I am flooded with a painful memory. The trigger is a story told by Ruth Calderon, a newly elected delegate to the Israeli Knesset and a maverick teacher of Talmud as literature and as legacy to the non-religious. Speaking at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Calderon is letting us know, with a certain pride, that at a recent meeting with more senior Knesset members hailing from the religious extreme right, her co-delegate Rabbi Moshe Gafni, was kind enough to pour her a glass of water.
I take a moment to decode the gesture: Was it noteworthy because it signified the willingness of the leader of an ultra-Orthodox political party to accept, even to nurture, Ms. Calderon’s new status as a Member of Knesset? (Gafni’s own party, Yahudat Hatorah, famously bars women from their electoral list and is actively fighting a lawsuit accusing them of gender discrimination.) Why had Gafni publicly reversed the customary Orthodox gender roles wherein it is a woman who stands at the ready to tend to men’s daily needs?
This seemingly anodyne gesture has symbolic implication in any patriarchal culture. Think of Pope Francis recently washing the feet not just of male prisoners but of incarcerated women, too: a gesture so iconoclastic that some Jesuits protested its flaunting of proscriptive canons, and so daring that it made the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
I am taken by surprise by the personal memory popping up from early adolescence. It goes like this: My usually robust mother has come down with a debilitating flu. Every day that she is bedridden, our household descends further into chaos. Left to our own devices, neither my brother nor I, and least of all my father, can cope with such daily routines as getting the evening meal on the table or making sure we don’t run out of morning milk. A neighbor is kind enough to deliver a full shabbes meal for Friday night. As we gather round, my 12-year old hands shake when I light the shabbes candles in lieu of my mother for the first time in my life. Then I hear my mom calling out in a hoarse and broken voice from the darkened bedroom: “You won’t even bring me a glass of water.”
I look up at my father. He tends to get absorbed in whatever is on his mind and forget everything else. Multiply that obsessive tendency to the tenth power when preparing on a “short Friday” for the advent of shabbes. Apparently, some time ago, my feverish mother had requested of him a glass of water and now she is calling out for it in recrimination and despair.
Considering all this – how my mother hovered over my father at every family meal, rushing from the kitchen to the dining room table in anticipation of his every need, why I am even asking myself what it is that impressed Ruth Calderon about Rabbi Gafni making sure that her glass of water was more than half full?
A week before, another newly-elected Knesset delegate, the Labor Party’s 46-year-old Merav Michaeli addressed Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, after services. Michaeli startled her audience by saying, “There is no such thing as women,” and then went on to explain,“that is, women considered apart from issues of social justice.” Michaeli “renews” the Hebrew language by routinely changing her verb endings to the feminine and rejecting the convention of subsuming the feminine in the masculine plural form. Since language emerges from – and perpetuates – cultural norms, I applaud the far-reaching implications of this grammatical choice.
Michaeli knows well that the treatment of women – or any other marginalized sector – is reflective of a society’s value system. When a young girl asked her how she felt about women wanting to pray with talis and tfillin at the Western Wall, Michaeli replied that she sees no justification for a gender partition in a public space. “In general, Israelis have become too accepting of walls,” she added.
I learn from language, memories, and symbols, coming as they do from both the conscious and unconscious mind. I can see the impact of feminizing verb endings and washing women’s feet. When it comes to politics, however, I am not reliably sure to discern the difference between empty gestures and those that are catalysts for real change. The Sharansky plan for egalitarian prayer at the Wall does however raise some doubt, particularly when hailed by the mainstream press as a “victory for pluralism.” His declaration of “one Western Wall for one Jewish people with equal access for all,” is to be actualized by a plan that enlarges and expands access while leaving the main traditional prayer area sealed off for ultra-Orthodox men.
Calderon tells her audience that equality for all is written into the Israeli equivalent of the Declaration of Independence. However, it is not yet written into the law of the land. She and others like Merav Michaeli have their work cut out for them.
I believe the time has come for American women to more vocally and pro-actively support Israeli feminists in their uphill struggle for more than symbolic rights. Memory’s wake-up call is not the realization of my father’s habitual neglect of his spouse, but of my feverish mother finally calling out in meaningful protest.
Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past twelve years and works as a writer and a life coach.