France and Feminism: The Passions of Prof. Rachel Mesch
All her life, Professor Rachel Mesch knew that she was a feminist. “[Feminism] was not really discussed the way that you guys have it in your generation, on social media, and just being really articulated,” she stated. For Mesch, it was only when she was in college that she encountered feminism in academia, and realized that she had something she wanted to say.
Growing up in the small college town of Gainesville, Florida, her parents, who were both educators, were clearly feminists too, but it was never really discussed at home. During her college years at Yale, Columbia and then UPenn, Mesch realized that, as a woman, her ways of understanding and personal experiences were different from everyone else’s and that her voice “counted.” When she went to Paris for a semester in college, she realized that it wasn’t just being a woman that made her interesting, but that as a Jewish woman, she had a different background than most other writers. “If you bring these different disciplines together, you invariably see something different,” she explains.
When Mesch was in first grade, her father got leave from the University of Florida, so the entire family packed up and moved to Israel for a year. It was there that Mesch learned about her love of languages. Even though she grew up speaking English in America, by the end of first grade she was speaking Hebrew fluently. Mesch’s love for language led her to continue studying other languages in high school and, although she was expected to learn Hebrew, she chose to take French instead.
Although Mesch didn’t take Hebrew in high school, she still feels a deep connection toward Judaism. For her senior year thesis, Mesch wrote about the connections between secular literature and the midrash. She sees literature through the Jewish eye. Mesch’s grandfather received semikha from both RIETS and Rav Kook. Back in Gainesville, her family was one of only two that were shomer Shabbat, the other being that of the community rabbi. The Mesch family was always proud of their Jewish observance. In school, they would purposefully not sing the Christmas songs everyone else was singing and instead invite people over to see their “funky traditions,” like sitting in the Sukkah. As she grew up, she chose to get her graduate degree in New York to be surrounded by more Jews. Throughout college, she did face a lot of ignorance regarding Jews, but she always tried to educate rather than judge. After receiving her doctorate from UPenn, she started to look for jobs. After looking extensively at a list of French Literature jobs, she found an opening at Yeshiva University. To her, that was exactly where she felt she needed to be.
Other than being a professor at YU, Mesch has also authored several books. She sets most of her works in the Belle Epoque period, the mid-to-late 19th century. In her first book, “The Hysteric’s Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siecle,” Mesch talks about the rise of French women writers during the fin-de-siecle (the end of the 19th century). In Mesch’s second book, “Having it all in the Belle Epoque,” she writes about the effect that the French women writers have on today’s modern American and European societies. In her most recent book, “Before Trans,” which was released last spring, Prof. Mesch takes a different approach to feminism. She explains that before the term “transgender” was created, there were female writers who appeared to be transgender in the way they wrote and dressed. Some women stood beside their husbands in suits and short hair, which according to Mesch led her to the idea of the book in the first place; she saw pictures of these French women writers and how they broke gender boundaries to create something beautiful.
While Prof. Mesch enjoys writing, she also loves teaching, “I get to perform, it's very creative ... and it’s connecting with students.” According to Mesch, the part of teaching that she loves most is connecting with students, “whether they like it or not.”
This connection goes both ways. “One of the aspects of her classes that always enriches the classroom is the open atmosphere she creates … her assignments are engineered to allow students a great degree of individuality and self expression," says student Josef Kahn (YC ‘22). "She creates an open classroom where students have room to be themselves. Mesch explains that with masks, it’s a little harder because you can’t see a facial expression, only eyebrows, and that when she teaches, she can no longer tell when a student is not interested or is completely spacing out. “[Masks have] been one of the biggest challenges,” she notes bluntly. But she continues by saying that while it’s difficult, masks are crucial for controlling the virus, and she will happily wear one to keep everyone safe.
Prof. Mesch brings to YU a unique background and singular teaching style. She creates an open classroom where students feel comfortable not only with being themselves but with pursuing their true passions. The one piece of advice she gives students when they approach her with a problem is that they shouldn’t care about money or prestige if they know what they like and are following their dreams. She tells them not to do something they don’t enjoy even if it seems to make more sense. Writer, teacher, Francophile and now life coach. What can’t Professor Mesch do?
Photo Credit: Rachel Mesch