My View from Behind the Curtain

There’s a lot been written lately about feminism and Judaism, or at least-about women’s roles in our faith. While I wouldn’t say personally that I feel invisible behind the mechitza, I do struggle with women who are blocked from getting the most out of their orthodoxy, especially where it feels like it comes down to custom or tradition rather than Jewish law.

Losing a parent is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I don’t grapple with it daily, but it has the power to move me to tears with literally no notice whatsoever, at any given moment. It’s scarred me and shaped me in ways I probably couldn’t describe, and some ways I can.

Judaism has guidelines for losing a parent. And to me, it’s one of the most beautiful areas of Jewish law. From the second a parent dies, their family has rules to follow. Don’t leave the body alone, call the chevra kadisha, say the shema prayer.. the list of laws and customs goes on, from those first impossible minutes until years later, when we light a memorial candle on the anniversary of their death. And the intensity of those rules lessens as time goes on.

The first week, your every waking minute is filled with people visiting you sit shiva, while for the month, the restrictions of new clothes and luxury are enough to keep you aware of your loss but also able to forget for small periods of time, get on with work and friendships and daily life. The entire year, you exclude yourself from social gatherings where you might not feel comfortable, but your life begins to move on, often without daily reminders of your status as an avel. To me, it felt like God was walking me through the process of grieving, not letting me sweep my feelings under the carpet, but also helping me put myself back together without drowning under the weight of it.

But there were moments. Moments where I still feel like my grief would have more bearing, more status somehow, if I were a man.

Standing by the graveside at my fathers funeral, they asked the men to step forward to take part in an incredible mark of respect, to help fill the grave with earth. My family, my friends, people who knew us all my life came close to take a spade and begin the labour. When I asked to join in, eager to honour my father this last time, I was asked to wait while a groundskeeper ran to fetch something. When he came back, he brought with him a small trowel and some ready turned earth in a bucket. They offered me a token, a ceremonial act, like the action of lifting a shovel was going to be too much for me. Like they couldn’t see that the act of not lifting it would be far heavier to carry. Needless to say, I took the spade. But I don’t know that other women would know to insist.

During the week of shiva, men need a minyan, ten men to join them in prayer, three times a day. It means that your home is filled with people, pretty much all of your waking hours. We take breaks, for meals or for rest times, but the company is necessary. It surrounds you with stories of your loved ones, with people who care about you. It’s healing. As the only person sitting shiva, I didn’t need a minyan, so we didn’t always have one. The mornings, I slept in until visitors arrived to see me, and in the evenings, I had to leave the room while the men prayed, standing in the kitchen or the hallway, wondering why I felt shut out, if the reason they were there was me. I chose to say the Kaddish prayer that week, and they chose men to say it with me, to make it more “appropriate”, some of whom I had never met before, turning around at the sound of a woman’s voice standing out from the crowd

I didn’t have to say Kaddish at all that year, and so I didn’t. I asked someone I love, someone who loves me to say it for me, and they did. They went to shul every day, three times a day, and did the action of a grieving child for me. They said my words, my prayer, because even if I had chosen to go, orthodox Jewish law dictates it would be better if a man was doing it too. Some would say that a man needs to be doing it too. That even if I take the nineteen years we had together and pour all of those feelings into every word I say, they don’t really count.

Each year now, on the anniversary of his death, the yartzeit, I head to shul and I say the Kaddish prayer, quietly, respectfully behind the mechitza. If the other men notice a man who has yartzeit, they might offer him a special mitzvah, leading the service or holding the Torah.

Me? Me, they don’t notice at all, and they wouldn’t have anything to offer me even if they did.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the logic and the reasoning behind the laws for women and men. The way it would be impossible to get to shul three times a day with small children in tow, the way we believe that a woman’s spirituality lends itself to needing less outward signs of our faith, the rules of modesty and how they manifest in clothes and song and power struggles. Some of these things I agree with, others less so. But I believe in the package of orthodoxy, and I feel like I matter and have a role to play. But when it comes to grief, I suddenly get a glimpse into how other women might feel, not just in mourning but in prayer, in community, in education. Like their voice is being silenced, like they have nowhere to stand, like they don’t count.

All I know, is that my father meant to the world to me, and I to him. But in a million small ways, Judaism tells me that I’m not quite enough to honour him all on my own. I need a mans help to do that to its full potential. A brother, a husband, an uncle, hey- any relative will do. So long as they’re male.

It’s one small area of Jewish law, and you don’t even consider it until it’s thrust upon you. I hardly think about it any more, just once a year, when I stand behind that curtain. Not invisible, but not quite visible enough either.

Today I Do…

Facebook reminded me this evening of the post I wrote last year, on International Women’s day 2016. It was called One Day I Will… and it was about how I look to my daughter when I can’t find the strength in the usual role models many women have.

Michael J Fox has said that Family is not an important thing, it is everything. This year, it often feels like the whole structure of my family as I once knew it has been ripped apart at the seams. And so if family is everything, it’s easy to slip into feeling like I have nothing.

I have seen so many brave and interesting posts today from friends and strangers alike about International Women’s Day. The worst of them were questioning the need for the day in the first place, as if they were somehow put out by it’s very existence, and couldn’t just get on with their Wednesdays. The best of them were supportive, proud, strong, and full of support. And it got me thinking. Aren’t those the very best descriptions of family you could imagine?

Unfortunately and painfully, this year, one woman in my life has turned against me for standing by another. The former is blood, and the latter is one of the strongest, most supportive women I could wish to have in my world, and is every part the family I would choose, and have chosen.

I agree with Michael J Fox. Family is everything. But just as so many incredible women have shown me, it isn’t just the family you’re born with. I have a family with whom I share no kin whatsoever, made up of playdates and favours, of shouting each other coffees and coming round with surprise gifts just because. It’s packed to the brim with jumping on a plane, or listening to each other cry, it’s laughing so hard you can’t breathe, it’s sending memes at all hours of the day and night. It’s made up of love.

A working mother’s Facebook group that I’m on has a tradition called ‘bragging Wednesdays.’ The entire point is that women can share their achievements, and be encouraged and applauded by other women. They range from starting your own business or making multi-million dollar deals, to getting the kids to school on time, or carving out some space for yourself in the busy never ending to do list of life. It’s supportive, it’s lovely, and it’s powerful.

There will always be negativity, and trolls, and people who think that you’re doing the wrong thing, failing to see just how much anxiety we all have about our decisions already, without their input.

Me? I surround myself with the family I choose, the ones who have proven themselves deserving of that word. You brilliant amazing women you, you all know who you are. Happy International Women’s Day, and I love you.

 

 

A Delicate Little Flower

You’re right.

She’s not a “delicate little flower”

And I don’t want her to be.
I don’t want her swaying in the breeze,
Moving this way and that on the flight of fancy of the wind.
I want her growing strong roots
Deep beneath the surface
Twisting their way into the earth,
Creating foundations, holding her own ground.
I don’t want her petals easily picked off one by one
By a boy playing “she loves me, loves me not”.
I want her to love herself, fiercely
Hold those petals fast in her grip
So that no-one can take hold
And make her less of herself
Unless giving freely is what she chooses.
I don’t wish for her to be simply beautiful,
(Which so often means beautifully simple)
I wan’t people to stop still in their tracks
Look at her unique colours, stop to take in her scent
Wonder what exotic place she comes from
That she was able to grow so wild and free.
I don’t imagine her little at all.
I want her to fill a room, until it overflows with her,
Not ladylike, but powerful
Not delicate, but extraordinary.
I can’t picture her on a manicured lawn
Under a cloche
Protected from the elements, not her.
I see her at all ages, in my mind’s eye.
Raging against the heat of the sun
Dancing in the rain
Moving with the wind
Laughing at the storm she creates around her
And I smile, and smile and smile.
Not a delicate little flower at all.
A powerful, strong-willed woman in the making.

“Well Done! Mister Suffragettes.”

This week saw millions of women and men marching and protesting for womens’ rights, and boy, did the men have something to say about it. From the accurate yet stupid “There are women far worse off than you, why are you complaining?” to the always clever yet innacurate “Calm down, nothing ever got solved by being angry”. In 2017, there’s no shortage of men who not only understand the issues at hand well enough to have their own opinion,  but also who can let us feeble-minded ladies know what we should be doing, thinking and feeling as well.

I’m so happy to have so many strong men who marched alongside women this week, and don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe men should be able to voice their own opinions and thoughts on sexism loud and clear, even on the issues which mainly concern women. But when these opinions turn into simply telling a woman how to feel or react, or begin to take ownership away from women on their own issues, we’re in different territory.

Don’t tell me that you’ve never seen gender inequality at the office so therefore it “can’t exist”, ask the women who work with you if they have experienced it instead. Don’t scoff at how ‘tampon tax’ isn’t a big deal when you’ve never had to include them in your monthly budget. Don’t inform me it’s a compliment to be catcalled or groped as I walk down the street; ask me, and I’ll tell you it’s harassment. And don’t explain “the real reasons” why feminism exists, to women who have to deal with inequality every single day.

Here are some of my personal favourite male responses to the march this week. And if you think these are just individuals, take a look at some of the likes, retweets and shares that these men are recieving for their most excellent examples of mansplaining and misogyny.

mark-dice.jpg

This guy is a delight. It took me a minute to realise he means people who are pro-choice.

felix-lapoma.jpg

Y’know how to make America great again? Domestic violence.

steve-jarrot.jpg

Always good to hear what a white man thinks about racial and gender discrimination. After all, he has all the experience and knowledge on the matter.

treybey.jpg

May I make a suggestion…? Bathe.

oliver-gracie.jpg

Unlike Muslim countries, US women have nothing to complain about. Certainly not a little thing like a 22.4% gender pay gap which is actually widening year on year. (Up from 20.8% in 2016) Oh wait, we chose that. Must be the comfy lifestyles we’re all enjoying as part of ‘having it all’.

oliver-gracie2.jpg

Oh, but Oliver isn’t done. It’s our sexual frustration which is making it difficult for us to get paid and respected equally. Personal thanks to all the ‘good guys’ who touch us without our permission so we know you like us, call out obscenities on the street to help us feel sexy and tell us to stop being hysterical when we’re getting too upset. With your help maybe we can nip this damn feminism in the bud.

men-discuss-march.jpg

This last photo is CNN, discussing the womens’ march. Can you see anything wrong with this photo? Imagine for a second this was a forum on the Holocaust, and they invited 9 Germans and a token Jew. Yes, the panel rotated throughout the night, but included in the male commentary was David Swerdlick’s comment “You got the sense that a more experienced generation was passing on a tradition of activism to a younger generation.”

Yes. A more experienced generation who are still fighting for equal rights. A more experienced generation who have seen some progress but not enough. A generation who watched their own parents fight for access to better birth control, more equal working conditions, safe sexual rights, a fair justice system for both genders. And yet somehow… still need to pass on all of these battles to their own children.  What a truly sad and inadequate inheritance.

Or maybe I’m wrong, I’ll have to wait for a guy to tell me how I really feel about it.

“What’s worse than a Male Chauvinist Pig?”

” …A woman that won’t do what she’s told.” 

That’s an actual joke someone told me, before laughing raucously, in answer to my question “Would you call yourself a feminist?”

Until recently, I’ve never thought much of feminism. Not in a disparaging way, I mean it literally hasn’t crossed my mind that much. I suppose I’ve never noticed that much sexism taking place around me. I like to think that if I had been alive a hundred years ago, I would have been one of the women throwing myself under horses for the rights of women, but in all honesty I’d probably have been obliviously popping out babies chained to the kitchen sink like the majority of that generation.

We can vote, we can work, we have birth control at our fingertips, we can be presidents and prime ministers. (ettes?!) We pretty much have it all. Truthfully, I’ve always sighed at women’s lib organisations like Femen, and asked, what more do we want?

After all, Feminism in its original meaning doesn’t exist any more, does it? We’re not campaigning to be allowed a say in politics, or for control over our own bodies. In the western world at least, life is pretty good for women. We can have our babies and return to work. We can choose not to, and that’s fine too. We can have sex, and we can even enjoy it. Of course there is working woman’s guilt, mummy guilt, stay at home guilt, basically vagina guilt, but if we were really honest we would accept that it’s mainly self judgement, and that the rest of the world doesn’t care. Real issues still exist, the gender pay gap being a massive one, but for the most part we are doing pretty well for a gender who couldn’t even go to university when our grandparents were kids.

So if I’m happy enough to let other women deal with what’s left of inequality in the western world nowadays, what’s brought feminism to my attention lately?

Caitlin Moran (in her fabulous biography how to be a woman which you must all go out and read) discusses the kind of sexism that you don’t notice right away. You might leave a situation thinking, wow-they were a massive douche, and then it actually takes another few hours to sit bolt upright and realise that you missed the word sexist out of that description.

And since that written revelation, I’ve been absolutely bombarded by my own memory, to the point where I can’t believe quite how rife my life has been with hidden sexism. And that’s what I believe we should be fighting against.

Last month, I had the displeasure of spending a few hours in enforced company with an extreme male chauvinist. The kind you can’t help but notice. He had a mini fit when his son picked up a pink buggy to play with, complete with a baby doll inside. “Sorry” I just barely bit back from saying, “I didn’t realise you want your son to grow into the type of man who won’t care for his children or help his wife.” Later that afternoon, midway through an intellectual discussion between him and two other men, I joined the debate. After his look of shock dissipated, he continued talking, making sure to explain every word over two syllables with a condescending look in my direction and an apologetic head tilt for his superior knowledge. When I correctly answered the problem he had posed, he shook his head and basically told me I’d made a lucky guess.

I went home livid. How has he got to mid thirties without someone telling him he has a huge problem? And how can his wife let him behave that way without saying something?

Attitude. That’s what the war should be waged on. The next time someone is rude to you, stop and check the conversation. Is it rudeness, or sexism? More and more I can see that what at first glance was brushed off as ‘they’re an idiot” has a horrible undercurrent of latent sexism that maybe even the speaker isn’t aware of. Sentences like “what does your husband do?” before you’ve even asked about my own work, are not just rude, they are horribly sexist. And they paint a reality. A reality where the female intern gets the coffee while the male one assists the director of the company. A world where you plan an important speech for a meeting and two men stand up to leave before you’ve finished the first sentence. A world where it’s assumed you wont want to join everyone for lunch, so you’re left alone to answer the phones.

All of the above have happened to me in the last five years, and honestly, none of them are serious enough as stand alone events to even mention, without dealing with another sexist label, “the hormonal hysterical woman.” But put them all together and you have a quite frightening picture of a woman’s worth.

It’s easy enough to solve. And bear with me here because this is quite radical. Everyone has to see women…. as people.

That’s right. The same as any other person, male or otherwise.

It’s crazy! It’s insane! It will never work!

But taking every situation I’ve outlined above, I think it may be genius. Instead of my new favourite MCP noting that a dress and heels had joined the convo, if he had just noted that another human was now involved, the only change in conversation would have been a slight body shift to include me in the debate.

If I wasn’t immediately wife, but rather person, then obviously the first question would have been “what do you do?”

“2 interns? Flip a coin, decide between yourselves, take turns for gods sake.”

“Oh, a person is talking, I’d better wait to go powder my nose until they are finished. Perhaps I’ll even listen.”

“Ah, we’re going for lunch, every person is obviously welcome.”

I’m not for one minute downplaying the important work that feminists do for women, and I’m grateful every day for our ‘sister suffragettes’ that made my own freedom and choices possible. But the work needed nowadays is different, and I believe it is mostly down to menfolk to make the changes, although of course women can be just as guilty. To see women simply as other people who coexist side by side, separate but equal. To extend the same courtesy they would to any other person, by simply not being rude. To think about an unpleasant encounter in their day and ask themselves whether they would have made the same choices had a man been standing in front of them, or at the other end of the line.

So do me a favour, and pass on the message to the man in your life. After all, they probably will have stopped reading this by now. It’s written by a woman. 

sexism