At the risk of creating another line in the sand between feminists, I am going to weigh in on the midrash manicure thing. This phenomenon is, in my opinion, a new low in girls’ Jewish education. I cannot even believe I’m writing an essay that has the words “midrash” and “manicure” in the same sentence. This is a serious regression into some of the most damaging ideas about how girls learn.
There are many ways to make Torah and Judaism interesting, relevant, engaging and creative. Art forms such as music, painting, dance and drama in Torah learning are wonderfully expressive ways to connect to tradition and text. As my friend Ken Quinn says, the Temple was undoubtedly a very sensual place, full of sights, colors and smells. Torah and Judaism do not have to be the overly cerebral experiences that they so often become. Art and creative expression are vital tools for learning.
There is a huge difference, however, between providing a gender-neutral, intellectually challenging artistic learning experience and girls painting their nails. It doesn’t matter how “fun” manicures are, or how bonding it supposedly is for women, or how egalitarian it presumably is because manicures are so cheap (which they’re not, by the way, if you get them every week, or if they go with pedicures or special designs, or if you do them anywhere else other than Manhattan, like in Israel, where they cost a fortune; plus the fact that when women are still making 77 cents on the dollar to men’s salaries, any added financial burden of adhering to social standards of feminine beauty is just added gender inequality).
The manicure, no matter how you look at it, is a gendered act, aimed entirely at girls, just another instance of teaching girls to mold their bodies in order to conform to societal notions of femininity. This is by definition a girls’ thing. It’s no longer about artistic expression but about socializing girls into female identity.
Combining the mindless act of painting girls’ nails with the act that we call learning Torah makes a truly horrifying statement that Torah belongs with mindlessness. After Jewish women have spent over a century fighting to the right to be taken seriously as learners, after struggling to be called “Rabbi” and not “Sue,” after toiling to get men to see us not as a body or a mother or a pretty face but as scholars and leaders and serious people who are equal in all tasks, the idea of reducing all of that to manicures is nothing short of devastating.
The real issue is that all of this is touted as a girls’ thing. We would not expect our male leaders or teachers or rabbis to be manicuring their nails as a way of teaching Torah. So by saying it’s okay for girls, we are by definition holding girls to different — much lower — standards than boys. And that sets girls’ learning back by generations.