Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shining Stars of Davida: Batya

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Anyone who’s watched The Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments knows the beginning of the Passover story: Pharaoh of Egypt, fearing that the Jewish people were becoming too populous, decreed that all the Jewish baby boys must die. Moses was saved from this fate when his mother put him in a basket along the Nile and Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, found him and raised him. Pop culture may give a nod to this special woman, but she really deserves a lot more recognition.

Only extremely special individuals in Tanakh (the Jewish Bible) experience miracles from God. Batya is one of those people. When she was bathing in the Nile River, she saw baby Moses’ basket floating in the water. She reached out for it, and her arm lengthened so she could grab it. The verse says that she sent her maidservant to get the basket, but the Talmud explains that the word for maidservant is really referring to her arm. Batya’s heart was completely devoted to that effort, so God extended her arm. This teaches us that when we put in our effort with a full and selfless heart, God will help us achieve that goal.

The Midrash says that Hashem only refers to Moses by the name that Batya gave him. Why? This is Batya’s reward for saving him as an infant, since this was an extreme act of hesed (lovingkindness). The degree of self-sacrifice that Batya exhibited becomes evident when one considers what Pharaoh might have done to her had he discovered his own daughter’s disloyalty.

Another Midrash says that Batya left Egypt with the rest of the Jews when Pharaoh finally gave them their freedom. Eventually, she married Caleb. Both were rebels: Batya against her father because she saved Moses against his wishes, and Caleb against the plans of the other Spies because he gave a good report about the land of Israel.

There are nine people who entered Heaven but did not actually die. Of the two women on the list, one is Batya. Interestingly, the other woman, Serah bat Asher, also exited Egypt when the Jews were freed from slavery.

Batya was raised as a princess of Egypt, the land of idolatry and immorality where the Jewish people fell to the 49th level of impurity (out of a total of 50 levels). Nobody would have expected Batya to be anything but immoral and cruel, like her father Pharaoh. However, the Talmud says that she rose above this life path set out for her and went to the Nile every day to wash off the impurity of Egypt and the idolatry of her father’s house. She was able to understand the low level of Egypt, even though it was the land where she was raised, and see the holiness of the Jewish people. This holiness resonated with her so much that she converted. The Ba’al HaTurim, one commentary on Tanakh, explains that Batya went down to the Nile on the day that Moshe’s basket came by to finalize her conversion by immersing in living water.

Batya’s long-term influence on the Jewish people is clear: it is directly because of her actions that the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. Had she allowed Moses’ basket to float by and not taken him in and raised him as her own, he never would have been able to lead the Jews and speak with Pharaoh on their behalf. We would still be building bricks for the Egyptians if not for Batya.

This Passover, we should all remember that although Moses was the savior of the Jewish people, he couldn’t have done it without Batya.

I dub Batya an inductee into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud.

Passover begins on Monday night. Have a hag kasher v'sameah (a kosher and happy holiday)!

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Relieve the Oppressed" - Being an Orthodox Supporter of Gay Rights

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I’m at an interview for a summer internship at a Modern Orthodox organization. One of the interviewers looks at my resume, and says, “For an Orthodox girl in such a right-wing school, you’re remarkably involved in social justice, especially feminism and gay rights. How did you get into it?”

Well, I can easily remember when I realized I was a feminist. I was writing a history paper about Second Wave Feminism, so I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as part of research. I never thought that reading the book that sparked the Second Wave would also spark my inner feminist. Everything in The Feminine Mystique resonated with me; I was shocked by the blatant sexism that society condoned and prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards women. Friedan’s exposé was so powerful that it rallied me to action and made me want to battle for women’s rights. It was official: I became a feminist. It didn’t take long for me to start a blog to serve as my soapbox and advocate for women’s rights.

In contrast, I can’t remember a specific aha moment when I suddenly realized that I support LGBT+ equality. Although I was raised to be tolerant of every type of person and lifestyle, I was not always so supportive in reality; when Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” was released, I had a whole rant about how the music industry’s mission is to subvert Torah values and morality.

I’m not sure when I realized that the true Torah value is inclusion and acceptance of our LGBT+ bretheren. Perhaps it was because my mom became close friends with a gay man who’s very active in gay social life. Maybe it was because of my increased involvement in feminism; after all, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest feminist organization in the US (of which I am a member), lists lesbian rights as one of its top priority issues. Or maybe it was just maturity. Whatever the reason and whenever it actually happened, I began to support gay rights, both within and without the Jewish community.

But I suppose that how I got into all the equal rights work that I do is irrelevant. All that matters is that it’s something I spend my spare time doing, and would like to dedicate the rest of my life to. Being an ally of the LGBT+ community is just part of my identity.

I’m a senior at a right-wing Orthodox girls’ high school, and I had to draft a copy of my bio for the yearbook. After procrastinating for a while, I finally sat down to write it. I was at a loss for words. The first thing I wanted to talk about was my passion for women’s rights and LGBT+ equality; however, I knew there was no way that they would be willing to publish the bio if it included that. Although I ended up writing a perfectly nice bio that does encapsulate me to a certain extent, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t talk about those causes that are central to who I am. I consider my support of equality for every individual a core part of my identity, and a bio that doesn’t talk about it cannot truly represent me.

For yearbook, we also had to choose a verse from a Jewish source to be printed alongside our senior picture and represent our personality. After an exhaustive search of Tanakh (the Jewish Bible) and Talmud, I opted for Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed.” Although I doubt that my school expects me to be referring to LGBT+ individuals and women as “the oppressed,” that’s how I mean it. I plan on living my life according to Isaiah’s dictum, and nobody can stop me. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Street Harassment: A Satire

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Please note that this is a piece of satire, intended to showcase the ludicrousness of those who believe that street harassment is complimentary or not a big deal.

Personally, I love it when guys make unsolicited, off-color comments about me when I walk past them on the street. It just completes my day. My morning commute wouldn’t be the same if the group of construction workers (that I make sure to pass, of course) didn’t yell “hey, baby!” and make a comment about my physical appearance. It really boosts my self-confidence to know that they approve of the way that I look.

And when some strange guy on a crowded subway purposely rubs against me? It’s a high like no other. I know some people think it’s freaky and gross, but I prefer to take it as a form of flattery. Knowing that this guy appreciates my body so much that he wants to grope it just makes my heart sing.

I particularly enjoy when I notice a guy following me on the street. Awww! He thinks I’m so beautiful that he just has to follow me home and look at me for as long as he can. Isn’t that sweet? It’s like Edward and Bella’s relationship in Twilight!

But my all-time favorite is when a guy passes me on the street and slaps my behind. I’ll swoon if he also makes a comment about how pert my buttocks are, or something to that effect. The only thing that can top it is when a guy wolf-whistles while I walk by and stares at my chest. A guy who does that is beyond attractive. There’s nothing sexier a man can do.

Those uppity feminists who call this sort of behavior street harassment, and say that it makes them feel humiliated, need to get over themselves. Take the compliment where you can get it, ladies! If a guy likes your breasts, why shouldn’t he yell his appreciation at you across the street for the entire world to hear? What part of that is embarrassing? Why in the world would that make you feel even the slightest bit violated?

…said no self-respecting woman ever.

Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day and My Mentor

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Today is International Women’s Day, the yearly day to raise awareness about the political and social struggles of women worldwide.

I would like to dedicate this post to my amazing mentor, Sonia Pressman Fuentes. She has dedicated her life to the goals of International Women’s Day, accomplishing an immeasurable amount of good for the sake of women’s political, economic, and social rights. I wrote an essay about her for the 203 Words of Women Essay Contest, which I was honored to win. My essay is below.

I always understood the importance of mentorship as it relates to women’s advancement in professional fields. I’ve read numerous articles about the positive effects of a mentor and how important such a figure is in a young person’s life and career. However, I never grasped the true meaning of a mentor and how he or she can influence your life. Then I met my mentor, Sonia Pressman Fuentes.

The more I hear about Sonia’s past, the more I am amazed by her strength. As a child, she fled Nazi Germany with her parents and older brother. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University in 1950, when quotas against women and Jews were widespread. Sonia went on to have an illustrious career as a lawyer, working for several federal government agencies and two major corporations. She drafted the Guidelines on Pregnancy and Childbirth for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as writing some of the lead decisions. She was also the highest paid woman at the corporate headquarters of the GTE Service Corporation and TRW Inc.

I met her because she cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest women’s rights association in the United States. I was writing a paper about the history of NOW for the 2011 National History Day competition, and reached out to Sonia online for more information about NOW’s history. When she agreed to an interview I felt so privileged to be able to speak to someone who had such a profound impact on the women’s rights movement.

After the interview, Sonia and I stayed in correspondence. I was still in awe that a distinguished women’s rights activist like Sonia was emailing a rookie high school feminist like me. As the weeks and months passed, the two of us began to forge a relationship. Soon enough, Sonia became my mentor. I feel so fortunate to have a woman like Sonia in my life. We discuss feminist issues at length, have partnered up to make a petition, and really established a strong intergenerational bond.

Sonia’s tireless work for gender equality has truly influenced my life. As a NOW cofounder, she got me involved in the organization’s Young Feminist Task Force (YFTF). After working in the YFTF for over a year, I am seriously hoping to pursue a job at NOW once I’m done with school. Sonia has dedicated her entire life to the social betterment of the world, and I really hope that I will be able to further her work.