HER STORY #22 - Hope
I moved to Israel in 1993, and except for three years in Australia, I have lived in Israel ever since. I came here at the age of 23. It had been a dream since high school.
At the time it was 100% the right thing to do. I don't usually miss Brooklyn or New York. There are many things that I am grateful for here and happy about. I am glad that my children are Israeli. I am grateful that we were able to be part of this, the Jewish state. But I don't know if I'll be here forever. Life in Israel can be very very hard and can wear you down. However my children are in the army, so moving isn't really an option.
I don't find regret to be a useful emotion. All of my decisions were taken at the right time, but I made a lot of sacrifices.
When people talk about Aliyah, nobody tells you all the implications of giving up on a life in your native tongue - what it means to be writing notes to the teacher in Hebrew, reading appliance instructions in Hebrew, finding ingredients in Hebrew. You lose a certain piece of yourself when you immigrate to a country with a different native language. And ideology cannot always replace that scar.
Also, living in Israel is very different from other Western democracies because there is no separation of religion and state. Living in Israel means, in a certain way, living according to religious rules. A lot of religious ideas govern your personal status and personal life (e.g. Shabbat, divorce) as well as general ideas about women. Some days you can feel like you're regressing in terms of the ideas that surround you about who you are as a woman, as a Jew.
I realize that sexism is everywhere, so it's not as if Israel has monopoly over sexism, but it's really hard here. I would like a break.
I have written about, how my Zionist ideology has evolved, from one in which I was super-right-wing to one in which I am neither right nor left but completely alienated from the entire discourse.
I feel that many of the Zionist ideals that I was brought up on that made me want to do Aliyah, are lies. I'm not saying that anyone forced me. I wanted to come and I came entirely of free will - eager, excited, motivated free will. But I feel that much of what made me want to come was not the whole truth about Israel, Zionism and Jews. I was an object of Jewish PR. Any time anything happens in Israel, the Jewish PR machine gets working. I'm just not interested in that anymore. My Facebook page is full of people arguing over this - using the exact same lines that my Zionism teacher used in 1984 like nothing has changed. Like the entire conflict would be over if the world just accepted our rhetoric. But it's not that simple.
Jews, Israelis, have made some serious mistakes. And we need to pay attention to what our detractors say about us. We need to know what pains we have caused others and stop saying that it's just a matter of rhetoric. We need a vision for ending the war, and the leadership currently has none. Bibi Netanyahu ignores values of equality, the idea that all of us are human beings, plus he has a terrible record on gender rights, and has no understanding of the need for compassion. He goes on his war path, his spiral of creating fear and telling how great the Jews and Israelis are. We need another way.
The experience that I have from living in Israel is like the experience of being a woman in the world: Constant experience of men that talk and don't listen making you feel that what you feel and think is wrong.
For 20 years I have been active in Jewish feminism. I was active in the organization ICAR [The International Coalition for Agunah Rights] helping women, who are denied a divorce. Then I did my doctorate on Gender and Education. Then I worked for a whole bunch of different feminist organizations. I worked in various capacities for many women's organizations, like Mavoi Satum, Kolech and the Center for Women's Justice, and others. I wrote three books about gender, and I have written hundreds of articles on gender (for the Jerusalem Post, Forward and every other major Jewish newspaper). I have also written about gender for Slate and the Atlantic, so writing became my main thing. I also spent a lot of years fundraising for women's organizations.
I grew up within Orthodoxy, in a very established family. I grew up with four sisters. My father was a big man on campus. It was a very patriarchal and chauvinistic family.
Where I grew up, in Orthodox Brooklyn, Shabbat was about clothing - at least for the girls. For my father it was something else - it was about praying, leading services, reading Torah. For us four sisters and my mother it was all about getting dressed and our appearance in public. My father would head out to shul [Yiddish term for "synagogue] early, and my sisters and I would spend the next hour getting dressed - what accessories fit what, whose stomach looked fat, who had the right heels and stocking. When we showed up to shul, we gossiped, chatted, we would comment on who wore what, who looks pregnant, who looks good and who doesn't. Then we came home, and my father came home and would sit at the head of the table. My mother stood in the kitchen, and my sisters and I would serve him meals, while my sisters and I would talk about fat. The most important thing in all of this was that while we were serving, we would stand in front of my father and asked him, how we looked. He would look at our stomachs, chins, legs, but mostly at our chins. He would tell us, based on looking at our chins, whether we lost weight or gained weight that week. From the time of my childhood, I was terrified about my chin. I look back at pictures from high school, and I was thin, but my father would tell me, if he thought that I had put on weight. As girls we learned that being skinny was everything.
I have to say also, that this really had a terrible effect on my experiences with becoming a mother. My father was constantly talking about pregnant women who gained "too much weight." And my obstetrician used to do the same thing too. This ancient man who my mother had been using for decades, all he ever talked to me about was my weight. But mostly it was my father, cautioning me not to eat too much, not to gain weight, because terrible things happen to women who don't quickly go back to their "regular" bodies. So this cloud - the fear of being fat - overshadowed all my experiences. It defined religiousness. It defined pregnancy. It defined womanhood. And because of that, I lost out on what should have been my own experiences in life. I should have been free to feel my own body on my own, to experience pregnancy in my own way, to love my body, to love my chin. But I feel very much robbed of natural experiences and of ownership of my body and my life. It took me many years to take that back. To really take back experiences of my own body. And now I spend a lot of time writing and speaking about these things. Maybe all my writing and speaking can help someone else process.
Also, I was brought up believing women weren't supposed to work outside the home, except in a sort of cute little hobby way. We were expected to get married early and always focus on being good mothers. I got married at the age of 21, was a mother at the age of 23 and not one throughout high school or college did I ever have a serious conversation with any adult in my life about my career. So that was also a big loss, a big hole in my socialization. This, too, took me a very long time to work out. It took me years to give myself permission to really manage money, to take my work seriously, to take myself seriously as a professional. It took me a long time to unlearn the harmful messages of my upbringing and early adulthood. But I'm okay now. Still healing, still discovering wounds, but really mostly okay.
The way I think of it, it took me a while to learn to talk back to my culture, and every time I speak to teenage girls, I tell them: "Talk back to your culture."
How do I unlearn what I grew up with? For me being a feminist is saying no to the things that I grew up with. It took a lot of efforts, doesn't happen overnight. I'm still doing it.
Luckily I married a really great guy. Neither of us were feminists, when we got married but came to it together. We came to it from a lot of common sense love. My family got so angry at me, when I wrote a blog post about how I believe feminism is about love. I wrote that the people in my family who are anti-feminist are teaching their children not to love them fully. They are still angry at me for that. And of course I took down the post less than an hour after I posted it because I got all these angry letters from family members. But I really meant what I wrote. For me, feminism is about saying, women deserve to be loved. Which means, we deserve to fully thrive as complete human beings in this world. We deserve to be able to work, to move around, to travel, to create, to think, to speak, to be heard and to choose our lives for ourselves. That is what feminism is about.
When I first married, I wore a hat, but later on I step by step took it off. Taking off my hat was a process. Once I rode the bus through Geula, a very Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem and saw these women, head covered with lots of children and things. I looked at all these women and their layers of clothes, their many children. At the time I only had one child. I looked at them and thought: "I'm no different." I wasn't "modern" or "rational, as I made myself believe I was, as if to say that "modern orthodox" women are not making the same kinds of personal sacrifices for the religion as Haredi women were. It was a total lie. We were the same, just to different degrees. It's all the same molding. Women serve the needs of men and society, and space is not really being given to women.
When I was nine months pregnant, and my husband was in the army for four months, I felt very alone. I didn't have many ambitions at that time. I was slowly doing a Master's degree in education, studying two mornings a week, in a program that would take me six years to complete. But I wasn't working, I wasn't earning money, and I had no dreams other than being a mother. I wanted to be "good." I wanted to do the "right" thing. The only narrative I had in my head was that career women made bad mothers, and I desperately wanted to avoid that fate, of being a bad mother. I really wanted to be a good mother, so I put my entire self on the side. I was bored, but I had no language for explaining that. I didn't know how to understand or explain what was wrong with my life.
One day, I was sitting in the park and looked at the bottom of the slide and helped my daughter get down the slide. It was really hot, I was nine months pregnant with my second child, my husband was away in the army, and I was covered in so many layers. I was alone and miserable. And suddenly I looked at myself, and asked myself: "What the hell am I doing?" It was my first time being honest about how I was really feeling. The next day I went out and bought myself a pair of pants. Six months later I stopped covering my hair. That's when I began talking back to Halakha [collective body of Jewish religious laws]. Halakha really doesn't talk to women. In a Halakhic lifestyle women can't ask themselves: "What do I want?" I get into fights with women about this, especially on Facebook. In all of these groups, you always have women saying: "I can't do this anymore. I have a full-time job, four children, head of PTA, running marathons, clean, cook etc." So I suggest things like: "So don't do it." I always tell women to pay attention to what they are feeling, to allow themselves to feel and to want. It's such a radical concept for so many women. In the religious world, women often respond: "Halakha!" I get attacked by many women. Which is the biggest proof there is that there is no room for Halakha for women to be free human beings, for women to feel and to think and to follow their hearts. It doesn't exist. As soon as women do that, even if they still keep Halakha, they are seen as no longer religious. As if to say, if a woman is listening to herself, she is worshiping a foreign idol - herself. That is how a lot of religious women are socialized. Our dreams don't matter.
I'm still negotiating, with myself, my family about who I am, and what I want. I try to encourage other women to at least at the very basis say: "What do I want?" At least admit that it's a legitimate question no matter what Halakha says. In religious Judaism, certain corners of society in general, the idea of women saying what do I want is not as legitimate as men saying, what they want, such as putting your career first.
When I took my hat off, it was the first real step in asking myself: "What do I feel? What am I wanting? What am I feeling?" I've learnt about incorporating these things into my life. Because I'm not satisfied with my life; I'm not living the life yet. I never planned that quite the right way. I always thought: "If I'm a good Jewish woman, belong to a synagogue and move to Israel, then I'll really love my life." I have beautiful children, a beautiful husband, which is nice, but in terms of what I want for myself, I don't even know if it exists in Israel, because I have had so many painful experiences here, it's hard fr me to even picture, what a great life looks like and to picture it here.
It's a very sexist, macho society. It starts in the army. The "macho" from the army impacts hi-tech, business; it's all connected. It is men "buddying up" with other men. The ideal man is a combat soldier (like Bibi, Bennett and Barak).
When I made Aliyah I was very right-wing. We lived over the Green Line for three years. I grew up with very right-wing opinions. I went to the same school in Brooklyn as Kahane [Meir Kahane]. It was only ten years ago that I began questioning some of Bibi's sayings and actions.
I'm so tired of Hasbara [public relations efforts to disseminate a positive image of Israel and its actions]. I spent a lot of years defending Israel, and I don't want to do it anymore. Being religious is definitely a lot of pressure to take on that right-wing narrative.
It was gradual. I began asking questions, and then it came to a peak during last year's war . It was the first time that I was in a war with a son in combat. For some people having a son in combat makes them right-wing. My husband became more right-win. As in "let the army do whatever they want to do to keep my son safe."
Right before the war, when the three children were kidnapped, I went to the funeral and listened to Rachel Frenkel. She was articulating a different idea. She is religious, but she was talking about sorrow, not vengeance and not about an enemy. She was just talking about the sorrow of an ongoing war. But Netanyahu also spoke thee, and he was the only one at the funeral who completely missed Rachel Frankel's cues and took the public in a different direction. He started doing his usual thing, talking about the "enemy." That might have been the first time that I really noticed that I really can't stand the right-wing narrative. Its language polluted something sacred happening at the funeral. Bibi came in and bulldozed it, and a week later we are at war.
It was brutal. We lost a lot of people, but at the same time Palestinians lost 2000 people. We literally destroyed entire villages, and the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] comes out with these explanations - about how these villages were harboring terrorists and hiding weapons and they all hate Israel anyway. All of that might be true, but no matter how true it is, we are still the ones responsible for killing 2000 people.
On the first morning, before we had a moment to fully absorb that we are at war, the news reported that 70 Palestinians were killed, and I was shocked. I wrote a status update about it - I wrote: "Seventy deaths. That is a lot of ruined lives. There has to be another way." I immediately got attacked for writing this - from people who I thought were my friends. I knew all the party lines in advance, because I've been on that side. It doesn't work for me anymore. We can't be destroying entire villages claiming that everyone in the villages are potential enemies and claim that we are so good. But saying these things is hard, because we are so acculturated to fighting the polemical battle. Jews know how to debate so well before we even fully engage with our humanity. I'm tired of all that. I'm tired of Jewish polemics and debating team tactics. I want Jews to talk less and empathize more. Listen more. And now, saying these things is even harder, because I have children in the army. It is very complicated for me. I can't really always say what I want to say. Maybe when they are all done with their service, maybe then I will be freer. I will be free to speak. And maybe free to move elsewhere for a while. Before I crumble under the weight of living here.
I'm marginally involved with different organizations working towards peace. I write articles about them from time to time. But at home, we are all pro-IDF beecause my kids are in the army. It is hard for me to share with my kids everything that I hear from the Arab women I speak to. I try, to make sure that they have some idea about the impact of their actions. But that can be too confronting. I can't undermine them when they are risking their lives. So I mostly take a gentle posture. Both at home and with the organizations I am involved with.
It's a double-life in some ways, hiding my identity and holding back my views, because it's too complicated. My vehicle for involvement is through writing. But maybe one day, after my kids are done, I will be able to really my thoughts and get more proactively involved in peace efforts. Or maybe leave, perhaps just take some time "off," leave temporarily and quench my thirst for some kind of social normalcy, whatever that means. Living in Israel for nearly 25 years has left me tired, drained, weary - physically, spiritually, materially, ideologically. Certainly I'm proud of many aspects of my life. I'm tremendously proud of my kids and who they are as people. And I don't actually miss America per se because I am not a big fan of the American ethos. I think America has what to learn from Israel in terms of attitudes towards material culture and also attitude towards parenting.
But if I was excited about those things when we first made Aliyah, today that is not enough to sustain me. I need Israel to be better at the basic components of society - compassion, equality, civil rights, and learning to see all people as human beings. I need more humanity. Some days I'm just very tired and need to experience a different way for a while. But I will continue to hold on to the belief that Israel can do better. I believe there is a better way, and Israel can get there. One day.
Interview conducted on January 13, 2016