Advancing the Conversation with Women’s Voices: A Review of “Monologues from the Makom”
Penned as “Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity,” the newly published book from Ben Yehudah Press, “Monologues from the Makom,” is an anthology of essays written by Jewish women “designed to break the observant Jewish community’s taboo against open discussion of female sexuality.” What began as a one time event spearheaded by Sara Rozner Lawrence (SCW ‘16), is now a book that was recently the #1 on both the New Release in Jewish Orthodox Movements and the Women & Judaism pages of Amazon.
In 2016, Rozner Lawrence, a then-senior at Stern College, was inspired to host an event after watching ”The Vagina Monologues,” a play about female sexuality, that left her wondering if she could recreate a similar space. She envisioned a platform for Orthodox women to share their own stories, marked with the distinctiveness of their Orthodox background. The first event, titled “Monologues from the Makom,” referring to the Hebrew word Makom which literally means place, but is often used rabbinically for female genitalia, was held in a Washington Heights apartment with 60 attendees — mostly Stern students or alumni. It was followed by two other events sponsored by Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in 2017 and each had over 100 people in attendance. Rozner Lawrence, joined by co-editors Rivka Cohen, Naima Hirsch, Sarah J Ricklan and Rebecca Zimilover began collecting submissions in November 2017, and the book was recently published on Sep. 1 2020.
This monumental book’s 32 monologues cover a wide range of relevant issues in the Yeshiva University community and the Modern Orthodox community at large, with the goal of helping Jewish women “feel a little bit less alone, a little bit less shame, a little bit more seen” (xvi). The collection of poems and essays, while on the shorter side, successfully addresses an extensive range of topics, each one as deeply personal and moving as the next.
Narratives about tzniut (modesty), menstruation, sexual assault, female pleasure, gender inequality, mental health and LGBTQ+ identities are just some of the diverse accounts reflected in this compilation of both anonymous and non-anonymous essays written by Jewish women. In an essay titled “What They Don’t Tell You About Getting Married at Nineteen,” a woman processes others' mixed reactions and her own emotions surrounding her decision to marry at a young age, and details her complex feelings towards birth control. “Shame,” another essay, details a woman’s recovery process after sexual assault. Another writer describes her triumph over the stigma surrounding periods and the life-changing decision of seeing a gynecologist for a birth control prescription to combat pain with menstruation in “Built-up Bravery.” The stories within this collection encompass the complex, wide-ranged emotions of being a woman: shame, frustration and pain along with joy, empowerment and happiness. Regardless of their background, readers can either see themselves reflected in the essays or learn about other’s experiences in those with which they might not identify. In an interview with JTA, Cohen explained that she wanted observant Jewish women to “read this book and see themselves in it and feel like they’re not alone and feel empowered and strengthened,” while also men and those not in the community to “gain insight into [women’s] lives.”
The ease of language and the authors’ vulnerability throughout the pieces makes the collection a quick read that one will immediately decide to read again to fully absorb its depth and beauty. Conversely, this work feels like only a brief preview or overview of complex issues, opening up the world of hearing Jewish women’s stories that leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied and wanting more. In today’s age of loneliness and disconnect, this book is a much needed reminder of the strong, resilient and passionate community that we are all fortunate to be a part of.