On February 8, B’nai Jeshurun will hold a day of learning to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Judith Plaskow’s groundbreaking book, “Standing Again at Sinai.” In the lead up to the event, The Sisterhood is asking participants pressing questions on gender and Judaism. Here Forward columnist Elissa Strauss talks about connecting to the Talmud for the first time.
Is there a specific moment when you realized gender matters to you as a Jew?
I’m thrilled to be able to say this happened at a good moment, rather than a bad one, and was a surprise. It was when I was studying Talmud for the first time as a not particularly religious, cohabiting (read: unmarried and sexually active) woman and felt like it was mine to wrestle with and be inspired by. This was in my first year as a fellow at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, a Jewish house of study for culture-makers at the 14th Street Y. I now co-direct the place so, needless to say, I fell in love with these texts and feel so grateful for all who came before me that challenged the idea that only one type of person could study these texts in one kind of context.
On the recent episode of Lexicon Valley, a podcast on Slate about “the mysteries of English,” podcaster and NPR On the Media host Bob Garfield caused quite the controversy when he took on what he finds to be an incredibly irritating verbal tic among young women.
“It’s almost exclusively among women and young women at that.” … “At some point, as they utter a sentence or phrase, somewhere between half way and the very end of the phrase, something happens to their voice as if they have a catch in their throat.”
This “catch in their throat” is know as vocal fry, and sounds kind of like a quick “ur’ mid-syllable. He goes on to call this obnoxious, vulgar and annoying.
These words, said with the typical steady, knowing lilt of a NPR host, did not go over well among women, including myself, who has often felt shame while doing what I think of as talking while Jewess.
Last month, The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss wrote post called “In Magazine Journalism, It’s Nowhere Near the End of Men,” using her own survey of magazines to show that male bylines still win out in terms of sheer numbers. And now there’s some serious research to back up her personal accounting. These numbers from VIDA, an organization that promotes women in literary arts, show that in essentially every single literary magazine, book review section or literarily inclined magazine, male bylines considerably trump female ones, as do reviews of books by men.
There’s been lots of excellent discussion of this on the Internet. Laura Miller essentially said that the problem is a matter of male readers not taking female writers seriously. Meanwhile Ruth Franklin of The New Republic crunched some more data to find that there are fewer books being published by women than by men. Even worse, publishing is an industry dominated by women. A friend of mine who works in the industry says she’s been banging her head against the wall all week in the face of these numbers.
So what gives?
The title of Elissa Strauss’ essay in the Forward, “Embracing My Inner Balebuste,” caught my eye. Perhaps it’s a reflection of what I assume are a few years of difference in our age that I find the term “balebuste” loaded with provocative associations and Elissa can embrace the title with pride. On the other hand, maybe it simply reflects what housework meant in our respective homes, growing up.
My mother didn’t know much Yiddish, but she would have cringed at being called a balebuste, as do I except on those occasions when it’s applied with affectionate irony.