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The anti-feminist who stole Passover

Even from the right-leaning, Netanyahu-venerating paper Israel Hayom, I was taken aback by an op ed yesterday by Rivi Gutgold. I found it to be an anti-feminist assault that seems to pre-date Madmen and shatters any residual myth of the feminist Israel. It began:

 

With all due respect to the feminist world in which we live, the truth of the matter is that in the days before Passover, when it comes to most women, their world is divided into two: one includes the women whose homes have been spotless and ready for Passover for two weeks, their counters already protected by layers of aluminum foil, and the other world with women who can’t stop envying and talking about the women in the former.

 

What an edgy and irreverent barb at feminism – but if society is so “feminist,” why aren’t these women also talking about changing the world? The bold writer was oh-so clever to frame only two options for what “most” women do at this time: either to change the dishes for Passover on time, or at the last minute. Here’s how the ideal types talk:

 

The stringent ones make sure to conclude every session of girl talk with their take on the laws of Passover. For example: “Of course I finished. I only have to iron the napkin for the matzoh and prepare salt water for the eggs,” … These statements are heard in almost every Jewish home on Passover Eve.”

 

Who are these “most women,” and “every Jewish home,” filled with Betty Crocker-tinged tupperware parties? Where are the huge swaths of Israeli and Jewish society that I live in? One-fifth of Israel’s women are Arab/Palestinian and have nothing to do with Passover. And among Jewish Israelis, according to the mammoth study on religion in Israel by the Avi Chai Foundation and Guttman Institute, 46 percent define themselves as secular, which means they probably have their own personalized meaning for Passover, but have nothing to do with this specific experience she attributes to “most women.” One-third of Jews don’t keep Passover dietary rules at all according to the study, and probably only a fraction of those who do, change the household dishes.

She’s also left out every feminist woman and man who cannot fathom such antiquated role divisions that previous generations of feminists struggled hard to cast off. In my family, Passover transformation was an all-family task, one of the few, and it was exciting for that reason.

The wholesale dismissal of such huge portions of her country as if they just don’t exist, highlights one of the saddest problems in Israel: citizens pretending that the person right next to them is a non-entity, not worthy of consideration or inclusion in any form of national community unless that person becomes just like…Rivi Gutgold.

While I cherish my heartfelt Conservative Jewish upbringing, Gutgold’s text pushed me one degree further away from my heritage. It undoes decades of feminist Judaism and feminism in general that I embrace in order to adapt my heritage to my humanity. A feminist approach in my reading celebrates the souls of women in all their depth, complexity, contradictions and imperfections.

I cannot recognize either myself or Judaism in Gutgold’s women – who sounds to me like a male fantasy of selfless earth-mothers of flawless giving to their children and girly-friends – with a monopoly on the fine art of house cleaning!

 

Passover is therefore an excellent opportunity to appreciate the greatness and uniqueness of the woman in the Jewish home…The woman who provides her children, her friends and all people with exactly what they need on every level. The woman who knows that with all due respect to the feminist men who help in the house cleaning, no one can do what she does.

 

Of course, I don’t have to find my Judaism in her experience. I can respect Gutgold’s personal view and I would be happy to read this in a synagogue sisterhood newsletter. But writing in a national paper, with the hubris to speak about “most” women in Israel is inconceivable – it means that anyone who is not just like her, just doesn’t exist.

Let me humor Ms. Gutgold with a kitchen metaphor: The Judaism (and Israel) she describes here is like a tiny piece of dough that hardly covers a small corner of the pie pan. She’s trying to stretch it by force over the whole thing, but it just doesn’t work. So she rolls it with a rolling pin, pulling and pressing it thinner and thinner until it’s transparent and empty, and finally in her desperation she tears it apart entirely.

That’s when she reduces a woman’s Passover experience to the ritual chores, absent the profound meaning of liberation:

 

Because in every generation, every woman must look upon herself as if she personally had come out of Egypt… so too does she carry the primary burden of the holiday preparations.

 

Thanks Rivi, but I did not come out of Egypt in order to discover the beauty of my cleaning skills. I was liberated in order to free all those after me, if my solidarity and support for their struggle can make a difference – this is what I try to remember on Passover.

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    1. XYZ

      It is obvious to almost everybody who reads this that when she says “women”, she means “Jewish women”. After all, the vast majority of readers of Israel HaYom are Jewish Israelis. So why bring in criticism of the article because she doesn’t seem to include Palestinians?
      The obsession so many Jewish Left/progressives have with “the Palestinians” is worthy of a psychological study. For these people, everything that is said and that is done and that is imagined must relate to the fate of the poor Palestinians in some way or another. These people’s very identity is shaped by the Palestinian quesion. Another Left/Progressive Jewish blogger said “the world supports the Palestinians!”. I asked who “the world is”. His assumption was that everyone in the world has the obsessions he has. Well, they don’t. Most of the world (I would even include the Muslim countries in this) couldn’t care less about the Palestinians, couldn’t care less if they got a state or not (although I imagine most wouldn’t mind) and most people don’t care about the Jewish settlements one way or another.
      I think it is wise to keep this in mind when reading an article like the one Dahlia is critiquing.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Carl

      For someone who takes one mention of Palestinians and then writes an entire response about other people being obsessed with Palestinians, I’ll give you credit for making me laugh.
      .
      Depressing article proving once again that turkey would vote for Christmas. Though a particular Israeli version, it’s a resurgent viewpoint in the UK too: from both genders. Kudos for pulling it apart Dahlia.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bill Pearlman

      Dahlia, a little piece of advice to you and the rest of the columnists. Not EVERYTHING is directed at you and meant has a personal insult.

      Reply to Comment
    4. @Bill – very funny, but I’m just a simple citizen with something to say. This is my platform on which i often write about things that are completely non-personal too. In this case, unlike the author, I am fully aware that some of my thoughts here do not necessarily represent others, so I try to be careful to point that out. I like to think that’s a responsible approach.

      Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      And in a lot of families, after the women clean and cook for Passover, the men sit down at the dinner table with the good tableware, and the women are stuck in the cheap seats at the shoved-together card tables in the kitchen.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Bill Pearlman

      I just think your reading way too much into this.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Mr.stillfiguringitout

      Dahlia,

      I just want to say, that if your connection with your heritage is influenced by any person’s actions or comments and you fail to recognize with your heart and mind that these people don’t represent the essence of the Jewish tradition, then….

      “While I cherish my heartfelt Conservative Jewish upbringing, Gutgold’s text pushed me one degree further away from my heritage.”

      Reply to Comment
    8. Danaa

      To second Dahlia: in the 18 years I spent in Israel I did not come across a single family that cleaned the house before passover, or kept kosher, or for that matter made much of passover service, other than as a dinner which the children – even teenagers were kindly asked to attend.

      But then I lived in an exclusively secular world and can’t say I ever met a single religious jewish person in all of Tel Aviv (though I heard they were there, somewhere on the outskirts, in Bnei Brak or something. Not that we’d ever think of going through). The ones we saw in Jerusalem though were defnitely an exotic treat.

      Since those days, the demographics have of course changed quite radically, to where it would be difficult to go one’s whole life, never meeting, much less having to deal with an observant person. Segments of the society doing their best to multiply like rabbits will do that over time, and in due course, the breed that multiplies fastest in a confined space will indeed cover the land. Until the day comes and even Dahlia will have to put her feminism aside and spend her time being Betty Crockett too. I just hope these quaint customs don’t spread much further out, or I’ll have to pack my bags again.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Judy

      Dalia-Do as I did and raise a son who becomes a chef and Passover is a breeze. Or order in from someone else’s son. We didn’t spend 40 years wandering in the desert to be enslaved one week a year by the rules of Passover! I hang with a very jewish crowd of women but we don’t talk about changing dishes for the weeks leading up to Pesach anymore than we talk about laundry the rest of the year.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Bill Pearlman

      You Danaa passover is a pretty long standing Jewish holiday that carries meaning for a lot of people. You don’t need to mock it

      Reply to Comment
    11. Danaa

      Bill, I am not mocking anything, just stating a fact. That house cleaning exercise seems silly to me but so do voodoo customs and the sacraments and the holy rollers (pentacostals for you). When you grow up secular, none of it carries an impact other than as a good occasion for families to have dinner together. Kind of like what Thanksgiving came to mean for most Americans (OK, not the Indians).

      There are things I hated about the hagada from the first I saw it and was forced to read through it in school. I was 9 or10 and I walked out of class in disgust when i read through the list of curses and plagues visited upon the Egyptians, including the countless innocent children killed for god’s glory. Since this early bout of stomach-churning aversion to the ritualized violence extohled by the traditional text, I continued to excuse myself during the bloody-minded, vengeance celebrating portions of the haggada, when, much later I had occasion to attend a seder or two.. If that’s Jewish meaning for some people, then it confirms a verye tribe-uber-ales outlook.

      I do know that in the more democratic America many congregations found ways to conduct the service so it’s more universal. Too bad the word “universal” means so little to the tribal tradition-loving denizens of israel, and based on what i read in +972, there can be very little expectation that more humanistic traditions will spread that way.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Bill Pearlman

      I find people like you interesting. You were born Jewish by some cosmic accident of birth. You don’t care anymore. Your choice. But why do you care that other people feel differently. Serious question

      Reply to Comment
    13. Danaa, I’m not so dismissive. I love the fact that there are orthodox jews in israel of all stripes – as long as nothing is imposed on me, legislatively or suggestively. i love the diversity (yes, even within Tel Aviv) and the occasional sabbath with my religious cousins. Everyone can ‘breed’ as he or she sees fit and I’m not threatened by it – in all honesty your comment made me a bit uncomfortable. Why would i have to put my feminism aside if there are more religious than secular folks? that’s like saying i have to put my judaism aside if there are more palestinians than jews. I don’t buy it, because I insist that people are capable of living together respectfully. many will say i’m naive. So be it.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Danaa

      Bill, and also Dahlia,

      The difference between us is that I grew up Israeli in the middle of the most secular section of its society. We who were secular in Israel back in the 60s and 70s (and I guess 50s, were one to go back that far) were militantly so. It is hard to explain to people who either arrived as adults (or even semi-adults, cf, teens) to israel from one of the Anglo countries (US, in particular) or who became attached to israel as zionist supporters abroad, in what kind of society we came of age.

      I understand Dahlia why my comments make you uncomfortable. But please bear in mind we, the earlier israelis, for the most part, despised almost anything associated with “Jewish” – and that included all customs. Most of us never set foot in a synagog in Israel (other than to humor our parents once in a blue moon). Judaism to us was dusty old religion of decrepid shtetls, guys in long black coats and beards, archaic customs and singularly unattractive rabbis who mutter mambo-jumbo and pale religious dudes who looked utrterly silly in their ear locks and could not swim or play soccer or volleyball (yes, I excelled in all of those). Judaism to us was our utterly boring and time-wasting teachers of tanach (a class we all hated with a passion). Judaism was also the people who got killed off in WWII and went like sheep to the slaughter. We hung unto every story of jewish resistance, undergrounds and rebellions. We grew up on tales of tragic Warshaw ghetto and had no doubt who we would emulate were we they. And we rather liked many of those Bolsheviks, even if we thought them quite misguided in their politics. At least they had no use for religion either.

      We did not know of the way Judaism is in places like America and never heard of reform or conservative. The Americans who came to visit then wore bermuda shorts and were pasty white in color. We expected them to admire us who were so much better tanned and so bad-mannered.

      In other words, we who were the seculars of israel in the first three decades saw ourselves as inheritors of the Judean spirit rather than a jewish one. Once were warriors right? Israel was a country of bubbles and none of us ever got out of our own bubble. Secular with secular. dati with datim. Arabs – who were they? we never as much as met any. And as for the relationship with Mizrahis – well, the less is said is better (I am still ashamed of how deep set my own racism was, and how much of it remains, if buried deep).

      Dahlia, re Feminism. To my mind, I was the one and only for miles around, except I did not know what I was fighting was a feminist battle, and that there were others, outside israel who felt similarly, and carried on, quite openly. There was no unique Hebrew word for Suffragist, for example, or for feminist. I fought my battle alone, as a female, against my ultra-conformist society, my parents, my peers, anyone who cared to take me on. I fought tooth and nail against an army that wanted to turn me into a secretary (don’t ask what happened. Much did). That was the battle that got me to set my sights on outside Israel, long before I came to know the politics of the situation. The smallness and small-mindedness of the country is what killed my patriotism, once quite as militant as my current anti-zionism is. I left the country alone in my early twenties knowing no-one outside and having not penny to my name. Thus to become an American immigrant, at one with the American legends. Mine was what I call a “reverse aliyah” to a land where everything seemed possible – and much was.

      It is also in America that first learned about Judaism and about what zionism meant to those who were not living what it was supposed to be. It is in America that I learnt that all my warrior heroes were deeply tainted and so was I. All those things and much much more I leant when I could finally look past the bermuda shorts.

      Bill, I don’t mind at all that people have customs to celebrate. And a seder might look to you like a life-affirming, laudatory tale of liberation, part of a long tradition. But from whence I came, the stories of cruelties and tribal revenge don’t cut it and seem neither innocent nor transcendental. In the context I knew, the vengefulness of the haggadah was all too real. People did curse their enemies and wished them much ill (those enemies were what we now know as Palestinians. Bunch of Ayrabs is what they were to us. A decidedly lower caste of humans). So to me, what wisdom there is in the old haggadah texts is completely marred by exclusion. There are good guys and bad guys. And some, quite a few ugly guys. The good are all Jewish, though not all bad or ugly ones are not jewish. Yet, I do understand that for many others who did not see their heroes crash to earth armed but wingless, it is but a charming custom, and a symbol of family get togethers.

      I would like to say – to each their own, but I can’t do so sincerely because of the many ways that what idealism there was in early zionism (and there was plenty of that) has become corrupted beyond recognition. So sometimes, something lets loose, and the old prophets raise their spirits in me. A sullen bunch, I know.

      Did not mean to offend. Take it as the rant that it is.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Danaa

      Sorry for the long post. Did not mean to hog. It just spilled out. Typos and all.

      Reply to Comment
    16. sh

      I was torn between noting the 1 April date and the utter tedium of the article – some joker could have made a good job of it, but bone-tickling this certainly wasn’t. Instead of bawling out the author, we should blame the newspaper for printing the nonsense and Adelson for financing such a rag. If you’re working yourself to a frazzle making with the feather duster ‘n mop all day, I would have thought the last thing you’d want to do was read about it when you finally got put your feet up. Whatever, surely a silver-foiled, cling-filmed dvar torah like this could not possibly serve as a reason to distance anyone from their heritage!
      .
      Danaa, I loved the image your Betty Crockett (fur cooking-pot on her head?) conjures. Davy Crocker’s met his match.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Carl

      Danaa, don’t worry about the length or the typing: write some more. The only superstition which ever delivered for me was the tooth fairy. Up the atheists!

      Reply to Comment
    18. klang

      Dahlia, why do you care about Rivi? If you decided to reject Judaism, and celebrate tomorrow with a pork roast and beer, it would not be our concern. No one would be writing a column about it. Similarly, if you decided Judaism was too restrictive and wanted to try Islam, it would not be our concern. Sounds like either alternative would make you happier. Good luck

      Reply to Comment
    19. Klang, a. my point exactly – she shouldn’t have written a column about it. b. it seems like you’re the one who shouldn’t bother reading my blog. Rarely have I encountered such a determination to misread and misunderstand the entire point of an article.

      Reply to Comment