Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminismby Danya Ruttenberg
Thanks in large part to the struggles of their activist foremothers, today’s young Jewish women have a dizzying array of spiritual options. Yentl’s Revenge chronicles a range of experiences lived by an entire generation of women, from Judeo-pagan witches to young Orthodox mothers, from rabbis to sex educators. Contributors ponder Jewish transgenderdom,… See more details below
Thanks in large part to the struggles of their activist foremothers, today’s young Jewish women have a dizzying array of spiritual options. Yentl’s Revenge chronicles a range of experiences lived by an entire generation of women, from Judeo-pagan witches to young Orthodox mothers, from rabbis to sex educators. Contributors ponder Jewish transgenderdom, Jewish body image, Jewish punk, the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess, intermarriage, circumcision, faith, and intolerance. Essays include “Bubbe Got Back: Tales of a Jewish Caboose” by Ophira Edut, and “On Being a Jewish Feminist Valley Girl” by Tobin Belzer.
Read an Excerpt
The Nice Jewish Boy
A. C. Hall
Naturally, I rebelled.
Naturally, I blame my parents for the need to. Even though they sent me to Hebrew school for bat mitzvah training and to a fairly observant summer camp, at home being Jewish meant you occasionally lit Hanukah candles. Oh, yesand dated (and by extension, married) nice Jewish boys.
And which Jewish boys would those be? The small town I grew up in had six Jews in the public school system. I was related to three of them.
Besides, I wasn't going to be a Wife. Wives were ladies who applied orange lipstick in the rearview mirror while driving. When I grew up, I promised myself, I wouldn't own a car. I wouldn't wear lipstick. I certainly wouldn't marry. Wives were fools who let their husbands dick around, who had no power because their husbands made all the money.
My first boyfriend was black. We lasted about a week. The first guy I seduced, a different guy, was also black. That lasted forty-two minutes. Then came the nebulous string of working-class ex-Catholics who smoked a lot. Most of them were anti-Semitic. Then came seven years of celibacy, during which I worked on the family-of-origin issues that led me to seek out that kind of man in the first place. All very mid-'80s, but productive nonetheless. By the end of it, I understood it was my family's attitude toward Judaism, not Judaism itself, that repelled me. Lo and behold, I became interested in leading a more Jewish life.
I moved to Seattle and found myself involved with, in no particular order, a congregation with a female rabbi, a Rosh Chodesh (new moon) group, and a havurah (community) where the tresses were longer on the guys than the gals but amounts of body hair were equal. I pierced my nose and decided I wanted to be with a woman. Terribly early '90s. Imagine my surprise, then, come 1996, when I fell in love with Cliff.
Everything about us was so "normal" it was galling. We met through a friend. On the Fourth of July, for God's sake. He was a nice-looking, intelligent fellow who favored button-down shirts. With stripes. He said he liked the Mets. I was relatively sure that meant baseball. He appeared pleased when I suggested we split the bill for our first dinner together. None of the "But I asked you out" (which he hadn't; we'd kind of asked each other out) that categorized the painful ends to dates I had been going on since I realized I wanted to be with a man. With Cliff, there was no drama, no trauma.
"He's the kind of guy your grandma would want you to go out with," I mused to a friend a few months into it.
As our relationship deepened, I began to admitto no one but myselfthat in addition to some very real political objections to marriage, I held an equally firm belief that it wasn't going to happen for me. Relationships, marriage, normal stuffother girls got those things.
Not that I thought he wouldoh, no, not mebut if he were to propose, I had Cliff pegged as the small-velvet-box-slipped-across-the-table-of-a-fancy-restaurant kind of guy. A vacation to Bali came and went. My birthday came and went.
Waiter at Fancy Restaurant: Will there be anything else?
Cliff: Just the check, thanks.
I complained to my friend Gary.
Gary: Is Cliff a romantic guy?
Gary: He's got this all planned out. Just let him do it. Besides, it's the last decision he gets to make.
My therapist agreed. "Just let him do it," she told me.
I let him do it. Over Memorial Day weekend, Cliff took the stage during the Big Jewish Show at Seattle's annual Folklife Festival. In front of an audience of six hundred, he asked if I was in the house, went down on one knee and did it.
I have never told anyone this: I almost said no.
Never mind my three months of angst-ridden control fits leading up to "Will you marry me?" If we hadn't been on stage in front of six hundred people, I might have said, "Let me think about it." Instead, I said yes.
We embarked on a torturous year of wedding planning, which kicked off with six months of procrastination. Eventually, I got sucked into tense debates over china patterns and wedding colors. I discovered the fun of playing with makeup. I started wearing lipstick. I read the wedding issue of Martha Stewart Living.
I found it helpful.
I was doing some numbing. Like having a glass of wine before a difficult family gathering. I wasn't getting plastered; I was getting through it. Maybe that's why people make such a fuss over the bridethey understand that if they rivet a bride's attention to the ring, the dress, the goal of the perfect day, she will overlook the fact that she is signing up for life. And if, like me, the bride comes from a long line of screwups in the "for life" department, if she harbors fears that she might lack the strength to be anything other than that which begat her, it becomes a fuck of a lot more pleasant for her to focus on flower arrangements.
My impulse was to call it off until I matured. But, wishing to wed before my Social Security kicked in, I breathed deeply and redirected my attention from the wedding stuff to the marriage ceremony.
Step one: Find a rabbi. As a general rule, Cliff and I disagreed about most things Jewish. But I wanted a rabbi, and so did he. Cliff had a typical Manhattan Jew's ability to align culturally and participate in services without demonstrating one teaspoon of religious inclination. I, on the other hand, thrived on spiritual connection, but derived it primarily from Jewish community. Formal services left me brain-dead. I adored ritual, howeveras long as it wasn't too much ritual and those elements chosen were meaningful. Having come late to Jewish practice, I didn't bring to it a great deal of "you're supposed to."
We checked out several rabbis who completely wigged us out. Was it their mainstream level of observance or simply the fact that we were looking for a rabbi to marry us? Regardless, we finally happened upon Fern Feldman, a Jewish educator in the process of receiving rabbinic ordination through Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Cliff really liked Fern's gentle demeanor. I saw in her face that she understood when I said, "I don't mind having a wedding, but I don't want to be the cherry on top."
Step two: Come up with a ceremony. Fern outlined the traditional Jewish ritual. Naturally, I rebelled.
"What's this walking-around-him-seven-times business?"
Fern conceded that, yes, the bride circling the groom seven times did have something to do with marking territory. But, she pointed out, you could also look at it as weaving him in circles of protection. "Or," she said, "you could focus on one of the seven spherot during each circle, with the intention of bringing that energy into your marriage."
"Fern, no matter how you slice it, in the end, I'm gonna feel like lifting my leg and peeing."
We agreed I would circle Cliff three times, he would circle me three times, and we would join hands for a final, subdued do-si-do.
The remainder of the ritual presented no ideological controversies: blessing the first cup of wine, exchanging rings, reading the ketubah (wedding contract), reading the sheva brachot (seven blessings), the second cup of wine, breaking the glass, the yichud. Back when we Jews wandered, upon concluding the ceremony, the groom immediately took his bride to his tent for a little nudge-nudge-wink-wink. For the sake of my dress, we would forgo that dement of our culture. But we would indulge in a yichud, secluding ourselves for the first fifteen minutes of our married life.
I was relieved to discover the number of wedding dictums that were not a part of the Jewish rite. Bridesmaids? Not Jewish. Traditionally, Jews have chuppah holders. Thank goodness. The only thing worse than forcing four of my friends into buying expensive, horribly unflattering pink gowns with poofy sleeves would be choosing among them for the honor. Saying "I do"? Not Jewish. Traditionally, Jews read their wedding contract. "I do" snuck in as a result of living in a predominantly Christian culture.
Cliff and I were a little sad. We wanted to say "love, honor and snuggle." But, ya know: not Jewish.
We still had to come up with a ketubah. We were blessed that our friend, Yael Yanich, was a gifted artist with a great deal of Jewish knowledge. We commissioned her to create the marriage contract. Fern knew of a text that was both egalitarian and in accordance with Jewish law. The text was Aramaic (a language that is similar to but predates Hebrew). Yael laid out the words as a square, then surrounded them with imagery from the Song of Songs: stars, lilies, pomegranates, grapes and deer.
I asked, "What's with the Bambis at the bottom?"
"`Your breasts are like two fawns,'" Yael quoted, gesturing evocatively.
Above the Bambis was an empty space for the English translation of the Aramaic. The literal translation talked about Cliff giving me the shirt off his back and other oddities, so he and I agreed to write a personally meaningful interpretation of the literal translation. My first attempt was fairly boilerplate. "In accordance with the ritual of Moses and Israel ... we pledge to dedicate ourselves to each other as lovers, friends and partners ... to establish a Jewish home ..." and more along those lines.
Cliff read it. He looked disappointed. "It's a little ... impersonal."
"What about this part: `To support each other in becoming who we are yet to be and to retain a sense of humor as we change and life changes.' That's personal!"
A slight tiff. I left him at my computer for a while. When I came back, the den was dark except for the small, yellow lamp lit on my desk. The computer screen glowed from between the cavernous stacks of wedding-related paperwork. Here's what he had written:
We promise to dedicate ourselves to each other as lovers, friends and partners; to share hopes, dreams, insights and fears; and to maintain an unyielding commitment to trust and intimacy. We pledge to support each other in becoming who we are yet to be and to retain a sense of humor as we change and life changes; to love each other deeply without losing sight of our individual selves; and to remain continually aware that our time together is precious. In so doing, we shall establish a Jewish home that reflects the best elements of our heritage, including a love of learning, the bonds of community and the spirits of generosity, compassion and activism. We also shall endeavor to spice our union with acts of spontaneity, wit and love that may not always be comprehensible to those unfamiliar with our ways. Let no day pass without time for us to reflect upon these promises to ourselves and to our community.
Even today, I cannot read our ketubah without melting into very girlish tears. The tears, perhaps, of a scared child who saw hurt called love and therefore refused to risk loving, who, as a still-scared woman, was realizing she was now very, very loved.
One huge project remained: making our chuppah. I had drawn great strength from the line in Marge Piercy's poem "The Chuppah" that reads, "It is not a coffin / It is not a dead end / Therefore the chuppah has no walls."
Me: I have an idea for our chuppah.
Cliff (not taking eves off TV): Can't we just borrow some white thing?
Me: Never mind. I'll take care of it. Did you finalize the invitation list yet?
Cliff (burrowing into couch): After the game.
I had two colors in mind: blue for Israel and purple, a color often associated with the Goddess, not necessarily in that order. I, however, have close to zero artistic ability, so I co-opted the formidable talents of my Rosh Chodesh group. I invited them, their partners and their children to a painting party hosted by resident artist Yael. Cliff got caught up in all the excitement. "Aren't any of my friends invited? It's my chuppah, too."
We ended up with thirty-one folks, including the young'uns. We wanted uniformity in size and color, but within that, room for personal expression. Yael passed out squares of white cotton and paints and stepped nobly into the role of art teacher. When the paint dried, friends batiked every design with wax, dyed each square a rich sky blue, arranged them among strips of purple fabric and quilted the whole shebang. The end result was a huge, soft canopy, strangely similar to a Chagall window. I was increasingly eager to stand under it. I had no idea at the time, but my remaining hesitancy would be washed away by a mikveh.
I had taken the ritual bath once before, with my Rosh Chodesh group. In a hot tub. Our concession to halakha was a tiny vial of rainwater poured into the jet-made bubbles. Not one of our twelve-woman crew believed our periods made us impure and therefore in need of cleansing to ready us for sex again. We did it partly to explore and partly to have fun. I hadn't given much thought as to why I wanted a wedding mikvehtraditionally the first time a woman takes the dipwhen I had no intention of pursuing the practice in my married life. I only knew I wanted one.
I invited all the women in Cliff's family, along with the important women from my past and present: fifteen in all. In preparation, I mailed out cassette tapes onto which I recorded some of the songs and niggunim (melodies) my Rosh Chodesh group enjoyed each month. I took the opportunity to explain my vision for the procedure. After all, I was going to get naked. I didn't want to traumatize a new in-law the morning of the wedding.
At 8:00 in the appointed A.M., we car-caravaned to the one mikveh in town, at Ashkenazi Bikur Cholim synagogue. My preconceived idea of a mikveh included inlaid gold tiles and billowing puffs of steam. My wildest fantasies included melting chocolate. The reality of the mikveh at this synagogue was framed mall prints for the walls. If a dentist's office had a mikveh, it would look like this.
Disappointed but still game, I allowed the mikveh lady to show me around: a waiting room, an extremely normal bathroom with a pink-curtained shower/tub, the mikveh itself. The walls were tiled gray-blue. Morning light filtered in from windows set close to the high ceiling. A narrow landing led from the bathroom to three short steps descending into the still-empty tub. The mikveh lady twisted her large faucets. I returned to the jammed waiting room, where my buddy, Risa, was perched in lotus position on the floor in the middle of the group. With her loopy brown curls topped by an Indian cap that served her as a kippah, Risa looked like a graphic out of The Santa Cruz Haggadah.
Risa was explaining why she and her husband tried to follow halakha related to sex and her period. This meant sharing with my future in-laws certain savory details. I sidled close to her and hissed, "Risa-baby, you were supposed to be practicing the songs."
I suggested we cut to the chase. Our cumbersome group squeezed as best we could into the extremely normal bathroom. Risa-baby started us on "Hine Matov." I stripped, hopped in the shower and hopped out. Risa checked under my fingernails to make sure I was mikveh-clean, and I moved through the clothed crowd to the narrow landing. Still singing, the rest bunched in after me. The ten-by-ten tub was now full. Mist drifted up from the steaming water.
I took the steps slowly and moved to the center of the bath, where I gestured for the singing to stop. It was very still. I smiled up at them and chanted the shehechianu, the prayer for something new, which I translate as: "Thank you, Whatever You Are that is in charge of all this, for bringing me to the beauty of this moment." Then, as Jewish women have done for thousands of years, I let myself go.
The water was so warm. Three times, I made sure to float freely before standing and sinking again. Three times, I curled into a ball and went deeper into a tight spot in my heart. The third time, I felt it open.
I almost wept. I shivered and pulled back. I still wonder what I would have experienced had I been brave enough to go further.
I stood and recited the blessing for the mikveh. Then I ascended the steps and made my wet, naked way back to my robe.
Still quiet, we retired to the bathroom, which now seemed the perfect launching pad for a spiritual experience. I hugged each woman, thanked her for attending and accepted her blessings. I was still unsure what I had expected from the mikveh, but knew I had gotten it. I understood I had taken a mikveh to draw from an element of my heritage that supported who I am, as opposed to participating in a custom that was simply still around.
To them, I simply said, "Ladies, let's get me married."
The final transition into marriage began with removing my engagement ring.
We had bought them in Bali: one for him, one for me, silver and carnelian, which we found out later invokes fertility. Oy. Cliff chose a broad silver band with a single blood-red stone. Mine had a smooth slab of carnelian all the way around, plus several decorative knobs of it for the ring's highlight. A solid ring. It created a pressure I had grown accustomed to during the year we were engaged. As I dressed for my wedding, I transferred the engagement ring from my left hand to my right. The absence left a vacuum, ready to be filled.
I can't tell you the number of friends who told me their weddings were a beautiful blur. Except Risa-baby, who likened hers to an acid trip without the acid. I remember every moment of the ceremony we so carefully fashioned. I remember standing behind Cliff and his father as we waited for our cue, the traditional wedding song, "Do Di Li." I remember their backs. Slender, upright, the midnight of their jackets hanging from identical, dignified sets of shoulders. They held hands.
A part of me wished the photographer would capture what I was seeing. Another part was glad it belonged to me alone.
I remember walking to the chuppah our community had made. I remember the rain starting. I remember circling. The audience sang as we had told them: "Body to body, soul to soul, mind to mind, and destiny to destiny." Fern had suggested the four-note chant as a way to generate energy during the circling. I remember working hard to maintain eye contact with Cliff. Seven circles take a long time. I remember Cliff mouthing, "Slow down," like the inevitable onstage directions that occur during grade-school drama productions. I remember smiling in return. I remember individual faces beaming from the rows of folding chairs, umbrellas going up, raincoats held over heads. I remember thinking it was going too fast.
Mostly, I remember the light. Our chuppah was backed in white. Translucent light bathed us through the Chagall blue and purplethe love of our community. Perhaps it was a bit of the great light we are told about in Kabbalah: The Creator, in making the world, put fresh, new light into vessels. But the light was so strong, so beautiful, it shattered the vessels, trickling down and down until it reached this world, where it formed plants and animals, people and things.
Under our chuppah, I witnessed that glow, and the luminescence that the Baal Shem Tov described as rising from each human being and reaching straight to heaven: "When two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together and a single, brighter light goes forth from their united being."
* * *
A year and a half later, I am an Old Married Lady. I suffer no illusions that an egalitarian ceremony means we pass Go and collect our egalitarian union. A healthy marriage is something we work on every day. But coming to marriage through a ritual that upheld who I amwho we arehelped. Similarly, the overwhelming task of planning a wedding was made easier coming out of a loving, supportive, utterly goofy partnership. I remain grateful that my necessary rebellion didn't result in throwing out the Nice Jewish Boy with the mikveh water.
If I have a daughter, I hope she rebelsat least enough to determine which elements of her culture and her family resonate with her view of herself. I hope Judaism ends up in there. If it doesn't, I will try not to kvetch.
I am becoming more facile with the word "husband." I still don't own a car. But the other day, I noticed my lipstick didn't flatter the way I thought it had in the light of my bathroom that morning. I made a pit stop in a department store and picked up a new tube.
It is orange.
Excerpted from Yentl's Revenge by . Copyright © 2001 by Danya Ruttenberg. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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