On Skeletons

 Posted by on October 31, 2012
Oct 312012

A woman saying the skeleton in her closet is not for halloween, it's always there

Secrets. So many, so good. We all have our skeletons in the closet, don’t we? I’ve asked friends from the Hasidic community on occasion: “Who knows your little secret that you have a couple of kids in a strange religious community in Brooklyn?” Not the dates, I tell you. OTD guys and girls often seem so regular, so fantastically dressed up as a secular Joe or Jane, no date would ever guess their secret of a religious life they left behind unless they share it.

Secrets fascinate me. I used to be very nave about them and I would adamantly deny the allegation about secret illicit behavior among the families I saw around me. I thought all families were what you saw. The world was so simple and straight. When I first heard of secret gossip about sexual abuse in the Hasidic community, I was unable to believe such things happen. I would never believe that a man in a beard and a religious demeanor had done something like that. Only when I began encountering such men in “marriage counseling” did I begin to understand how religion and hypocrisy went hand in hand. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to get away from it all. The abuse and hypocrisy is still unbelievable but I now know that it is true. Such secrets are there, in the closets, fermenting.

I’ll tell you my own little secret in the spirit of things. I am very ambivalent about Halloween. Okay, not much of a secret but something I would generally not admit on this site because it is hard to have a conversation about the subject without a flock of holier-than-tho religious preachers coming out of the woodworks. But it’s Halloween, I won’t be spooked, boo all you will. It’s not like I do Halloween. My son would want to do Halloween though, that’s the other part of it. He got it into his head to convince me to dress up as a ghost and go around begging for sugar. The two clowns will now be the two ghosts. How will this look for shidduchim? No. After a bag of chocolate bars and candy bulges at my waist? Definitely not!

The other day in college while the professor was preparing his stack of papers to begin class, a student slid into the chair next to me and whispered “are you doing Halloween with your son?” She is a conservative Jew and I’ve invited her to celebrate a holiday with us on occasion. She’s curious about where I stand with religion. Aren’t you all? It’s a secret. I love it. So she tells me that their conservative rabbi called Halloween a pagan holiday, but they trick-or-treated anyway. I tell you, I feel a little like the rabbi – with an opinion as important as his. I don’t see why we can’t stick to our Purim and rabbi costumes. True, Halloween is for the most part not considered a religious holiday, but it’s still not a secular holiday like Thanksgiving. I’m not very impressed with a holiday of gore and sugar anyway. But — but then again, if trick-or-treating won’t impede with my son’s sense of strong Jewish identity, why not? Why be stubborn and dogmatic? Why not be open to new experiences? I worry not to be as rigidly religious as I know others to be, but I also worry to introduce a healthy sense of my son’s Jewishness to him. So I don’t know which hat to wear to this affair; the Yid or goy, the traditionalist or the pluralist.

On Patriarchs

 Posted by on October 26, 2012
Oct 262012

Abraham looking for his luggage that contains his wife Sara

Such is the legacy of our first patriarch Abraham: he put his wife into a suitcase. Abraham gave patriarchs their reputation not for naught. All parsha I learned of him depicted him as a stereotypical male on top. He wasn’t just dragging his wife with the luggage and frolicking with that Hagar lady; Poor Sarah died when he took their beloved son Isaac to have him sacrificed for the God.

I know there have been thousands of apologetics and many Jewish feminists who tried to explain the patriarchal legacy and show in many ways that Judaism is not, in fact, prejudiced against women. But in Hasidic Satmar I knew of no such modern sugar-coating and reinterpreting. Women were, by the knowledge of all, the submissive, duller sex. From when I was a snotty-nosed nursery student with a blue hand-me-down jumper and dirty-blond home-cut bangs, I heard Sarah’s story told as plainly brutal as above. Long ago, the teacher would say to us wide-eyed girls, Abraham heard a voice say: GO. Lech-Lecha, and HE went, and SHE was lugged with the equity. She died tragically because her husband was about to kill her baby — she just fainted and passed away at the news. The nursery teacher would ask us “why did she die at hundred and twenty seven years?” instead of asking “why in heavens name did she die of her husband killing her son, WHY?” When at the end of the week I took home a little camel on a paper-plate with raisin boxes for luggage and two pages of parsha questions, it never raised the problem with the narrative of killing a mother and her child. It was all sacred, no questions asked. Or at least no relevant questions asked.

Our education was so innocently dismissive of women it was as if feminist consciousness hadn’t even touched the tip of the Hasidic world. Patriarchy was a simple known fact of life. So was the assumption that women are weak, stupid and reliant on men. I heard that often from the many teachers who came after nursery, who taught us how to cook and sew as good wives. “Us women, what do we understand?” we all said with a good dose of self-deprecating idiocy. At eighteen I went for kallah lessons and I was taught all about MAN and how I, a woman, was to serve as his wife. I remember that feeling of my stomach tumbling as I walked up a steep shortcut and over to a private deck, knocked on the porch door which was answered by a sweet but frightening kallah teacher. Her table was a mess of sheets of diagrams with female ovaries and uterus and menstrual travel maps. Every week she would tell me with a coy smile and a very low voice what it is that I need to do to make men tick. I struggled to hide the excitement young, awash in hormones, the subject flooded me with feelings so intense I spent half the time in a daze. “Men”, she would tell me “need to be in charge of the woman because women are only created from their backbones”. My paycheck, my decision making rights, my body were all to be relinquished to the original owner of the backbone. He was to be in charge, she made it clear over and over again. She was slick enough to throw in that a woman can always use her chachmes nashim to manipulate for power but all so long as the assumption that the man is in charge is left in place.

That is the very definition of patriarchy; the society in which the male belongs on top (even when in specific families it isn’t so). Patriarchy isn’t just the male ego nursed on yeast; it’s also a position in which a woman has limited control. Of course, women have always been able to negotiate power within this structure by executing power over other women, becoming more pious, finding opportunity for creativity through loopholes, embracing their position and expanding it and focusing on the materialistic (cooking and shopping, yes!). Some women even wear the pants in the house — metaphorically speaking of course. But those opportunities are severely limited. Women who want to go beyond these opportunities stand to be crushed by a towering hierarchy of husbands, rabbis and male-centric halacha. When at some point in my life I challenged the restriction on my ability to learn, use birth control and drive, I was warned I’m overstepping my womanly territory. To quote verbatim, I was told much to my horror that “women are born to make scrambled eggs”.

Eggs anyone?

People who never tried my green and white scrambled eggs often wonder why I’m a feminist. They give me that long look as if they expect me to be a nutty man-hater who perceives the very existence of men as sexual abuse. But that isn’t feminism. Feminism is the belief that a woman should have rights to make choices in life. In a society rooted in patriarchal narratives that regard women as the reproductive “aids” to men, this is especially relevant. No one should force a woman to live her life any which way — no matter how right it looks to them. We should respect a woman’s right to send her underpants to a rabbi as much as we should respect her right not to. If someone wants to embrace the pious life, have a large and religious family, yearly celebrations and a rich traditional life, go her. If someone wants to drive her own car and get her children to the appointments, not shave her head, wear lipstick, go her too. If someone never wants to get married or never have children, go her too. If someone wants scrambled eggs, served up by someone ELSE, go me too. But I digress.

Patriarchy thinks you can force women. Feminism thinks you can’t. But we CAN raise feminist consciousness and help women who themselves feel oppressed. Because such women, when squeezed in the box of Abraham hierarchy, can be almost imprisoned, without any recourse for action. Because mothers could easily be exploited through their children. Pregnancies and children make women much easier to mess with. Women are often controlled through their vulnerabilities, and that strikes my deepest justice sensibilities.