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

If You Could Transport Back to Eden, Would You Eat the Apple?

Snake offering apple to Eve

If you could be magically transported into Eve’s body before she reached for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, would you pick and eat it, knowing what you know of life?

As I research the stories of Eve and Lilith for my novel Women of a New Moon, I return often to the original Garden of Eden stories in Genesis. The story of humanity’s exile from paradise has a bittersweet allure. Who doesn’t dream of being welcomed back to the original utopia where illness and hunger didn’t exist, where death was unknown, and life was gentle.

All of Creation was the embodiment of goodness, as God proclaimed. But did Adam and Eve experience Good? Could they understand what goodness was when they had known nothing else?

However if you were in Eve’s body in the Garden of Eden, with all that you know, you would have a soul-deep understanding of the tradeoffs inherent in the decision to eat the apple from that one forbidden tree. To not eat would mean to be immortal, protected, and forever innocent. To eat would mean Read More

Sally Wiener Grotta reads from her new novel “Women of a New Moon”

During this past November’s virtual Philcon, I went back and forth what piece of fiction I should read. For much of the past year, I’ve been pouring all my passion into a new mainstream novel Women of a New Moonand that’s what I really wanted to share with my friends and fans. However, Philcon is a science fiction conference, and I worried that my audience would expect me to read one of my recently published science fiction short stories or a new not-yet-published speculative novel. Uncertain what to do, I asked a number of people who had mentioned they’d be logging into my online reading, and they all wanted to hear Women of a New Moon, even though it is still in its first draft. Decision made.

Women of a New Moon centers on a woman’s Torah study group. We learn about the six modern women of the group – their personalities, histories, crises and story arcs – through the filter of their monthly discussions of women of the Bible (such as Eve & Lilith, Sarah & Hagar, Miriam, and so forth). At the beginning of the book, they are what I call “intimate strangers,” because they know each other only through frequent but superficial schmoozing at synagogue events. They meet once a month, taking turns hosting in their homes, and each chapter is from the host’s point of view as she leads the group for that month. I read portions of Chapter 2 in which Jen (a retired war correspondent and secular humanist) is leading a discussion of Sarah and Hagar.

Unfortunately, the recording of my reading failed. Again, I listened to my friends and fans, and a number who hadn’t been able to join me for my Philcon reading asked me to do another recording of it, and to let them know when it was posted. Of course — how could I resist? So, here it is.

The Power of a Single Word

Self-portrait: Sally Wiener Grotta, storytellerFor years now, whenever I’ve spoken at book clubs, I’ve told my audiences, “The book you read is not the book I wrote.” That’s because reading is a participatory experience. We bring our personal histories, prejudices, expectations, hopes and concerns to our interpretations of what we see on the page. That, in turn, can color the narrative and dialog, often making our reading of a book uniquely our own. I’ve understood that concept for so long that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was blindsided by a friend’s adverse reaction to a word I had written. I consider the word in and of itself a neutral description. But as far as she was concerned, it was a highly charged, derogatory expression. Read More

As the Gates Begin to Close

As the sun sets on Yom Kippur — a day set aside for reflection, to evaluate our past deeds and failures, to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to rededicate ourselves to a better future — I’ve decided to share this poem that evolved out of my meditations this morning.

On this day of awe,
when I turn my mind
to the blessings of my life,
and to my failure to treasure,
to honor and nurture them,
when I count my sins
of omission,
of commission,
of blindness
to what must be done,
what should be done,

Read More

The Sprecher & Rose

Sally Wiener Grotta talking with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM) about storytelling
Click to hear Sally reading this story on ArtScene with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM). The photos are from a previous appearance on the show.

My father often told me a story about his older sister Rose and the neighborhood sprecher

In 1918, my Aunt Rose lay feverish and weak, barely aware of her mother wiping her brow with a cool cloth. Even my Grandma Anna was beginning to lose hope. That’s when they called in the sprecher.

At this point in the story, Dad would explain that sprecher meant “speaker.” I never learned Yiddish, but some of his words stuck; this one particularly. And it has influenced me in more ways than I’d realized.

The sprecher’s role in the Jewish immigrant community was to sit by the bedside of a seriously ill loved one, to hold her spirit within her body with his words, to not let it fly away, to fight death itself with his own spirit.Read More

Book Review: “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” by Lucette Lagnado

"The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" by Lucette Lagnado

Some time ago — certainly more than a year — a good friend suggested I read The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado. My friend Tom has impeccable taste in books, music and… well just about anything. So, I immediately bought the book and put it on one of my shelves among the many other to-be-read books in my library.

Let’s face it; one of the facts of a bibliophile’s life is that her library contains an inordinate number of books she is looking forward to reading. (And, of course, she has a library rather than a home, where every spare wall is covered with bookshelves, and scores of overflow books are piled next to her bed, on her kitchen table, in her bathroom and just about everywhere else.)

I’m delighted to say I finally got around to reading Lagnado’s memoir this week. Tom was right; it’s an elegant and eloquent work that absorbed me with its personal poignancy and fascinating universality. 

Depending on where the mutable borders were drawn at the time of various births, Read More

Far From the Home I Love

 

"Green Fiddler" by Marc Chagall
“Green Fiddler” by Marc Chagall

I’m a Daddy’s girl. I always was; I always will be. That’s not to say that I didn’t love Mom. In fact, I trace my storytelling lineage – perhaps the most integral aspect of who and what I am – through her bloodline, not Dad’s. Still, the bond between Dad and me remains deeply rooted.

Dad and I understood each other with no explanations. Yet our discussions helped us to explore ideas in the quest to better understand each other and the world around us. In the car when he drove me wherever I was going (and later in life when I drove him), on our long walks together, during late night snacks at the kitchen table, in his basement lab where he taught me to help him when he was creating braces for his patients (he was an orthodontist), whenever we were alone, we talked. About books we’d read, or movies we’d seen, or people each of us knew… and about his childhood.

I loved hearing the stories of Dad’s immigrant family.

My grandfather Morris and grandmother Anna were from the village of Cherkas in Kiev – in the area known as “the Pale,” the only region of Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. When Morris received notice of being recruited into the Russian army, his older brother Ike smuggled him out of the country on a train. I wish I knew more about that story. (I ache for the details that I’ve lost from those wondrous childhood storytelling sessions.) All I know is that they ended up in Philadelphia, setting a pin in the map for the rest of the family.

Anna was a teenager when she left Cherkas. One day she came home and told her family she’d had enough; she was leaving. She never disclosed what had happened that day that instigated her decision. Dad was convinced that she had been raped by “Cossacks”, which is what all Russians were called by the family back then. (Throughout her life, whenever she heard the words “Russia” or “Cossack”, Grandma would spit, as though warding off the devil himself.) Anna walked from Cherkas, probably to Hamburg, Germany, where she somehow paid for her passage to America, to Philadelphia. Our family has been walkers ever since. The day she died, she went for a walk, then lay down for a rest and never woke up.

I have to let the storyteller in me fill in the vast gaps in my knowledge about Anna and Morris in the old country, and their young family in Philadelphia. Anyone who could have shared what actually happened is now gone, just as the age in which they lived is merely another story that is sometimes told well, sometimes distorted, often both, as any retelling of history is.

One such story is Fiddler on the Roof.

When I was a very young child, my family enjoyed going to Broadway shows. Back then, producers would release “house seats” for sale to the public just a few minutes before the curtain went up. (House seats are those that are saved until the last minute for VIPs such as important reviewers, backers or celebrities, just in case they show up.) My parents would sometimes send me to the box office just before a show was about to start (while keeping an eye on me from the other side of the lobby). I would stretch up on tippy-toe to look over the ledge at the lady behind the grill, and ask, “Do you have any house seats for sale tonight?” How could the cashier resist? And that’s how I got to see some amazing otherwise sold-out Broadway shows with my family – like the first run of Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel.

I remember the wonder of the show, the beautiful music and delightful dancing, and my Dad loving every minute of it. I also remember the family story that Charlton Heston was sitting a couple of seats behind us. (Heston had played Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments” about a decade previously.) So that when Tevye was speaking to God on stage, Zero Mostel would occasionally direct his plaintive cries to Heston.

But mostly, I remember my Dad’s comments afterwards about how the story of Fiddler was his parents’ story, our history. I grew up with the family listening to the LP of Fiddler, and I learned every song by heart. They became part and parcel of my understanding of where I came from, who my people were.

Depending on my time of life, different songs became important points of reference for me – including those from Fiddler. For instance, one that resonated in my early adulthood was Far From the Home I Love, a love song from daughter to father, about leaving, moving forward, yet looking back and treasuring what brought her to the point that she could leave, must leave. My love song for my Dad.

Yesterday, I relived all this in the darkened theater of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, watching the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene perform a new version of Fiddler. As a rule, I don’t enjoy revivals. Whether it’s a movie or a play, I feel that revivals are generally rehashes, and attribute their frequency to the industry’s preference for banking on a proven audience pleaser as opposed to taking a risk on a new creative venture. This was not the case with this remarkable production of Fiddler, directed by Joel Grey.

The new script and lyrics are entirely in Yiddish. For audience members like me who don’t speak or understand Yiddish, supertitles in English and Russian were projected on scrims on both sides of the stage. What surprised me was my reaction to a language I never learned. The Germanic guttural sound of it was a subliminal echo of my grandparents’ voices. Individual words flew through my consciousness, and I felt that I almost understood them. Of course, it was only a word here or there – zei gezunt (go in health) or shayna (nice, pretty) or mensch. I was still dependent on the supertitles to follow the show (except during the songs).

But it was more than the language that was changed. The production has a depth of rich, authentic textures. Visually stark, I felt as though I had a dusty, tear-streaked window view into my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ daily lives – of the emotions, connections, needs and dreams that held them in place, and the horrors that threw them out into a new cold world.

From the first strains of the song Tradition, I had tears in my eyes, remembering my Dad, wishing he were there with me. And for the poignant beauty of what is much more than another Broadway revival.  This Fiddler carried me deep into myself, and yet far away to a world that is essential alien to me.

Then, when Hodl (played by Stephanie Lynne Mason) sang Far From the Home I Love to Tevye (Steven Skybell), sobs caught in my throat.

I am not religious, nor was my Dad. I often describe myself as a secular humanist. But I am proud of my Jewish heritage, wrapped up as it is in my love my family, of my relationship with my Dad, of who I am as a person, as a woman, and as an artist. I guess I will strive for the rest of my life to understand what it means when I say, “I am a Jew.” Today, I understand it as an instinctive, emotional and intellectual response to life that I often express in my art and my passions. Yesterday, it was a link to the people who came before me, and to all who have loved, laughed, danced and suffered as Jews have.

As I sat sobbing in that dark theater, I experienced Fiddler on many levels:  as a veteran theater-goer, enjoying the consummate acting, singing and dancing – as an artist appreciative of a brilliantly transformed work of art – as a humanist who doesn’t understand hate or cruelty – as a descendent of Jews of the Pale who were forced to leave their homes and make new lives for themselves – as a woman who has lost the people who defined my home and is now learning to make a new life for myself – and as a daughter who was privileged to love and be loved by a father who was wise enough to understand when it was time for me to go off on my own, far from the home I loved.

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