Jewfem Blog

Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Book Review

 Courtesy of Blue Thread Communications  [crossposted from The Jewish Week]In the many communal conversations about shifting Jewish identities and trends -– swelling ultra-Orthodoxy, burgeoning indie-groups, religious escapees, religious returnees, denominational switching and more –- one of the missing narratives is of those who leave religion but then come back in another way. It’s a version of Jewish identity that requires years or decades to truly understand and appreciate, and may apply to thousands of Jews, though we wouldn’t know because such a trajectory does not (yet) have a name. It’s a story about those who leave their religious lives because of abuse or tyranny or a need for freedom and independence, yet still cling to aspects of the heritage that they never really intended to leave behind. It is a story of longing and pain that holds up a mirror to the complexity of Jewish life This is the story that Susan Reimer-Torn tells in her beautifully-written memoir,“Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return” (Blue Thread Communications). It is a story that spans forty years and an oceanic divide. It is an evocative and intricately-woven narrative about a free-spirited, dancing Orthodox teenage girl who escapes the confines of her strictly unbending father’s house and creates a new, completely secular Jewish life in France. Yet during that self-imposed exile, the author never escapes what she calls sehnsucht, a soul-yearning. Her Saturdays in France are filled and yet empty. She discovers that there was something in what she shed all those years ago that she wants back. When Reimer-Torn finally returns to New York after 22 years, she finds herself seeking out a Jewish experience that will fill those aching holes in her spirit. She begins attending services at Bnai Jeshurun (BJ) on the Upper West Side, as well as a lunchtime Talmud class in a skyscraper in midtown. She expertly weaves together the textual learnings, childhood memories, current experiences and deep reflections on meaning, identity and relationships. Her writing is artistically mastered and redolent, and the reader feels the sehnsucht along with her.  “I come to BJ services dragging my weighty baggage: In the beginning there was total childhood devotion, then reckless adolescent rebellion,” she writes. “After fierce loyalty and spiteful betrayal, can I possibly come to the center? After all that has come to pass in childhood and adolescence, might I now cobble together such a thing as a happy Jewish adulthood?.... What exactly are the risks? Some part of me is drawn to this midlife wager, while another is deeply suspicious. Then there’s another part of me — cautious, observant, curious and baffled — that has agreed to go along for the ride.“ The bible, the midrash and the Talmud all come alive around the pains of relationships and childhood hurts. During the journey, in which we meet a whole cast of colorful characters, some alive and many no longer, Reimer-Torn develops a relationship with biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg, and she describes her classes and their conversations over coffee....

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Gender and education at Galus Australis

One day several years ago, I walked into my year-7 Jewish Studies class with a shofar in hand. It was a few days before Rosh Hashana and it seemed like a great idea to engage students in the holiday practices by giving them all a chance to hold, feel, and try to blow a shofar on their own. When I walked into the class, however, I was in for a shock. As soon as the shofar got passed to a girl, some of the boys in the class began yelling. “She can’t touch that!” they asserted. “Girls are not allowed to touch a shofar!” It took me a good half of the lesson to reason with them and explain to the class, even though almost all of them are not religious (not even the boys arguing with me) that there is nothing wrong with girls and women touching or holding a shofar.  Since they had never in their lives actually seen a woman blow shofar, they simply assumed that such a thing was expressly forbidden, at all times and under all circumstances. Gender exclusion from Jewish ritual became the assumed correct norm, regardless of their own practice. So what was meant to be a fun and innocuous lesson for the New Year ended up being a battle to help some students unlearn everything they had been taught about gender and Jewish life. We are all filled with assumptions – conscious or otherwise – about correct gender behavior. Ideas about how women/girls and men/boys are meant to act are transmitted from the earliest of ages. Abundant research over the past 20 years has shown that people talk differently to boys and to girls. We tend to applaud boys for being innovative and adventurous while we praise girls for being sweet, caring and helpful. We abide boys boisterousness under the catch-all motto that “boys will be boys” while we castigate girls for much of the same acts. In schools, these practices are exacerbated. In class, boys are called on more often than girls; boys are given more response time than girls; teachers look at their watches more when girls are talking; boys are allowed to interrupt more, including interrupting the teacher and interrupting girls; boys dominate small group work, science labs, computer rooms, chess clubs, and more.  It’s as if schools unintentionally promote two different models of an ideal graduate, one for boys and one for girls. Certainly no school would ever say that out loud, but we all know the power of the hidden curriculum. Sometimes the unintended messages are the most powerful of all.   READ THE REST AT GALUS AUSTRALIS  

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Day Schools Must Keep Up With Society In Gender Equality

Excerpt from Elana's op-ed in The Jewish Week "When my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher decided that it would be nice to get mothers more involved in the class. So she invited us to what she thought would be a fun evening with a stylist who specializes in teaching people how to set their tables more elegantly. I made a futile attempt to explain to this lovely young woman why a women’s-only evening to teach proper table-care was throwing women back a generation or more, and that, by the way, fathers are parents, too. The teacher could not comprehend how something as innocuous as a get-together for table-setting mothers could be taken as offensive, and I eventually dropped the discussion rather than reduce her to tears. Clearly, this was her first encounter with some basic ideology of the movement for women’s equality." Read the rest here            

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Passover, women, and the cleaning competition

Pesach is one of my favorite holidays. I love the educational, creative possibilities of the Seder, the opportunity to debate, discuss and dramatize our collective history. Over the years, my family has done some wonderfully imaginative things at the Seder table — plays, original songs, games, colored dips, hand-made pillows, and even a puppet show about the exodus in which all the characters were variants of felt penguins. One year, we made our own Haggadah, using the kids’ drawings and writings connected to select parts of the book. For me, Pesach preparation is about creative education. It is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar where the whole point is to bring history to life in any and every possible way. But you would never know it from the traditional lead-up to Pesach. When Jews meet one another on the street these days, conversations about “preparations” generally refer to how much cleaning has been accomplished. Even Shlomo Artzi, the Israeli pop star who can well afford to hire cleaning help, revealed in his column last week that memories of his mother handing him a vacuum cleaner before Pesach have remained indelibly etched on his Jewish soul. Today, he finds vacuuming to be a source of comfort, in the same category as chicken soup, the kind of activity that makes some people miss their mothers. I have found myself trying to avoid talking to people this week because I really don’t want to hear some variety of this question: “So what are you up to in your house?” Meaning, how many rooms or shelves or chandeliers have you managed to scrub clean already. It’s so tired and predictable that I would rather run and climb up a few dozen stairs to reach the other side of the neighborhood in order to find a way not to enter into another one of the cleaning competition conversations. It really is a competition. These conversations are not really about the holiday as much as they are women’s attempts to find approval from an invisible “they.” This is women looking to other women to grade our own okayness as Jewish women.   Read more:

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