Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The F-Word

Brace yourselves. I am about to say the F-word. Feminism. I said it. Feminism. Feminism. Feminism. Feminism. Feminism. Dear G-d, that feels good. You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to say that. That’s me. I am the F-word. I am a feminist. Try saying that one is shul. Then they look at you like you’ve just told them you’re a cannibal and you’d love to have their youngest child over for dinner. But, you know what? I think you’re all feminists too. And the women who think I’m a cannibal. They’re feminists. We are all walking F-words.
So how did I become an f-word? Something must have gone wrong somewhere. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to nice, Jewish girls who go to Bais Yaakov. I did, by the way. Go to Bais Yaakov, I mean. Bais Yaakov, Seminary, the whole shebang. I’m certified Frum. Like the little plumba that they put on the chicken so you know it’s Kosher. I had all of the right qualifications. How did this happen? What sort of tragedy befell me that I became…an f-word?
It’s kinda hard to tell. Maybe it started about sixth grade when I began to realize that I was a woman and not just a person. You’re sort of androgynous before that, part of that large generalization that makes up the Yiddishe kinderlach. And then you start growing things and your body starts doing things and you begin to realize that there might be a difference between you and the person that sits on the other side of the mechitza in shul.
So, my body’s changing and I’m getting really weepy a lot and life is getting confusing and about then they started on the whole power of the Jewish woman thing in school and I got really excited because I’m thinking, hey, my body’s doing all this weird stuff and I feel like I’m turning into something and they say that what I’m turning into is a Jewish woman. Great! Now they’re going to tell me what that means. Except they didn’t. What they did was to tell me about men. They told me all about men. Every Chumash class was about Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov and Moshe. Every Navi class was about David and Shaul and Shmuel. There were a few women in there, but we moved through those ones really quick. I think we took five minutes to zip through Devorah and that was taken up by the teacher telling us that Devorah was allowed to be a leader because there was no man in her generation who was strong enough to do the job. Why did they need to tell us that? Why couldn’t Devorah be a great woman? Where were all the women? I knew they were there because the Chumash talked about Miriam and Rachel and Leah and Sarah, but why didn’t we learn about them? Were they terrible? Were they bad role models? What was so frightening about the women in Tanach that we weren’t allowed to learn about them?
Then they start with Tznius. Don’t get me wrong. I think Tznius is the best thing in the world for body image and woman’s sense of self-esteem. Except every teacher told me that the reason I had to wear long sleeves and skirts was because I didn’t want to cause inappropriate desires in a man. Because my body was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode and lead some man astray. Face it, my body was an act of sin waiting to happen. You have no idea how terrified I was of my own body. For years, I was afraid to even walk because my hips might twitch and send some guy the wrong message and then I would be the cause of impure thoughts. I’m still not fully comfortable in my own skin. I wondered about it. I wondered why G-d would give me a mitzvah that was wholly dependent on someone else. Tznius didn’t make me a better person. It just made sure that men didn’t become worse people and I couldn’t think of a single mitzvah like that which applied to men.
Around eleventh grade, they started with the whole “you are not anything unless you get married and have children” thing. Now you’re going to peg me as some kind of femi-Nazi. Hang on. This is going somewhere. I promise. Every class, they keep talking about Shidduchim and how important it is to find a man and have kids. That’s always the focus, you know? Getting married and having children. Does it mean that the wonderful old lady who lived across the hall from us and always gave me cookies was less than whole because she never got married and had kids? What’s wrong with me that I’m not worth anything unless I’m attached to other people? Can’t I be special for the things that I do on my own? Can’t I have accomplishments that aren’t attached to someone else? I mean, what if I never manage to find my bashert? Will I never be able to be a good Jew on my own?
That was really what it was all about, you know-being a good Jew. Because I very much wanted to love G-d and I wanted to love being a Jew. I wanted to want to be good for G-d. To be the best that I could be. But how could I be the best that I could if the best that I could was dependent on someone else who might or might not show up in my life?
So I sat down and made a list of all of the things that G-d had given me that made me special. Not as a unit. Not as a part of a group. But as an individual. And it kept coming back to the fact that I was a woman. The way my body worked, the way that it could reproduce, the way that everything fit with such function and form. And I decided that I needed to know more about this. I went to the library and borrowed a book on human physiology.
Do you have any idea how much G-d loves me? How much G-d gives me as a woman? How much my physical body is a manifestation of G-d’s love? My body can sustain itself without nourishment for an astounding amount of time. My body, which is so small and compact in comparison to a man’s, has space for everything. It has space to carry and nourish another life. My body has things that have no function other than to make me happy. You know that the female clitoris is just a bundle of nerves that serves no other function than to create sexual pleasure? If you believe in the random evolution of the human species, then you believe that every part of the human body is created for the sole purpose of functionality. I can’t believe in random evolution because of my clitoris. That has to be the creation of a benevolent G-d who wants me to enjoy the gift of human relationships. I came to love G-d through my clitoris. Through the miracle of my body.
So I’m reading these physiology books and getting completely enthralled and amazed by the wonder of it all, and I begin to think that I can’t possibly be the first person to have figured this out. I put down the physiology book and took out my Tanach. The one that I spent so much time hating because it had nothing to do with me. And I read it. Cover to cover. And I discovered the women. Tanach was full of women. Beautiful, wonderful, strong women who didn’t sit around doing nothing while their husbands changed the world. Half of them were childless. Half of them were medically unable to conceive and give birth. But not a single one let it stop her life. They went out and did their own things and when they had children, they thanked G-d for their good fortune and continued to be strong human beings in their own right. With some of them, we don’t even know who their husbands were or whether they had children. The passuk never says who Miriam’s husband was or whether she had any children. It only says that she saved her brother and led the women in the desert. That she was a servant of G-d. Some of them were strong in spite of their husbands. Look at Esther. Look at what she accomplished and who she was married to. These were the people who came before me. This was the genetic material that made up my DNA. These were women who had doubts and fears, but they did things anyway. These were women who got their periods and stained their best dresses and had cramps and nausea and headaches. No matter how different we were, I was connected to the women of my past by PMS. And by that feeling that I had in my gut every time I thought of them. That feeling of belonging to something. I never felt that before. I never felt it in school, but now I felt it every time I was around Jewish women. I had this crazy urge to hug every woman in shul and say “I know you. We both sang with Miriam at the sea.” I didn’t, of course. It’s not the sort of thing you can say in public. But I wanted to. I loved the way I felt around women. I loved that sense of belonging. I loved women. Which is another one of those things you can’t say in public without people accusing you of being all kinds of things. But I do. I really do love women. Because we are a miracle. We are a walking proof of G-d’s love for life and for creation. Because we are a continuum and because I never feel so alive and real as I feel when I’m standing with a group of Jewish women.
And that is the story of how I became and F-word. A feminist. It’s my favorite story because, whenever I tell it, someone always says, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re not a feminist!” and I ask them why not and they say “You don’t hate men” or “You haven’t burned your bra” or “you’re not pro-abortion”. No, I do not hate men because I married a very nice one who loves me for who I am and who does not look at me as an extension of who he is. No, I do not burn bras because I hate the smell of burning nylon and because, frankly, I need the support. No, I am not pro-abortion because I don’t believe in throwing away life wantonly. It’s not something that G-d would do and women are made in the image of G-d.
So how am I a feminist? Because I believe in the power of women to do almost anything. I believe that women have the ability to be great, with or without the aid of a man. I believe that women are the closest thing that the human race has to an embodiment of the qualities of G-d and that women are a living, breathing proof that the Almighty loves us fiercely and without reservation.
So I call myself a feminist, but what I really mean is that I’m a Jewish woman and I can’t call myself that because it’s not what I was taught a Jewish woman is supposed to be.