Making Sense of Our Sons’ Deaths

My two year old is starting preschool tomorrow. In his 27 months of sweet and innocent life, he has spent less than 27 hours apart from me. Tonight I went to our first parents’ meeting with butterflies in my stomach, anxious for both of us about this emotional milestone.

This is how it began: “Hi, I’m Ruchama, the head teacher. The first thing I want to tell you is that my son Moshe, my Moshiko, served in Gaza this summer. On the twenty-second day of the war, he was killed. He would have been 21 this summer.”

Ruchama went on to tell us that this has (understandably) been a very difficult summer for her, and that she was sure it would continue to be a hard year, but that when her son left for the war he left behind an early birthday card in which he urged her to “watch over the children” – our sweet children. And she told us that “ילדים זה שמחה - children are happiness”, and that she hopes and believes caring for our children will make the coming year, with its heartbreaking difficulty, a little bit brighter and more joyful for her.

As she shared her story, Ruchama was not crying. She smiled gently throughout. I pictured her crying so much this past month that she simply had no tears left.

Aside from hers, though, there were very few dry eyes in the room.

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On Jobs and Justice and SodaStream and the Occupation

Word is that SodaStream is packing up their factory in the occupied territory and heading to the Negev desert in Israel.  A piece at ShalomLife.com takes aim at the BDS movement, which took aim at SodaStream this year, imagining what might happen if SodaStream packs up and leaves behind the hundreds of Palestinian workers who make a living at the factory. The article, of course, has a disclaimer at the bottom, presumably tacked on after a large number of comments pointed out  that this particular piece of Hasbara (“advocacy” in Hebrew) had jumped the gun, given that the the official announcement is yet to be made and there is no word as to what SodaStream will do regarding their Palestinian workforce. It is actually rather funny to have an entire article dedicated to an imaginary scenario, which then is noted as imaginary in a disclaimer at the end. Here it is:

DISCLAIMER** We would like to thank everyone for reading and commenting on the article, and make a clarification: the company has yet to make an official statement regarding this situation (they have only announced the new factory), but, as IsraellyCool points out, it its considered “common knowledge” that this may indeed happen. As stated above, the decision to move factories is non-political, and whether or not the Palestinian employees will be able to continue working with SodaStream remains to be seen. In this article, we are simply looking at what we believe will take place as a result of the BDS movement. Thank you.

So, to be clear, none of what the article posits is based on reality as of now.

Now, first of all, decisions about strategy and aims for Palestinian self determination are not for ShalomLife and JewSchool to make. They are for the individuals and collectives that make up the Palestinian people. That is a minimum requirement for self determination. It is no doubt true that Palestinians under occupation and people in liberation movements throughout the world have had to and will have to face economic, physical, and many other kinds of danger. Whether it is worth it for these workers to put themselves at further economic risk in order to resist occupation is not really for me to decide. The jobs those people have are very real and provide very real food and shelter and life. I can not judge. I can only suggest, opine and stand in solidarity. Still, while one can’t say that SodaStream does no good, it is a certainty that SodaStream perpetuates economic injustice and the occupation. 

The truth is that the entire argument that the ShalomLife article is predicated on betrays the first and foremost problem with SodaStream’s relationship to the Palestinian people working there: The workers have very little power. SodaStream can pack up and leave, as they may be doing. They can fire them any time, and they have. Even Palestinian ministers cannot move about without Israel’s permission, how much power do you think those workers have? The very fact that an Israeli company can set up shop in occupied territory with only the permission of the occupier, and employ people living under occupation without a great deal of human and civil rights wraps the entire argument up in a nice tidy little package: People living under occupation don’t have the same access to the choices that people not living under occupation have, and while it may provide short term sustenance to a person or family or town, it cannot be relied on as a basis for livelihood for a family or community because it is in someone else’s control. This isn’t a problem limited to the occupied territory, mind you. Lack of power over our own communities, families and environment is a problem at the core of capitalism. The inequality of the occupation makes it that much worse. 

If SodaStream were actually dedicated to the betterment of the lives of the Palestinians they employ there are plenty of things it could do: It could, at minimum, have secure, fair, long term contracts that protect workers from unfair dismissal (such as happened), for example. SodaStream could give ownership of the West Bank factory to the Palestinian SodaStream workers living under occupation. It could move the factory out of occupied territory and also get permits for the workers that want to work in the Negev, if they wanted to. The workers could be given shares in the company and/or make SodaStream cooperatively owned by Palestinians and Israelis. Shared ownership would make it a potential example of co-existence, which is the image the company wants to project anyhow. The CEO could make a statement against the occupation and endorse political candidates that stand against the occupation.  They could do a whole lot of stuff to fight the occupation, but they don’t. If they didn’t want to deal with these issues, they shouldn’t have set up a factory in the center of the occupation.

We must build movements to struggle for self-determination for all peoples as well as economic and environmental justice (and much more… There is much to do). Yes, SodaStream is a pretty good solution for the quadrillion plastic bottles we use every year, but as it stands now they benefit from the occupation and economic injustice, and so they perpetuate a reality in which millions live without control over their future.

 

A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth

Someday I Will Transcend the Fear

I am afraid.

I am afraid of the rockets. I am afraid they will come in the middle of the night and, defying the millions-to-one odds, murder my children in their sleep. When the sirens wail, I race to grab them from their beds and flee toward shelter.

I am afraid to drive through East Jerusalem and the West Bank right now. I have a friend whose car windows were struck last month by rage-filled Palestinian rocks, whose baby was covered in shattered glass, who only by a miracle emerged unharmed. As we drive, I picture my children’s heads smashed by stones, I imagine screaming at them to put their heads between their knees, mentally willing my husband to keep driving, keep driving.

I am afraid of the racism seeping through my fear. As I was picking up my son from school, an Arab woman sat on the steps leading down to the preschool to smoke her cigarette. I wondered if I should be suspicious, if I needed to warn someone. I eyed her bag to see if it might hold a bomb.

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Everyone Else

Sitting in a restaurant
in the South of the city.
They serve one East Coast dish only.
There is a vegetarian option
but I don’t need it.
I’m reading about the end of Liberal Zionism in the paper
wondering what the hell that even means
as I deconstruct words and dig in with my hands.
It’s not me, I reckon. I am reckoning.

Sauce on every finger on every hand.
Scrolling with my wrist. Reading.
Wondering when everyone will come around.
Divisive and decisive op-eds give some people power, here and there.
Right and wrong are there for the taking
for the organized and the artistic and the committed.
But mostly for the committed. 

I’m nearly bursting, listening to a new song about black rage
sitting in a restaurant serving cuisine from the East Coast of Africa.
Wondering if the discomfort that man told me I probably feel here
is how it feels everywhere for everyone
else.

—-

 

This piece first appeared at allthesedays.org 
 
A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv.
You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org 
and follow him on twitter @adanielroth
 
 
 

We Will Never Reach Peace Without Intimate Empathy

When my kids fight with each other, and especially when my eldest intentionally hurts one of his little brothers, my default is sadly to lash out in anger: to yell at him, banish him to his room, force him to stop. It never helps. He is still little enough that I can physically restrain him, though that won’t last long. But my anger has never stopped his anger.

What does help is empathy. When I manage to control my anger long enough to listen to him, understand why he felt wronged, and empathize with him, he softens, as do I. His yells turn to tears. He is able to let go of his anger and resentment, to apologize and forgive, to reconcile.

I have written a lot lately about empathy: that I think it’s critical for Israel’s future that we foster empathy and compassion and devote ourselves to recognizing the humanity of our Palestinian neighbors.

When I say this, it triggers many people’s defense mechanisms: “Do you really think you on the left have a monopoly on empathy? We do have empathy! We, Israel, the Jewish people, are so devoted to empathizing with our enemy, to valuing their lives more than they do themselves, that we risk our own soldiers, at tremendous cost. We can’t stand the loss of innocent life in Gaza! Our hearts ache at the thought of so many children dead. But we simply have no choice. Israel must defend herself. It’s us or them.”

Regardless of whether this is true (and I know at least some of it is), it is not the kind of empathy I’m talking about.

I’ve been searching for ways to describe the difference between the kind of empathy most of us seem to have in this situation, and the kind I feel we so desperately need. The best I can come up with is “intellectual empathy” versus “intimate empathy”.

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Rachel Azaria’s Solution for Silencing “Antisemites”

You all know what I’m talking about. As much as Jews are working to combat Antisemitism, so do Jews love to refer to anyone who is rude to them or disagrees with them as an Antisemite. And now, as it turns out, anyone who is rude can always be implied to be a Hamas supporter who is also anti-human rights and definitely a misogynist.

Here’s the conversation as reported by the victim herself which took place on the subway in NYC: More »

TBT: “We cannot make believe that we do not know how murderers came to dwell in our midst and how murders came to be accepted as normal.”

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re going back to July 2013, when Aryeh Cohen wrote about Trayvon Martin. If you’re wondering about why this post now, visit  #Ferguson on Twitter. 

Isaiah’s vision and Our Blindness (Justice and Trayvon Martin)

by  [] · Monday, July 15th, 2013 · Edit

crossposted from Justice in the City

Yesterday, in the Jewish tradition, was the “Sabbath of vision.” It is named after Isaiah’s bleak vision described in Chapter One of his eponymous Scripture. Isaiah, speaking, no, screaming at those who would sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem declares in the name of God: I am tired of your sacrifices, I am sated already with the fatted calves that you offer, your offerings are now abominations to me. I no longer wish for you to celebrate festival days and Sabbaths. When you reach out to me, when you raise your voices in prayer, says God, I will ignore you, I will turn a blind eye. Why? First you must “Learn to do well; demand justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Finally, Isaiah turns to the city of Jerusalem and wails: “O! How the city full of justice, where righteousness dwelt, now dwell murderers!” It was not a true question, of course, it was the strangled scream of a prophet pointing to the everyday injustices, which led to the larger injustices, all hidden behind a veil of righteousness, of holy celebrations and fatted calves upon the altar and the smell of spices in the Temple.

As Sabbath finished and I performed the ceremony of differentiation with wine and candle and spices with my family, I turned on my computer to news of the acquittal in the George Zimmerman case. How do we answer Isaiah’s lament? What were the steps that led from there to here? From the quotidian racial injustices to the loosening of gun laws to the ignoring of the history of racial discrimination.

We cannot make believe that we do not know how murderers came to dwell in our midst and how murders came to be accepted as normal. We cannot make believe that young black men grow up with the same chance of making it to adulthood, to college, to a life which was not interrupted by a bullet or incarceration as young white men. When we turn to face Isaiah we cannot answer that we did not know that over 6000 people were killed by guns in the past six months and that most of them were black or brown. When we try to answer Isaiah’s accusation we cannot say that we did not know that loosening of gun laws, that creating laws which escalate violent situations would lead to more deaths.

On another day we need to spend time thinking of Isaiah’s solution: “Zion will be redeemed in justice, and her penitents with rightousness.” For now we must grieve for Trayvon Martin and all the young black men who will not reach adulthood because of a bullet. We must rage against a legislative system which supports and promotes the death-industrial complex of gun manufacturers and the NRA gun lobbyists.

We must all come together and say finally enough.

 

If Not Now: A Personal Political Reflection

This is a guest post by Becky Havivi, a Brooklyn-based community-builder and activist. This is not written on behalf of or in the name of If Not Now.

On the Friday night before Tisha B’Av, traditionally the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, 300 American Jews joined together in Washington Square Park to mourn the deaths of over 1500 Palestinians and Israelis in the most recent armed conflict in the region. This was the fourth public event over a period of two weeks organized by If Not Now, a new movement that emerged in response to the latest crisis in Israel/Palestine, the sense of urgency growing as violence escalated, and the sense of disconnection from what mainstream Jewish institutions were expressing.

In this charged moment overflowing with noise, If Not Now has managed to effectively strike the right chord, as evidenced by the large numbers of young Jews that have turned out to actions and events over the last few weeks, in New York City and in cities across the country. If Not Now has successfully given voice and media attention to liberal young American Jews, a constituency who, for the most part, feels alienated by the conversations happening in broader Jewish institutional arenas.

Though I helped plan the program for If Not Now’s Shabbat service and rally, my own involvement in the group was not a no-brainer. As an engaged and connected American Jew I have struggled to find my footing and stake a claim within the broader Israel/Palestine discourse that has felt authentic to the rest of my progressive lefty values. The articles I see posted on my Facebook newsfeed and the arguments that I hear repeatedly spouted on both sides make me want to flee. And for a pretty long time I have done just that. More »

Only Cause: Some Words On Standing Up in Israel and Palestine

Try reading out loud.

Sometimes I feel like there are all these peace agreements for sale and no one’s buying. We’ve got two states, one state, unions, federations, long term, short term and more. Get ‘em while their hot! Bibi’s not buying and Hamas sure ain’t interested. Abbas is like a man at a mall minutes before closing with credit card in hand – no idea which product can fit in his station wagon; the proprietor eyeing him to leave. People keep asking what the alternative is to violence, “we have to kill and die, there’s no other choice!” Humanity knows when that is the case and when it sure isn’t. Those filled with love and pain – commitment to their people and in solidarity with all other peoples – tend to reluctantly make it clear that it may be a time when fighting may be necessary.

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The Genderlessness of War

When I was little, I asked my mom why girls couldn’t be soldiers.

“I think because the governments are afraid of girls. They would fight so hard, it would be too scary.” My mother always explained things in ways where I could see myself as strong. It was an empowering perspective, but I never actually wanted to fight scary hard.

Old photos and newspapers tell a different story from my mother’s. Women were delicate flowers, unable to defend themselves and their country—we can’t have them be soldiers! They’re too busy being wives and mothers! Our culture was (and still is) far more comfortable with images of young widows collapsing in tears than with images of women getting blown up along with their brothers.

Even moments when women were depicted as strong and capable, like Rosie the Riveter and women’s baseball, come from gendered war propaganda—the men were out fighting, so the ladies had to toughen up a bit and do “men’s work” until their fathers, brothers, and husbands came home.

This gendering of war strikes me as so absurd. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that death does not just affect one person at a time; each death ripples through a community like an earthquake, bringing friends and family to their knees in hopeless sorrow. Even when death comes peacefully in old age, it sends close family members reeling with emotion. And when violent death comes to the young! Look at today’s photos from any article about Gaza—anguished weeping knows no bounds, no gender or age. Old men sob over family members just as hard as the beautiful widows whom the newspapers seem to love.

I came across a few articles from the mid-1990s critiquing the pacifism of feminists as clichéd and backward. They argued that, as modern feminists, we should push back against the trope of wives and mothers opposing war on moral grounds, and in fact that we should argue in favor of what we see as “just wars.”

I find this just as absurd as the idea that only women grieve over the untimely deaths that war wreaks. Striving for a lasting peace isn’t just a feminine value; it’s a human value. I see no reason to go around looking for “just wars,” simply because one presents as female.

War is horrible, and war is just as genderless as grief.

 

A meaningful fast to all who are fasting, and a prayer for a swift end to all bloodshed.

TBT: Re-Revisiting The Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re revisiting this piece I posted a year ago, right before Tisha B’Av, on the mitzvah of rebuke.  I argued that one of the consequences of living in therapy culture is that we must be more confrontational and engage in more rebuke, since the Torah commands us to do so when we’re angry, and we now have the emotional technology to do so constructively.  ”True rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence…In a culture of processing groups, conflict aversion is not piety and not even always chastened caution:  It’s reckless abandonment and sometimes it’s even mean. ”

We’re TBT’ing, because it’s still a live issue, and especially in this moment, when the Jewish community is rightly immersed in intense and urgent debate about Israel, it is all the more important not to back away from hashing out those conflicts, even as we must pursue the most constructive ways to do so.  However, I appreciate several responses I got critiquing my failure to explore the significance of power to this question.  Several respondents pointed out that when the person whom I feel violated me is someone who has power over me, it can be extremely difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to perform rebuke; conflict-aversion may be self-protection.  Part of what makes processing groups and group therapy work is the external creation of a safe space, including the removal of the power dynamics that obtain in general.  Even if we have been trained how to speak critically and non-violently, that training is not so helpful if we don’t have control over the context.  These critiques are correct and I am grateful for them.  I also wonder whether power dynamics are actually much more prevalent in hurtful interactions than perhaps I considered a year ago.

Here is the article again.  I invite and welcome responses, especially on the question of power.

“It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.””

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”

(More here.)

A Letter from Israel Right Now

Much of this is taken from an email to a good friend.

Tel Aviv Rally. July 2014. By A. Daniel Roth

I am glad that you got this conversation started. I need to be thinking this way about making a positive impact on the world as humans and as Jews. I have been working hard lately, getting the next round of “Achvat Amim” participants ready, and covering the situation from the border areas with Gaza, Ashkelon, and Tel Aviv. I’m sorry it took me this long to write back. I’ve been learning an enormous amount about me and about the media. Writing and sitting in the studio gives you a chance to go through an analytical process, not a complete one – TV may not be built for thorough analysis at all – but something. Being in the field involves a lot more communication about what you see around you, what others say around you, and how it feels. It’s a strange and interesting world. The other day, I was walking to work and cool breeze, unusual for July, was blowing in from the West. It reminded me that I needed to write you back and it reminded me of all the pain and progress over where you are and the overbearing feeling of chaos over here.

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Nothing you post here will change anyone’s mind

The Forward has a short piece online about the changing nature of Social Media news coverage and its impact on the public perception of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza.  This article – like every article bemoaning the rapid fire, limited nature of the platform – notes that the speed at which information is disseminated changed the way we experience conflict.  But that isn’t it alone. The fact that both sides have these tools, I have to say I don’t think it is the platforms “fault” for the way we see this conflict.

The New Yorker published the translated Yediot Ahronot piece by Etgar Keret about the degradation of the civil discourse in Israel. In “Israel’s Other War” Keret laments the perversion of the deeply held value of true democratic (and Jewish) societies: that the voice of the minority has value. The phrase “Let the IDF Win” has again become a popular refrain in Israel during this conflict.  Keret notes this phrase has nothing to do with the external enemy but rather the subversive voices on the home-front. Lefties and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are lumped together with Hamas terrorists for simply disagreeing with their elected officials or expressing concern for the dead children in Gaza.

I encourage you all to read this piece but the thesis delineates that Israelis “are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism, and lack of empathy mean love of the homeland, while any other opinion—especially one that does not encourage the use of power and the loss of soldiers’ lives—is nothing less than an attempt to destroy Israel as we know it.”

But as an American living a charmed life in California I still feel this false choice forced upon me by the Jewish world. The anonymity of the key board and safety of our curated social networks insulate us to a degree that we only see and experience this conflict in the way we want to believe that it is happening. More »

Caring Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

This is a guest post by Rabbi Joshua Strom. Joshua Strom is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, where he lives with his wife Tali and their sons, Jonah and Gabriel.

Black – White. Yes – No. Israeli – Palestinian.  All – Nothing. Us – Them.

Once again we find ourselves in familiar territory. Once again our passions are inflamed. Once again the words fill the op-ed sections, our conversations, our e-mail forwards, our social media feeds:

“The right to defend itself.” “End the occupation.” “Rockets fired.” “Civilian casualties.”

And so on. And so on.

And once again, it seems, all nuance has gone completely out the window. The word “and” is replaced with “but,” negating everything that came before it, all for the sake of having the last word in our Facebook comments, our Twitter exchanges. The complexity of the events that led us here; the volatility of those directly and indirectly touched by the conflict; the range of emotion and logic spanned on a daily, if not hourly, basis; the fluctuation between hope for a better day and utter despair that peace will never come—they all seem to disappear, vanishing into thin air with a pop and a fizzle, like missiles intercepted by our own personal Iron Domes. More »

“Let Justice Rise Up”: On Prayer and Times of Crisis

by Danya Lagos

The first two chapters of the Book of Amos warn its reader that the Gaza and Jerusalem of that time might ultimately end up sharing the same shitty, terrible, catastrophic fate under the same sky that they uncomfortably share with each other. Because of certain injustices that have been allowed to continue, or be unatoned for, it is said that fire will be sent down from the sky and destroy them both (Amos 1:7, Amos 2:5). The wording in the original curses is exactly the same for both places – all you need to do is switch the names, and it becomes clear that the standards and are quite parallel: “I will send a fire upon (INSERT HERE) and it shall devour the palaces of (INSERT HERE).” There are other cities also cursed in these chapters for whom the same formula is applied (Damascus, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Basra, etc.), but the point that Amos is making is that when it comes to practical matters of justice and oppression, the Jewish people are not judged any differently or given any lesser punishment for non-compliance than their neighbors. More »

Gawker Trolling Seems Redundant

I know. I know, Gawker was trolling with this post calling for Israel — or a Jewish state — in Germany.  I also know that if we check our bias at the door we could see some logic in this suggestion.  But you can’t ignore the complexity of history or the complicated nature of the present reality. Beyond the ignorant black-and-white ahistorical narrative of “Holocaust leads to Israel,” there are a couple of statements made as fact that are way beyond the pale.

It starts with the general intellectual argument against Zionism, which is fine if dishonest, but goes much further into the land of fantasy.

No matter where you stand in the “Israelis vs. Palestinians” political arguments—in which both sides are hopelessly entrenched and unmoving—it seems fair to acknowledge that there are some fundamental problems with the location of the nation of Israel. For one thing, it was carved out of land already occupied by someone else. Whether or not you think Israel was justified in carving itself a nation out of Palestine, you must admit that the act of doing so was bound to cause some resentment.

This ignores too much history. Of course there were people in the now state of Israel, most of them were Arabs and some were Jews. And before you jump up-and-down on me as mouth-breathing right-wing fascist, the facts are pretty clear: Zionism started its colonial exercise of Palestine in the late 19th Century in a more-or-less legal manner.

It goes on and really gets away from facts:

Let’s stipulate that [Zionist and Arab] positions, at the time of the founding of modern Israel, were reasonable:

Jewish people: We have been persecuted too long. We want our own state!

Palestinians: Okay, but don’t take my stuff to get it, please!

So the establishment of Israel, regarded by many as a towering achievement of historic justice, will forever be tainted by the fact that it was established by taking land from people who had done nothing wrong. That act laid the groundwork for the nonstop conflict that continues to this day.

If it was only that easy or simple. Or even close to the truth. There was an infrastructure in place well before WWII and in fact a number of wars (or violent uprisings) that had happened before the international establishment of the state of Israel. The Partition Plan, complete with its flaws, was the defining international legal document of the establishment of Israel. The ensuing wars against the Arabs shifted boarders but for the love of all things good, this idea that the organized Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world at that time) would have said anything like this is ludicrous.

I am all for having a real conversation about the mass populations transfers or ethnic cleansing (depending on your prospective).  I will happily discuss Zionism as the answer to historical Antisemitism or Zionism causing its nouveau rise in Europe and elsewhere. I will always go toe-to-toe with absolutists on any side of an argument because I believe that no political situation is completely black or white (and I like to argue). But what we all can’t allow is the pure distortion of the facts and history. It helps no one.

So, good job Gawker, you got me with your trolling. But next time perhaps you can take an aggressive and controversial position, perhaps you can do it based on fact.

Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”

“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”

I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.

“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”

“Why?”

“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”

At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.

Then I married a rabbinical student.

Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.

My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield.  Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.

I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.

Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.

However, the rebbetzin still exists.

The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).

The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.

The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.

If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.

I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.