good is seventeen;” the (female) Nashim B’Tanach (Women in the Bible) teacher who taught us that women are the moon and men are the sun, so we are only reflections of the men in our lives; the halakha (Jewish law) rabbi who gave an impromptu lesson on why women shouldn’t enter the clergy…I could go on and on. It made my blood boil.
The undue emphasis on tzniut (modesty) was also difficult for me to swallow. I follow the rules of tzniut as you taught me—covering knees, elbows, collarbone—because that’s how I feel comfortable. But considering the amount of mitzvot (commandments) that you did not care to emphasize, it bothered me that you put so much effort into exhorting us (a largely modestly-dressed bunch to begin with) to cover up.
So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it.
Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes. During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha and hashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary.
Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated, frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing. For the biannual school production, we performed a musical about the life and legacy of Sarah Schenirer, the creator of Bais Yaakov and innovator of Jewish women’s education. Students were encouraged to take on leadership roles, from debate team captain to choir head to hesed (community service) committee coordinator.
So I don’t think that it would be fair to characterize you by “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah” and speeches on modesty. Yes, those were big parts of my high school career, and I don’t wish to ignore them, especially because I know that they dominated many other Bais Yaakov girls’ high school careers. But they do not define my experience in Bais Yaakov. No, I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.
So thank you, Bais Yaakov. For showing me that a woman can learn just as well as any man can, and that a frum woman can do whatever she sets her mind to. You never called yourself feminist, and I certainly did not think to apply the label to you while I was in high school. But now, in retrospect, I do believe that it would be the proper adjective to describe the education you gave me.
A feminist Bais Yaakov graduate
Her name can be found in most American history books, and her accomplishments are part of every U.S. history curriculum. This recognition is not undeserved, as she revived interest in feminism with her book The Feminine Mystique and facilitated change in women’s roles by establishing the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although most high school students treat Betty Friedan as another name to memorize for a history test, she is so much more than a removed figure in a textbook for me. She is the reason that I am a feminist.
My middle school history teacher developed my interest in First Wave Feminism, encouraging me to write papers for class and National History Day (NHD) about the suffrage movement. I loved learning about these long-ago crusaders for women’s equality, people who battled for rights I took for granted. My interest in the history of feminist activism led me to learn about Second Wave Feminism on my own during the summer before ninth grade. While researching this era, I read most of the major feminist classics, all of which really resonated with me. I identified most with 1960s and 70s feminism largely because the issues relevant then, from LGBT rights to equal pay, are still pertinent today.
However, it was not until I read The Feminine Mystique that I had my “feminist click moment.” I was shocked by the blatant sexism that society had condoned and the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards women, all in such a recent time period. Friedan’s exposé was so powerful that it rallied me to action and made me want to battle for women’s rights. It was official: I became a feminist.
Ever since reading The Feminine Mystique, I have gotten involved in numerous feminist activities. I am particularly proud of my work with Star of Davida, the Orthodox Jewish feminist blog where I have posted biweekly articles on women’s issues since summer 2010. As someone who enjoys writing and believes strongly in feminism, blogging has allowed me to combine these passions and engage with both of them on a deeper level. It has also compelled me to follow other bloggers and read their thoughts on the issues, which has broadened my horizons, introduced me to new ideas, and given me the opportunity to examine my own opinions in order to change them or reaffirm them.
Betty Friedan influenced my current actions as well as my future aspirations: I hope to pursue gender studies in college and become a labor lawyer specializing in women’s issues. These goals were solidified when I attended the 2012 NOW conference as part of the NOW Young Feminist Task Force, an exclusive group that unites young feminists and gives them a greater voice. Hearing motivating speeches and meeting dedicated feminists showed me that this is what I want to do with my life. Although I never met Friedan, who died in 2006, I know that she would be proud to have inspired me to carry on the torch of feminism.
This was Talia’s college admissions essay for Harvard University, where she is now finishing her first year. If you discussed your Orthodox feminism in your college application, or in an essay for high school, college, or graduate school, tell us about it! Send your essay to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.
My mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.
I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.
In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.
Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”
Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.
I’ve always really liked Purim. When I was younger, my main interest in the holiday was dressing up in fun costumes and eating hamentaschen. Although I still enjoy those aspects, I now appreciate Purim because it brings two independent women, Vashti and Esther, into focus. I’m certainly not the only one who has noticed Purim’s feminist quality; for decades, Orthodox women and men who are sensitive to gender issues have rallied around the holiday, taking Ta’anit Esther as an opportunity to talk about agunah and using Esther as an example of why Jewish women’s voices must be heard.
Although Mordecai is an integral part of the Purim story, Esther is undoubtedly the main character. However, based on the communal recitation of pesukim (verses) during the Megillah reading, one might think that Mordecai is the more important figure: of the four verses recited aloud by the congregation, three are specifically about Mordecai, and none invoke Esther. This erasure of Esther’s contributions to the story seems oddly dissonant with the overall feminist slant of the holiday. Consequently, some Orthodox feminists have begun to right this wrong and recite pesukim about Esther aloud as well.
Reciting pesukim out loud during Megillah reading is a minhag (practice) that dates back to the Gaonic period, although the verses of choice were not settled upon for another few centuries. Because the practice is purely minhag, there is no halakhic reason congregations can’t say additional pesukim about Esther out loud. Although reciting the four traditional pesukim has been part of the mesorah (tradition) for centuries, Judaism is a living religion that can and should be tweaked within the framework of halakha to remain contemporary.
For communities interested in introducing more gender parity to their Megillah readings, Kehillat Hadar has identified pesukim about Esther that are roughly parallel to those recited aloud about Mordecai. The first pasuk that we recite aloud, “In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Yair son of Shimi son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (2:5), can be accompanied by, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter” (2:7).
As a parallel to 8:15, “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries,” perhaps recite Esther’s petition to Mordecai in 4:16, “‘Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!’”
In connection to “For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahaseurus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred” (10:3) can come “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (9:32).
If you would like to recite pesukim about Esther aloud, but you can’t find a Megillah reading in your area that does, you should organize your own! You can register your reading on JOFA’s Project Esther directory. If you’ve never leyned before, you can also learn how to do so by using JOFA’s Megillah leyning app. Whatever sort of reading you end up attending or organizing, the important thing to remember is to enjoy it! Purim is a time of unadulterated simcha, and we can’t let anything – even frustrating little bits of perceived sexism – to take away from our joy.
As an Orthodox Jew, feminist activist, and first-year college student, I’ve got a pretty full schedule to balance. I’ve previously written about how being a feminist has influenced my perspective on being an undergrad, but I have yet to explore how being Orthodox impacts both my feminism and collegiate career.
Being a feminist in a patriarchal society is no simple mater. However, so far, I’ve found college to be a pretty conducive place for feminism and other social equality movements. There’s a sizable feminist community at Harvard, every member of which is absolutely fabulous and truly dedicated to making the world a better place for women and men alike. Numerous gender-related events occur every week, from screenings of documentaries like 12th and Delaware to speeches by New York Times columnist Gail Collins. All of the upperclass feminists I’ve met have strongly encouraged me and other first-years to get involved in activist work; my first semester of college hasn’t even ended, and I’m already on the board of an on-campus feminist organization and write for the college’s feminist magazine. Even in groups that are not specifically gendered or activist-oriented, I have found and fostered several feminist-friendly spaces.
Not everybody I meet on campus is as involved in gender issues as I am. Although I have encountered some insensitivity or misunderstanding when I’ve espoused feminist ideals or used the word feminist, the typical reaction is a few respectful questions about what exactly feminism is. Consequently, I’ve had some really interesting, eye-opening conversations with a varied group of people about gender issues. Continue reading
Nearly every book of Tanakh, the bible, is filled with stories about strong, independent women who influenced and led the Jewish people. Contemporary Jewish feminists have championed these women, taking inspiration from their actions and using them as role models. One biblical figure that has been a source of encouragement for generations of Jewish women leaders is Devorah HaNevia, Deborah the Prophet.
Of the sixteen shoftim (judges) that served in pre-monarchic Israel, the only woman among their ranks was Deborah. She was also one of seven female prophets recorded in Tanakh who communicated directly with God. As with most of the other shoftim, little is known about her personal life: the only information the text gives us is that she was “eshet lapidot,” the wife of Lapidot (Judges 4:4). Most commentators hold that this simply means that Lapidot was the name of Deborah’s husband. Some go on to explain that he is called Lapidot, which literally means torches, because Deborah encouraged him to deliver wicks to light the Menorah in the Mishkan (Temple).
However, there are shivim panim laTorah (70 interpretations of the Torah), so this passage does not have to be taken literally. The term “eshet lapidot” can also mean that Deborah had a deep connection – was “wedded” to – torches. I believe that this relationship is derived from the fact that torches are made up of several wicks tied together. Beginning with our matriarch Sarah, the Jewish women of each generation dedicated a wick – a wick of knowledge, strength, experience, religious fervor – to the torch. Deborah was able to seize the torch that was passed down to her and use it to illuminate her generation with Torah.
It is imperative that the Jewish feminists of today follow Deborah’s example and continue to pass on the proverbial torch. I cannot even begin to stress the importance of cultivating the younger generation and encouraging them to get involved in Jewish feminist activist work. Because of my age, I have found myself unwelcome and marginalized in so many feminist spaces. If it wants to have a vibrant future, the Orthodox feminist community cannot let young people continue to feel this way.
Consequently, I am so pleased to be a part of JOFA’s transition to Feminism 2.0. Young people are on the Internet, and the way to engage them is through that medium. In this age of the Internet and constant advancement in the high-tech field, it is crucial for the feminist movement to use the various new forms of technology that become available.
This new JOFA blog is named The Torch to signify Deborah’s torch, the torch that so many Jewish feminists carried before us. We cannot let the torch idle in our hands. We must actively engage with the times and ensure that there we create a space where the younger generation feels comfortable. By doing so, we will be continuing the legacy, the mesorah, that has been handed to us by centuries of strong Jewish women.