Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 12)

As we come to the close of the omer journey week focusing on strength and boundaries, we should at least begin our reflections on the complex intersection of race and gender. My own time at the computer does not permit a long note today (a blessing, perhaps?), so I offer just a few suggestions:

One place to begin is with Zoe Spencer’s short independent film, Epiphany, an insightful and watchable exploration of related issues:

The answer will not be found
in the crooked hook of some misogynistic rap song
…there are far too many mothers crying
for far too many brothers dying
Far too many buying
trying to undue the stain of inferiority
by placing that new platinum noose around our necks
…I have allowed the history of racism
to separate me from my history
— from the introduction to “Epiphany”

Also consider watching or rewatching the powerful documentary on Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing. There is a lot there to explore, and the anniversary material is quite powerful in its own right.

He had a race.
I had a gender.
Anita Hill Film

Finally, from Nina Simone again:

…You lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears.
And talk real fine just like a lady.
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies….
Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Just scratching the surface on our journey from oppression.

We counted 12 on the evening of April 15. Tonight, we count….
Continue Reading

Exploring Divine Fluidity: Yentl, Gender, and Time

Murkiness does not persist for long in biblical narrative. For only one verse, “the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” After that, God begins a program of dividing [“va-yavdilוַיַּבְדֵּל]: light from darkness, waters above from waters below, water from dry land,….six days of work from the hallowed seventh. The theme of division continues throughout Genesis, in the stories of Noah, Babel, Abraham and descendants. Exodus and Leviticus stress divisions relating to food, sex, and other topics: this is kosher; this is not.

The biblical concept of “holiness” is all about separations; and the ancient Rabbis further pursued divisions and borders, beginning with the first words of the Mishnah: “From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?”

Murkiness is studiously avoided in Jewish tradition. And deceptive or confusing characteristics are particularly reviled, as when a pig “pretends” to be kosher by showing its split hooves (a characteristic necessary for a kosher animal) while hiding the fact that it does not chew the cud (also required).

How, in such a worldview, can an individual who is “neither one nor the other” — like the title character of the I.B. Singer’s 1962 Yentl the Yeshiva Boy — function?

And how is Judaism, with its separations and borders, to respond to the murkiness of gender-fluidity?

Photos: Stan Barouh

Photos: Stan Barouh

Yentl, in referencing Jewish sacred text, becomes part of the age-old conversation on those texts, their interpretations and implementations. Like commentary in every age, Theater J’s Yentl brings contemporary perspectives, needs, and questions into dialogue with centuries of existing material. This happens partly as the tale — set in late 19th Century Poland — interacts with music aware that the shtetl is no longer the only model for Jewish gender roles. In addition, the set, designed by Robbie Hayes as an open book, urges us into the dialogue as well.

Theater J‘s presentation combines the 1975 play, co-written by Singer and Leah Napolin, with newer music from singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. This “play with music” (not “musical” for legal reasons), directed by Shirley Serotsky, differs substantially from the 1983 film created by Barbra Streisand. And, while it comes closer to the original story in many ways, it differs from that, too, in interesting ways.
Continue Reading

Yentl at Theater J, Post-Show Panel on Women and Religious Tradition

yentl

UPDATE: Change of panelists for September 14

Theater J’s new production of Yentl, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, explores issues of gender and religious tradition. Panel discussions following Sunday matinees extend the conversation.

Virginia Spatz, co-organizer of Washington Friends of Women of the Wall, is joining a post-show panel on Sept. 14, so Theater J is offering a discount to friends WfWOW and their friends for any date of the run:

Tickets: Visit Buy Online or call Box Office Tickets at 800.494.8497.

Find out about ticket discounts here.

SPECIAL OFFER: Use coupon code ‘YENTL10’ and save $10! Buy online or call and mention the code.

 

“Jewish Women and Religious Tradition”

September 14 panel, post-matinee, approximately 5:30 p.m.

  • Sarah Breger, managing editor, Moment Magazine
  • Bonnie Morris, Professor of Women’s Studies, George Washington Univ; Author and Historian
  • Virginia Spatz, writer, educator, activist and WfWOW co-organizer

 

YENTL

AUGUST 28 – OCTOBER 5, 2014

Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”

Adapted for the stage by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer

With new music and lyrics composed by Jill Sobule, additional music by Robin Eaton

Directed by Theater J Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky

As a girl in 19th Century Eastern Europe, Yentl is forbidden to pursue her dream of studying Talmud. Unwilling to accept her fate, she disguises herself as a man. But when she falls in love, Yentl must decide how far she’s willing to go to protect her identity. Invigorated with a bracing klezmer/pop/rock score from Jill Sobule (the original “I Kissed a Girl,” “Supermodel”), Yentl asks up-to-the-minute questions about gender and sexuality.

For more on this production, see Exploring Divine Fluidity

Is this 1959 or 2014? Prayers for a Change

BarbieDC4MBDC Tefillin Barbie would love to focus on her passions of Jewish text and gender studies. But — don’t let that frozen smile fool you — she’s got other pressing concerns as well.

She finds, in fact, that concern for the racial tensions exploding in Ferguson, MO, and around the country dominate her prayers.

For example, upon donning tefillin in the morning (Koren Saks translation; Barbie’s own meditations):

From Your wisdom, God most high, grant me [wisdom], and from Your understanding, give me understanding.
Help me understand how our country remains so divided and how to help promote a better vision and a more just reality.

May Your loving-kindness be greatly upon me, and in Your might may my enemies and those who rise against me be subdued.
I pray in the spirit of the Talmudic great, Beruriah, who scolded her husband, Rabbi Meir for praying that “sinners be no more,” insisting instead that he should instead pray that the sins that should be no more. (See Berakhot 10a; Midrash Psalms 118)

Pour Your godly oil on the seven branches of the menora so that Your good flows down upon Your creatures.
There are so many areas of the globe in need of attention, but may our collective actions bring more divine flow to Ferguson, MO, and other spots in need of extra oiling.

You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with Your favor.
May these straps, donned in prayer, remind me to keep my hands on productive, positive work for a better world and keep my mind away from panic, hatred, or despair.

Tefillin Barbie Tries a New Siddur

3

Soferet [scribe] Jen Taylor Friedman uses her scribal arts to create a variety of ritual items: ketubot [marriage certificates]; scrolls of the Book of Esther; scrolls to be used in mezuzot [doorpost markers] and tefillin [ritual boxes bound to arm and head]; as well as complete sets of tefillin. In 2007, she became the first woman we know to have completed a full Torah scroll. (More about female scribes)

UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog listed vegetarian tefillin among HaSoferet offerings. This was in error. Apologies. See discussion and comments below.

Barbie_ArrivedSince 2006, Taylor Friedman has also been providing mini-tallitot [prayer shawls] and tiny tefillin for Barbie® dolls.

One of these “Tefillin Barbies” recently traveled from Montreal to Washington, DC.

DC Tefillin Barbie arrived with a volume of the Babylonian Talmud in her hand. Seems she was studying something in Yebamot. This tractate focuses on marriage of a widow to her brother-in-law, but I believe Barbie may have been exploring passages, which appear near the beginning of the volume (4b, 5b), about tying of tzitzit, ritual fringes.

Study vs. Prayer

Early critics of Tefillin Barbie argued that, because tefillin are donned for prayer, Barbie ought to have a prayerbook in her hand, not a Talmud volume; some also criticized the particular edition of the Talmud she uses. (See, e.g., DovBear; more below).

In response, Taylor Friedman’s website now explains that Barbie is engaged in “daf-yomi” [page a day] study of the Talmud. (This practice requires seven years of daily discipline to complete. Some women in Israel and in the U.S. engage in this study, but it is usually considered a male enterprise; in addition it’s usually considered an orthodox practice, although non-Orthodox Jews also participate.) She adds:

Barbie is hardcore, see? She’s taking daf-yomi shiur before minyan starts, telling you that she’s sorry you don’t get that Tosafot but we don’t have time to get into it right now and she’ll go through it with you if you can stay afterwards.

Perhaps a real hardcore Barbie fan might get a whole set of mini-Talmud volumes, so she is carrying the right volume for any particular day of the seven-year Daf-Yomi cycle: For example, she’d be starting Moed Katan/Hagiga [Minor Feast/Festival Offerings] today (8/13/14). But I’m pretty sure DC Tefillin Barbie downloads her learning off the internet or uses a local library volume.

Meanwhile, having been warned “that tallit and tefillin are not designed to come off, and that this is a collector Barbie, not a toy suitable for small children,” I assumed Barbie might be pretty set in her ways. But when she arrived, I realized that she was, in fact, a Barbie doll…

Continue Reading

Of Plumbing and Gender

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in Hartford Seminary’s “Building Abrahamic Partnerships,” an eight-day program offered each summer for a new group of Christians, Jews and Muslims. While there, a plumbing problem accidentally illuminated — for me, anyway — a truth about gendered religious experience and dialogue.

As it happened, a pipe disaster rendered the ladies’ room unusable on the same morning we were discussing gender in Judaism. The program director announced that alternatives were being explored and that perhaps a schedule for sharing the men’s room would have to be arranged. (Things worked out fine, but that’s not the point here.)

“How appropriate,” I remember telling the group. “Because this is how Jewish women live all the time.”

Even if his usual practice is egalitarian, a Jewish man can opt to be counted in an Orthodox minyan and accept honors there, for example. A Jewish woman has no such option, except in women’s and “partnership” settings. Women’s leadership is recognized in many prayer communities and not in others; men have options in this case, while women do not. In Orthodox settings, women might have seating that provides good access to the service; or they might be seated in a distant balcony.

….Maybe men will share the bathroom; maybe women will walk next door….

Maybe there will be time to discuss how women’s experiences of the lifecycle, of sacred text, of leadership and relationship to ritual differ in substantial ways from men’s; maybe not.

Maybe there will be some acknowledgement of the differing power structures experienced by women and men in and across faith communities; probably not.

Gender-related issues are in some sense “optional” for men in interfaith dialogue, while women generally don’t have that choice unless the dialogue has been carefully designed to incorporate their perspectives.
 

Accidental Analogy

Sometimes a plumbing accident is just a plumbing accident, and I am not sure that my fellow BAP participants found the bathroom situation so educational….

But I do think the accidental analogy is worth some thought:

In interfaith dialogue in the U.S. and some other parts of the world, participants arrive from communities in which gender plays very different roles. In some communities, gender defines many religious obligations and rights; in others, this is no longer the case.

Assuming that, for the sake of getting along, everyone will subscribe to the former view is akin to announcing, “We only have a men’s room. Women will be offered an alternative arrangement.” Assuming, instead, that everyone will subscribe to the latter view, on the other hand, might be likened to a sort of “one bathroom, no rules” approach.

Neither approach is particularly useful or respectful on its own — either in bathroom logistics or in dialogue. What is required, IMO, is a frank discussion, a careful compromise and an acknowledgement that the end practice will probably not suit everyone, even if it does allow peaceful co-existence and further dialogue.

More?

For more on gender and religion, interdenominational and interfaith dialogue, and related issues, please see Gender/Sexuality/Dialogue pages (moving from InterfaithandGender.org)
 

Gender: the Heart of (Inter-)Religious Understanding

“A Song Every Day” focuses on Jewish thought, often highlighting issues of gender and sexuality. These issues are central to interdenominational Jewish differences as well as to controversies within and across other faith communities. …And yet, much interfaith and interdenominational dialogue proceeds without directly addressing gender — beyond, perhaps, “balance by numbers.” Guidelines for local dialogues rarely mention the topic. Scholarly explorations remain largely within academy walls. IAGlogoSmallThis must change if inter-religious dialogue is to truly succeed. And successful inter-religious dialogue is essential to addressing many conflicts here in the U.S. and abroad. Thus, “A Song Every Day” offers “InterFaith and Gender” resources. Here’s the new parent-page: Gender / Sexuality / Dialogue. Thanks for your patience as “A Song Every Day” undergoes some re-organization.