Socially Shackled Syntax: Far from Feminism
If you were to Google my name, a number of links would appear on the screen before you: articles that I have written for The Commentator, Kol Hamevaser, and other various publications, some contests in which I have participated, and my Facebook page. One link, however, is what I previously considered the blemish that would never disappear from my cyber history. Her name is Yeshiva Girl (YG), and she was put to rest in September of 2008. YG loved to travel, explore, and manifest her feelings in a biting – and sometimes risqué – social commentary with her blog, Far From Frum. After a summer working at The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, YG did not want to leave the world of journalism behind, and her editor suggested that she write a blog about her experience in seminary, getting a behind-the-scenes look into the acrobatics performed by students and teachers alike during the increasingly popular gap year in Israel. She was thrilled, spirits soaring at the opportunity to be something other than a clichéd “seminary girl” for the next nine months; instead, she would be a reporter. Just like author Elizabeth Gilbert in her best-seller-turned-film, Eat, Pray, Love, YG set off to Israel with pen and paper in hand, prepared to record what she knew would be one hell of a journey.
Of course, because of the nature of her blog, and her fear of an altercation with her rabbis if she was found out, YG was an anonymous blogger. Thus, while her fingers were permitted to tap at her keyboard with freedom, YG could express sentiments that only anonymity allows for. The lens afforded to YG through her blog was thrilling, allowing for her to deconstruct her experience, examining how she and her friends responded to the fascinating phenomenon of immersing oneself in the yeshiva and seminary experience. She wrote about her relationship with God, the reality of terrorist threats, and the importance of treating all of her new seminary-mates with respect, among other topics that float around the rabid mind of an eighteen year old.
“I read His books. I listened intently in class when my teachers would speak about Him. All the time thinking, ‘Yup, that’s my Man.’ And I fell in love with His laws – even the crazy ones. I started fully observing the Sabbath, refraining from entering the doors of my favorite non-kosher restaurants, and I was even sure I could abstain from touching boys. My teachers were thrilled, my parents were enraged, but all I could feel was the God-shaped hole within me filling up. I was high on my new relationship – like many girls are when they think they’ve met the perfect man – I was sure He was 'the one.' And what do girls do in this state of overwhelming joy? We start thinking of the future. I imagined a house full of children (after all, God is not exactly a fan of going the route of pills and thrills), going to synagogue every week, and dressing more modestly than Mother Theresa. So, finally, G-d and I tied the knot. I made it official by sending in a deposit to a religious seminary in Israel where I would put my college plans on hold to learn more about my Man and His wondrous, miraculous ways” (Far From Frum, “Memoirs of God’s Ex”).
This was all good and well until one evening when YG’s friend entered her room to tell her that she had been found out. Luke Ford, an infamous blogger from the Los Angeles community had discovered YG’s identity and put her picture, name, and other writing that she had done up on his blog. Furthermore, and potentially the most disturbing thing about this discovery, was the inclusion of her seminary’s name on Ford’s blog, thus ensuring that her rabbis would quickly discover what she had been doing, and promptly dismiss her—asking her to leave behind her gemara and Torat Hayyim and drag her tail between her legs all the way back to Los Angeles. YG quickly called The Jewish Journal and asked that they remove her blog from their website, an act tantamount to ending a relationship with a dear friend. Although ending her life as an undercover blogger was an extremely difficult decision, YG knew there was no choice but to preempt an unpleasant situation with her school’s administrators and confess the error of her ways. After a painfully sleepless night, YG sat in the chair in front of her rabbi’s office, waiting for him to arrive with the sob story of her blog on her lips, and a promise to be anything but “far from frum” in her heart.
As I reflect on the hour when I fearfully awaited sentencing for my actions, I wonder what, in fact, I did that was so deplorable. Certainly, the profession of my crush on a rather attractive member of the faculty (whom I dubbed McRabbi) may have been inappropriate. And perhaps I had gone too far by insinuating a “that’s what she said” nuance in one of my rabbi’s speeches. But my underlying sentiment – the desire to chart a fundamental year of my life – was nothing short of a pure and honest motivation for adopting the persona of Yeshiva Girl. Should my pseudonym and I not have been granted our First Amendment rights? Freedom of the press and freedom of speech, designated rights under the First Amendment, guarantee each American citizen the “freedom of communication and expression through vehicles including various forms of electronic media.” If only I had handed a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to my then eighteen-year-old self, perhaps she would not have been shrouded with guilt and embarrassment when she had to sit beside her seminary’s administrator and read the blog with him. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1949, the Declaration states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
It seemed that I had met a frontier that resisted exploration and did not desire to be charted with my words and ideas: the Modern Orthodox world of yeshivot and seminaries. My ideological ties promptly cuffed my hands, and I was forced to place a cartoon-esque “X” over my big, loud mouth.
This shackled sentiment is best expressed by bell hooks (a.k.a. Gloria Jean Watkins), a twentieth-century feminist scholar and writer who also takes on a pseudonym. In her article “Talking Back,” hooks writes: “[These punishments for talking back] were intended to silence me – the child – and more particularly the girl child. Had I been a boy, they might have encouraged me to speak believing that I might someday be called to preach. The was no 'calling' for talking girls, no legitimized rewarded speech.”
Although, in my home, my affinity for loquaciousness has led my family down an endlessly winding road of persuading me to become an attorney rather than a preacher, the notion of no “legitimized” speech for women is an idea to which I have always related. A woman who fits into the culturally stereotyped paradigm of a docile, agreeable creature is often praised as “wholesome” or “proper,” lauded for parroting the ideas that have been indoctrinated within her by her society. It is in this vein that women in religious sects have restrictions on their clothing, forced into a particular dress code and mode of representation – compelled (sometimes at gunpoint) to wear their ideologies on their sleeves, without the ability to use their words to communicate their own, individual feelings about God and their societies. To be sure, many women – both in the Jewish community and in other religious communities – follow these dress regulations with no qualms, understanding them to be the “will of God” and the command of their religious leaders; however, other women remain weighed down bythe feeling of misrepresentation, silently treading through their lives without “talking back,” as bell hooks did.
So when I wrote my blog post entitled “Memoirs of God’s Ex,” was I doing anything so wrong? Was I “talking back” to an establishment that expected me to act, speak, blog differently? Perhaps. But if someone were to uncover my genuine intentions, they would find I was nothing more than a young girl, facing the dialectic of a religious lifestyle, communicating my sentiments to hundreds of readers who, maybe, held similar sentiments, and would be comforted by the humorous honesty with which I faced my struggle. I bemoaned the loss of the lens I had created to examine my seminary experience. Thereafter, I was just another seminary girl, wandering the cobblestone paths of the Old City, waiting for the moment when I would suddenly hear the hallelujah choir of clarity that would proclaim the supremacy of Modern Orthodoxy (machmir). Coming down in the form of twenty-first century revelation, the angels would slip me some Kool Aid and claim me for their own.
Although Luke Ford, Gossip Boy himself, was the catalyst to the end of my relationship with my alter ego, Yeshiva Girl, one of the most salient memories I have from the Far From Frum debacle is a line that he wrote in his blog. After exposing me, he proceeded to write a number of blogs addressed to me, one of which he called “A Blog to a Younger Blogger.” In this post, Ford stated that I could not be an Orthodox Jew and a genuine journalist simultaneously - essentially, he was asking me to choose between tradition and craft. Apparently, it was not only as a woman that I would need to face restrictions on my scandalous syntax, but also as an Orthodox Jew. Coming from an individual who has been ousted from many an Orthodox synagogue in the Los Angeles area, and is hard-pressed to find a rabbinic figure who respects his profession (pornographic journalism and gossip blogging), Ford’s choice was clear. This was his sage advice:
* Decide what is most important to you. Is it pleasing family, friends or community? Is it being a great Jew or is it being a great writer? For me, writing trumps everything (after meeting God’s moral demands, and maintaining my health, a livelihood…and a circle of friends). With the exception of a few relationships and Torah precepts, I’m willing to sacrifice everything for my work.
* Decide who is important to you. Be clear about what you need to do to maintain your most important relationships. Sometimes it is necessary to give up certain relationships so you can have the freedom to write the truth.
* Decide whose approbation you most seek.
While sitting in my rabbi’s office, confessing my sins and waiting for the Jewish equivalent of a Hail Mary, we calmly read my blog post, entitled “McRabbi,” and then went on to read this “Blog to a Younger Blogger” selection together. Then, he pointed to Ford’s suggestion that I had a choice to make, stating that this man was absolutely right: I could not write whatever my heart desired, could not bend to the inspiration of the muses, and should not hang my flag of tongue-in-cheek social commentary from the rafters. At the time, I acquiesced that my rabbi and, by extension, Ford, were correct. I was, in fact, representing a specific tradition with particular ideals. So if I want to be a card-carrying member of this illustrious community, I would need to shut down my creative outlet and stop communicating with God and my readers via blogging—not just for this one short year, but perhaps forever. Instead, they suggested I pick up a prayer book and do this the conventional way. I was silenced again, like bell hooks and so many other women before me, forced to turn down the volume on my voice – and my mind – in order to fit the seminary paradigm: smart, passionate, educated, but meek and modest. So, for a while, I played this part. But eventually, blasphemy got the better of me and I got bored.
I missed Yeshiva Girl. She occupied such a large part of my persona, and the hours of time in the beit midrash, try though they did, never took her place. Thoughts of her resurrection crossed my mind often, but as I put words to mind and pen to paper, the ink had run dry with fear. I was cornered into believing that if I wanted to stay, she would need to stay away. The fear of someone finding this skeleton in my closet loomed over my head, where I tried to craft a vindication for my acts: I was young and stupid, bored, lobotomized, crazed. Putting this incident to the back of my mind, I became a typical seminary student: pretending that I didn’t know my way around Crack Square, and delving head-first into all of my classes (and into a new, modest wardrobe). But most importantly: giving up my spot in the accelerated creative writing program at The New School to attend Stern.
It went by so quickly that, before I knew it, I was back from seminary, still high on Kool Aid flavors like the Rav, Shulchan Arukh, and Zionism. I remember hearing the 3OH!3 song, “Don’t Trust Me,” and being horrified at the state of society, calling my Israel guidance counselor and asking whether I had flipped out, or if the world was truly this “corrupt.” “Both,” she responded. Now that I had mastered Act I of the seminary experience, it was time to get on with the remainder of this social script: dating. Before I knew it, in the flashiest of flashes, I had met the bachur of my dreams: smart, sensitive, literary and frum. But early on in our relationship, after a few pleasant dates, he started acting differently: speaking to me less often, ignoring my flirtatious yet painfully appropriate text messages, and giving me the iciest of shoulders. I could not pinpoint the source of his distance, but then it suddenly hit me: he must have found Yeshiva Girl. I was certain that Google had betrayed me, and our long conversations about science fiction and Torah were erased from his mind, replaced with sentiments about my affinity for a cute teacher’s green eyes.
“That was the old me,” I said in a text message, half believing this fallacious sentiment. I wanted it to be true, but I couldn’t deny that I heard YG’s handcuffs rattling within me, reminding me that I used to have a mind of my own. A few days later, we sat down in Starbucks and he told me that he had discovered the blogs before we event went out on our first date: “Of course I Googled you,” he said. The road to happiness ended because he felt that I was not “religiously stable,” whatever that meant—I had no idea at the time. Maybe he also heard the raucous rattling of YG’s chains from within my psyche, and ran the other way in case she was ever freed from her cell. A few hours after suffering this breakup, I started to think of YG again - tuning myself into her prayer-like words: Jina, set me free. It was my own personal exodus. That night, for the first time, I reread my blogs while laughing, tearing a bit, and remembering who I was beneath the skirts and kiki rikis. It would take months, even years, before I figured out how to deconstruct my Israel experience, keeping the vital lessons I learned, and discarding some of the dogmatic ideas that no longer resonated within me.
Not only did I undergo my own personal “vindication of the rights of woman [and Jewess],” but Stern has, as well. In the Fall of 2011, SCW introduced a program called the Op-Ed Project, designed to “create a sea [of] change in our nation’s conversation by empowering a wave of women to write op-eds, join the public discourse and encourage and refer other women to do the same—creating a multiplier effect that will alter the patterns of under-representation of women in media rolodexes and inboxes, and expand the pool of visible female talent” (www.theopedproject.org). As one of the twenty women who participated in this project, I was shocked to find that women make up only 10-20% of the contributors to key opinions forums, 13% of Wikipedia contributors, and 17% of Congress. Apparently shackled syntax was not a concern only in my community, but all around the world. After an eight-hour information session with women who work to change the status quo of female expression in the media, I felt that this article was screaming to be written. I had hidden the truth about my own journey for so long, only making reference to it in my closest circle of friends, that I had almost forgotten what it was like before I knew that I could be, contrary to Ford’s sentiments, a good writer and a good Jew. Rather than taking Ford’s advice, I found my ethos elsewhere: as bell hooks sagely states, “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.”
Although my personal trek to the promised land of free speech and egalitarianism is a journey on which I still find myself, I am happy to report that I have found an oasis of empowerment and acceptance here at Yeshiva University, where the YG within me is free to express her innermost sentiments in the mechitzah-less, egalitarian forum of The Commentator. I found men and women for whom the notion of honest journalism and Judaism is not paradoxical, but rather, a way of life. Questioning the system is not an act of heresy; it is a path to find greater truth. Now, even when I pass The New School and feel a pang of “what if,” I am reminded of this group of people, and know that I made the right decision. And so I continue to trek on, unsure of how to reconcile inconsistencies within my faith, not clear on the nature of the cosmos, but positive that continued expression, at the hands of both women and men, will provide only for continued development and positive evolution in the community I call home.