In 1996, Eve Ensler broke ground with a play called The Vagina Monologues, consisting of a series of episodic narratives. Based on over 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women, the play addressed women’s sexuality and the social stigma creating a new conversation about and with women. The play explores consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, direct and indirect encounters with reproduction, vaginal care, menstrual periods, sex work, and several other topics through the eyes of women with various ages, races, sexualities, and other differences. Critics consider the work as one the most important pieces of political theater of the last decades. In 2018, The New York Times stated “No recent hour of theater has had a greater impact worldwide”
Every year, the play is performed on hundreds of college campuses. Inspired by The Vagina Monologues, many colleges have gone on to develop their own version based on the life experiences of its students. Performances at colleges are always different, not always pre-written, and feature actors writing their own monologues. The Cardinal Newman Society has criticized the performance of the play on Catholic college campuses. Yet, in 2011 ten of the fourteen Catholic universities hosting the Monologues were Jesuit institutions. What would the Monologues look like if performed on a Modern Orthodox campus?
The answer is in the recently published Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch. The book has received a nice amount of media attention and follow-up sessions on zoom. See the wonderful JTA interview that was subsequently translated into Hebrew, the well written review in New York Gal, and the appreciate review in Stern College’s Jewish Observer. One reviewer called the Monologues from the Makom The Vagina Monologues Frummed Out.
The volume is a collection of 32 individual narratives by Jewish women on a mission to break the taboo surrounding female sexuality in their religious communities. Featuring a mix of poetry and prose, all the pieces in the book are personal, raw, and enrapturing. They capture the that conversations about female sexuality have happened in Orthodox communities. Inside, dozens of stories, poems and musings — some anonymous — grapple with those conversations and their effects on women.
Makom is a Hebrew word that literally means place, but is also the common euphemism for vagina throughout the Talmud and rabbinic literature. The authors wished to reclaim the very word the Rabbinic sages used to sanitize the mention of our sexual organs.
The project is the brainchild of Sara Rozner Lawrence. Rozner was a freshman at Stern College for women when she attended a production of The Vagina Monologues. Rozner found that though she related to many parts of the show, it did not fully speak to her experience as an Orthodox Jewish woman, she sought a place where her own identity would be represented. She also knew her friends would not be comfortable at the original The Vagina Monologues. The book grew out of three evening of personal narrative, none of them held on the actual campus of Stern College. The first one, held in a friend’s apartment, surprised her by having sixty people show up. The next two had many more show up at the auditorium venue.
Sara Rozner Lawrence recounts in the book’s introduction “that she went to a pretty mainstream Modern Orthodox school and sex was just something that was never considered safe to touch. My mom assumed wrongly that I was getting the information at school and I wasn’t, and I graduated knowing basically nothing. Monologues from the Makom was born from a backdrop of silence.” Rozner narrates how, when she “was a young girl growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community, sex was not something we talked about. While there were vague references to the shadowy world of “relations,” they were always accompanied with warnings and shaming terms so that we would know it was wrong. The well-intentioned educators in my all-girls schools made their best efforts to instill in us both a sense that our bodies were holy and that they were dangerous, a source of inadvertent temptation for men.”
Rozner describes how “silence and secrecy about sex breed shame. When something as developmentally central as sexuality is ignored by parents and educators, many children naturally come to the conclusion that there must be something wrong and shameful and embarrassing about it. Rozner, who is now a Clinical Psychology doctoral student, emphatically states that “many young adults in our community are left with a lingering sense of guilt about their sexuality even as they attempt to enter into fulfilling sexual relationships.”
The book is groundbreaking and will serve as a historic marker for a new generation of Modern Orthodox leaders. In order not to be mansplaining to anyone, I will let the editors speak for themselves. I would also appreciate women who have different views to write a response to be posted in future weeks.
Of the five editors, Rozner already gave her views in the book’s introduction. Below is an interview with three of the other editors. The three editors, Sarah J. Ricklan, Naima Hirsch, and Rivka Cohen answered my questions. Each editor contributes her own personal perspective. Their personal differences in content and style are consistent throughout.
Sarah J. Ricklan is a third year medical student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Her academic interests and research include human evolution, women’s health, and access to healthcare.
Naima Hirsch is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as clergy. She serves on the leadership team of the Beis Community in Washington Heights.
Rivka Cohen is the Director of Partnerships and Strategic Development at Lissan, a nonprofit that promotes equality in East and West Jerusalem through language education.
1) What are young Orthodox women doing reading Eve Ensler?
Rivka Cohen: I attended The Vagina Monologues during my sophomore year of college. While I grew up with many feminist values, it was not until I started college that I started associating with the label. By the time I learned about The Vagina Monologues during my second year of college, I had already become comfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, and understood that the The Vagina Monologues held an important place in the feminist movement. Many of my feminist friends were attending the play, and some were even performing in it. I felt a curiosity, and perhaps even an obligation to attend.
More importantly, the group that performed The Vagina Monologues hosted a number of events during Vagina Week, the week leading up to the performance. Just a year and a half prior, I had chosen not to attend any of the sex-related sessions at orientation, because I thought that they did not apply to me. However, during Vagina Week, a sexologist came to speak, and as a 21-year-old struggling with the religious norm of not touching men (shmirat negiah), I felt like it was time to push my intellectual boundaries, learn more about sexuality, and explore my own. I remember feeling torn between the secular feminist culture that told me that I should be completely sexually liberated, and my conservative Orthodox culture that told me that I should be completely sexually repressed. However, I am very grateful for the opportunity that The Vagina Monologues offered me to think more deeply about my sexuality, which felt like a turning point for me.
Sarah J. Ricklan: I think some people are drawn initially to Eve Ensler’s work because of its place in the feminist movement and the initiatives that have grown out of The Vagina Monologues; her play highlights the multifaceted experience of womanhood across cultures. This play was the launching point for Monologues from the Makom events – which later gave rise to the book – because Ensler’s monologues, though broad ranging, do not perfectly capture the observant female experience. Perhaps one reason the Monologues from the Makom events were so appealing to young observant women is that, in watching or reading Ensler’s play, they realize just how much of their own experience is not captured.
For example, Ensler gives the female body – its actual body parts – a brash, explicit, unapologetic voice. Several of the women in this book do not feel the level of comfort, ownership, and understanding of one’s body that is required to write in that way. The first piece in this book, “Subjectivity,” discusses the alienation one woman feels from her own body, saying “…of course, it’s the soul that’s important/ But it’s my body that has me HERE/ And I’m living within the walls of a stranger’s home” (p. 1).
2) This book is written as 32 first-person accounts. Why is first person narrative effective?
SJR: The role of narrative is critical. Within the framework of Jewish feminist thought, Judith Plaskow argues that narrative can be a way to reclaim Jewish women’s history. She argues that we need to focus on Jewish women’s stories in Jewish texts and history, to the point of even coming up with our own exegetical stories, or ‘midrashim,’ that reflect the female role. In this vein, in using narrative, the writers in this book claim their position within Jewish lived practice. The narrative brings their voices into practices and spaces that were not previously performed or occupied by women, or not previously spoken about in women’s voices.
But it’s not just about claiming a place within the community. The descriptions women use in this piece are vivid and at times incredibly painful to read. Narrative and storytelling, then, serve as media for descriptive writing that forces the reader to consider the emotional toll these experiences within the community have had. We are forced to question the systems we’ve created that can produce these experiences.
Naima Hirsch: In her introduction to the book, Sara Rozner Lawrence writes about her concerns before the first Monologues from the Makom event: “I thought that at most 20 people would come and that I would have to beg my friends to share monologues” (xiv). After the performance where over 60 women attended and 17 women performed, “at least a dozen women approached [Rozner Lawrence]…to tell [her] that they had deeply needed this gathering, that it had spoken to the discomfort and shame that they were still grappling with” (xv). Coming together to hear individual stories about sexuality, gender, and body image helped women feel that they weren’t alone in their shame, nor do they have to suffer through it alone.
3) How does this book relate to #Metoo and consent?
SJR: We were already working on the book when the #MeToo movement became a larger part of societal conversation. We thought this was a critical moment of reckoning, so we decided to put out another call for submissions that dealt with themes relating to #MeToo and consent. In the final product, several pieces discuss rape and sexual assault within the community.
Strikingly, several pieces talk about assault within Orthodox institutions — and argue that these institutions did not equip them with the tools they needed. In the piece “It’s Different Than the Movies,” the author talks about an early Modern Orthodox high school relationship that ended with a sexual encounter that was not consensual. As the author reflects on the experience, she notes that she “…didn’t learn the word consent until college” (p. 31) and “…”wish[es] [her] high school feared less about students having sex, and more about students being abused” (p. 31). In another piece, “Shame,” the author talks about how she blamed herself for a sexual assault at an Orthodox summer camp and how this experience affected her future relationships.
RC: I would like to add that this book also includes positive accounts of consent. Notably, in the piece “Love on the Brain,” the author offers a beautiful and poetic account of her first kiss, including the dialogue that transpired between her and her partner. She recounts how he asked her “Are you okay?” and “You have to tell me if anything makes you uncomfortable or if you want to stop. Promise?” (p. 83) giving us a positive example of what healthy consent and respecting boundaries can look like.
4) The tensions around first kisses, first awakening of sexuality, first period, are all part of general American life. Why bother to bring in Judaism or Orthodoxy?
SJR: This book is different from prior narrative works about growing into one’s female sexuality because it presents experiences of both being observant and being a woman; growing up female while growing up observant creates a new dimension of experience.
For example, girls are encouraged to be “good girls”, which means they should be sexually conservative, avoid having sex young, and avoid having multiple sex partners. Observant Jews are given religious laws related to dress and modesty, as well as laws restricting touch between girls and boys. An observant woman who breaks the “rules” experiences sexual guilt for not being a “good girl” in combination with deep religious guilt. But these guilts are not merely additive – they produce a crisis that seems to exceed each individual “guilt”.
The intersection of these two teachings is expressed well in the piece in our volume “I am.” The author writes, “This body,/ I was taught,/ Is holy, is sacred, belongs to God./ Keep it covered/ To protect my dignity” (p. 5). The author’s dignity – her status as a “good girl” – is contingent upon the modesty dictated by her religion. But preserving her “dignity” not only preserves the author’s social reputation — it also preserves her holiness. So when the author breaks the rules of modest dress, she feels “no longer holy” (p. 5) and engages in a harmful sexual relationship. As the author heals from this sexual wound, she must reclaim not just her sense of self-worth, but also her sense of holiness.
NH: The tensions and expectations surrounding first kisses, sexual awakenings, and first periods have only relatively recently become part of general American life. It is because of young adult writers like Judy Blume that all of these tensions are common topics and themes in books, TV shows, and movies. Blume’s bestselling books Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970); Deenie (1973); and Forever (1975) and their frank portrayals of puberty, female masturbation, and sex brought the tensions teenaged girls were (and still are) experiencing into the public discourse, and gave Western media more tropes for their media set in middle and high schools.
There’s the ever-present cheerleader versus band geek dichotomy; the parties; the middle school dances and homecoming games. What does it mean to be a “good girl?” Does enjoying sex make you a slut? What’s the value in waiting until prom to lose your virginity? Everyone else has had their first kiss, so you might as well “get it over with…” You don’t want the other girls to see you change in the locker room because you’re still wearing a training bra, so you change in the bathroom stall and wait for them all to leave…
While many of those tensions and questions are present in Jewish culture, we have a different set of tropes that sometimes bring up different issues. For a number of reasons, environments like summer camp and youth groups become hypersexualized places where preteens and teenagers explore their sexuality, often in unhealthy ways. While camp is often a place for such experimentation, the subconscious messaging around Jewish continuity both at camp and in youth groups, especially outside of Orthodoxy, creates an even more hypersexualized environment. Additionally, the concept of a “nice Jewish boy” and “nice Jewish girl” (or NJB or NJG, as shortened on dating apps like JSwipe) become stereotypes and fetishizations; making even Judaism itself sexual.
This is often more fraught within Orthodoxy, because of the tension surrounding not being part of general American life that Orthodox Jews struggle with daily. We’re instructed not to be like average American teenagers: not to have sex or anything close to it, and to get married and have kids young. But we still exist in the world of general American life. We still watch the same movies and have the same bodies and desires. We still have friends who are boys (at least in the Modern Orthodox world), and we still struggle how to navigate the awkward situations when we start having feelings for those friends, or when they start having feelings for us.
There’s a lot of shame and stigma in the Orthodox world around these issues used to create silence and enforce complacency and conformity. But as the daughters of women who grew up reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, we can see how speaking up and writing about our experiences can be empowering. By creating ways to own our narratives, we can truly appreciate the universal experiences contained therein.
5) How do you envision a sex positive approach in Modern Orthodox day schools and summer camps?
NH: Sex positivity begins with teaching consent from a young age. Toddlers and preschoolers need to be taught that when their friend tells them not to, they need to stop touching them, no matter what. Similarly, boundaries need to be honored and respected from a young age. If a preschooler is being tickled, and they say “no more!”, the adult tickling them needs to stop right away, whether or not the child is laughing. Additionally, kids need to know the proper names for all body parts from a young age. By using euphemisms to talk about penises or vaginas, kids will sense that their genitalia are something to be ashamed about.
SJR: I don’t think that sex positivity is the goal. Instead, I think reducing shame and alienation from one’s body and sexuality should be the goal. “The Girl Who Loved Masturbating/My Complicated Relationship with Masturbation” describes the problem of shame surrounding sexuality. In this story, the author talks about the first time she experienced an orgasm through masturbation and the shame she felt surrounding this pleasure. She says she “… quickly began to hate [herself] for having dirty thoughts” (p. 25). She expresses the “relief” (p. 26) she felt when she learned that sexual pleasure within marriage was encouraged — finally, a sense of sex positivity.
As this story suggests, waiting until marriage to acknowledge sexuality can create feelings of self-loathing and guilt. Eliminating the taboo of pleasure does not necessarily mean encouraging sex in day schools and camps. Instead, it allows young people to understand their bodies in appropriate, healthy, and safe ways. Critically, within the framework of Jewish institutions, consent must be a focus. Even if things like consent are not taught from a young age, they should be taught in high school.
RC: I think that we need to change the way we teach such topics as not touching members of a different sex (shmirat negiah), masturbation, and modesty (tzniut).
The often-all-or-nothing approach to shmirat negiah is unsustainable, in my opinion. The concept was codified for a society and dating scene that is far removed from our current reality. And when teenagers or even adults inevitably “break shomer,” they are not given the tools to set healthy boundaries for themselves and others. I think that tying the concept of shmirat negiah to consent, rather than “saving oneself for marriage,” is a much healthier approach. I would like to see religious education emphasizing the value of having ownership over one’s own body and setting healthy boundaries for different types of relationships, rather than shaming all physical contact that happens outside of marriage.
I also believe that we need to do away with the outright shaming of masturbation. For women, this issue is even easier to navigate halakhically, and girls should know that masturbation is normal, healthy, and nothing to be ashamed of. They should be taught about their basic anatomy, even as it pertains to pleasure and not just reproduction. No girl should leave high school without knowing where her clitoris is, or which hole is which.
6) Is this even feasible, since Orthodox institutions by their nature are socially conservative and not sex positive (at best neutral)?
NH: I think it depends how we define sex positive. Right now, as I see it, Orthodox institutions (such as day schools and summer camps) are in active denial about the urgent need for sex education. I do think that schools need to teach about consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships. They need to acknowledge that their students will be sexually active in some way or another, not shame them for that, and make sure that there are resources available to keep their students medically and emotionally safe. I certainly do not think day schools should provide condoms, but I do think that they should teach about different forms of contraception.
SJR: I think it is also important for Orthodox institutions to realize just how harmful some conservative messages can be. In “Consent,” the author describes her abstinence education in school. She was told that “A diamond is most safe when it remains under key,/ Candy most desired when it is still in the wrapper” (p. 38). In the end, these lessons make the author create a distorted image of her own body. She writes the following about this distortion: “when I close my eyes, my body is finite/ it is a countable number of pieces I give away, in mouths and hands/ until I am left with nothing/ it has never belonged to me” (p. 39). The author’s abstinence education has not made her feel safe and in control of her body. Instead, she feels her body is not even her own — it belongs to whichever men she chooses (illicitly) to give it to. Even in socially conservative institutions, we should recognize that this result is tragic.
7) How do you envision modesty (tzniut) if one is sex positive?
SJR: I think we need to reframe the modesty (tzniut) discussion, especially in the context of the Jewish day school dress code. The dress code debate is an old one, but it’s worth seriously considering the messages we send about the female body when we enforce dress codes that are so different between boys and girls. I think this could be a chance to discuss professionalism — in all its complicated nuances — with young adults. What do we expect a Jewish day school student to look like? Why do we expect that? Disentangling tzniut and sexuality or sexualization is incredibly difficult, but it might help to start by being honest with ourselves and with our students about what these sorts of messages convey.
NH: Tzniut and sex positivity don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they can be. I think we have to acknowledge that for some people, being sex positive means not dressing in a traditionally modest (tzanua) way. There are also different ways to measure tzniut – I don’t think that a woman who wears pants or even shorts is automatically not tzanua. It’s about the context in which one wears those clothing items, and the genre of those items, for lack of a better term. There’s a difference between basketball shorts worn to run errands and tight shorts worn to attract attention, and similarly with dresses and skirts. There’s a fashion rule about wearing the clothing instead of letting the clothing wear you – and I think that applies here. Clothing is meant to be a way of expressing ourselves; our tastes and identities, not our bodies.
SJR: I think when we discuss tzniut, even if we don’t veer towards sex positivity, we can eliminate the shame and alienation that often results. This is articulated well in the poem “I have been trying to write this all week.” The author, when discussing her decision to dress according to the halakhic rules of modesty (tzniut), expresses frustration that these rules have caused girls to feel shame about their bodies. She writes that these rules “…teach young girls that they are something to hide/ That their bodies are ugly/ That even their voices are promiscuous/ That they should not be heard, but not seen either” (p. 11). As it stands in many Modern Orthodox institutions, girls learn to develop bodily shame that can and should be avoided — without necessarily being sex positive as such.
RC: Tzniut should not be about saving your body for your husband, nor should dressing “less tznius-ly” be about attracting others’ attention. I would like to see a sex positive culture that encourages girls and women to know and love their bodies, and to dress like they know and love their bodies – feeling comfortable in their skin and clothes for their own sake, and no one else’s.
We need to reevaluate how we teach the values of tzniut, taking care that we do not enter the realms of body shaming or slut shaming. I would like to see religious education emphasize knowing and loving our bodies and wearing attire that is both appropriate to specific settings and makes us feel comfortable. I find that the specific lines drawn for dress codes can often disadvantage bigger or more developed girls, and we need to be careful that we are treating everyone fairly and with respect, even if they have different body types. Additionally, I do not think it is that difficult to set dress codes in co-ed settings that fit both boys and girls (covering shoulders, shorts to your knees, etc.) I believe that having one set of rules for all can help minimize the shame that girls are often made to feel when they are given a special set of rules purely around their bodies.
Additionally, regarding summer camps, I think it is important to note that parents should be held accountable for the clothing with which they send their children to camp. I have encountered multiple girls who come to camp with clothing that does not fit the dress code, and therefore need to change their outfits almost every day. It is unfair of parents to send their child to camp with clothing that does not fit the rules, and we need to take care not to shame or blame the child, but to address the parents more clearly on this issue.
Addressing sexuality in summer camps is a critical issue. Camps are often ripe with bullying, shaming, sexual tension, and peers educating their peers. Moreover, children are supervised by teenagers, who are often in the process of their own budding sexuality and are not equipped with the tools to handle conversations about sexuality with their campers. In recent years, I am happy to note that there has been increased emphasis on sexual harassment prevention at camps, but I think we need to go beyond that. I strongly believe that pre-camp staff training should include conversations about sexuality, how to engage with your campers in a healthy way when they talk about sexual activity, and how to pay attention to potential bullying and shaming that may be happening specifically around sex. When I was a camp counselor, I was not given the tools to facilitate these conversations with my campers when they inevitably arose.
8) How does the book pay attention to an embodied female body?
SJR: Understanding female embodiment involves examining how the physical female body affects women’s experiences. Some pieces describe female embodiment of male religious settings. In “The Lady in Lime-Green,” the author describes the “stares” (p. 58) she endured for wearing a kippah as a woman. In “Bound,” the author describes the difference in physicality between her and her male counterparts as she is not expected to wrap tefillin. She writes that her arms are “smooth, unbound” (p. 63). When excluded from participating in Simchat Torah, the author of “Invisibility” describes feeling her lack of embodiment in the synagogue service, writing that, “…here in this balcony, in these most sacred moments, [she doesn’t] inhabit a body as [she] and the women around [her] participate in nothing at all” (p. 15). Participation requires embodiment — and in some religious spaces, there is no room for the female body. Women are left to either give female physicality to male rituals or not exist in those spaces at all.
Some pieces describe what it is like to encounter another female body in a sexual way. In “An Empty Place,” the author describes her first sexual experience with another woman. She describes “…something thrilling about two of the same mold swaying with open-mouthed wonder at the majestic beauty of their own self-sufficiency” (p. 20). Her appreciation and reflection on the sexual female body — represented by both her own and her partner’s bodies, and their interaction — allows her to better understand how female bodies navigate their worlds.
But such an acknowledgement of the sexual female body can be dangerous. In “Lucy, I Love You,” the author describes seeking out and enjoying pornography to satisfy her sexual desire for other women. She thinks about the actress’s “glorious body” (p. 23), but at the same time, she knows she “…cannot acknowledge the basic and simple joy, the beautiful life-affirming pleasure of exchanging caresses with [her] female lovers because to do that would be instant social death” (p. 23). As she discovers her appreciation for the female body, she realizes she must keep this desire quiet or sacrifice the life she has built.
10) How does your book relate to self-judging and identity formation?
SJR: Women in this book reflect upon how they formed their identity — how they came to be themselves. In doing so, their judgments about themselves often seem negative or ambivalent until they are able to reconcile conflicting thoughts and emotions. For example, many pieces in the book discuss sexual identity development. As sexuality and gender clash with other parts of their identities, particularly those dictated by their communities, some authors feel shame and negative self-regard.
RC: As I wrote in my own piece, “Touching Boy,” after touching my first boyfriend for the first time, “I still considered myself shomer negiah. The shame would be too much to bear otherwise. Being shomer negiah defined me.” (p. 80) Not touching men (shmirat negiah) had been a core element of my identity in unhealthy way, and when I didn’t uphold the expectations that I had for myself or felt pressured to uphold by the Orthodox community, I developed an extreme case of cognitive dissonance — telling myself I was keeping the rules even when I wasn’t — so that I did not have to deal with negative self-judgment or come to terms with my sexuality in a healthy manner.
Many other pieces in the book also relate to questioning and coming to terms with one’s own identity. In particular, two of the pieces that discuss menstruation contain such questions with a clear tie between menstruation and identity.
The book also delves into identity-formation as it relates to how others perceive us. In “Synonyms,” the author grapples with how others view her identity as a woman in religious spaces: “I will never understand why my gender is a controversy/ Why my identity is a question/ Why the way I was born is unfortunate.” (p. 70).
11) How does the book deal with an open discussion of menstruation? What is new here, haven’t there been 40 years of young adult books and after school specials on the topic?
SJR: Simone de Beauvoir famously argues that women experience shame as they enter puberty and begin menstruating. Fortunately, in general American culture, more open discussion of menstruation is on the rise. But the discussion surrounding menstruation in this book reflects the ways in which various aspects of observant life complicate the way women view their own menstruation — and suggests that a general American discussion of menstruation is simply not good enough.
One major example of this phenomenon relates to laws of family purity (taharat hamishpaha). In “Welcome to Womanhood,” the author, noting that her “femininity and [her] Jewish identity were entangled” (p. 46), tells the reader that, “The crimson clots named [her] ‘woman;’/ [Her] religion named them ‘dirty.’” (p. 46). A similar sentiment is expressed in my own contribution, “Private Places,” where I, upon preparing for ritual immersion for the first time, “felt that resentment, that sharp, debilitating sting that comes with realizing what womanhood in my world seemed to mean” (p. 103). Given the significance of menstrual periods in Jewish observance and the invasive ritual needed to purify oneself from one’s periods, it seems impossible that a woman would not feel shame and bodily alienation — and this cannot be alleviated by the general American discourse.
But it’s important to note that some of the stories about menstruation do not feel unique to Judaism. In “Built-up Bravery,” one woman talks about the abnormal pain she felt during her periods. In “First Period,” the author discusses how she lost her period during her long-term eating disorder, and regaining her period allowed her to think about her sexual orientation.
Maybe these pieces show that the general American messaging surrounding menstruation has not seeped into observant life. More likely, however, it shows that observant women, too, still deal with shame and fear about our periods. We can’t shunt our communal responsibility to discuss these topics over to mainstream media — our girls deserve a chance to have their own conversation, even if their perspectives are not uniquely influenced by their religion.
12) I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain. Any thoughts?
RC: Some of our authors have expressed that being part of this book has acted as part of their healing process. Many have found writing about their experiences to be therapeutic and pushing themselves to publish their work – even anonymously – was an act of bravery that has helped them to heal.
Moreover, many authors were nervous in the lead up to publication of the book, but once they read the book in its entirety, they felt more seen and heard than ever. These brave women bared their souls on these pages, and in doing so, created a conversation between one another in the book without ever having met. These women have described a kinship with one another, feeling held up by the other pieces in the book and knowing that they are not alone.
SJR: The tension between these two types of pieces is deeply troubling to me. Clearly, some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser. In these cases, the conflicts they faced regarding sexuality served as a constructive force in their lives and their development. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute.
Many of the writers who seem to have moved forward talk about how much therapy, friends, and people outside the community have helped them emerge from their struggle. But those with unresolved pain seem very much alone, their pain hidden from view. I think there is a deep loneliness expressed in the pieces with unresolved pain.
I think that, within the observant community, and particularly in Modern Orthodox intellectual circles, we romanticize the personal, private struggle — the internal tension. We emphasize the value of constructive tension in our religious and personal growth. We learn about Rav Soloveitchik’s “dialectical tension” and the superior religious and moral life that emerges from independently struggling with conflicting ideas. And it’s true — struggle and tension can produce deep thought that can shape our personalities and beliefs.
But such tension about shame, abuse, and consent come at great psychological cost, especially when encountered alone. We should certainly work to reduce the sources of pain in our communities through a more robust discussion about sexuality and consent, for example. But if we cannot or are unwilling to completely eliminate the sources of tension, then we need to make sure our young people do not feel alone. Lonely struggle, as we have seen, is dangerous.
13) Are you not just an example of Modern Orthodoxy arriving at the same place that liberal Jewish feminists were at 30-40 years ago?
NH: While Modern Orthodoxy is only now beginning to acknowledge the marginalized voices of our communities as they are (namely women and LGBTQ people) and to have honest conversations about the challenges they face, I would not say the situations are the same. Yes, we have a lot of catching up to do in terms of empowering marginalized voices, but because the project of Orthodoxy is to live according to traditional Jewish law, the halakha; the results we are seeking are quite different. It is a more delicate balance to find a place of empowerment within a system of religious observance that is definitionally unequal – how far do we want to push the envelope?
I’ve always understood Orthodox feminism to be more like the liberal feminism of Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan than the radical feminism of Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. Whereas Steinem and Freidan tried to work towards equality from within preexisting socioeconomic systems, Firestone and Koedt felt the solution to sexism could only come from a total revolution against what they saw as an intentionally patriarchal society. Similarly, Orthodox feminism has to work within the traditional halakhic framework from the inside out to make space for women’s voices to be heard and valued as opposed to tearing down and redefining the whole system from the outside.
SJR: There are absolutely similarities between the desires expressed by the women in this book and the desires voiced by liberal Jewish feminists decades ago. This is most notable in the pieces about ritual and prayer — women who authored pieces in our book express a desire to belong, ritually, within the community in a way that I think echoes the cries for inclusion that even Modern Orthodox feminists (and not only liberal Jewish feminists) had decades ago. The fact that we are still hearing these voices, though, should be troubling. As far as observant feminism has come, women are still fundamentally excluded in many ways.
RC: I do not think that this book is exclusively about the Modern Orthodox experience; some of our authors do not define themselves as Orthodox. Women from more liberal streams of Judaism will also see themselves in this book. We are all grappling with many of these issues – especially around sexuality and consent. Perhaps the Orthodox community is further behind than others, but we all have work to do.
14) Is this book a way station out of Orthodoxy for some of you? Rachel Adler sounded like this as a young Orthodox feminist in the 1970’s and then rejected the entire system.
SJR: This book is not a way out of observant Judaism,although it is a fair critique. Several pieces do note the kinds of problems feminists like Rachel Adler identify — the masculine language in prayer (p. 15, 68) and the patriarchal emphasis in scripture (p. 64, 66).
But I do not think this kind of thinking seeks to reject the system. To the contrary, I think the book shows a deep amount of love and respect for the observance system, to the point of wanting more than anything to be included. In “The Lady in Lime Green,” the author describes how her outward religious observance of wearing a kippah, though considered inappropriate for a woman, expresses her commitment to halakhic life. Other authors express appreciation of tefillin as a way to express religious commitments and struggles. The author of “Synonyms” describes that she wishes she could, as a woman, dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah.
This yearning desire to be embraced by Orthodoxy is seen vividly in “Invisibility.” The author, when a teacher suggests that she leave Orthodoxy, finds herself in crisis. The pain the author pens as she describes being kept on the outside is heartbreaking. These women do not want to reject the system. They want their place within the system. This book tells the community — in the most poignant language — just how tragic it is to reject committed, devoted coreligionists.
RC: In all honesty, this book definitely is a reflection of many women’s struggles with Orthodox Judaism. Not all of the authors define themselves as Orthodox, even if they were raised in Orthodox communities and are still observant. Many of us are still finding our communities and identities. I think especially for those of us who are single, there is a struggle to maintain the delicate balance of sex positivity, or even feminism, and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox community does not carve out a clear space for “older” single women in many ways, and it is difficult to balance competing values of halakha, feminism, and just being human. However, everyone who had a hand in making this book happen cares deeply about furthering these conversations within the observant Jewish community because we love and care about it and want to make it a better place.