By Chloe Julius
It is 1971 and a group of Jewish women have just founded a radical feminist study group in New York. They name it Ezrat Nashim. Approximately two thousand years earlier, a women’s balcony is erected in the Second Temple after complaints that the view from the women’s courtyard is too limited. The name given to this balcony: Ezrat Nashim. After the Second Temple is destroyed, synagogues follow suit and call the seating area for women Ezrat Nashim – the designation is still used by many synagogues today. It is 2016 and I have just called my brother – a fluent Ivrit speaker and general stickler – “Ezrat Nashim?” he echoes in a thick accent that still surprises me. “Women’s help I think.”
It is 1972 and Ezrat Nashim have been meeting informally for a year or so. They count amongst their dedicated members the author Martha Ackelsberg, the social historian Paula Hyman and the Talmudic scholar Arlene Agus. On the 14th of March, they present their manifesto Jewish Women Call for Change to the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement.
The manifesto is just shy of two pages of A4. It is emotive, thorough and pithy: a difficult cocktail to achieve, particularly whilst straddling Feminist theory, Jewish history and social criticism. The piece opens with the authors’ central complaint: “The Jewish tradition regarding women, once far ahead of other cultures, has now fallen disgracefully behind.” This notion of “falling behind” is critical. It is mirrored in their chosen name Ezrat Nashim: what was once sacred – the ancient ‘women’s courtyard’ – had become a site of oppression; ‘women’s help’ rendered women’s hindrance. Whilst the inequality they sought to end stretched further than synagogue seating, by subverting its ancient designation the women of Ezrat Nashim highlighted that this ostensibly harmless practice belonged in the past.
It is 2016, and I have just stumbled upon Jewish Woman Call for Change whilst researching for this piece. I eagerly skim the document, marvelling to myself at the perfect triangulation between Judaism, rebellion and feminism. However, after my second reading, the glint of the manifesto’s rebellion wears away. As someone for whom most of the demands listed have been met, the piece reads more like a relic than a call to arms.
Yet, there are those for whom the sentiment of the piece would still sting with rebellion, while others would find it strange to think that these demands were scandalous in 1972. Just like the name Ezrat Nashim, our understanding of Jewish Women Call for Change is entirely dependent on who we are. Rebellion, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder.
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The question of who is the central preoccupation of the Marom Journal, the idea being that one theme approached by writers of different ages will provoke a variety of responses. The definition of rebellion and, more importantly, what constitutes a rebellious act, is difficult to pin down. This is why it provides such fertile ground for intergenerational exploration.
The journal is divided into three sections, titled Rumblings, Release and Reverberation. This division is intended to loosely mirror the lifecycle of a rebellion, with a beginning, middle and end. Often, at the genesis of a rebellion lies an initial rejection. It is for this reason that the collection is prefaced by Birth day, a short story by Rabbi Roni Tabick within which the protagonist Daniel must decide between continuing his old life, or taking a leap into the unknown.
The essays in the first section, Rumblings, study the early stages of rebellion. In the first piece Reading as revolution and counter-revolution, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg locates the seeds of Jewish rebellion in the radical nature of its textual interpretation. Similarly, in Eszter Susan’s essay Rebelling through davening? Lab/Shul, a Gesamtkunstwerk of tfillah, she finds rebellion in prayer. Finally, in Judaism as rebellion: Michael Lerner’s Jewish renewal, Matt Plen uses the writings of Michael Lerner to make a case for religious progression by returning to Judaism’s rebellious roots.
The second section, Release, follows Rumblings by providing examples of the fruits of our rebellious tradition. Bookended by two poems on agency by Dina Pinner, the three essays in this section paint a varied and complex picture of rebellion in Jewish history. In The revolution will not be televised: a Talmudic analogy, Hannah Skolnick uses two examples – the Talmudic revolt and America’s civil rights movement – to debunk the myth that rebellion can be pinpointed to a singular moment. Rabbi Oliver Joseph in Rebel rabbi living on the line, pairs the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Talmud with his own personal experience to also offer a more nuanced picture of the role of rebellion in Jewish history. Finally, the section closes with Anthony Julius’ essay A few thoughts on fanaticism and zealotry, which brings together a collection of contemporary and ancient examples of Jewish fanaticism.
The three final essays in the third section, Reverberations reflect on aftermath. The section opens with a consideration by Jamie Keats on two photographs he took at a student protest in 2011. This is followed by Yiscah Smith’s essay Farewell & hello to the sides of the mechitzah. Divided into two parts, this essay explores the development Yiscah’s relationship with the Mechitza before and after her gender transition journey. In From corridors of empowerment to corridors of power, and back again, Amos Schonfield considers a picture of contemporary Israel still indebted to its own rebellion – the creation of modern Zionism. Finally, Deborah Silver concludes the section with an account of her changing relationship with her own relic of past rebellion – her tattoos – as she began her journey to the rabbinate.
All too often we are faced with images of failed rebellions, of soiled attempts and soured hard work. Frequently, rebellion is positioned as a misguided occupation of the young; a necessary stage we pass through but then shrug off in wise old age. This collection of writing offers a different narrative. Here, rebellion is presented both as an enduring character of the Jewish tradition and a subject relevant to people of all ages.
Chloe Julius is the founding editor of the Marom Journal.
The Marom Journal is available to purchase now at the reduced price of £15 from www.maromjournal.wordpress.com – all proceeds go directly to the Marom (Masorti Young Adults) subsidy fund.