prosthesis resident at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab
prosthesis resident at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab
I could technically make a separate blog for whenever I wanted to discuss bigger, more controversial issues. But in keeping all these different kinds of topics together, I hope this blog starts to feel sort of like a friendship. Sometimes you disagree with one another or have to talk about the deeper, more uncomfortable stuff, but by the next day you’re already going to get ice cream to relax and talk about your day.
I hope that, in some way, it’s felt a bit like that for you.
Throughout my time during and after college (and grad school), I had the opportunity to volunteer, intern, and work for many different Jewish organizations, several of which were aimed at building bridges between disparate Jewish communities. My favorite place I interned was at the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Tel Aviv for a summer. Israel is well known for its extremely tense relations between secular and Haredi (Israel’s ultra-Orthodox) communities. I was more or less secular at that time in my life, but I saw how everyone at the SACC was treated with a sense of respect and friendship. Their newly renovated and wonderful air conditioned building also happened to be across from two amazing cafés. Every morning I would take the bus, pick up a cafe afouch (“upside down coffee”), and work up to a full day even though my program only required I volunteer four hours. It was just that great of a place.
About three years later, I interned for a short time at a non-profit in the U.S. after having become religious. After several long conversations with the director – who was in charge of offering culturally sensitive programs and services as well as an olive branch to the local Orthodox community – it became clear that the director did not have a very positive opinion of the religious community or its leadership. By the end of my time there, I kept many thoughts to myself and regretted it. It motivated me to keep trying to understand what’s really going on between our communities.
From what I’ve seen so far, what typically happens when secular leadership reaches out to the Orthodox community is usually one of two things (or sometimes they can both occur almost simultaneously). One possibility is that the religious community is given an opportunity to shine a light and explain our culture to mainstream society. Orthodox leadership and lay people are given the chance to respond to challenging questions and share their perspective. One example was during a panel discussion I attended at the Jewish Federation’s 2011 General Assembly that gave Haredi leadership the chance to answer tough questions from a secular crowd about anything from army service and employment, to their cultural insularity. Another great example was when Oprah Winfrey went with an open mind to the Chabad community of Crown Heights, New York in 2012 to check out the misunderstood lives of religious Jews there. These are often seen as rare opportunities to show ourselves in a new – and better – light.
The other possibility is for secular leadership to step in and intervene with a religious community to either delicately encourage, push, or – in extreme cases – force the community to change. This type of call-to-action can occur in the media when the community is accused of wrongdoing, it can be brought up by politicians and activists, or it can happen when a non-profit intervenes in a social issue. An organization may work closely – and respectfully – with a religious community to introduce modern social services for religious men and women, for example, but the behind the scenes frustration with molasses-paced change or resistance to change, motivates the organization to stay as involved and as focused as possible.
While the former "Oprah" kind of interactions are often seen as a positive opportunity for religious communities to explain their perspective, I believe that these exchanges are incomplete and even unfair because the dialogues are not happening on equal footing. The underlying message is that Orthodox Jewish communities must explain itself to society to the best of their abilities, with no guarantee that it won't end in harsh judgment or a push for the community to change itself.
I can tell you personally – as I’m sure we all can – that it is almost impossible for me to build a deep connection with a friend that I constantly have to prove or defend myself to. She may see me at my “best” (after I shower, put on makeup, give myself a pep talk, etc.) but I would never want to feel vulnerable, or trust her with the parts of my life where I feel I could use help and support. When she sees me at my worst, I feel that she didn't expected much for me anyway, and I would be wary of any advice she tried to offer.
Without laying the right foundation for a better, more real and vulnerable dialogue, our inter-community relations will remain stuck in this viscous cycle of defensive back-and-forths and
I can tell you personally – as I’m sure we all can – that it is almost impossible for me to build a deep connection with a friend that I constantly have to prove or defend myself to. She may see me at my “best” (after I shower, put on makeup, give myself a pep talk, etc.) but I would never want to feel vulnerable with her, or trust her with the parts of my life where I feel I could use help and support. When she sees me at my worst, I feel that she didn't expected much for me anyway, and I would feel wary of any advice she tried to offer.
Without laying the right foundation for a better, more real and vulnerable dialogue, our inter-community relations will remain stuck in this viscous cycle of defensive back-and-forths and extremely tenuous trust.
For the past few weeks, we’ve talked a bit about feminism, Judaism, and the question of sexism. My hope was that by responding to (rather than answering) the question “Isn’t Judaism Sexist?” we could take a fresh look at the conversation about religion and women. I loved reading the questions and comments you guys had on social media and on the blog and I truly appreciate your engagement!
Today and in future posts, I'd love to take the conversation a bit further and talk about how the current cultural debate on women’s empowerment, happiness, and self-fulfillment has not only caused tension between communities, but has placed an enormous burden on individual women to prove their happiness and level of empowerment to others. Last week I wrote a bit about the scrutiny and questions I face as a religion woman, but I don’t think I’m alone in grappling with what it means to prove yourself as an empowered, successful woman today.
What does a happy and empowered woman look like? Every woman and every community has been called upon to answer. Every group, from the most religious to the most radically liberal communities, feels a certain pressure today to prove that they indeed have the happiest, most truly “liberated” women. There is now an expectation for each woman to show that she is indeed empowered and productive in the culture and community she lives in. But this cultural race to find or become the most empowered woman does not come without consequence. By taking a step back for a moment we can see what this all implies – that “unhappy” women threaten the image and legitimacy of a community, group, or society.
The pressure that staunchly feminist women, orthodox Jewish women, Mormon women, Muslim women, liberal/democratic women, or republican women feel to “not let their community down” is both overwhelming and unsustainable. Depression, anxiety, “excessive” struggle, and an “inability” to cope with our societal expectations for perfection has become the ultimate source of shame for many. I don’t believe that we are doing this maliciously, nor do I believe we intended for women to be pitted against one another. But it will be important to take a look at the consequences of this cultural debate and to discuss how we can potentially let go of our defensiveness and ease the burden on women.
Last week, I had a fun time giving you guys a peak into the chaos that is my day-to-day life. On any given day, I feel everything from joy and comfort (visiting family and catching up on life), to serious frustration (forgetting diapers at home) to loneliness or boredom (going to the doctor at times feels like a social outing). These are the moments that fill up a day and make up a life. We all want to approach these feelings and activities in a way that bridges our everyday challenges to a life of purpose and fulfillment. Sometimes that wonderful trip over the bridge is effortless and flower-filled, while other times that same bridge has an obnoxious troll on it asking us questions and making us jump hurdles to prevent us from progress.
Trying to stay thoughtful and honest about those hurdles – the ones we all experience but sometimes never talk about – is the tall mission of the “Think” section of Lipstick & Brisket. We’ll talk about the various opportunities and challenges that we all confront and contemplate, as well as our bigger-picture goals – anything from trying to define our hopes and dreams to discussing our morals and beliefs. These ideas will of course change and develop throughout our lives, but they will also help to give us direction, establish boundaries, and bring a sense of community and meaning to the things that can often feel monotonous and difficult in daily life.
As a religious Jewish woman, I definitely have a prescribed framework for how I think about and live my life. But there is a lot of gray area, much I have to decide on my own, and a lot of room for discussion. L & B is the space I wanted to create to talk about more complicated topics with those who want to talk about them too – anything from honestly discussing the difficult work/life balance women face, to addressing the apparent tensions between religious and progressive communities that both make the headlines and hit a personal nerve for many, to thinking about issues surrounding social media and privacy. For today, I wanted to start out with some food-for-thought to get us in the zone for those future conversations we’ll be having together.
As I mentioned before, our day-to-day schedules are influenced by those life philosophies we believe in, even if it doesn’t always seem obvious. The responsibilities and the expectations we give and set for ourselves are directly linked to our beliefs about what it means to live an accomplished life, and, more specifically, what we believe it means to be an accomplished woman. How do we express ourselves in our lives, at our workplaces, in our relationships and in our homes without succumbing to crippling definitions of success? This is not just a personal question, but a social one. What does it mean on a communal level if we each individually define fulfillment as a quest for the unattainable? For perfection?
I wanted to leave you all to think about this question with a thought and a quote from my favorite book Wonder Women, written by the dean of Barnard, Deborah Spar. In the book (which I highly recommend), Spar both uncovers and confesses herself what women really want and what society (and even at times our loved ones) tells us – that we can “have it all”. We can be everything: Perfectly patient mothers, successful careerists, wonderfully loving and supportive wives, and constantly available community members. If we try hard enough, we can do this all effortlessly, with a put-together home and beautiful shoes to top it off. Spar discusses how this ambitious image was epitomized so well by the “Charlie girl” perfume commercial of the 70s. The Charlie girl was a woman who seemed like she was flying through everything in life with a pearly-white smile – similar to the Super Woman character of my first blog post. But finally, Spar comes to a conclusion she never imagined possible…
“Charlie was dead. Even worse, we realized at last that Charlie had never lived—that there was never a woman—a real woman, at least—who balanced her life and her loves and her job and her children with the panache that women of my generation believed would come naturally…In the end, of course, the myth of Charlie was just that: one silly commercial, capturing a particularly far-flung fantasy. It wasn’t true, and never was. But it left an indelible mark nevertheless on millions of women and girls, convincing us, seducing us with a dream of feminine perfection. We really thought we could have it all, and when reality proved otherwise we blamed—not the media, as it turned out…We blamed ourselves.”
By striving to do everything extremely well, we end up stretching ourselves so thin that we can hardly derive any joy from our experiences and feel like we've failed. The good news is that it’s not too late to let go of the “Charlie girl” dream, and to think about what we actually want to achieve in real life – and that’s where we’ll pick up next time.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.