Songs of the Sea

This Passover, all of my seder plates had oranges on them, to stand for intersectional inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks, widows, and all individuals marginalized in the Jewish community. In all of my seders (and I went to three) we mentioned Miriam’s cup, reminding us to bring women’s voices back in the room. At all of my seders, women read as well as men, and I felt confident leading prayers from my various seats at my various, homely, tables. Feminism, intersectionality and our liberal campus values garnished the meals that were gifted to our communities, made with hours of my best friends’ free labor. They brought to mind the freedom we envision for all genders, even in a world where Hillary Clinton can lose a general election.

Despite this rhetoric of gender equality, I feel supremely uncomfortable with my role as a woman in the Tufts University Jewish community. The atmosphere on campus in institutional Jewish spaces is imbalanced, favoring the voices of those men who speak up and embody the militarized, Zionist Israeli ideal. The Jewish community has an obligation to examine its relationship with gender and the enfranchisement of certain voices over others, and to question women’s attitudes towards anti-BDS and pro-Israel activity on campus.

This atmosphere is mystifying in light of both the Israeli military narrative, and that recreated by liberal Jews in America over the past few decades. The Israeli military drafts both men and women, sexualizing the Israeli female military officer figure and creating an appealing, Western veneer of equality. While the U.S. was debating women’s role in the military, Israel was often brought up as a role model. Similarly, American Judaism (particularly in the Reform and Conservative movements) is constantly moving towards and articulating gender rebalancing, particularly as American Jewry is tied to the socially political left on a variety of issues. With female Rabbis and my own Bat-Cohen heritage, we embrace our egalitarian nature, and look down on Catholics and Muslims for their inability to do the same.

Despite the alignment of the Jewish and Israel storied gender equality with a slow shift in commonly accepted American norms, sexism is regularly perpetuated by a culture of (white/hetero-) male superiority, both in religious and Zionist spaces. This gendered conversation begins with the advocacy of heteronormative Jewish family values, in which an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) finds his mate on a Birthright trip, after which they are fruitful and multiply. Although Judaism passes through a mother’s line, only fathers can pass on their holy “tribe” through naming, rending my sister and I the last Cohen’s in our family tree. Gendered valuing of individuals continues in certain traditions in those allowed to read Torah, those permitted to lead services, and those counted in a minyan. Gendering of religious spaces is ever present, in our pronouns used for God and in the discomfort I feel when male colleagues invite me to Chabad, not recognizing that my presence is not deemed relevant in their services.

In Zionist spaces on this campus, this same dynamic plays itself out in the name of geopolitical goals. Men are deemed capable of serving, and sport IDF sweatshirts and Israeli flags as if to legitimate their physical capability and worth. Political office and political lobbying are seen as typically male, aggressive roles, and men are promoted for their ability to seem “tough” in a system of political power. Israeli politics has been swamped by men lauded for their military or intelligence achievements ever since Golda Meir’s exit from the scene, and cultural material around the Israel-Palestine conflict consists of reenactments of Mossad’s hypermasculine culture and women as the objects of thirsty, aggressive male affection. Even in negotiations, we are constantly reminded that our diplomats are not being masculine enough.

As a woman working and studying national security, it is already confusing to participate in systems labeled oppressive. Discourses of intersectionality would suggest that I should find solace in the liberation of all peoples by joining a more righteous, or ethically pure group. Would my femininity not be more embraced in our campus’s alternative Jewish spaces, which migrate from home to home and often feature a more hip guitar accompanist, or in the more social-justice focused Students for Justice in Palestine?

I yearn, though, for the same prayer melodies that echoed through my synagogue at home. I speak to God in the language of my ancestors, and feel uncomfortable strumming away my blues in English. Similarly, I want to articulate, in my own voice, my connection to Israel: a country where I took some of my first steps of independence in middle school; where I gained my confidence and lost it in the span of two months of high school; where I can live in Jerusalem and experience intense inclusion and intense rejection simultaneously.

I would label myself as a Zionist, but watching the anti-BDS crowd at the Tufts Community Union Senate meeting on Sunday, April 9th, I could not identify with the community standing up for Israel and Zionism. Although no photographs were taken at the event, I can vividly picture the mainly-male-mob standing in one, polarized corner, as a few female friends and I sat firmly in the middle of the room. When one member of that group was firmly asked to leave for misconduct, he was physically defensive, and ultimately apprehended by the Tufts University Police Department. Multiple individuals left the room for fear of their own safety, and this panic was not confined to one side.

I found myself caught in the nuance of the BDS debate, and I did not feel like I had a voice in the conversation of the institutional Jewish community. As the only woman often in attendance at the services I run through the Conservative Minyan at Tufts Hillel, I felt incapable of voicing my discomfort in a Jewish space, where I most wanted to assess my feelings. In the Hillel building, I have been greeted with complaints and insults towards the “other side,” without contemplation that I, too, may feel othered by this experience. I am used to this silencing in academic or professional security-focused spaces, and have the expertise in American military science to back myself up. I was not prepared, however, to defend my Jewish identity and my authenticity in the Tufts Jewish community. I myself cannot detangle my religious and political experiences in this community, nor can I distinguish the ways in which I feel I am not heard. In many cases, they become one and the same.

We had an orange on each of my Seder plates this year, and a cup for Miriam as well as Elijah. I appreciate these symbols of gender equality, and yet note that they serve no purpose if we refuse to act on their intentions. Miriam’s voice is significant, not only to balance that of Moses’ on our table, but in her own right as a joyous and meaningful leader of the Jewish people. Miriam stands up for the continuance of the Jewish people, for their survival in the desert, and for their joy upon liberation, in a scene dominated by a male narrative.

Miriam’s role in singing the song of the sea, to me, brought a voice with which I could relate back into a story within which I felt excluded and exploited. My Jewish journey has been strewn with doubt about my positionality and belonging within my communities. From the moment I was gifted a bag of tefillin but unsure whether I was allowed to wrap them, I have doubted Judaism’s willingness to welcome me as I am. Perhaps then, similarly, I am more willing to doubt the integrity of dominant, unobjectionable Zionist narrative, espoused by a community in which I never was fully accepted.

I do not want to delegitimize the experiences of those who inhabit fully their marginalized identities and their Zionist ideology, but rather to present the internal conflict that this issue has opened up for me. My Jewish leadership is not the articulation of a political ideology, but rather one dimension of my approach to a confusing and multi-dimensional world. When Judaism is defined only in a few symbols on a table, a few individuals speaking in a crowded multi-purpose room, or a few words in an official statement, it is not able to adequately give voice to our complex community. Individuals on all sides of this argument have lumped together the institutional Jewish community, to the detriment of Jews and non-Jews across our campus. In every space, let us take the time with which we set out our oranges and bless our extra cups to listen up to those speaking second, those speaking quieter, and those that follow with tambourines of their own. Who knows — perhaps they will bring us words of joy.

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