Identity, Sex & Gender

Our Doc Martens, Our Judaism: To My Cousin on the Occasion of her Bat Mitzvah

Liya Rechtman is an environmental advocate and member of the Washington, DC Jewish community. You can read her work at The Energy Collective, Washington Jewish Week, The Interfaith Observer, RavBlog, and Follow her on Twitter at @ConstantLiya

First of all, my dear, welcome to Jewish adulthood! I know probably most things feel the same, but they will actually change quite soon. While these past ten years since my Bat Mitzvah have certainly been difficult at times, I hope that you choose to meaningfully take up the responsibility of your Judaism in this next, new step.
For your bat mitzvah gift, I’m giving you this note along with our Doc Martins.  I say “our” because when your mom gave me these boots ten years ago, it was only a loan. I knew that the other half of the bargain was that I would give them to you where you were thirteen and I (unthinkably! at the time) would be twenty three. Incredibly, that day has come. I’m sad to see them go, but I also know that they are ready for a whole new era. Before I pass them to you, I want to give you a sense of where they come from.
Our Docs are dark green. The unusual shade alone marks them as old, as shoes with a story; shoes that have walked a mile. The shoe repairwoman who worked on them had to deal with leather ripped at the heels and faded toes. When your mom gave them to me I changed out her traditional black, rounded shoelaces for a neon yellow. These laces have marked our Docs as perpetually inappropriate for work– a shame, because they were so comfortable, but great for adventures and for school.
These shoes have felt more to me like a family heirloom than any piece of jewelry or Judaica ever has. Our Docs represent a Jewish womanhood that’s about more than creating a home with Shabbat candles or looking fancy and lady-like in pearls. These boots – you’ll notice when you try them on – are made for stomping, for anger and rebellion, endurance, and the pursuit of justice that is the most Jewish of our values.
You and I come from a line of Jewish women who demand that there is room in the world, for us and for all people. You will be the third actual recipient of these shoes, but there is a much longer line that they represent.
My namesake is Lena, our great-great-grandmother. Living on New York’s Lower East Side, she helped spread the socialist message of Eugene V. Debs by translating his speeches into Yiddish for Jewish immigrants. She was also was a supporter of the early birth control movement and when access to safe abortions was scarce, Lena gave abortions herself on her kitchen table. With a knitting needle. She believed that no woman should have a child she couldn’t afford to feed. At a time when women, especially poor women, were not expected to be politically active, our great-grandmother was as a role model for strong Jewish women.
Your namesake is Augusta, Lena’s daughter. GG was a feminist hero in more subtle ways. Like so many women before us, she fought wars on kitchen tiles and behind bedroom doors, in aprons and bathrobes. Instead of going to college on a math scholarship, she stayed home to take care of her family and became a bookkeeper. After she retired, GG became the oldest ever graduate of St. Petersburg Junior College, finally earning her diploma at 81. She was, in her own right, a woman to be reckoned with.
I can only imagine what your mom did while wearing these shoes. I know that my earliest memories of her are with striking purple hair, bright lipstick, feather boas, and a leather motorcycle jacket painted with a portrait of Elvis. I can imagine that she felt herself become a Jewish adult woman in these shoes, but I don’t know for sure, you’ll have to ask her yourself.
What I can tell you is where our Docs have taken me and how I went from being maybe a little like you (or your age, anyway) to being the me you know now.
I wore these shoes through high school and to my semester abroad in Israel. I wore them up and down Masada in the early morning; I wore them through the streets of Jerusalem and the Kibbutz where I lived that semester, and to Hebrew school for my Confirmation class. I wore them as the Negev sands tore at our leather and seeped into our soles. I wore them to high school parties, where I drenched them in sweat and spiked punch. I wore them to debate tournaments in DC, breaking the business dress code for the comfort of the familiar laces wrapped around my ankles. These were the first steps of my Jewish adulthood. I learned that it was hard to be an outspoken woman, one who cared and cried easily. I learned that it was hard to take up space. The day that I got into my first – and only ever – real fight I was wearing our Docs and defending a passed-out girl at a party from an over-eager male classmate. They gave me courage.
And then I got to college. The world got messier; the fights got bigger.
I wore our Docs as I led a march down from my college library to a meeting with members of the College Board of Trustees where we demanded equal access to education free from gender-based violence.
I wore our Docs when I came out to my dad, sitting in a coffee shop in Beit Shemesh, down the road from where he grew up. I knew then that while I followed in the line of our families’ Jewish women, my queer fights would be different from my mother’s straight ones.
I wore our Docs to the first meeting of my editorial staff for the blog I ran in college. There, I met a new writer who would become my college boyfriend, who was, among other things, an atheist and a Muslim.
I wore our Docs when, just after graduation, my then-boyfriend told me I was being blind on Israel. Couldn’t I see what was happening to the Palestinian people?
I have spent the last two years in Washington, DC. First as a legislative assistant for our Reform Movement and now at an interdenominational Jewish organization, doing the values-based work that our mothers have taught us to do. I wear our Docs less (as I said, they’re not super work professional) but their lesson stays with me: Jewish women stand up against injustice. And yet, some of these questions of fulfilling our legacy and living up to our Docs continue to pop up, as much as I try to push them down.
See, we are part of the first generation of American Jewish women who can see the pain of Israel’s indefinite occupation of the West Bank and the constant siege on Gaza. We are the first to come of marriageable age (eventually!) where there is no federal legal obstacle to marriage between two women. We are members of a generation that is more diverse than any before us and has more – but not total! – gender parity. As you enter the workforce in 2025, the wage gap will hopefully be smaller than it was when I started my career in 2014.
We are in many ways the most empowered generation of Jewish women to ever exist. We can run for president (if a Jew and a woman are running against each other now, who’s to say a combo option couldn’t run in 2020??), we can run businesses, we can have abortions, and we can marry whomever we love.
In other ways, we are still less empowered than our male counterparts and than our parents. The institutions that raised us, our synagogues and denominations, our summer camps and Israel trips and Jewish orgs, sometimes refuse to hear us on the issues of justice that are essential to us, particularly concerning Israel and the ongoing Occupation. Affiliation often seems more important than engagement. It feels as if they aren’t growing up as fast as we are.
Our institutions still don’t know how to incorporate and fully include Jews of color. Or queers. Or, for that matter, women in leadership. Or interfaith families. It was amazing to have so many women leaders on the bima at your Bat Mitzvah, five women rabbis and a woman cantor, but it shouldn’t be notable. The fact that it was notable means that it’s rare, that we’re still a long way from equal representation in leadership. They also don’t know how to include questions about Israel like the ones I posed above. So, my dear, here is a question for you: How do we grow into our Jewish adulthood despite Jewish institutions that would rather stay Jewish in name than in action?
In welcoming you into your Bat Mitzvah and your covenant with this community, I am also welcoming you into the struggle and community of being a young Jewish woman. I don’t know what right answer is to that question.
In short, here are your old, third generation shoes. Do with them what you will. I hope you remember what they’ve been through. I can’t wait to see where they will go.
All my love,
Your Cousin Liya

One thought on “Our Doc Martens, Our Judaism: To My Cousin on the Occasion of her Bat Mitzvah

  1. Does that mean that wearing Doc Martens is not offensive to the Jewish people, given who the creator of them was?

    I bought mine, blythefully unaware of the history of the brand. Now that I know, I am hesitant to wear them.

    I am not Jewish, but I abhor anything to do with nazis.

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