Sisterhood Blog

The Ten Plagues — According to Jewish Women

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

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This post is adapted from a speech, “The Ten Plagues According to Jewish Women,” that Pogrebin gave at the Downtown Seder, held March 25 at the City Winery in Manhattan.

Plague #1: Dam. BLOOD — Women have this plague every 28 days or so, and except when we’re ready to procreate, most of us welcome it. But when it doesn’t come — as the result of a mistake or a failed contraceptive — we must be free to consult with our conscience, our partner, our doctor, maybe our rabbi, about whether to continue an unplanned pregnancy. The final choice must be ours. Yet with ever-diminishing access to reproductive services (witness the final health care bill), that choice is disappearing, which is a plague on women’s freedom.

Plague #2: Tsfardaya. FROGS — Who don’t turn into princes. The boyfriend who says he loves strong women, but whose ego gets wounded when you trounce him 6-Love, or even if you put him on hold. The men who say they’re man enough to be married to a smart woman, but shoot their wives a dirty look when they’re at a dinner party with a bunch of intellectuals and she knows who Foucault is, and he doesn’t. The prince who says he believes in equality but once he’s a husband, turns into a frog who simply can’t be bothered changing a diaper.

Plague #3: Kinim. VERMIN — The oppressors in women’s lives are our Pharoahs, our vermin. They want to keep us subjugated. They’re right-wing, religious fanatics who insist that women be as subordinated to men, as men are to God. They’re ultra-conservatives who would roll back the political and economic advances we’ve fought for these past 40 years, and send us back to Egypt. Too many women are still in the desert, struggling to reach the Promised Land.

Plague #4 Arov. BEASTS — They don’t operate in the public sphere; they do their damage in private. Beasts abuse the women in their lives — physically, emotionally and sexually. They rape women and say, “She wanted it.” They violate their sisters, daughters and sons behind closed doors with mezzuzot on them. We used to be told that Jewish men don’t beat their wives; that rape and incest don’t exist in our community. But they do. Ask the Jewish sociologists who’ve quantified it. Ask Anita Altman at the UJA-Federation who coordinates a task force on it. Ask the wives and children who’ve taken refuge at domestic violence shelters operated by Jewish communal groups. Ask the rabbis who’ve counseled those women and children.

Plague #5 Dever. CATTLE DISEASE — This affliction often strikes the young. It’s the disease of self-loathing that results when women are herded like cattle into a one-size-fits-all beauty ideal that totally distorts their healthy body image. Anorexia and bulimia are epidemics because the average American woman wears a size 12, while supermodels wear size zero. The fact that Jewish families buy into “fashion fascism” is a plague, or should I say, a shonde.

Plague #6: Sh’chin. BOILS — Boils are what women get when we’re sick to death of doing it all. When we work outside the home for pay, and inside the home for nothing, with little or no help from the other adult in the house. Boils are what we get when we come home after eight hours at the office, then make dinner, do a wash, give the kids baths, put them to bed, organize their play dates for the rest of the week and plan the next dinner party — and, when we’re too tired for sex, the other adult in the house gets miffed.

Plague #7: Barad. HAIL — A hailstorm of sexism pelts us from all directions: A boss hits on his secretary in the coffee room; rap lyrics call us whores; stand-up comics get laughs at our expense; talk radio hosts ridicule Hillary Clinton’s thighs. The hail that comes down in the Jewish world looks like this: After 20 of raising money for a Jewish organization, a woman is given a lunch, a man gets a testimonial dinner. Or, there’s a delegation of American Jews going to meet Nelson Mandela and all the Jews are men. Or, there’s a conference on “The Future of Jews in America” and all the speakers are men. Which reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon that shows a line-up of men sitting on a stage while the moderator says, “The subject of tonight’s discussion is, “Why are there no women on this panel.”

Plague #8 Arbeh. LOCUSTS — This one is painful to admit: Locusts are women who eat their own — women who compete with one another for male approval rather than compete in the world for rewards; women whose petty jealousies, back-biting, and hurtful gossip renders them disloyal to their sisters; women so addicted to being good girls that they become passively complicit in the face of misogyny, sexism and injustice.

Plague #9 Choshech. DARKNESS — There’s a dark hole where Jewish women’s history should be. The people of the book have too many blank pages because women’s voices have been largely unrecorded or silenced by the arbiters of what and who gets into the text. Half the Jewish people, its women, are mostly invisible. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Ruth, Naomi, and Esther. How many other biblical women can you name? Henrietta Szold, Emma Goldman, Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir. How many other “famous” Jewish women can you identify? How many can your children name? At the 35th annual Feminist Seder, which will be my fourth seder this year, two large kiddush cups will stand on the table — one for the prophet Elijah, and one for the prophet Miriam, Moses’ sister, who put him in the basket to save his life, and without whom there would not be a Jewish people.

Plague #10: Makat b’chorot. STRIKING THE FIRST BORN — The Pharoah condemned Hebrew boy babies to death, not Hebrew girls. And it was first born Egyptian males whom God ordered slain in the 10th plague. Neither ordinance makes much sense when you realize that females are the ones who grow up to reproduce. So why were girls spared? The reason is obvious. Both Pharoah and God targeted the gender each people valued most. Boys were valued, girls were not — a fact borne out in cultures all over the world. Son preference is still true, even now, even here. Studies show that most people want their first-born child to be a boy. And couples who’ve had two girls are more likely to try for a third child than couples who’ve had two boys. In short, son preference, male favoritism, is the 10th plague — the one from whence all the others stem.

This Pesach, how many seder tables will be presided over by a woman?


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