Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Feminist New Year

Last night was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a time for contemplation, renewal, and forgiveness. My love for the holiday is more associated with the food and tradition than the religious aspects. Although I grew up in a “Conservadox” (combination Conservative and Orthodox) household, I am more connected to my Judaism through my culture than religious practices.

I woke up early yesterday morning and began preparing the traditional Rosh Hashanah sweet challah. Every few years the holiday coincides with Shabbat, making for a highly caloric, delicious meal. I follow every measurement of my mother’s challah recipe, which I had her type up for me when I left for college. My mother’s challah is still the envy of every Jewish mother in my synagogue. Even if my mother gave someone the recipe, theirs always mysteriously turned out wrong. I, on the other hand, have less trouble with it. I grew up helping my mother make the challah every Friday.

As I began the ritual of making the bread, I called my mother to confirm the amount of honey needed (on every other Shabbat challah is made without honey). She had already made her dough, and I could sense her happiness in passing on her tradition.

My household growing up was rather traditional. After my parents got home from work, my father would read for pleasure or study Torah, and my mother did everything else. I always resented that he didn’t help out more when I was spending hours cooking and cleaning on Friday afternoons before sundown. On the other hand, this time spent with my mother and sisters include some of the most memorable moments of my childhood.

As a feminist, I struggle with critiquing my immense pleasure in the Jewish practices that are relegated to women. The songs I know best, the chores I was responsible for, and the food I make for the holidays are all traditionally consigned to women, and most of them celebrate domesticity. I embrace these traditions as my own, but I am conscious that it was Jewish men who originally forced women into these roles. See for an overview of the traditional role of women in Judaism.

Traditions used to be insular, passed on from generation to generation. With the advent of the Internet, Jewish women now share recipes from around the world. See, for example, the newest post today on “Jewess With Attitude.” Some Jewish women even form groups to teach one another their recipes. In Pinellas County, Florida (my hometown) Young Israel Chabad women's group had an event for about 20 women called, "Everything Honey for 5770" (5770 is this year in the Hebrew calendar).

Cooking is very much a part of Jewish women’s culture. Whereas cooking can be seen as a way to domesticate women, conversations about recipes have enabled some women to connect outside of the home and form a culture of their own. The ability to share this experience with other Jewish women can sometimes overshadow the underpinnings of patriarchy that created our roles.

I continue to challenge the heteronormative roles to which I have been subjected, but it can still be feminist to enjoy one’s own traditions. As long as I understand that there is no monolithic Jewish woman’s experience and that rituals should be critiqued for their covert sexism, I am content with celebrating the New Year and making my challah.


Anne Kildare said...

In your post, you wrote "As a feminist, I struggle with critiquing my immense pleasure in the Jewish practices that are relegated to women."

In class, we have discussed how gender roles limit both genders. I wonder if Jewish boys wish they could participate in "the practices that are relegated to women"? Excluding boys from these traditions seems just as damaging as forcing girls into them.

Eve said...

Perhaps, but there is a great deal of privilege associated with traditional male roles. Both female and male Jewish traditions were created by men. Those few prayers and responsibilities that Jewish women have are not comparable to the number of rights Jewish men possess.

It was not until recently that Jewish feminists could even consider these roles empowering. For a Jewish male to step in and claim that it is somehow damaging to his identity to not have this experience exemplifies the male privileged notion that everything that is powerful should be accessible to him. It is not the place of men to appropriate Jewish women's few roles merely because they are now deemed worthy of their reverence.

Anne Kildare said...

I understand that it would feel unfair for Jewish men to "appropriate Jewish women's few roles merely because they are now deemed worthy of their reverence." But this generation of Jewish boys are not to blame for the "traditions [that] were created by men."

There are powers and privileges associated with both gender roles. Unquestionably, male gender roles come with more powers and privileges than female gender roles. But until we are willing to share powers and privileges with each other, these roles will limit both genders.

Erin S. said...

While I agree with Anne that power and spheres are shared in an ideal model of equality between genders, I think that as long as women have so little space of our own, we are perfectly justified in excluding men from that space. For example, I participate in a lot of online fan communities, which tend to be very heavily female, and there's nothing more laughable in its entitlement than a fanboy whining because his viewpoint isn't represented or supported in a forum when the rest of the media world--including, usually, the source material for the fandom in question--is actively engaged in representing a male viewpoint. Like complaints about the lack of a "Heterosexual Pride Day," a privileged person's lack of access to the space of the less privileged (especially when that space has unexpectedly provided the less privileged with some kind of power or benefit) isn't a feminist issue. (To put it another way: every day is heterosexual pride day.)

But, as gendered roles break down within cultures, it will become more acceptable for both genders to cross traditional gender lines. So any guy who dislikes being excluded from female spheres or discourse should instantly become a feminist and work to ensure that there's plenty of safe space to go around.

Sophie said...

I agree with the author – I sometimes struggle with many of the Jewish practices relegated to women. I am constantly aware that, historically, these roles were forced onto women. Cooking, especially, is a part of Jewish women’s culture. As of late, I think that instead of being disheartened by its history and the patriarchy involved, we must also look to the developments that women have made in Judaism and their culture. Further, many of the women actually take immense pleasure in preparing the traditional foods associated and do not equate it with patriarchy. In general, I think the Jewish feminist revolution has been growing - whether it’s actually within the temple and more women becoming rabbis (and just being involved generally) or just more Jewish women becoming leaders in our society. Unfortunately, Jewish holidays do tend to rely on traditions surrounding food. I totally agree with the author that as long as I remember not everyone Jewish woman is the same and the history of these rituals, I can still take part (and enjoy) these traditions.