Tag Archives: jewish feminist

A tale of two shuls

16 Sep

Today I went shul-hopping on the streets of north-west London.

Shul A: A partnership minyan, where women were singing aloud and melodiously, leading those parts of the service permitted to them according to certain interpretations of halacha (Jewish law). Depending on who you ask, this prayer gathering is Orthodox, heretical, Reform, inspiring or, worst of all – full of those – don’t say the ‘f-word’ – feminists who want to be like men. 

A woman carried the sefer torah around the women’s section, then passed it over to a man to carry around the men’s section. The sky didn’t fall down, I didn’t spot anyone slipping down a slippery slope, and the service continued in much the same way as a regular Shabbat morning service elsewhere.

The same but also different. Different because some of the women were active participants in the service, and were that much more inspired as a result. No hysteria, no one turning into men. Clearly women who were serious about wanting to play an active role in Judaism. As someone who generally finds shul boring, I enjoy being part of the buzz of this minyan.

Shul B: A synagogue where I spent a lot of time in my childhood, a staunchly Orthodox congregation, where the women sit in the “Ladies’ Gallery” up above observing the men doing all the fun stuff (if anything related to shul can be considered fun) in the sanctuary down below. From my recollection, if women joined in any of the singing, it was never louder than a barely audible whisper. No feminists here.

I didn’t actually attend the service, I came at the end to the ‘social hall’, invited by an old friend who was holding a family celebration there. I did feel a slight out-of-body experience at setting foot in this place after many years away, peregrinations into other types of Judaism and many twists and turns in my life journey. However, what struck me immediately was that I still felt at home in this setting.

I may not look like the glossy sheitel-wearing, fancy shabbat-outfit wearing super frum women who bustled around me on the women’s side of the kiddush (nor have I any desire to do so) – but I still know this world, and I was happy that I made the decision to come and say ‘mazal tov’ to an old friend.

It seems that however far you move away from your home setting  – whether physically or emotionally or religiously – when you come back, you can still feel an uncanny sense of familiarity.

The moral of the story:

Today I slipped seamlessly between two Jewish communities with completely different practices and opposing philosophies and guess what, nothing happened. The sky did not fall down. In my own chameleon-like little way, I just ignored the “they” vs “us”, this community speaks the truth vs that community is heretical, we are right vs you are wrong, general dynamic of Jewish communal life these days.

How many people actually do this kind of yo-yoing between different communal settings? Where are all the other chameleons who dip in and out of different worlds, who are able to blend a variety of different Jewish identities and still feel at one with themselves? Why do people seem so stuck on defining themselves using one rigid label and will not venture even slightly to the left or to the right?

How about just picking yourself up and walking through the doors of a community that you’ve never set foot in beforehand, that may represent ‘different values’, and see what happens. Rather than the sky falling down, chances are you’ll probably just be yawning before too long, willing the service to come to an end so you can get your teeth into a good fried fish ball.

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Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

10 Nov

I haven’t posted for ages – but wanted to come back to post the last blog entry I wrote for Times of Israel before we left Kenya earlier this year. This dates back to May this year when there was a big uproar in Kenya about a new polygamy bill of law that was introduced. Suffice it to say, the proud feminist that I am felt compelled to write in horrified response!

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Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

Times of Israel, May 11, 2014

From the time I – white, Jewish, feminist, western woman – heard on the car radio a male DJ recommending his listeners to get a woman blind-drunk so as to be able ‘to bed her’ on a first date, I’ve been wondering about levels of equality between men and women in Kenyan society.

I received a confirmation to the negative recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill legalising polygamy, with a particularly hostile-to-women amendment:

The bill “brings civil law, where a man was only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners.

Controversy surrounded an amendment to the bill, supported by many male MPs, allowing men to take more wives without consulting existing spouses. [my emphasis]

Traditionally, first wives are supposed to give prior approval.”

(BBC News, 29th April 2014)

What left me particularly speechless was this amazingly demeaning-to-women amendment. Not only does an existing wife apparently have no say in her husband choosing to take more wives, but he isn’t even obliged to have the courtesy to inform her that he is planning to bring into their home a second/third/fourth wife.

The BBC quotes a couple of male MPs who justify this amendment:

“When a woman got married under customary law, she understood that the marriage was open to polygamy, so no consultation was necessary.” (MP Samuel Chepkong’a, who proposed the amendment)

“When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa,” (MP Mohammed Junet).

Kenyan female MPs stormed out of parliament in protest, but as they are a minority, were unable to stop the passing of the bill.

I’ve spoken to a few Kenyan women about this bill and they are horrified – but at the same time, feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Some local newspaper reports I read justified the developments by stating that polygamy is an effective way to combat men’s propensity to stray from their wives. In other words, if a man is allowed by law to take as many wives as he likes, he will no longer feel the urge to cheat on his partner.

Great news for women, then.

A Facebook group I joined for Nairobi mums has also opened up my eyes. Frequented by, from what I can tell, mainly middle-class Kenyan mums as well as expat (aka white, foreign) mums living in the Kenyan capital, what has struck me most is how much the Kenyan mums discuss straying husbands and issues of adultery. On Valentine’s Day, one woman posted a depressingly twee little poem giving all a blessing that their husbands should stay faithful to them on this ‘day of romance’.

At the same time, a Kenyan woman I know showed me scars on her wrist where her husband had attacked her with a broken bottle when he returned home after a drunken spree. She said he gets blind-drunk on almost a daily basis these days. And Kenyan newspapers are full of reports of drunken husbands turning violent.

As a white, Jewish, feminist, western woman, I’ve been caught in an ongoing philosophical battle with myself for the last I don’t know how many years. The two sides of my brain argue as follows:

Me A: Yes, I need to shout out against this treatment of my fellow women.

There are universal standards of justice and equality that all societies should strive towards.

Me B: No, the constraints of cultural relativism demand that I butt out and accept that ‘this is Africa’ [substitute Middle East, ultra-orthodox Jewish society etc etc], it’s not up to me to change other people’s cultural norms.

Luckily for Me A, the fact that Kenyan women themselves are angry gives me permission to express my own distaste at this anti-woman trend that hits me in the new culture I’ve found myself living in these last nine months.

In the meantime, as the wife of a rabbi of an orthodox Jewish synagogue here in Nairobi, I haven’t even broached the subject of how my feminism plays itself out in this communal role.

That will have to wait for another blog.

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