Is it feminism if you don’t know it

I read “The Feminine Mystique” as 2016 turned to 2017. I spent several hours riding from Harlem to Crown Heights and back on the first day of the year, engrossed in the feminist classic, somewhat embarrassed to be coming to it so late.

I hang out with people for whom I assume Betty Friedan’s book is biblical; if they haven’t read it they’ve absorbed its content anyway. And I had been feigning feminism for several years now, so the outrage that began to flame in me as I hurtled to Brooklyn felt amateur.

I was hangry by the time I reached Crown Heights to meet my family for dinner at a greasy Kosher restaurant. They had already posted a picture to WhatsApp — a religious ritual at this point — of the whole gang surrounding a table covered in the disposable flotsam of dinner.

I walked up a dark Empire Boulevard, and passed the Kosher market where the automatic doors were open, framing a large, shoddy man in black hat and beard, paying at the cashier. I stared egregiously at him, thinking that if I looked harder, I would know him.

Then I saw a poster stapled to a pole advertising a lecture series called “Dating with awareness,” with Chana Schneider*, an acclaimed dating expert. The name catapulted me back ten years to a makeshift classroom in Tzfat in Northern Israel when Chana Schneider had come to talk to my seminary class about dating and marriage.

I remember only that the gist of the conversation was advice on how to deal with petty arguments about open toilet seats and dirty socks left on the floor. As a 17-year-old, this genre of marital education seemed ridiculous. I had no intention of marrying anytime soon. And this dowdy woman, in blond wig, oversized suit and buttoned-up shirt, who was heralded as some sort of bride-whisperer, was not going to be my guide to womanhood.

Since then, I have made choices that would have endeared me to feminists, but I did not know it. I went to college, I chose a career, I left a set of rules and searched for new ones. Yet somehow I’ve been called a bad feminist by feminist friends because I don’t know their canon and my version of sexism was and remains different. (The slow realization of my body’s power over men, something I had legitimately not known until my middle twenties, meant that for a long time I preferred reveling in that power, rather than acquiescing to the narrative that a male-dominant civilization equals a male-dominant interaction on a street corner.)

Ironically, in following the path away from early marriage, I ended up living across the street from Chana Schneider and her many happy, well-adjusted children in Los Angeles. I ate Shabbat lunch with her and was advised to seek her counsel by people with my best interest at heart.

Now, reading Betty Friedan, I recognized so many of the argument that had been made in the name of god and the Torah. And here there were, visible now as angry, domineering, morally righteous, outrageous positions of men against every attempt women made at freedom. Some of those arguments had been made by our beloved Rebbe, whose teachings line the walls of my childhood home and continue to dictate the lives of my parents.

Empire Grill is a loud shop, full of Israelis and Yeshiva students. When I came in, a patron was slurping noodles steeped in a brown sauce off a paper plate. I sat down next to my mother, a woman who bore nine children, and who since her last child has left home, has blossomed. Her brown wig had been curled to frame her face like a young girl. She talked gaily about shopping with her twin-sister.

Later, I left my mother outside my brother’s home, where she’d play grandmother to his five or six kids. I took the train back to Harlem where I live with two roommates, too many frozen Trader Joe’s dinners, and a life that is Chana Schneider’s worst nightmare.

*Not her real name

  • Coming from a world closer to where you are currently journeying , but sojourning through life in a world closer to your parents universe, I would like to point out some points to ponder:
    You write: “… mother, a woman who bore nine children, and who since her last child has left home, has blossomed.” * In which state is/was SHE happier? …feeling more fulfilled? Had she experienced the latter state without first having raised a family, how would that change the experience for HER?

    You write: “….our beloved Rebbe…” Just a recollection; something ingrained; something else altogether?

    Notwithstanding your rejection of “a set of rules” in search of “new ones”, where do you think your desire to do good comes from? Have you noticed that yours is different from that of many of your peers? Perhaps it is more consistent; less selective?

    Just my 2¢. Your honest perspective is refreshing.

    • Each of those requires its own essay, but I’ll try to answer succinctly.
      1. Blossomed – The sentence was intended it be observational, not judgmental, although it would be hard to argue that the my worldview isn’t shaped by the particular women in my life.
      2. Beloved – It’s complicated, and I’m not ashamed to say that.
      3. Kindness – I have a lot of thoughts on this but let’s just say that no, in the liberal New York university/media bubble people don’t talk about being ‘good’ — they don’t insist on kindness, self improvement and generosity as virtue, thought they do talk about fairness and justice as ‘rights.’ However, in fairness, we sucked at all the moral rules we set for ourselves. We were elitist, divisive and endlessly judgmental.

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