Jewfem Blog

Meet Naomi Pelled, third generation Jewish feminist

The following is a guest blog post by Naomi Pelled, the new Technical Director of "A Jewish Feminist", and a self-described third-generation Jewish feminist. 

When I was asked to work with Elana on the tech side running and recording a Telecourse series on Jewish Feminism, I was delighted.  I thought how fascinating it would be, a series on issues affecting Jewish Women from every walk of life, and where I could listen and learn from some world renowned Jewish Women, who have expertise in many pressing women's issues.  I had always considered myself a feminist, following in the footsteps of my mother and her mother before her, but I wasn't an ‘active feminist'.

When we met, Elana gave me a copy of her book, 'The War on Women In Israel'. I thought to myself, what a great new Shabbat reading book, but feared that it would irritate my Israeli husband, who is so closed when it comes to Feminism.  This is not because he is anti-women's rights, but because he grew up in the Israeli religious school system and is very naive about these issues.

I started reading the book on Shabbat and realised that there are so many news items in Israel, that I take for granted, which I should actually be questioning and not just accepting.  I was so proud as a religious Jewish women, that I have my own mind and do not vote according to what my husband says, but was struck by the number of religious women, whose political affiliations are controlled by their husbands, to the detriments of their human and women's rights.

I always believed in woman's rights and equality between men and women. Before making Aliyah, I worked for corporations in HR.  One aspect of my role was to enforce HR governance, working to ensure men and women were paid fairly and equitably to one another.

I grew up in the UK, the youngest of three children, and the only daughter.  My mother separated from my father when I was two and a half years old.  My mother never remarried and says her life is far less complicated without a man.  My father, on the other hand, remarried within eighteen months.

My mother demonstrated that she was self-sufficient and an emotionally intelligent woman who could hold down a full time job, be a single mother, look after her children and do all home duties, to a high standard.  She was a great role model.  She taught us all that she, as a woman, could be a successful teacher and sensitive mother.  My elder brother, helped around the house with vacuuming, cooking and clearing away and babysitting for me. He has grown up to be a great dad, who shares all household responsibilities from caring for the children, as soon as they woke up, to cooking and cleaning.  He is involved in many other tasks that 50 years ago would have been considered a woman's duty,

When I see my father now I see that he also does many aspects of home care, such as cleaning and cooking, that other men, his age, leave to their wives to carry out.

I guess I have a great basis for being a Jewish feminist.  My maternal grandmother married in 1946 at the age of 29 and her husband was ten years older.  My grandpa was a bachelor, who had learned to take care of himself.  Due to running a wholesale women’s clothing business, he was great at ironing and carefully packing suitcases so nothing would crease, so I have heard.  He used to help his wife to set the table and wash up.  This was very unusual for husbands to do this, in those days.  He doted on his wife and two daughters.  He unfortunately died in 1973, at the age of 67 from cancer, leaving a widow of 57 years old.

My grandmother never married again, but lived a further thirty-six years, living a very full life.  She was an active member of the Daughters of Zion and also of The League of Jewish Women, into her eighties, as well as helping her local Jewish community in many different ways.  She was an active committee member of the International Council of Jewish women, raising awareness of Agunot and other women’s issues, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when no one else discussed it. 

She also travelled to many international destinations, meeting Jewish women from around the world, to discuss Jewish women's issues and to work to bring awareness of them.  When my grandma died in 2009, people talked about this remarkable feminist.  At the time I thought ‘wow’.  My feisty grandma, whom I loved so much, was born long before her time, but I guess she was one of the early Jewish feminists.

During the live session of the webinar, on Sunday, the main two aspects that resonated most with me were Dr Judith Rosenbaum's comment on her being a second generation feminist and what that means.   She cannot just rest on her laurels, but has also to work for Jewish women and not just ride on her mother's earlier successes. This idea really resonated with me, as I am the third generation.  I have signed petitions for women like the mother in Austria, Beth Alexander, whose husband turned the legal and social system against her and was made to live apart from her twin boys for many years.  I have signed a petition for Jerusalem Mikvehs to give women more autonomy in their Mikveh experiences, but I have never actively done anything for the cause of Jewish Feminism in my own right.  If I do not act, how can I help affect change for the better, for my daughter's generation?

Professor Rachel Adler caught my attention during the session, with her vision of the future, 'That there are no battered wives shelters, or agunot'.  I had never dreamt of such a world. I had never even dared think in this way. This mature woman, who has been working her whole adult life for Jewish feminism, suddenly ignited a spark inside me, that we can all work together to eradicate these devastating women's issues.

I was so inspired by all four panelists and the amazing Dr Elana Sztokman.  I was thankful that I would be able to watch the video whilst I was creating a recording for course participants.  I found it so fulfilling to listen to five very different points of Jewish feminist view.  These great intelligent women were also respectful of each other's opinions and beliefs (a pluralist Jewish idea), unlike debates I have so many times witnessed, by powerful men.  This is a massive lesson that I believe every single Jewish girl should be exposed to, especially in Israel, where Jews here are so anti one another's beliefs.  This attitude permeates through the education, military and political systems.

Every time I have watched the ninety minute webinar, I have had so many new thoughts and ideas to the many insights I have gained listening to Dr Elana Sztokman,Dr Judith Plaskow, Professor Rachel Adler, Professor Norma Baumel Joseph, and Dr Judith Rosenbaum. I think this video should be shared with all English speaking 16-18 year old Jewish females, growing up in our world today.

I am excited for future sessions, especially the webinars in a few weeks time on the subjects of Agunot, Niddah and Mikveh.  I look forward to getting some ideas on how I may help combat the sorrow in our Jewish world, regarding these issues.

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