Sisterhood Blog

In Israel, Jewish and Feminist Selves Do Battle

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

  • Print
  • Share Share

This is the ninth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

The first time I entered an Orthodox synagogue and saw a mehitza, or divider separating men and women in prayer, I was a little girl visiting my grandparents in Queens. Their home wasn’t religiously observant in the slightest, but my grandfather had grown up in an Orthodox family, and so the synagogue he attended — when he attended — was Orthodox.

I was only eight or nine years old when I first saw the mechitza but I clearly remembered being shocked at the sight of women relegated to the back of a house of worship, behind a partition. It was utterly alien to everything I knew a synagogue to be.

In the small WASP-y New England suburb where I lived until I left for college, the small Reform synagogue, known as “The Temple” with about 100 families, was the only game in town. Men and women sat together, some men with kippot, others without, as our young rabbi picked up his guitar before services and sang the tunes. Women were not only equal, they dominated synagogue life, some serving as president of the synagogues, making sure the Hebrew school and youth groups functioned smoothly.

For me, growing up, feminist Judaism was the norm. It was Judaism.

It was only as a college student on my junior year in Israel and later in graduate school in New York City that I was truly exposed to Orthodoxy. I learned much more in my first job as a Jewish journalist, covering the workings of the Jewish world for the JTA, and still more after I married a man from an Orthodox family in Jerusalem.

My feminism and my Judaism were never at conflict, but all around me, I see them do battle. Since moving to Israel nearly 20 years ago, I’ve collected countless Orthodox female friends and acquaintances along the way; I have watched many friends struggle to reconcile the warm and familiar Orthodox world they call home with the principles of women’s equality.

I applaud their victories. I cheer on the creation of egalitarian Orthodox synagogues and partnership minyans, I watched with pride as my Orthodox niece read from the Torah at her Orthodox egalitarian bat mitzvah and as my sister-in-law weep as she was called to the Torah for the first time. Sometimes, I quietly think to myself that they are tilting at windmills, and don’t understand why it is so important to stay in the Orthodox ‘camp’ instead of entering the open arms of other streams of Judaism. But I respect their choice.

Living in Israel pulls one towards the extremes. I’ve been challenged by the troubling developments in Israel regarding the exclusion of women — events that I’ve written about in The Sisterhood: the trend toward gender segregation on buses and public spaces in Haredi neighborhoods, the controversy over women’s singing, and the harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh, the obsession with excessive modesty rules.

The more these extreme circles subjugate women, the greater the temptation to join many of my secular Israeli friends in seeing all religion as the feminist’s enemy.

These women rolled their eyes skywards when I insisted that my daughter read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah — to them, religion means Orthodoxy, the Orthodox subjugate women, and so women’s struggle for inclusion in Jewish ritual life is pointless. They’ve ceded that ground entirely: which is why causes like the Women of the Wall have failed to catch fire among Israeli women.

For me, it is hard work to hang on to the purity of my identity in New England as I was growing up, when full participation in Judaism and being female presented no contradiction or conflict. But I am determined to stay in touch with that particular inner child. If I can do this for myself, hopefully I can inspire my daughters, and other women, in spite of all the challenges they face in Israel, to do the same.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: New England, Jewish Feminism Series, Israel, Feminism

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.