Guest Blog: : “What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?”

What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?On March 25th, Elana Sztokman posted a question on her Facebook page that asked:  “What would our holidays look like without assumptions of female servitude?” The essay she posted as a follow-up to that question was so intriguing that I asked her permission to reprint it here.


by Elena Sztokman This morning, I asked a Passover question on my page: What would our cultural celebrations look like without the assumptions of female servitude.

The thread included some honest answers about women’s exhaustion and about the OCD-inducing minutia of some of our less meaningful rituals. It also included, predictably, some men insisting that there is no inequality in their lives because they are amazing partners.

I wasn’t on my computer at all today because I was, predictably, preparing for passover for much of the day (along with my husband, who works as hard as I do, and that’s not the point….) So I didn’t get to engage in the conversation or explain what I meant. But I just now wrote a comment to elaborate, and I thought maybe it’s worth sharing here:

My point was not to hear about all the men who help out, as nice as that may be (even though for the record, I do NOT necessarily trust husbands’ self-reports on how great they are to their wives. I believe it when I hear it from the wives….) Anyway, my point was not for people here to deny the role of female servitude in our cultural heritage, because that’s just gaslighting. (If you have never felt or experienced the impact of patriarchal structures in your life, consider yourself lucky.) Rather, I’m suggesting that we think about the effect of these expectations on the way our culture evolved. Because I would like us to rethink the whole thing. Because assumptions of female servitude construct the whole way we mark everything — pesach, chagim, even shabbat. Everything

We have designed cultural events that rely heavily on someone — usually a wife/mother — devoting their entire life to getting it done so that someone ELSE can enjoy the experience with freedom. (And of course, the entire culture is built on heteronormative paradigms — single women, non-parents, divorced women, gay couples, don’t really exist in the way our culture was constructed for most of its history.) The culture was created to enable a man, no matter how many wives or children he had, to practice whatever religious rituals his religious school determined, completely unencumbered. Even the idea of three times a day minyan outside of home relies on the idea that SOMEONE will hold down the fort at home during that time — making lunches, getting kids dressed, cooking, cleaning, homework, putting kids to bed. If the people creating the rules of the culture could not rely on such servitude, would they have made such demands like 3x/day minyan? That’s my question.

So for seder, for example, if the rabbis who felt like sitting around all night drinking wine and discussing pilpul did not have servants/women around to do the work of executing their ideas about what seder should look like, would the rabbis have crafted the seder the way it is, with so much kitchen labor and such unrealistic expectations for kids and families about how the meal might go?

I’m asking, if the people making the decisions about what the culture should look like were ALSO the people charged with getting it done, is this what we would have done? A late, long meal with zillions of rules and weeks of work that induce OCD? Really? Is that the way we would like to transmit our oral heritage? Maybe there are better ways.

Because I think that if the people doing the heavy lifting and the people getting to enjoy it were one and the same, we wouldn’t be doing all this. We might have a more common-sense, easier-to-produce, better-for-relationships event. Maybe go to the park and have some fruit salad. More flexibility and creativity and less indoctrination. Maybe less of that measuring a kzait thing or reading passages about 50,000 plagues that nobody even understands. Maybe daytime and not into-the night. Shorter. Less preparation. Less rules. More compassion. More humanity. Less meaningless rote ritual. That’s my theory. It would look different.



BIO: Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, educator, and political activist. Her most recent book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman, is available from Lioness Books at www.lionessbooks.com/shop Follow her at www.conversationswithmybody.com or www.jewfem.com

Am I the Orange on the Passover Seder Plate?

Orange on a Star of DavidWhen I was growing up, the colors of the Passover seder plate were primarily dull and dark. A shank bone, a roasted egg, horseradish, salt, and the delicious but yucky looking charoises (minced apples, nuts and dried fruit soaked in red wine). The one relieving color (and the dullest flavor) was that of the fresh parsley.

Then one year, a big, bright orange appeared on the seder plate. The story I was told back then was that it was in response to some rabbi who once said, “There will be a female rabbi when there’s an orange on the Pesach seder plate.” In other words, he considered both to be not only unlikely but impossible. Naturally, as the story goes, feminists started to put an orange on their seder plates, and the practice spread like wildfire.

Beyond any metaphorical meaning, I was delighted to see that orange on the seder plate. It felt like a fresh bit of life among the dull, dark artifacts of our history. As such it helped to make the history feel more modern and relevant. At the same time, it was a recognition of the long line of women who came before me, stretching back through my mother and grandmothers through the generations to the matriarchs of ancient times.

Besides, oranges have been one of my favorite treats for as long as I can remember. What fun it is to use my nails and fingertips to pierce and peel away the tough, pebbly skin, to get to the crisp sweet-tart pulpy juices that play on my tongue. And as a writer, I get a kick out of the fact that even the sound of the word is unique; no word in the English language rhymes holistically with orange. (Botanists will point to “sporange” which is a part of ferns, fungi, algae, or mosses. But really, how many of us will ever use sporange in a poem?)

All these years, I have identified with that orange on the seder plate. Read More

And To Think That I Read It On Mulberry Street

Dr Seuss Books

Yesterday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the organization in charge of the Dr. Seuss literary legacy) announced that it would discontinue the publication of six iconic children’s books, because “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The six books are And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. The decision was made because Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) had used racial stereotypes in these books, portraying Blacks and Asians in demeaning ways.

It has been so long since I’ve read any of these books that I don’t really remember much about the illustrations or racial attitudes. But then, I am neither Black nor Asian. I assume that if he had done the same to Jews, I would remember it clearly, because I am a Jew.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” ~ George Santayana

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Envisioning better health outcomes for all

Mapping covid-19 cases across Europe (source: MIT Technology Review)
Mapping covid-19 cases across Europe (source: MIT Technology Review)

I loved doing the interview and research for this piece. So meaningful. This kind of meaty feature piece is why I originally got into journalism. Okay, my name isn’t on the piece, but the information is out there now. That feels good. (Written for MIT Technology Review)

“…According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to the general United States population, African Americans are 1.4 times more likely to contract the coronavirus, and 2.8 times more likely to die from covid-19. Similarly, Native Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are nearly twice as likely to be infected by coronavirus, and 2.5 to 2.8 times more likely to die from it.

“Underlying these statistics are significant structural, social, and spatial issues. But why is this? And how do we begin to quantify and address the nested problems of public health inequality?…”

A cool distribution system powered by a GIS (geographical information system) may be the answer.

Please Click Here to read the full article

Change Begins with Me

What hell it must be to be the mother of a black son in this country. I can empathize, but I cannot know in my bones her daily and nightly horrors and fears, the hard realities that blacks and other people of color (POC) have had to deal with for far too long.

Black Teen Shares The Rules His Mom Makes Him Follow When Leaving The House
Black Teen Shares The Rules His Mom Makes Him Follow When Leaving The House

I am a privileged white middle-class woman. When I walk in a neighborhood where I’m not known, or go for a drive at night, I take for granted that I’m safe as are most of my family. Does that mean that my liberal foundations are meaningless? I must ask myself: Have I dreamed and wanted change but not done enough? Have any of us done enough? If we had, perhaps we could have prevented the destruction of so many lives… so many deaths.

The hollow statements of support we’ve seen for Black Lives Matter from bureaucrats, corporations and celebrities are meaningless. They change nothing, I look instead for inspiration from declarations such as Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s statement. SWFA openly recognizes their/our mistakes of the past and has established real plans and changes to affect greater inclusion and diversity within its own ranks. SFWA is putting words into action and money shared.

I must ask myself: What actions can I take? Open my pockets, of course. However, I’m an individual writer with only small donations to give. No, I must do more. I must demand justice and fairness. I must work to end institutional racism and the daily acts of bigotry and evil. My first step is to listen to POCs and respond by doing what they tell me they need. Because at the end of the day, when black mothers are living nightmares I can only imagine, I know that change begins with me, with my actions.

Words are not enough.

Thank you Toni Morrison… and Trapeta B. Mayson

Trapeta B. Mayson, Philadelphia's Poet Laureate, speaking about Toni Morrison at The Rosenbach
Trapeta B. Mayson
This past Tuesday, I attended my first Rosenbach lunchtime talk. The Rosenbach museum and library is one of Pennsylvania’s hidden treasures, though it is open to the public and is now affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. The elegant Delancey Street double townhouse contains a remarkable collection of rare books and documents originally assembled by the Rosenbach brothers, famous dealers in books, manuscripts and art. It’s also the site of frequent public discussions, readings and lectures that fill the intimate rooms with interested and interesting people from near and far – such as the monthly lunchtime talks. I didn’t know what to expect, except that the topic was one of my favorite authors – Toni Morrison – and the speaker would be Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson. I was sure that it would be a hour well spent. Besides, I needed to get away from my writing for a bit. I’d been struggling with the first draft of my new novel’s second chapter, and the more I fought the words – the more I wrote, edited and deleted – the more frustrated (and, yes, self-doubting) I was becoming. Perhaps, I had finally bitten off more than I could chew with this ambitious project. "I never asked Tolstoy to write for me." Toni Morrison Throughout the hour, Trapeta interspersed Morrison quotes and her own poems, a weave of words and ideas that illuminated the ideas she shared, until they shimmered with energy and life that could not be denied. She spokeRead More

“The Winter Boy” Honored: One of 12 Unique Works of Fantasy That Are Hard To Put Down

"The Winter Boy" by Sally Wiener Grotta

I received an email tonight, suggesting that I take a look at a website. To my surprise, it contains a video that features my novel The Winter Boy, as one of the “12 Unique Works of Fantasy That Are Hard to Put Down.”

As the webpage states, “Not all fantasy novels are hero’s journeys set in medieval times. Some creative authors put their own spin on the genre and produce unique works that revitalize old tropes. Whether they have a fascinating new type of lore or make unusual decisions in terms of structure, the books listed here all tackle this beloved genre in a different way.”

While the video shows Rishana as a skinny 20-something rather than a curvaceous middle-aged woman, it’s a delight to receive this honor out of the blue.

 

The Feminine Line

"Sisters and Mothers" a poem by Sally Wiener Grotta

I was searching through my files this morning for a some notes from a trip I once took to Sable Island, a tiny spit of land in the North Atlantic. As I shuffled file folders and piles of papers, I found this poem, which I wrote at a time of personal upheaval.

I remember picking up my pen, to try to understand the difficulties I was encountering; writing is how I deal with crises or confusion. And on that day — February 18, 2014 — I found deep within me the voices (and hopefully the strength) of all the women who came before me. They are still there, in my mind and my spirit, in my words and my art, a gift of love and continuity.

The Story of Us

The Many Faces of Me by Sally Wiener Grotta
“The Many Faces of Me” by Sally Wiener Grotta

I tell myself a story every morning and every night, and in the in-between hours. It’s the same story, with variations, so that over the years it has changed, altered by life and by the telling, and – always – by my perspective and my angle of entry into the narrative.

It’s the story of me, who I believe myself to be.

Facts underlie the story, of course. I am a woman, though I have been a girl. And sometimes I fall back to that youthful persona, to a time when I was partially unformed and uncertain, with no lines on my face, no scars on my being.

I am what is called “white” or Caucasian – what strange terms to try to describe a certain beige complexion, an unavoidable acknowledgement of social and political advantage.

I am a Jew. But what that means can vary so widely, to myself and to others, that sometimes I think that the only fact of the matter is that flat statement of my heritage. But other times, I know that my constant questioning, overall optimism, and sense of personal responsibility – as well as my storytelling – stem directly from that heritage.  (If you’re curious, I go further into this in my essay “I am a Jew“.)

Facts soon become quicksilver as I try to separate out the many confusing tendrils within me. What is the story I tell myself of my relationships to others, to the world, to my work, and all the other elements that make up my life and environment? It depends… on memories and fears, influences and reactions, crises and resolutions … all mixed up with what I’ve done and seen, where I’ve been, the shape of my relationships, the impact of current news, the texture of my dreams, and the weight of my perceived successes and failures.

At one moment, I might see myself as an accomplished professional writer and artist, pleased with what I’ve achieved, excited by what I may yet learn to create. The next, I have no doubt that I’m an imposter, and will never be more than a wannabe.

Other times, I’m a friend, lover, sister, aunt, who is loving and loved. But, in dark hours, I know myself to be ultimately alone, unimportant to anyone but myself.

I may see myself as gentle, ferocious, kind, cruel, generous, selfish, intelligent, ignorant, spirited, ineffective, and all other flavors of adjectives.  And so I will spin my story to fit my current perception, and will be channeled by that tale to make the perception real.

The truth is that I am all those things… and more. I’m a jumble of contradictions that build on top of each other, as we all are. Isn’t that what it is to be a human being? And whichever attribute I choose to focus on is what I will be… at least for as long as I continue to tell myself that particular story.

Isn’t it the same with the story of us?

The narrative of us that is currently bandied about – within families, among communities, across the country – is that we are a divided people. Those on the other side of things will never listen, can never understand [fill in the issue of the day].  We tell ourselves that we’ve become too polarized to function, and anyway, our side is the only one that sees things clearly and has a valid case.

As long as we continue to tell and believe that story, can we be anything more than the contentious populace we are now?  What if we started to tell the tale of a people who may argue and disagree, but who recognize that the argument is a path, not the purpose? Isn’t that the essential nature of a democracy?

What’s more, what if we flavor our story of us with a belief in humanity, not in the abstract but in our perceptions of individuals? As we build our narrative, let’s take a page from the best novelists and avoid stereotypes. Instead, let’s flesh out each character with all his or her many dimensions, and even try to hear the story each person tells of ‘me’. Perhaps, then we can move forward together, if not hand-in-hand, at least with hope that there may be something more than anger and rigidity defining who we are.

No, I’m not saying that our social and political problems are merely a question of perspective. The roots run deep. But if we can construct a narrative that includes the struggle to understand, to listen and to find some common ground where we can hash out compromises and create new solutions, isn’t that the beginning of a new story of us? And if we believe in it, isn’t it possible that may help us look toward a future where we just might be able to work together to make it real?

I Am A Jew

The following is an essay I wrote for my old website a few years ago. In the wake of the horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s L’Simcha Tree of Life one month ago — and the the current political atmosphere that has given permission for such hate to come out of hiding and act on it — I find this piece a poignant reflection of the innocence I was once privileged to feel. While the essay is about the Jewishness of my writing, it’s also a declaration of who I am, and reinforces my determination to not be cowed by the haters. And, yes, I still believe that most people are good and kind, and that we can find our way out of this current climate of hate and divisiveness — if we work together.


 

Lighting the Menorah by Daniel Grotta

As I wrote that title, I hesitated. While the statement “I am a Jew” has a proud heritage of defiance and strength, I can almost hear my grandmother warning me, “Be careful, sweetheart, what details you ask others to focus on about you.” But then, she came from a time when being Jewish was a double-edged sword that gave us the protection of belonging to a rich tradition and community, while separating us out for ostracization and exclusion from society as a whole. I’m lucky to not be living in the era of her youth.

Or am I being naïve and foolish? Given the ghettoizing of women writers which implies that somehow our work is not as significant as that of our male counterparts, am I taking a chance by saying that not only I am a woman, I am a Jew? Will I now be relegated to second, or even third-class status in the literary hierarchy? Will I now be considered only as a Jewish female writer? Was William Faulkner “merely” a Southern male writer? Or, Thoreau nothing more than a New Englander tree-hugger? Why is it necessary for me to publicly dismiss my roots, out of fear of having my art and writing less respected?

Being Jewish is Read More