Believe me, I wish I did, but I have no choice but to dance.
It chose me.
It is amazing how many fellow dancers throughout my career have expressed and mirrored these sentiments to me. The grueling path of the dancer is not an easy one. There is no security, little pay, little work and even less work that is satisfying or dignifying. It is a wiring of the soul to crave expression through the honest, direct, and ultimately vulnerable body. Anyone who has fallen in love with dance knows of the heart breaks that come just as frequently as the overwhelming love. To truly dance is the highest gift and does not come without its challenges.
Now imagine how many more challenges are piled on for someone from a religious Jewish community. All communities differ in their applied practices of halakha, yet the main statutes are strong:
- No touching the opposite gender. Forget dancing with men in a company, forget partner work.
- Observing Shabbat, holidays, and fast days. Forget weekend performances…good luck going to an audition and saying you won’t be available for performances on Friday nights and Saturday
- Modest dress. Bye bye leotards!
- Keeping kosher. Good luck keeping kosher during company group meals on your tour to Bangkok.
- Modest actions, which means not performing for men who may succumb to objectifying you as sexual fantasy. So there goes half your audience and any competitive performance in any serious theater.
Add to this, all of the social realities that are present in many secular communities, but are further magnified in the Orthodox community. It is improper to be a “performer.” Dance is not a career, you cannot be a good wife and a good mother and live this kind of life. And the comments go on and on.
Most Orthodox communities do not respect dance as a realistic option for one’s life path (unless it is to teach dance to children who will only ever dance in a studio or teach other children and will never perform on stage). Most Orthodox communities have little or no structures that would allow the art form to be taken seriously. Dance is, more often than not, strictly a hobby that girls engage in before their Bat Mitzvah. Forget boys who show promise, and forget any professional aspirations. In many communities, a career as a dancer simply sounds impossible. Of course there are beautiful exceptions, but this is the general rule.
How can a person who shows promise and passion for this art form ever hope to self-actualize and share their skills and also continue to stay involved in a religious community and maintain an observant way of life?
Enter Nehara Dance Group.
Founded in 2012 by Artistic Director, Daniella Bloch, Nehara is a one of a kind Israeli dance company that features professional dancers who are also religious women. The group maintains the highest standards of artistry and professionalism, performing for mixed audiences, and participating in the arts community in Israel and abroad, all while maintaining a sensitivity to modesty, Shabbat observance, intention of the work, and mother-friendly environments. It is the first of its kind and is making waves in both the Israeli artistic and religious communities – something that makes it quite unique indeed.
Now, Nehara is not only considered revolutionary for the caliber and quality of its dancers, it also encourages social activism through education and the mixed populations it attracts in its audience. Usually one would never find a secular Israeli from Tel Aviv willingly sitting next to a religious Zionist, yet this happens at every Nehara show! The performances bring different factions of Israeli society together in order to enjoy an art form that transcends politics, borders and “truths” while speaking to one’s deeper soul.
Nehara Dance Group has brought its unique voice all over Israel and Europe. Now, more than ever, presenting the world with a pluralistic and creative face of Israel will do wonders for Israel and for those who dream to one day express themselves through dance.
For years I studied and taught Torah, learning and teaching in many settings, including several batei midrash, teacher training programs, institutes, the Israeli army, and for Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum. In a word, limmud Torah, the study of Torah, was the air that I breathed. Yet as I was using the new feminist lenses to study the Jewish texts, my heart began to sink deeper and deeper. Recognizing the trivial but painful fact that my tradition, my love, my identity, was defined by men, for men, reflecting male life experience, interest and needs, made me very confused and left me with a strong sense of betrayal and abandonment.
For some years I tried to deal with this challenge through feminist theology, and wrote my Master’s thesis under the direction of Professor Tamar Ross. For a while the liveliness that feminist theology afforded me, diminished my anger and sense of helplessness. But unlike many feminist theologians, I did not feel I could discard the entire tradition and create new rituals from scratch – even if I toyed with the idea from time to time – because I felt that the Torah is a mirror of reality, a mirror that calls us to contend with reality in order to make it better. Even if I didn’t like some of the sacred texts, I understood that they demand a response. Precisely the ones that disturbed me the most are the ones where I have to take the responsibility of tikkun, or repair.
And then, a miracle happened. I found a little pamphlet of midrashim, exegetical commentaries and explorations of Biblical texts, written by Rivkah Lubitch, an Israeli Talmida Chachama, scholar, and To’enet Rabanit , an advocate in rabbinical court. In it were fifteen midrashim, witty, deep, uplifting and empowering, challenging the patriarchy and injustice from within a deep knowledge and love of the texts, and rabbinic culture.
I tried using this method of creating new midrashim myself. Midrash, literally, “searching out,” is a literary tool created by the ancient rabbis to discover within and draw out of the sacred texts new meanings relating to their own lives, problems and values. Midrash works through close readings of texts, syllogisms, word plays on roots and etymologies, filling in gaps, and reading texts in light of one another. Then, with a little bundle of women’s midrashim in my hand, I set sail on a new journey around Israel, travelling wherever I was welcomed, to teach those midrashim as kitvei kodesh, holy writings, and to tell whoever was ready to listen, that the other half of Judaism is being written in our days.
One night, in Modi’in, Israel, I met Nechama Weingarten Mintz, a woman my age, who shared that she, too, had a collection of midrashim written by women, and that she too had realized their redemptive power. We both felt that these midrashim not only enabled us to stay both Jewish and feminist, but were a new, empowering vehicle that could vivify the tradition and heal society too. And so we took upon ourselves this project of publishing midrashim written by contemporary Israeli women. We had no budget, but after we sent out a handful of emails soliciting midrashim, we were flooded with hundreds of midrashim.
And as a result, in 2009, we compiled and published Volume One of Dirshuni: Midrashei Nashim. The volume contains ninety midrashim, written by thirty-seven Israeli women–Conservative, Reform and avowedly secular, of all political stripes and ethnic backgrounds, from cities, kibbutzim, small towns, and suburbs. On publication, some people loved it, others hated and banned it. But above all, the book was a liberation and revelation for the women who wrote it – and, it increasingly seems, for its many readers, and for the people learning and arguing over it, in batei midrash, study circles, and elsewhere.
Most of the midrashim in Dirshuni dealt with issues of special concern to women, but there were many others of more universal interest, and all represent the existential struggles of Israeli women. A great deal of them explored the treatment of women by Jewish law and rabbinic authority in the traditional sources, in the community, and in the rabbinical courts. They offer deep and wide-ranging discussions of Biblical personalities, women’s religious roles, sexuality and fertility, prayer, the meaning of Torah study, different issues of social justice, theology, and more.
After publication, we kept receiving many, many wonderful and powerful midrashim, which dare to engage new subjects not dealt with in Volume One – incest, mamzerut, Holocaust theology, and more. But, as usual, im eyn kemach, eyn Torah – ve-afilu Torat Nashim, if there is no flour, there is no Torah—even women’s Torah. In order to complete the project I am turning to the sisterhood, to help support my Kickstarter campaign to enable me to finish Dirshuni Volume Two, and I invite you to take part in taking responsibility to leave our daughters a Judaism that has kitvei kodesh, holy writings, written by women too.
I leave you with a small taste of our project, a midrash, written by Rivkah Lubitch and included in Volume One of Dirshuni (here in English translation, by Yehudah Mirsky).
And the daughters of Tzelophchad drew near…and these are his daughters’ names: Machlah, Noa and Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah (Numbers 27:1)
Why were they referred to, first, as ‘the daughters of Tzelophchad’ and only afterwards by their own names?
Because of the Tzel and Pachad, shadow and fear, that was in them at first. For at first they dwelled in their father’s shadow, and feared to raise their heads. Once they drew near to one another, they were empowered, and known by their own names, as is written, And the daughters of Tzelophchad drew near…and these are his daughters’ names.
Last week, the Israeli ultra-Orthodox paper, HaMevaser, photoshopped German Chancellor Angela Merkel out of a photograph of the solidarity march in Paris, a photo that appeared in countless newspapers around the world. In fact, all of the women who were in the original photograph, including Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, were conspicuously removed in HaMevaser. The women weren’t blurred out or whited out, they were simply removed. As if they did not exist.
It is no secret that in the ultra-Orthodox world, there are strict modesty guidelines. Pictures of women do not appear in newspapers or in advertisements. The idea of k’vod bat hamelech pnimah (literally, the beauty of the King’s daughter is within) seems to have become a battle cry, and the rationalization for these extreme modesty guidelines.
When the story of HaMevaser’s creative editing reached world news, it was yet another embarrassing moment highlighting how ultra-Orthodoxy views women.
Yet, juxtaposed with the story of the disappearing women is another story slowly gaining attention, this one both surprising and inspiring.
With Israeli elections on the horizon, a group of ultra-Orthodox women have started a campaign to add ultra-Orthodox women to the electoral lists of two ultra-Orthodox political parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism. While ultra-Orthodox women have been encouraged to vote in past elections (exclusively for ultra-Orthodox parties), women have not been included on the rosters of candidates. This groundswell from within the ultra-Orthodox world demands that one woman be included on the electoral list of each party. In fact, they have gone so far as advocating “No representation, no vote.” If women aren’t included on the ballot, ultra-Orthodox women are encouraging each other to stay home on Election Day.
To be sure, this is a grassroots movement with some support, but certainly not the full support of all ultra-Orthodox women. And while many maintain that their husbands support their endeavors, it is clear that the rabbinic leadership remains staunchly opposed.
In truth, ultra-Orthodox women are already in the public eye. They are in the workforce. They are the breadwinners. They are responsible for household and family matters as well. An ultra-Orthodox woman on the ballot seems like it should be a natural extension. Yet it is seen as both a betrayal and as a portrait of immodesty.
Will there be ultra-Orthodox women in the Knesset through either of the ultra-Orthodox parties? Probably not. The campaign started a little too late to garner the attention it needs to advance. But what they have done, successfully, is begin a dialogue.
I know the value of dialogue and I know the value of grassroots movement. And, I am ready to admit, I know the value of allowing issues to develop. The road behind us is full of accomplishments and the road in front of us is full of challenges. I am so excited to watch this challenge unfold and eventually become an accomplishment for women in the ultra-Orthodox world.
“Tzi-tzit tzitzit tzitzit, where are you today?
I need you for a bracha, I need you right away!”
This was a common refrain for my three-year-old daughter Dahlia in the morning as she goes through my closet while I get dressed. She sings the song every morning in her class when each child chooses whether to take a pair of tzitzit, ritual fringes, from the box. In our house she will often playfully put on my tzitzit, but the one morning I spent in her nursery school class, none of the girls chose to.
And that’s just fine. None of the women she knows wear tzitzit, and I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if she didn’t either. But with her fourth birthday coming up, my wife and I thought about what tangible rituals might be relevant and meaningful for a little girl.
Enter Atara Lindenbaum, Rabbi Roni Handler, and their JOFA UnConference session on reinventing rituals for early childhood. Atara shared that her daughter began lighting Shabbat candles when she was three, and I thought that was a beautiful idea. In a conversation with Atara after the session, she recommended that we not only engage Dahlia with the ritual, but also make it a bit more of a meaningful ceremony—invite the rabbi or do something special in synagogue. I loved that idea, and with Dahlia’s fourth birthday coming up, we ran with it.
Since we had no template for a ritual like this, I posted a note on Facebook to solicit ideas for how to make this moment special. You can read the full back and forth here, but it spawned debates over how many candles she should light, whether to do the first lighting at home or in synagogue, and whether having the rabbi attend reinforces the perception that a male rabbinic presence is required to legitimate Jewish ritual experience. We received recommendations for what candlesticks to use, blessings to make, and texts to incorporate. It was a great discourse.
What we settled on was a very small ceremony at home with our immediate family and our community’s rabbi. We bought Dahlia a beautiful set of travel ceramic candlesticks, and my sister sent a box of colorful candles. With only a few minutes before Shabbat, I spoke to Dahlia a bit about what it means to be growing up and connected it to Moses’ growing up in the Torah portion, the rabbi said a few words about how Dahlia is now part of a tradition of lighting candles that goes back thousands of years, and then she lit the candles and said the blessing together with my wife Adina. After the rabbi left for synagogue, Adina and I blessed Dahlia, and then we sat down to read some emailed notes from grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
I had imagined that this would be a memorable (and perhaps formative) experience for Dahlia. I thought it would be serene and we would all be present in the moment. But she’s four years old, and within seconds she was much more concerned about her brother taking a balloon than the significance of her candles. And that’s alright. Because I know that again this Friday afternoon, the next, and—please God—many hundreds to follow, she will stand next to my wife, light her candles and say her blessing.
In December, the New York Times printed an article about the new fashion guidelines for state legislators in Montana. In the article, a number of women were cited as frustrated by a dress code that they thought unfairly targeted women, and did not provide an appropriate level of respect and frankly, faith, in the female legislators’ professionalism and ability to follow social norms.
It’s fairly common to read about dress codes that unfairly scrutinize girls’ dress in schools, whether it is a Jewish day school or yeshiva haggling over skirt length and the visibility of collar bones, or a secular school negotiating “leggings as pants” or revealing prom dresses. So I wasn’t fazed by the concept of an unfair dress code, but rather its targeted demographic—adult women professionals, elected officials who could presumably figure out how to dress with decorum, or at the very least, should be able to follow some basic tips from a fashion blog or magazine about what is or isn’t appropriate office attire. Why did they need a list of fashion guidelines handed down from the senior state legislators to tell them how to dress?
It made me wonder: Is there such a thing as a feminist dress code? What would a feminist dress code look like? Is there any way the Montana legislature could have gotten this right, or did the very fact that they were policing adult women’s outfits doom them from the start?
When we critique school dress codes, we often argue that they are overly focused on sexualizing the bodies of women and young girls, but we never hold up the shining example of the perfect feminist dress code, the dress code that those schools should aspire to emulate. Is it because that perfect feminist dress code doesn’t exist?
Most of the time, dress codes seem to be constructed with a focus on covering up women’s bodies and they ignore (or only perfunctorily address) the clothing choices of men and boys. The underlying assumption is that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and therefore bad, and need to be dealt with, covered up. Whereas men’s bodies, just are, and men need to be dressed “appropriately” but it’s pretty simple to figure out what that means.
Dress codes often have much longer and more detailed guidelines for women. For the men, the core of the instructions might be: no shorts, no jeans, no T-shirts. Whereas for the women it is: no shorts, no jeans, no T-shirts, and then the list continues with a list of body parts: all shirts should have sleeves that cover the shoulder, hemlines should cover the knee, necklines should not be too plunging, etc. The assumption is that women need far more instruction on how to dress appropriately, and what body parts should and shouldn’t be visible, while men should be wearing clothes that are appropriate for the occasion.
So, I repeat my question. What would a feminist dress code look like?
Is it a “balanced” list of restrictions that is a similar length for both women and for men, rather than a list of restrictions on women’s clothes that is twice as long as the men’s list? Is that even possible?
Would it also address the sexuality of men’s bodies? For example—including requirements on the lengths of men’s sleeves and shorts, explicitly prohibiting “Deep V” neck T-shirts for men, or perhaps, prohibiting visible chest hair or undershirts (technically an undergarment, similar to a visible bra strap).
Is it the tone of the dress code? Could we build a dress code that treated both women and men as people who only need a few reminders about the level of formality of a particular environment (e.g no jeans and sneakers, or suits are required), and leave it to individuals to figure the rest out?
Or is it the assumption about the enforcement of the dress code—that the men will be able to follow it naturally and easily, and women will need more guidance and reminders about what is and isn’t appropriate?
So if the Montana state legislature (or your child’s school or camp) were to “re do” their dress code, is there any way they could “do it right?” Could they institute a feminist dress code? Or are dress codes intrinsically sexist and un-feminist?
Don’t be mad, but I am ordaining myself as a Hazzanista, which is like a cantor, barista, and fashionista rolled into one. I am your musical mixologist assembling liturgical outfits for all seasons and synthesizing musical traditions from across the Jewish world to create substantive and transformative prayer experiences.
I’m not starting a new religion; I’m just impatient and want to wear this cool hat like my Grandpa Frank. Hats aside, what I really want is an “authentic” Jewish woman’s voice, something that continues simultaneously to pursue and elude me in its ebb and flow.
But does “authentic” really mean anything?
In my experience, “authentic” means text and lineage that I can sink the teeth of my imagination into and taste every bit of its richness, malleability, and complexity. Is that too much to ask?
So even if it’s a little reckless, or plain old annoying to some people or institutions, I now bestow upon myself the title of “Hazzanista.”
So how did this all start? Great question! A few years ago after graduating college, losing my job, and getting dumped big time by my opera singer boyfriend (best thing he ever did for me), I enrolled in cantorial school. The first year in Israel consisted of studying at a halakhic, gender-egalitarian yeshiva. As the year progressed and I increased my content-based knowledge of Jewish law and prayer, I felt increasingly overwhelmed and shut out by the predominantly masculine verbal and visual vocabularies of traditional Judaism. I felt a gender imbalance even more in physically egalitarian spaces because there was no mechitza, physical barrier between men and women in a synagogue, in place to serve as a concrete manifestation of gender biases. Instead, it was a lattice screen of default Divine vocabulary.
And though modifying canonized Jewish prayers in an effort to include women seems more like giving a band-aid to someone who is having a heart attack, I cannot bring myself to wholly reject this archaic and gender imbalanced tradition. Like many people who grew up steeped in old school Jewish liturgy, I still manage to maintain a deep spiritual and emotional connection to its almost exclusively male voice. The poetry and music are like colorful beads that I get to string together in different combinations each time I sit down or stand up with them.
While in cantorial school, I started out trying to embody the music of the great Ashkenazi cantors— Koussevitsky, Rosenblatt, and Ganchoff. Enchanting, exciting, and deep music, yet singing it was like walking around in a pair of incredibly beautiful shoes that just didn’t fit my feet. I needed a musical space where my voice could walk in and make itself comfortable. Ultimately, I discovered niggunim and Middle Eastern music with its subtlety, inwardness, and expressiveness in contrast to the showmanship and—dare I say—phallic high notes of performative cantorial music. The feminine began to seep into the liturgy, not through the modification of God language, but in the way this music manifested and empowered my body and mind. I could finally sing without pretense, be softer rather than louder, and listen to the silence in between the notes, which is as vital to the music as the notes themselves.
In an era of instantaneous communication revealing worldly unrest to us at all hours of the day and night, this approach to music is more important than ever before. Surrounded by gadgets and screens, we are longing to connect to a stillness found in the brilliant darkness of the starry night and in many Middle Eastern and North African musical traditions. When the world’s problems seem unmanageably big, the noise too cacophonous, the pace too swift, we can always come back to this tender voice of silence reminding us we were all once in the womb, free from time.
Prayer is a gateway into that timelessness that rests at the nexus of our time bound transient lives. It is a transformative and creative act. It is an acknowledgement of the moment right before sound comes out of our mouths, an act of faith that sound will come, will make something beautiful, and might even make things different. It might not be the most comfortable or convenient place to be in, but it is dynamic, alive, and spiritually sustaining.
And this is what songs like “Hish Hish” suggest for me, its melody originating in an Arabic pop song sung by a woman named Siham Rifqi. It is not a “woman’s song,” but it indicates that Jewish liturgy is porous and wants to be stretched further. The Hebrew text implores the Holy One saying “Raise up your banner, filled with compassion,” and “stand by the poor.” That compassion is our insistence upon digging up the feminine in our liturgy, and that banner is an amalgam of women’s voices, teachings, and wisdom that we are raising up together in real time through music, art, discussion and UnConferences. So let’s keep going.
Two weeks ago, I joined thousands of families around Israel for a time-honored ritual: the Saturday night grand finale of a month-long youth group extravaganza.
For one month each year, youth groups seem to take over the country. My kids spend a full month with their peers being led by well-intentioned 16- year-olds. The Saturday night performances signal the end of a month-long youth group extravaganza where my kids were never home, or when they were home, they were covered in paint. It is a month celebrating being young, getting just a bit older and loving group activities (needless to say, not all kids love group activities – my 10-year-old spent the month reading the Percy Jackson series instead).
But the final weekend is a blowout. Saturday night has the time honored daglanut (group choreographed flag waving), dances and plays. It is a doozy. Parents everywhere charge their cameras and their phones to simultaneously take pictures of their beloved children while checking their mail for hours as they sit in auditoriums, pavilions or outdoor basketball courts watching hundreds of kids perform. Each age group has a co-ed play, a boys’ dance and a girls’ dance.
At least I think it was a girls’ dance. I can’t be sure. Because it happened in the dark.
Perhaps not exactly what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he sang, “Dancing in the Dark,” but this has become the default dance setting in this Orthodox setting. In order to be mindful both of halakhic guidelines and what I hope is a genuine attempt to empower our young women, someone somewhere thought the best way to allow girls to dance in front of an audience of both men and women was to get creative and turn off the lights. There were dances with glow sticks, dances with neon lights and ultraviolet lights. We saw a lot of glowing gloves and sticks and masks, just not a lot of our daughters.
When my daughter was four, she took ballet. She was quite adorable. At the end of the year, we sat through her final performance. As all those little pink fluffy girls danced their dance, curtsied and got off the stage, only one remained: my daughter. Completely unaware that her twenty friends had twirled off the stage, she stood there, in the spotlight. At some point, she snapped out of her reverie and raced off the stage.
I like the spotlight being on young women. I think there is value to finding ways to encourage and empower all women – young and old to be showcased, featured, and celebrated. I think that is why dance after dance in the dark left me feeling saddened and disappointed.
I need to contextualize my frustration by saying, my daughter could care less. She wasn’t upset in the least. The daglanut remains a co-ed march/dance done fully lit for everyone to see (maybe marching around waving flags to loud music isn’t considered dancing). It is only the girls’ dances that are affected. So she was proudly, giggly, visibly part of a fifty-person flag dance and an hour later I squinted trying to guess which glowing white mask was my daughter.
I recognize that this is someone’s idea of a solution, and I’m grown up enough (most of the time) to be able to articulate frustrations while not claiming to have all the answers. I get that in some Orthodox circles this is the best solution. I understand and begrudgingly respect that someone somewhere thought this would be the best solution creating a hybrid of visible and invisible young women. But in the big wide world we’re introducing our daughters to, I want more. I want her to be able to shine, in whichever way she chooses, without neon glow sticks. For me, I’m waiting for the next generation of young women to feel both empowered and visible.
Looking at the award-winning photograph “Chayla in Shul” I wonder:
What is Chayla thinking? Here she is. Alone in this cavernous space, standing stiff, her gaze focused somewhere in the distance. Her forearm rests delicately on the parapet, as though she ought not be touching it at all.
I can almost hear the photographer gently giving instructions. “Hold your prayer book in your left hand, and put your right arm there to support it.” Chayla narrows her eyes ever so slightly, questioning, “Here? On the wall? Are you sure?”
When the synagogue is full with worshippers, this is the wall that keeps the women from falling down to the space below, where Chayla’s brothers pray. It is the wall that holds the women in, signaling the spiritual distance that stands between them and Chayla’s father. He is the rabbi who leads the service down there.
This image has gotten a lot of press recently, as winner of the John Kobal New Work Award, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for portrait photography. The winning photographer, Laura Pannack will receive a cash prize, and her photo will be on display until February in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
Maya Benton, who wrote about the photograph for Tablet Magazine, learned that Pannack hopes the photo will convey a “positive perception of the Jewish people and of the community.” I have no doubt that it will. The image is beautiful, as is the poised eleven-year old Chayla, who is the subject. But for us insiders – who have grown up in a synagogue like the one shown here – the photo resonates in a very different way.
Like Chayla, I was once an 11-year old girl who prayed in a synagogue with a balcony. On the brink of becoming a Jewish adult, I would soon be banished from my warm seat in front of the holy ark, near my father and brother. Up above, far from the Torah, I would find a spot next to the other women. They would trickle in late to synagogue, after they finished preparing for their Shabbat guests. Catching up with friends, they would chatter while I tried to concentrate on my prayers, longing to be part of the experience unfolding in the “real” synagogue down below.
Later, as a young woman in college and graduate school, I also sat in a balcony in synagogue. In those days, I was looking for love. As I watched the young men below, I abandoned my prayers. They swayed with closed eyes, connecting to the Divine, while I, up there so far away from holiness, could not help but look down and feel empty.
Now, as the mother of three daughters, I still sometimes find myself in the balcony. I love my Orthodox synagogue; the community that it houses, its warm, traditional Shabbat space. But when the few seats in the women’s section downstairs fill up, and I head to the second floor, I am reminded of how far away we women are from the experience of communal prayer.
I hold my daughter next to me. At 10, she is just a year shy of Chayla’s age. I wonder what she thinks about what we are doing up here, and why we are so far away from her father down below. What message are we sending her about prayer and community and her place among the Jewish people?
Maya Benton believes this portrait is a successful one because its subject “evinces an air of confident composure and studious equanimity, as though she knows exactly who she is.” That is not what I see. I find it so successful because of the way it captures Chayla’s complex experience (and that of so many others). It captures the effort that is exerted to maintain equanimity in a place where you so clearly do not belong. And the confusion that comes from loving your religion, your people, your traditions, your God, but knowing – so deeply – that there is no comfortable spot for you in the synagogue space. So you stand alone, looking into the distance with a disconnected gaze, wondering: If I leave here, then where shall I go?
I’m a runner, a three-time marathoner. Whenever someone asks when I took up running, I say I started 12 years ago. But the truth is that the first time I really ran was for a rabbi: I was 14 and he wanted cigarettes. He was my eighth grade teacher, a towering man, with a full beard, a long black coat and a black hat. He summoned me to his desk, handed me a wad of money, and told me he wanted a pack of Benson and Hedges. And so I became a runner. I ran my teenage guts out, to the store and back, breathlessly handing him his cigarettes and change – all with the rabbi’s stamp of approval.
Today, I am a member of a closed Facebook group for Jewish (mainly observant) female athletes. Most of the postings share victories, milestones and inspirational moments. Members typically offer or ask for the usual advice about running. And then, one member, we’ll call her Sarah, posed the following query:
Anyone have issues with frumkeit [religious observance] and athleticism? For years I didn’t run or do working out [sic] at all because I learned that it was a tznius [modesty] issue, that women shouldn’t run in front of men, and I couldn’t afford a gym. Now I am trying to get in shape and I’m being lax on the no running in front of men rule that I learned, but I am keeping the spirit of it and only running when it’s dark, so I’m not in full view of everyone. Anyone else hold similarly, and had to find a compromise they’re comfortable with?
Questions loomed in my mind: Shouldn’t frumkeit and maintaining one’s health be synonymous? Isn’t athleticism an integral part of overall well-being? Shouldn’t we all be encouraged to exercise? And of course, I was reminded of the time I was given rabbinic approval (minus the actual supervision) to run.
When asked to explain, Sarah added, “It’s for the same reason we don’t dance in front of men- because of jiggling body parts.”
Jiggling. Body. Parts.
In her Facebook comments, Sarah insists a refusal to ask a rabbi for guidance, all the while asserting her desire to be fit and healthy. She shares that she has struck a compromise and runs in the dark so no one sees her. That effort to find a happy middle ground has to be commended as well.
But she never questions the initial premise that women shouldn’t exercise when there’s a chance men will see them and still worries that she is in the wrong.
Those who abide by halakha accept that there are times when women’s voices are silenced or when women are relegated to the other side of the mechitza. Even so, many of us have seen first-hand women’s great creativity in balancing halakhic concerns of modesty and participating in a number of physical activities – including singing, dancing, and exercising. Women will swim during “women’s only” hours or will go to “women’s only” gyms. If they choose to swim in a public venue, in an effort not to expose their skin, they will wear modest “bathing suits” (shirts, skirts and leggings made of water repellent fabric). When running, they may opt to wear long-sleeve shirt and skirt attire, all-the-while covering their hair (if they are married). And while these athletes may not look like the norm, they are doing their best to walk a tight-rope, striking a balance between halakha and health, an effort that should be applauded. There are countless other women of different faith traditions who make similar efforts to accommodate their own religious requirements.
As a runner myself, I love that Sarah wants to run. I want her to feel that same sense of accomplishment as I do when I finish a race or hit a new personal record. If need be, I want Sarah to push back at the rabbis and teachers who tell her women should not run. I want her to challenge them to allow her to exercise her freedom – and to be free to exercise. As someone familiar with the halakha, I want Sarah to remind them that our tradition commands us to keep our bodies healthy because refu’at ha-nefesh and refu’at ha-guf, healing of the spirit and of the body, shouldn’t wait until either is completely broken down – and running has the capacity to heal both the body and the spirit at once. I want to encourage women to take care of themselves and to encourage other women to do the same.
With great fanfare, David Zvi Kalman and Joshua Schwartz announced their production of a new, “egalitarian and queer-inclusive” bencher, Seder Oneg Shabbos. A bencher is a booklet containing the grace after meals and other prayers and songs said at the table and is often given out at weddings as a souvenir. As someone with a dining room drawer full of well-used egalitarian benchers, some decades old, some from my wedding 18 years ago, I initially wondered what the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos was, besides its incredibly beautiful typesetting and illustrations. Seder Oneg Shabbos was preceded by a wide variety of benchers that have come out in the past twenty five years that use egalitarian language in English and Hebrew and are in other ways sensitive to gender inequalities: Nashir Unevarech (Reconstructionist, 1992), Mizmor Shir (unofficial Conservative, 1993), Anim Zemirot (Independent, 1999), Mikdash M’At (Reform, 2005), Yedid Nefesh (Independent, 2009) and L’chu N’ran’nah (Havurah, 2010).
What makes Seder Oneg Shabbos egalitarian? It has gender-neutral God language in English, optional insertions of our female ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) along with the male (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). But so do all the other egalitarian benchers that preceded it. Traditional benchers include Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valor, the traditional song from Proverbs sung weekly by husbands to their wives praising their housekeeping duties. Most egalitarian benchers either excluded it or included a parallel song Ashrei Ish, Praised is the Man (Psalm 112), to be sung to men. Eshet Chayil was omitted or partnered with Ashrei Ish, because associating women primarily with housework or having women be the focus of public ritual only once a week was not in keeping with the modern roles envisioned by the creators of the egalitarian benchers. Seder Oneg Shabbos includes Eshet Chayil, and purposefully illustrates it with an image of a woman in battle, but this is not as strong as statement as omitting it or making a parallel version for men.
Seder Oneg Shabbos also includes wording that is suitable for same-sex couples in the invitation to prayer used at weddings, which is really new, but not as comprehensive in terms of LGBT inclusions as innovations that have come out of Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue that recently issued its own prayer book. For example, it is unlikely they would have included a hymn for female spouses but not male ones. Beyond that queer-friendly insertion, however, the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is not its egalitarianism.
The innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is its desired audience. Seder Oneg Shabbos, according to its authors, is intended to be used in Modern Orthodox communities as well as non-Orthodox ones. Kalman and Schwartz color-coded the inclusionary language so those who want to use only the traditional Orthodox text can just skip over anything colorful. While the simple presence of inclusionary language will probably mean that the vast majority of traditional Orthodox communities will not use or buy this bencher, its release is a real milestone. It means the authors think that there are enough Modern Orthodox Jews who will make this a viable bencher.
The initial reaction of some liberal Jews to the announcement of an Orthodox-friendly egalitarian bencher, was anger that all their efforts beforehand to create egalitarian and queer-friendly benchers which made this bencher possible went unacknowledged. The authors mention they include “a number of common egalitarian insertions.” Those insertions became common through the work of liberal Jews and that debt is not really acknowledged. It is true that what is done by liberal Jews and seen as heretical by one generation of American Orthodoxy, becomes commonplace for their Orthodox grandchildren (like hosting Bat Mitzvahs and baby namings for girls in synagogues). But for observant liberal Jews to focus on that frustration is missing a real and significant opportunity.
The focus should not be on the different paths taken to arrive at this place but instead we should rejoice in the fact, exemplified by the optimistic release of this bencher, that there are many modern Jews from various backgrounds seeking egalitarianism, inclusion, modern liturgy and rich, text-based observance.
All those who use egalitarian benchers, from the earlier liberal ones to this new Orthodox-friendly one, need to see how similar they are as Jews, get together, have an intense philosophical discussion over a meal, and bench together out of the same bencher. Ki va moed. The time has come.