The other night, I was asked to join a Rosh Chodesh ("First of the Month") women's group for young, ex-pat women in Jerusalem. The woman who ran the group affiliates with the new "chic" trend in Judaism, which calls itself "Egalitarian Orthodoxy". Apparently, this is all of the rage amoung the self-identified religious-yet-progressive sorts in town...
Upon arriving at her home, I was immediately struck by the realization that I was perhaps the oldest "young woman" in the room, and one of three women who were unmarried. My stylish jeans, trendy flat shoes and modern, bohemian look stood out against the long, dowdy skirts, heavy head wraps and distinctively Orthodox style of the women around me. I silently noted the flashy wedding bands on girls who are at least a decade younger than me, some of whom are still in college. At 19, 20, and 21 years old, they already seemed so old to me. Most especially, their bodies struck me the most--big higs, ample breasts, bellies galore, healthy, round cheeks without a spot of makeup...all evidence of a lifetime of preparation for baby-making as soon as humanly possible. I looked down at my gym-inspired waistline and couldn't help but feel...oddly sexualized...and wholely...inadequate...
The discussion centered around the impending Passover holiday and the role that women conventionally play in this celebration. The biggest issue of the evening was the discussion of "green" cleaning techniques for washing one's Jewish home. The purpose of the cleaning is to empty the house of all chametz, otherwise known as bread, grains and leavened products to the layman. According to Jewish law, Jews may not own, eat or benefit from chametz during Passover. This law appears several times in the Bible. The punishment for eating chametz on Passover is karet ("spiritual excision").
For me, Passover is a good excuse for a hearty spring cleaning. Out with the old, in the new. The reason for the Passover holiday is to celebrate the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt. So for me, Passover is the time of year to liberate oneself from the things that enslave us. "It's a good time to make changes," one of my favorite Orthodox rabbis recently said. He adds that the chametz stuff is only one element of something far more symbolic. Accordingly, Passover is the time when the Universe is aligned in such a way as to allow us to break free of the habits that bind us. Like the Jews leaving Egypt, it is a time of intentionally entering a clear space of emptiness in order to open our minds to new ways of being.
Ok, cool, right? So, there I was, One Miss Namaste, the 31 year old grad student feminist in jeans, who was really only there for the free food and tea drinking. While I knoshed on delicious homemade treats and downed enough tea to provide several escape trips to the lavatory, my female counterparts discussed how they plan to clean their refridgerators with toothpicks and toothbrushes. One worried that the products in her medication are not kosher for Passover, and another one worried about her mother-in-law's scrutiny. Inwardly, I wondered if perhaps I am the one missing the point? Would my point of view change if I put on one of their skirts, decided to forego the gym, and got down the business of this brand of womanhood? Would any of this work for me?
The answer, of course, is no. It won't work for me. But it did occur to me that what will work is paying some attention to the systems of thought that enslave me, personally. Clearly, one of these systems is comparing myself to women who come from a certain ontology that will never be a place of comfort for me. Sure, we may have similar value systems in terms of family and life overall, but I will no sooner be struck dead than to think that cleaning my refridgerator with a toothpick will spare me from the wrath of G-d. I refuse to be enslaved by a toothpick, far worse because I happen to be a woman. At the same time, am I a slave to my own developed sense of fashion for the sake of it? Am I a slave to the gym, perhaps? Am I enslaved by a way of thinking that I may actually have a choice and the need for a room of one's own?
But damn, did I mention that those cookies were good?