The only thing better than releasing a new book is being able to celebrate its birth with women you love and admire. I had that privilege last week when three of my favorite feminist thought-leaders spoke on a panel at the launch of my newest book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman. (You can read more about the book here.) The incredible Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg (Director of Online Learning at MyJewishLearning), Dr. Judith Rosenbaum (CEO of the Jewish Women Archive), and Sally Berkovic (author of the iconic Under my Hat) shared their incredible wisdom, insights, and experiences in a powerful exchange about women, body and Jewish life.
This book is a particularly vulnerable piece of writing. Although I have been writing about Jewish women’s lives for over two decades, I prefer to write about people other than myself. It’s safer, more protected, and in some minds more authoritative. But in writing this book, I made the decision to count my real experiences as their own source of authority. Because I don’t only write what I hear; I also write what I know. On my skin. On my body. I have lived this life as a Jewish woman and I have felt many of the impacts of our gendered culture in some of the most personal ways. At the end of the day, the personal is always political. Always.
But choosing to write about myself a risky proposition. Putting yourself out there
authentically is not as easy as Brene Brown makes it seem. While it may give you authority, it can also diminish perceptions of your authority. I have a doctorate, 25 years of experience in research and writing, and (now) five books under my belt. That should count. I don’t want to condense all my accumulated professional knowledge to one confessional. It feels reductive. Plus, exposing one’s fault lines means that the world now knows your truth, the one you try most to hide: That you, too, have been broken. That’s out there in the world now.
But the sharing is also the healing. And it is also the power. My truth is my power. My knowledge is my power. My work and research and writing are also my power. I am still here, stronger than ever. With my own story along with the hundreds of stories of other women, and men, that I have written about over the years.
I’m so very grateful to have been able to share this book-birthing with not only the three outstanding panelists but also with over 100 people who participated live and the 500 people who have since watched the video. Below are some of the best quotes from the event.
About “the personal is political”
(1) ‘This book is a manual for what “the personal is political” means. Because there is nothing more personal than the body. It’s about reclaiming personal experience as a source of knowledge and authority which is so much at the root of what feminism is all about. “The personal is political” is also hard, hard to hold on to the complexity. The book is a reckoning of how hard it is to speak personally, and how much we’ve internalized the dissociation so we talk from a distance. It’s easier to work on behalf of other people.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
(2) ‘There is a tendency to talk about what’s personal as if it’s not a systemic issue. But here you talk about the personal without losing the systemic bit of analysis. Not what’s my responsibility – talking through personal responsibility.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
(3) ‘I’m blown away by the wealth of knowledge and research and information that Elana has. But this book is something different. It’s one thing to share statistics, and it’s another to share stories, and we’ve recently seen how stories change the world too. The combination is quite powerful.’ – Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
About listening to ourselves, being kind to ourselves
(4) ‘It takes so long and is so hard to learn to trust your inner voice. Seeing how you do that and put the process into writing is a great contribution. Because it is so hard to be kind to ourselves to listen to ourselves to take care of ourselves. In talking about that and showing that there is a process that one can enter into around that models how that needs to be part of feminism.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
(5) ‘The book is a leap of faith. If you make visible what it looks like to be kind to yourself, it’s a communal invitation, an important kind of modeling, how do you treat yourself and take yourself seriously while acknowledging that you are in process, that we are always evolving.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
(6) ‘I enjoyed the depiction of evolution on the page, republishing pieces from other times while reflecting on them. Even in the reflections, you don’t put a ‘finishing closure’ on them but reopening the question to look at in a new light. You say again and again that this is not definitive, which gives people permission to not be absolute and not have to know everything.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
(7) ‘How do we get out of our minds? We’re so colonized in the head as it were by the culture that we live in that for so many women it’s hard to even understand what would make us comfortable. How do we get past the idea of our bodies as something we are performing for others so that we can understand how we are actually experiencing our bodies for ourselves? It is SO HARD to do that. It’s hard around a lot of issues. Around all aspects of women’s bodies. About what gives us pleasure. About what makes us feel good. I’m now dealing with long-haul Covid and even acknowledging that I don’t feel good took a long time. Saying, “Oh, I’m sick, I need to rest,” it was not in my vocabulary to acknowledge that. And that is a feminist struggle as well. And those things are all wrapped up together.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
About Jewish patriarchy
(8) ‘There is a patriarchy on all sides, not just Orthodoxy, and the questions you’re asking are universally relevant. You raise questions and invite readers to consider how all women are in negotiation with the patriarchy. And to also ask the feminist question of how to protect all women, even women who are protecting the patriarchy. I think that’s an example of not demanding consistency in our behavior which is very refreshing right now.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
About body commentary and “modesty”
(9) ‘Experiences I’ve had – being labeled as too fat, I don’t wear make-up, my hair, I look too boxy, hundreds of comments – I can go up and down my body and point to every spot where I’ve received commentary, in professional settings, from men and women, even feminist women. I think the experience of having something happen to you, it changes your perspective. It channels your energy into empathy. It’s a tool. The personal is a gift, as painful as it sometimes is.’ – Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
(10)‘"Tznius" was in the guise of dress-code in school settings. I showed up the first day of school in third grade wearing sandals and was told that I was not tznius because I wasn’t wearing socks. My best friend couldn’t be friends with me in third grade because I showed my elbows. These are very real experiences. When I was in tenth grade, I was told I couldn’t wear bobby socks that did not cover my knees because I was told by a rabbi that it was as if I was having premarital sex. I have a slew of stories and experiences like this.’ – Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
(11)‘The body stuff is everywhere. Orthodoxy doesn’t own it. Nobody owns it. It’s ever-present. The modesty language just systematizes it a little more in terms of rules…. I think there are still the same issues everywhere, parsing out what is liberating about either covering up or not covering up, and how do we assess that.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
(12)‘The labels that go along with covering your hair and your elbows go along with singlehood – around the pressure of fitting into this box of our bodies and the package that is expected or dictated. I once posted on Facebook asking for people to share their thoughts and experiences on singlehood, and I could easily compile two volumes from the content that was shared including the horrific things that single people go through, across the board. When it comes to body and dress – forced plastic surgery, people being told that if their nose was different, if their bodies were different, if they stopped eating as much, if only you blow-dried your hair, if only you made these compromises to fit into a box based on appearance, then they would make it and be married. So my big speech there was that marriage itself is not a goal.’ – Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
About women and work
(13)‘Rebecca Goldstein talks about the “mattering map”. We all want to matter, we all want to leave a legacy. But how do we do that through our work? What is the role of work in our lives? Is it about financial independence, or a desire to achieve something for myself?’ – Sally Berkovic
(14)‘Growing up in Australia, there were certain careers for women -- it was social work and teaching, and nothing else was considered suitable for a nice Jewish girl. I often wonder how we are shaped by these messages and how it impacts on us. Thinking about what messages we are giving our daughters as well as sons, in terms of expectations. I’m interested in how work shapes us.’ – Sally Berkovic
(15)‘I’m conscious about the messages that I give my daughters. I want them to do whatever they want, but I don’t really, because I think it’s going to be too difficult. And I hear myself telling myself off – I’ve never said that to them and I encourage them to pursue whatever they want – but should I be embarrassed that I have a middling feeling in the back of my mind saying, "Oh, I hope they don’t choose something that makes them complete workaholics”? But I keep my mouth shut. What are we role-modeling about our own working life?’ – Sally Berkovic
About women and money
(16)‘Another issue is women in philanthropy, and there is going to be a turnover of philanthropy in the next generation and women inherit, When women take control over purse strings, they can bring change.’ – Sally Berkovic
(17)‘“When women do step up as philanthropists to fund important initiatives on gender, it’s wonderful, thank God, but an unfortunate outcome is that some mainstream Jewish funders then think it’s not their responsibility. There’s an implicit assumption that women should pay for “women’s issues,” as if issues that affect women aren’t of general communal concern.”’– Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
About consciousness-raising and empowerment
(18)‘I kept thinking about consciousness-raising because the book functions as consciousness-raising on the page. I hope the book will spark a lot of consciousness-raising in person. It’s particularly important during these Covid times, and being able to bring that process to life on the page and invite people into it is an important contribution. It creates space to acknowledge that we’re struggling because we’re all struggling’. – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
(19)‘I was in an interesting position when I was Rosh Mosh [head of camp] because there was an expectation to deliver what is known as the "tznius speech," in which women staff in camps are told that they had to be role-models by following the dress code. This happens in every summer camp that I know of. In the end, I tried to leverage it, and by the time I finished with it, it was no longer the "tznius speech" but the "women’s empowerment speech". As in, "We’re here to be in camp, to get dirty. We didn’t hire you for your fashion, but to lead from a place of strength where you do not talk about your diet, and to build strong bodies and minds and confidence and be an example of what it means to be a strong woman." It was amazing that a speech that I dreaded became a highlight of staff week and some even said the summer.’ – Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
(20) ‘I come to this work as a historian, where so much of our work is about elevating a range of voices and experiences so that there is a richer Torah to draw on so everyone can acknowledge that nobody’s experience is isolating nor is it definitive. Your voice captures that spirit and invites others to engage in that work as well.’ – Dr. Judith Rosenbaum
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, researcher, and activist. Her latest book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my life as a Jewish Woman, is available from Lioness Books here