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”.
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.