International Women’s Day and Purim

I recently wrote a post for Jewesess with Attitude Blog at the Jewish Women’s Archive about International Women’s Day and Purim sharing a date on the Gregorian calendar this year and thought I would share it here as well, as it got some nice feedback.

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International Women’s Day and Purim: Finding the connection (original post here)

International Women’s Day has been observed since the early 1900s. This year is only the fifth time the date has aligned with Purim and the fist since since the establishment of the Jewish Women’s Archive, so we obviously had to address the significance. (For those who are curious, the date aligned previously in 1917, 1936, 1955, and 1974)

International Women’s Day is self-described as a “global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.” Since its first official observance in 1911, it has been a worldwide observance of the struggles and accomplishments of the global women’s rights movement. (For a detailed history of IWD, check out this very comprehensive blog post from 2010.)

In the Purim story, we learn of two phenomenal women, who are definitely worth celebrating. Vashti, King Ahasuerus’ first wife, who refuses to strut her stuff (keeping it PG) during a party gets dethroned. She stood up for herself and refused to be treated just as a body on display, even though it was the end to her reign as Queen because King Ahasuerus and his advisers feared it would make women throughout Persia stand up to their husbands. Next comes up Queen Esther, who gets picked from a beauty pageant (again with the PG here) to be the next queen. She hides her Jewish identity because she knows it will help her in the long run, and reveals it only when she knows that Uncle Mordechi and the entire community are about to be killed. Both of these women could have taken the easy road, but they didn’t. They did what was right, even though it was not what was easy.

This is the very essence of what International Women’s Day is all about. Celebrating women who do what needs to be done, even when it isn’t easy. There have been, and will be, many times where we just have to say no, times when we have to cease immediate gratification for the big picture. We have to harness the lessons of the Purim heroines as we celebrate how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.

Purim is centrally celebrated by reading the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) which recounts the full story of Purim. It is important to note that in the Book of Esther, God’s name is not mentioned even once – we are to assume that God is the marionette pulling the strings and making everything line up from behind the scenes. This is another link to the celebration of International Women’s Day where we recognize not only the powerhouses on the front lines, but also all the women who have a hand in the background offering their support, encouragement, and wisdom to those who lead the battle every day.

It is so vital for us to recognize that without God lining up the events, Vasti and Esther’s heroism would not have mattered, nor would Esther and Vashti have been such great heroines without God’s support. So too, without the women behind the scenes, the bold work of the feminist leaders would be for naught and the vocal leadership needs the support of the rest of us. This year is a prime moment to recognize the importance of both sides of leadership, and to celebrate all women who are a part of the global efforts to impact change in economic, political, and social issues. We need each other in order to succeed, and if Esther could save the Jews, we can definitely keep improving the lives of women worldwide.

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I’m wearing a wig!

Yes, you read that right – Melissa, the woman who doesn’t wear wigs, is wearing a wig.

Luckily, its just for a Purim costume and I shall return to the world of scarves tomorrow, but for today I am be-wigged – and its weird! Aside from the obviously very different look, it feels weird physically, mentally, and spiritually.

@thdpr and @melschol - but who is who? (Post by Melissa)

The first question I’m sure you have is – what were you and what did the wig look like? Well, thats simple.  My dear friend Talia and I decided to be each other at work. We wanted to celebrate but also be work appropriate, and so a brilliant idea was born.  We wore outfits that were totally how the other dresses (and each other’s work name tags just to clarify), but the crux of it was clearly our “hair” – my be-scarfed head and her beautiful red hair are quite distinct. So today, I am wearing a wig. I’ll be back later to reflect on the experience!

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Ok, it is now motzei Shabbat, and the wig has been packed away and I can take a moment to reflect on the experience.

Overwhelmingly, I just didn’t feel like myself.  Maybe it was that the color was so far from my own, but I think it was more that it just didn’t feel true to who I am and my ideals at this point in my life. Plus, I was super freaking hot! I honestly felt like I was over heating all day, and while it was unseasonably warm, it was still only  ~65′ – I can’t imagine having it on in 85′!

The biggest shock to me though was number of comments I got about how pretty/beautiful/etc I looked with a wig on and subsequently “why don’t you wear a wig.” While I so know that our society values hair as beautiful, it was still striking to see how much it really affects people’s views of each other.  That having on a (very cheap) wig made such an impact on my appearance that people felt compelled to comment as amazing to me. So, while my vain inner voice said “what, so I don’t look pretty normally?” my rational voice reaffirmed the sephardic reasoning for not wearing a wig, and my overall non-sheitel status. (Though ironically on Sunday I am attending a Sheitel Sale, though that is primarily to support the friend hosting it and to get a WiGrip which I have heard such amazing reviews of but would love to try on before committing to.)

At the end of the experience, I am honestly so glad to be back to my scarves and hats, though I do have an increased appreciation for women who wear sheitels daily and there is still the lingering inside me to own one for fancy events.  However, I am sure all I will have to do to sway myself back to reality now is to remember how hot I was and how uncomfortable I was with people telling me how good I looked. For my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being – I really need to stick to scarves.

The Absence of Low-Fat Cheese and Other Stories

post by Jessica

Being the daughter of a doctor and a psychologist, I was taught from an early age to be aware of what I put in my mouth. At a meal, eat your protein first, then the vegetables, then the starch. Two cookies at a time for a snack. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.

Still, there were some adjustments to be made when I started keeping kosher and that sometimes, Judaism’s culture of food is hard on our health.

I made adjustments for keeping kosher. Because a smaller portion of the food out there has a kosher label, it sometimes means choosing something different that I might have previously. My favorite example of this is low-fat cheese. While low-fat cheese exists in abundance in the non-kosher cheese world, around here, the only low-fat cheese you can find around here is of various soft, white kinds: cottage cheese, cream cheese, etc. Make it a lot harder to enjoy cheese responsibly – especially since dairy products are one of the few kinds of food that when fat is taken out, they tend to not put too much fake stuff back in.

Probably harder to deal with is Judaism’s constant focus on food. On Shabbat, you celebrate by eating – holidays have special foods and special meals too. The Passover seder, one of the most widely celebrated rituals in Judaism, centers on a meal. There’s also the pressure of going to others homes and inviting others to your homes. We have a culture where there is never too much food on the table, even if it is only just the six of us.

So how do we deal with it? Once we realized we needed to, we changed our eating during the week to something like the South Beach Diet model (my father’s recommended diet). There are special challenges to being on South Beach and being Jewishly observant. We eat challah & dessert on Shabbat, maybe a little more than we should, but less than we used to. We remember, especially when it’s just the two of us at a Shabbat meal that Shabbat comes every week, so maybe we don’t eat a huge meal every week. A celebratory meal, sure, but something lighter. We eat until we’re full, not until we’ve made a good show of it or we’ve stuff ourselves into a stupor. And we sleep just fine during our Shabbat naps anyway.

We’ve always been big on meal planning, mostly because we hate grocery shopping (seriously, we shop every two weeks), but we also find that we have a much better idea of what we’re putting into our bodies if we have it on paper. We even started this healthy kick right around Purim, which is a festival of low fiber carbs and giving and receiving seriously sweet foods. So, we took everything, laid it all out, took the stuff we really wanted and gave the rest away. It all has to be eaten by Passover anyway, so we rationed ourselves to one or two pieces a day, and then got rid of the rest.

Traditional Judaism tries to be about moderation (i.e. Enjoy eating, but not everything). So we try to work with that in mind.

More on the Megillah

One of the bizarre things that I learned as I became more religiously aware (even before I became more religiously observant) was the role of the Israeli rabbinate in the discourse surrounding certain aspects of Jewish (mostly Orthodox) life. There is a Sephardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, each acting as chief decider for their community, Spanish, Middle Eastern & North African or Eastern & much of Western European, respectively.

Last year, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, made clear his stance of women reading the megillah. He said that a woman may read a megillah for men, if there are no capable men present. His ruling was based on the idea that because women are required to hear the megillah reading, and that the chanting of megillah is not considered the kind of singing that would inspire sexual thought. (Women singing is considered in many circles to be very provocative, which could be the subject of many, many posts!). As My Obiter Dicta points out (here), this is not exactly a stretch for the Sephardic community, since many of the groundwork pieces have been in place for years, and, more importantly, this has very little bearing on the Ashkenazi community, which is by far the largest segment of the Jewish community in North America.

Given this, the ruling might seem without a lot of practical value, especially since many communities have been holding women’s megillah readings since the 1980s (as I mentioned on Monday). These gatherings have been an avenue for women who didn’t learn Torah trope or how to read in public to do so, and for me, have been a welcome outlet for my joy in chanting, which I first learned through Torah chanting in college. I think many women gain a sense of ownership of their Judaism when encouraged to learn something well enough to read it on behalf of their fellow women, a very unique activity in the Orthodox community.

And yet, not everyone thinks they are positive. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the Cheif Rabbi of Ramat Gan, a city in Israel, says (here) that women shouldn’t separate from the community to do this, citing the fact that the women leave their children with their husbands so that they can hear the reading uninterrupted, and that women do these readings for “social or feminist reasons.” His solution? Separate readings for men and women, scheduled at different times (clearly with a man reading) so that both groups can hear it without distraction. Somehow, and I would loved to be proven wrong, I doubt that this happens in any synagogue with which Rabbi Ariel has any affiliation. He is saying that although these women are doing something totally within halacha, that isn’t good enough for the rabbis. I don’t think the attitude and status quo that he promotes are “good enough” for a lot of women out there, either and I am glad that my megillah reading is staying exactly where it is.

How I Learned to Love the Megillah

When I announced that I wanted to study in Israel at a school that self-defined as Orthodox, my parents were suitably concerned for their daughter whom they had raised Reform. Although Pardes is not well know for brainwashing it’s students, it is an Orthodox institution and I understood their fears. I really looked forward to my year of study there, as well as living in Jerusalem, but I wondered how exactly my egalitarianism would fit with what I was being taught. For the most part, on Shabbatot and holidays, the students were left to our own devices, and so it was up to us whether or not we went to any synagogue at all. There were, however, a few occasions in which Pardes was interested in hosting holiday events, and Purim was one of them.

Considering Pardes has coed classes and even coed chavrutot (study partners) if you so choose (R and I had a lovely ongoing chuvruta on the laws of weddings), I wouldn’t have been surprised if Pardes sponsored a women’s reading, in which only women read for an audience of only women. This is an accepted practice, although still not common, but this wasn’t how Pardes approached it. Instead, Rabbi Daniel Landes, the Rosh Yeshiva (Religious Dean) of the institution has written a teshuva (found here) on the reading of the megillah on Purim evening, the result of which is that Pardes sponsors a megillah reading in which men and women both read and both men and women both attend the service.

Aside from the actual content of the teshuva, which continues to be unique, I found their approach to it unique as well. Starting at the beginning of the year, a class taught any interested student the Megillah trope and the special verses in the Megillah reading. Towards the end of the first semester, each student was assigned a part in the megillah reading. We practiced hard, even having a dress rehearsal, and did the most professional job of reading as we could. I was assigned the first half of chapter nine, in which the death of Haman’s sons is described, which is generally read incredibly quickly and in one breath. As I prepare to do it for the fourth time, I can tell you that it’s a tough bit, but makes Purim for me.

The amazing thing about that reading was the two-fold approach to it. First, we had this co-ed reading with a co-ed audience in an Orthodox environment with a mechitza, and second, the majorityof the readers were reading megillah for the first time and were able to do a great job of it. The approach of teaching an al most entirely new crop every year means that not only does the Pardes community benefit from an amazingly high quality reading (if I do say so myself) and all of us go out into the world knowing how to read megillah, and importantly, megillah trope, well. It has totally changed my experience of the Megillah, and I continue to enjoy reading, although since we’ve gotten back, it’s been at a women’s reading at the local Modern Orthodox synagogue, rather than such an innovative reading.

Ring My Bell…

Purim is the quintessential one liner of Jewish holidays -“they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”  We are commanded four things on the holiday, to read Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther), to give charity, to give Mishloach Manot (goodie bags), and to have a Purim Seudah (festive meal).  Megillat Esther addresses “they tried to kill us, we won” and the rest “let’s eat.” While the latter is more obvious, the story of Megillat Esther may be less well known.

In short, Megillat Esther is the story of King Ahashverosh and his wicked advisor Haman, who devises a plot to kill all the Jews. Meanwhile, the king quests to find a new queen and Esther (the Jewish heroine) rises to the throne, a plot to kill the King is overheard by Mordechai (Esther’s cousin) and reported to palace security, the Jews upon hearing that their fate has been given over to the sword engage in severe repentance, and a chain of drinking parties rounds it out. To top it off – we are commanded to not just read it, but to do so in a communal setting and hear every word – twice!

Typically, we hear the Megillah chanted by leaders in our community.  Perhaps it is our clergy, perhaps some lay leaders, either way, they have to know a special trope (way of chanting) and be able to read it fluidly which is no easy task.  We, as the congregants, are then advised to boo, hiss, stamp our feet, use noisemakers, and any other method possible to drown out the name of Haman every time it is read. Some also state that you should drink alcohol until you no longer can identify the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” or in general between good and evil. The congregation traditionally joins in the recitation of four verses of the Megillah, when Mordechai is introduced, parades before the king, and is made deputy to the king at the end of the story. This all puts a large emphasis on men and good vs evil, while being quite disruptive to the flow of the reading.

Where is the joy in all of it, what happened to that Queen Esther mentioned earlier, you might ask? Well, some people are working on shifting that!  Women worldwide have begun waving Esther flags or ringing bells when her name is read to draw attention to the positive female component without disrupting the entire reading (which, don’t forget, we have to hear every word of).  Those who engage in these rituals indicate that it is a chance to experience the story more completely by drawing attention to experiences of the women, while lessening the focus on good and evil.

There is one woman in my community who uses the bells.  I will admit, when she distributed them last year, I didn’t get it. I needed more explanation.  However, after reading some interesting blog posts and articles – I will ring my bell joyfully this year and invite you to join me, wherever you are.