Monday, April 29, 2013

A Spiritual Spin on Anti-Women Nonsense

Lately, there has been a huge amount of tension regarding the role of women in Judaism bubbling up around me. I haven't been so caught up in this issue since I first became religious a few decades ago.

I spent the first year of my observant life in tears - drawn to the power of truth in the Torah and in living a God-centered life, and repelled by the constant reminder that my status as a woman defined and confined nearly every aspect of my Jewish experience.

Over the years, I made a kind of uneasy peace with my role as a Jewish woman. I know well that we, as a community, are not where we are meant to be regarding equal dignity for men and women. And there are still too many times when I am struck by the lack of derech eretz, of respectful human behavior, towards women by my community.

Lately, the list of indignities against women in the Orthodox community seems, against all logic, to be escalating. More and more aspects of women's behavior are being categorized, in certain circles, as immodest and thereby newly forbidden. I thought about listing all the recent examples here, but I decided not to put any energy into cataloging the insanity.

There's also a tremendous backlash against the Women of the Wall, a group of women who are seeking "the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall." Their goals are not mine. Nevertheless, I am horrified by the way their detractors speak of them.

In the comments section of a recent Times of Israel blog post where the blogger expresses her inability to understand why some Orthodox women are not content with our traditional role, one woman calling herself Orthodox commented:
I daven in an "orthodox" shul following certain practices such as having a mechitzah. I was raised to view the mechitzah as "evil" and making women "second class" and in fact discovered that the opposite was so: I found a sisterhood where each woman was valued on her own merits versus the Reform "I'm Mrs. Doctor" where your merit is what a macher your husband is.....I found far more respect for women in my "orthodox" shul than I'd ever encountered in the neighborhood Reform temple, where women were derided, joked about and made to feel unimportant. Now, WoW doesn't want an "egalitarian" section -- they want orthodox practices ended altogether; the Kotel should be open at all times to their style of prayer service and the separation of men and women ended--because THEY don't like it. Well, I DO like it. And I want to KEEP that tradition. So who are these creepy once-a-month-media-circus-pretenders to come to the Kotel where the majority of Jews are "orthodox" of one stripe of another and have their temper tantrum in the name of "equality." That's not equality--that's oppression when you force the majority of people to adopt your prayer style over their objections.
To which I replied:
You have exactly illustrated the precise thing of which so many critics of Women of the Wall are guilty. You claim to indisputably know their motivations and you judge and malign their intentions. You call them "creepy once-a-month-media-circus-pretenders" and refer to their attempt to secure what they believe is their right as Jews a "temper tantrum in the name of 'equality.'" This is not talk befitting an Orthodox woman. You disagree, fine. But where's your derech eretz?
So far, in the cholent pot, we have:
  • The ongoing small and large indignities that I and other Jewish women (some, not all) feel occasionally - but most acutely in synagogue-based interactions.
  • The escalation of strictures meant to keep women out of the "public" (code for male) eye.
  • The backlash against Women of the Wall.
Add to this cholent a recent, personal, excruciatingly painful episode of being forced to beg for the right to do something holy in a synagogue setting and being turned down, not for reasons of Jewish law, but for reasons of gender bias.

Why is all this anti-woman nonsense escalating davka now?

In a book that forever changed my view of the tension between men and women in Judaism, Devorah Heshelis assures us of the Torah’s promise that gender equity and the balance between masculine and feminine spiritual energy will ultimately be restored. 

As we approach geula and the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people, the dominant masculine spiritual energy, knowing its days are numbered, is thrashing around and whacking everything in its path with its death throes. 

That's why I'm suddenly assuming the duck and cover a whole lot more.

POSTSCRIPT: A few thoughtful readers have pointed out that my use of the phrase "duck and cover" implies that I have chosen to take a passive approach to the increasing chauvinism in the Orthodox community. I'm happy to have the chance to correct that impression.  What I meant was that I'm noticing more anti-women nonsense flying around. I understand that Hashem gave me, personally, a combination of sensitivity to these issues and a particular set of resources with which to address them. This post is an example of my approach.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thank you, Janis

NOTE: I originally wrote this after a friend was killed in the bombing at Hebrew University on July 31, 2002 (22 Av 5762). I was still living in Baltimore at the time. Today is Yom HaZikaron 5773 and today, I stood outside and heard the national Yom HaZikaron sirens from my home in Israel.

Whenever I read news from Israel that includes the names of victims of terror, I force myself to slow down and actually pronounce the names. I know that each name represents a whole world – a person who had a life and a family and all that goes with it.

To most people, reports of the death of Janis Coulter, who was killed when a bomb exploded in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was just another in a long, tragic list.

But not to me. Janis was my colleague. We both recruited American students to study in Israel at our respective universities. More than that, Janis and I were in the midst of that blurry transition between being colleagues… and becoming friends. I genuinely liked her and looked forward to seeing her on occasions not dictated by our mutual work schedules.

A few months ago, I told Janis about a position in Baltimore I thought would be perfect for her. In deciding not to pursue it, she said, “Part of me wants to stick it out here [at the Hebrew University] until the matzav [situation] turns around so that I enjoy the thrill of sending students to Israel again. I don't want to remember this job mainly as a string of crises... ” I was disappointed because I knew I would enjoy having her in Baltimore.

She had a different destiny.

News of her death, which was suspected the whole day of the bombing, but not confirmed for me until late in the evening, hit me hard. I was aware, as I cried for the loss of Janis, that I was also crying the pent-up tears that I was never quite able to summon for other victims whose names I had forced myself to pronounce. Paradoxically, her death freed me to mourn more deeply for all the others.

Any shred of detachment from a bomb in Jerusalem that I still felt, as an American Jew, imprudently at ease in my host country, was torn away. More than ever, Israel commands my full attention. I know I’m not alone in this. Totally counter-intuitively, the day after the bombing, three new students applied to study in Israel. Despite everything. Because of everything.

A few days ago, Janis was my colleague and friend. Now her face and her life story is international news. How bizarre. The circumstances of Janis’ death caused me to wonder. Is it a merit, or a curse, to die because you’re a Jew?

The first night after her death, I had a dream that Janis and I were on a crowded bus together. We both knew she was already gone, but she appeared to me, sitting by a window of the bus, just as I remember her. Even in my dream, it was clear that our time together was brief, because she had to return to the Next World. But as a kindness, she came to me, just so I could talk with her one last time.

When I think of Janis, I think of her humor, which was bursting with silly puns. I think of the significant conversations we had while sitting together at Israel Program Fairs, in between talking with students about studying in Israel. I think of her Boston accent. Her dimpled smile. Her role as a doting aunt. I think of the way she was so filled with personality that her cheerful life force always shot out at me, even from her ordinary emails, the text of which was always blue, like the flag of Israel.

Janis Coulter died as a Jew in Jerusalem. And we are left behind to mourn her.

Thank you, Janis, for touching my life. I miss you already.

The family has asked that donations be made to the Janis R. Coulter Memorial Fund, The American Friends of the Hebrew University, 11 East 69th Street,New York, NY 10021

Friday, April 12, 2013

Feeling Israeli


One of the experiences of being an immigrant, and I believe this applies to all immigrants everywhere, is that, at least initially, you lose the ability to pick up on subtle environmental cues. So you either see things but don't really understand their significance, or you just don't see them at all, at least until you become more acculturated.

Walking down the hill yesterday afternoon, my visual field was overwhelmed with the multitudinous Israeli flags that have popped up recently. I know Yom HaAtzma'ut is coming, so my immigrant brain was able to process this change in the environment.

I also saw a group of preteen girls walking around with a purloined grocery shopping cart filled with sticks and scraps of wood. I know Lag B'Omer is coming, so I deduced that they are collecting wood to make a traditional Lag B'Omer bonfire.

Then I saw this flag with homemade addition of a bit of orange tape. I discerned that the owner was imploring us to remember Gush Katif. That touched me the most. And I was gratified to be sufficiently culturally attuned to grasp the message.

For immigrants who have been here a long time, this will seem like no big deal. But for newbies like me, it helps me feel more at home in Israel when I understand even things that are not spoken.

Yes indeed, I'm feeling very Israeli today.