Monday, September 30, 2013

Whispering My Father's Kaddish

This was originally posted on The Sisterhood. Yup, that's Mayim Bialik's writing next to mine.

August 27, 2013. It was my second day of college, the last day of saying Kaddish for my dad. When I went to Shacharit at the Hillel, the chazzan asked me if I wanted to say the prayer on my own or along with a man. I did want to say it by myself; it would have been the first time that I had ever done so. On the other hand, I was scared to do it solo.

As a feminist, I wanted to say the Kaddish alone in order to assert my voice and show that I am a member of the community. Since I was the only person on the women’s side of the mechitzah, I didn’t feel like I was part of any community. I felt like an outsider, a spectator rather than an active participant in the prayers. This isolation and consequent fear and intimidation crippled me, making me terrified to raise my feminine voice and say Kaddish alone in front of a group of men. So I whispered my own father’s Kaddish while a man, someone who I don’t even know, said it out loud.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thoughts on My Freshman Convocation

Freshman convocation – when first year students are formally welcomed to their new university – is supposed to be an enjoyable event, a fond memory to reminisce over after years have passed. I did enjoy my convocation; however, there were aspects of it that bothered me immensely.

Originally, it was supposed to be held in an outside venue large enough for the entire class of 2017. Due to rain, it was relocated to two inside locations linked by simulcast. One was a regular theater. The other was a church. Because the students in my dorm were assigned to the church, which I could not enter due to religious reasons, I had to request to switch to the theater.

Of course I was accommodated and allowed to go to the theater with a different dorm, but the fact that I had to request such an accommodation is ridiculous. I am shocked and appalled that my college, a secular university, would use a church to house any sort of secular gathering. This was a mandatory, completely nonreligious event; there is absolutely no way the college can rationalize putting it in a house of worship.

Even if we want to forgive my college for locating convocation in a church, the inclusion of a reverend for delivering the invocation address is completely unacceptable. I am sure that it never crossed any of the decisionmakers’ minds to have a Hillel rabbi or any other on-campus religious leader speak. Why should a Christian preacher be given the honor, year after year, with no other clergymembers ever invited to speak? The content of his speech was completely secular, which I did appreciate, but I resented the fact that it was mandatory to sit and listen to a reverend speak.

The final straw was when a chorus got on stage and began to sing a Christian song that very clearly referred to Jesus. I am still horrified that my college allowed this choir to sing a song that is so clearly religious (read: Christian) at a secular event. It’s extremely offensive is to religious people who are non-Christians, as well as to people who don’t believe in the existence of God or don’t wish to give Him/Her/It a name. Being forced to sit in a church and listen to a reverend and gospel song? It’s unconscionable that the college administration not only allowed for this, but made it mandatory.

I always knew that America was a Christian country. I was just hoping to leave that behind during college, an institution that I thought was supposed to be a bastion of liberalism and beacon of tolerance.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Feminist's Criticism of the Miss America Pageant

When I Google Imaged "Miss America," the vast majority
 of photos that came up were of competitors in swimsuits.
I had to search for "Miss America logo" to find a suitable,
non-objectifying picture to accompany this post.
Last night, the winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant was crowned in Atlantic City. Although the competition’s viewership peaked in the 1960s, it is still extremely popular among Americans today. Movies like Miss Congeniality, television shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and the existence of Miss America make it very clear that beauty pageants are ubiquitous in our society.

Feminists’ disdain for beauty pageants became part of the historical record in the late 1960s, when one of the first major events of Second Wave Feminism was a protest of Miss America. Feminists picketed the pageant and threw articles of traditional femininity like bras and eyelash curlers into a large garbage can, crowning a sheep as Miss America. Although they did not actually burn any bras at this (or any other) event, it is commonly thought that throwing bras into the garbage can is the genesis of this myth.

Although I have yet to meet them, I know that some women who identify as feminists don’t believe that pageants like Miss America are inherently sexist, touting that they’re just scholarship programs that encourage girls to do community service and pursue an advanced education. A quick look at Miss America’s website shows that the pageant is trying very hard to sell this image of itself: every page bears the heading of “Miss America Scholarship Fund,” and has the motto “style, service, scholarship, and success.”

It’s undeniable that Miss America is, indeed, a scholarship program, since it does award its winners thousands of dollars for their education. However, it’s extremely misleading for Miss America to make it seem like women competing in the pageant are being evaluated and rewarded solely on their brains. When it was established in the 1920s, the pageant’s main event was the swimsuit competition. While feminist criticism compelled Miss America’s organizers to add talent and interview components, 35% of each competitor’s overall score is still determined by how she looks in a swimsuit and evening gown.

Personally, I call that objectification of women, and it’s just not acceptable in my book.

Throughout its history, Miss America has made it a priority to objectify straight, white, Christian women. The pageant has an extremely spotty history with race; when it was first established in the 1920s, non-white women were not allowed to enter. Prospective applicants actually had to fill out a biological questionnaire testifying to the purity of their ancestry. The pageant opened to women of color in the 1970s, but only eight African-Americans have won since. (Perhaps this is because of the fact that blondes win more often than women with other hair colors.) There has yet to be an openly LGBT+ woman to win the pageant, and only one Jew has ever won. Interestingly, women with disabilities have competed and even won Miss America.


I would love to compete in next year’s Miss America Pageant. I think it would be a lot of fun to get up on a stage and be judged by millions of viewers across the country for how I look. I would seriously think about entering, but I’m just too short. All the Miss America competitors are always pretty tall, and as someone who’s 4’11”, I just don’t have a shot at winning the title. It’s too bad. I’d love to get some more feedback on my physical appearance from complete strangers.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Granddaughter of Survivors

On September 8, youth across the US celebrated National Grandparents Day. Although I could not be with any of my grandparents on this day, I still recognize the contributions that they have made to the world and to my life.

My maternal grandmother’s name was Feige, and I have dedicated my blog l’ilui nishmata (to elevate her soul in Heaven). She was born to a wealthy family in Beregszasz, Hungary in 1921. Her mother, Ita, who I have also dedicated my blog to, ran an import-export business. This was highly unusual for a woman of that era, and certainly for an Orthodox woman. Her husband learned Torah and Talmud all day; a story has been passed down that he dodged serving in the military during World War I by hiding in the attic of the Satmar Rebbe and learning. As a child, my grandmother had a huge crush on a neighborhood boy eight years her senior. Although he was at first dubious of the little girl who kept running after him, the two were married in 1940.

Unfortunately, they were wedded on the eve of the Holocaust. My grandmother, her mother, and her three siblings were in Auschwitz together from winter 1944. Earlier, her father had escaped to cousins in Belgium in hopes that it would be safer there, trying to figure out how to bring the rest of the family over. It is assumed that he was identified as Jewish by his beard, which he refused to shave, and killed. In Auschwitz, Ita worked in the kitchens, sneaking scraps of food out to trade for cigarettes. The food had no other purpose for these women, as they refused to eat anything non-kosher. My grandmother worked in the office as a clerk. Although all five survived past Liberation, my grandmother’s brother died of starvation shortly afterwards. The rest of the family immigrated to America.

Although my grandmother only lost one sibling, my grandfather was not so fortunate: of the 11 children in his family, six were murdered. His father died when he was young, and his mother was killed in the camps. During the war, he was taken to the army and a work camp in 1941, and was periodically allowed back home. After Liberation, my grandparents were reunited in Beregszasz. While there, non-Jewish neighbors gave them photographs of their families that they had saved before the Nazis ransacked the photographer’s shop, which was nothing short of a miracle.

My grandparents waited in a Displaced Persons camp until 1949, when their sponsorship to America came through. They came to America on March 22, 1949 through the 23rd Street Pier in New York on the SS Admiral Muir. They brought nothing but the clothes on their backs. When they got off the boat, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) gave them a cooked chicken, which they ate sitting on the sidewalk.

To become citizens, my grandparents had to learn English and pass a test on US history. They both passed and stayed in America. At first, they lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My great-grandmother, unable to leave her business-oriented roots in Europe, owned a toy manufacturing company, and my grandmother would sew ears onto the teddy bears. My grandfather was a carpenter, and built storefronts for a living. He supported his wife and infant daughter very well until 1953, when he fell off a ladder and shattered the bones in his leg. Doctors said that he would never walk again, a terrifying possibility. However, this was a man who had survived the Holocaust; he would not let shattered bones stop him. Determined to get better, he was walking and working by 1954. They then bought a house and had my mother.

Seven short years after coming to America with no knowledge of its customs or language, my grandparents were upstanding members of society: homeowners, proud parents of two children, and members of the working class. A mere two generations later, their granddaughter is a student at an Ivy League university.

Their story has shown me that the human spirit is, indeed, indomitable. From my grandparents, I have learned that it doesn’t matter how bad I think my life gets. They went through a lot worse, and they didn't let it stop them; they rebuilt. Their dedication to God was tested in a way that I cannot even begin to imagine, and they still led Torah-observant lives. Although neither one of my maternal grandparents is in this world, they shall always inspire me to keep getting up and improving myself and the world.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Universal Preschool and Working Women

As the people who give birth, women have always been expected to take charge of childcare. However, since we now live in a society where women are also expected to be part of the workforce, this proves to be a huge difficulty that many working women face. Ever since Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s, activists have been trying to get the US government to pass legislation that would help working mothers with daycare. While most developed countries in the world have universal preschool or nationalized daycare, the US does not. This infographic is an excellent source of information about exactly why it's so important for feminists to continue to lobby Congress to pass a bill creating universal preschool.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Feminism and the Undergrad

I just started college this semester, and so far I’m loving it. Since my high school was very homogeneous and conservative, it’s a breath of fresh air to be in a tolerant, open, accepting, and diverse environment.

One thing that has struck me so far is that even though most of the kids who go to my college are relatively liberal and generally supportive of women’s rights, I’ve experienced a number of people who rebel against the term feminist and are surprisingly insensitive to sexual assault.

For example, I was sitting in my dorm room with some of my roommates, just talking. Somehow or another, my involvement in women’s rights advocacy came up, and one of my roommates said, “Oh, I’m not a feminist.” Of course, the first thing I did was try to make her realize otherwise (don’t you support equal pay for equal work? Oppose violence against women? And so on), and I think I did manage to at least make her think twice about what a feminist is. I guess I was expecting this sort of reaction, since I know how bad of a rep feminism has, but it was still a little disappointing to have to have this kind of conversation.

Another time when I was hanging out with a group of friends, the topic of women’s safety on campus arose. “Yeah, we had a speech about safety in high school, and they said that 1 in 4 college women and 1 in 15 college men are raped. When they said the statistic about guys, all my friends nudged me and said that I probably raped them,” one girl said jokingly. I was really taken aback by the vulgarity of the joke. Although I don’t know her that well, this girl seems nice enough, and I do like her. But making a joke like that was, at least to me, really gross. I strongly doubt that she would have thought a joke from the other perspective – a guy laughing about being the rapist for the 1 in 4 sexually assaulted women on campus – is funny. Why is there this double standard about rape against men? And why would a liberal undergrad not question such a double standard?

Yet another experience I had was this past Shabbat (Sabbath), when I was sitting in a friend’s room on Friday night. The girl, who knows that I want to major in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and am a dedicated feminist, mentioned the recent performance every first year student had to watch about consent and sex. “I don’t agree that we should automatically believe women who say they were raped, though,” my friend said, referring to a common refrain of the play. When I questioned her lack of sympathy and challenged her with the low statistics of women who lie about sexual assault, she still refused to consider my perspective. This made me really sad and upset. If someone who I respect as a friend and know is highly intelligent thinks this way, what do others think?

Overall, though, I’ve had a pretty positive experience as a feminist. Many of my peers are up for discussions about feminist theory and equal rights activism, and everyone I’ve encountered so far has been really supportive of me being a feminist. I just wish more were willing to label themselves with the word, and were more open-minded about sexual assault.