You Deserve It: Punishment and Reward in a Patriarchal Society by Ivy Helman

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oA friend recently told me that I deserve a vacation. I brushed it off and replied that I haven’t been working that hard. Ever since, I’ve been troubled by that comment and have been reflecting on why it bothers me so much. Today I am sharing with you why I’m uneasy about the idea of deserving reward.

Most of the time, in Western society, deserving something centers around actions: either done or not done. For example, a firefighter pulling a colleague out of a burning building is a heroic act that many people think deserves recognition. We would be wrong not to honor that act. At the same time, a drunk driver dies in an automobile accident, and most people think the person got what s/he deserved. A non-smoker is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and people struggle with explaining the actions she or he has done to deserve that fate. Whereas when a smoker is diagnosed, people often jump quickly to blaming the victim. Continue reading “You Deserve It: Punishment and Reward in a Patriarchal Society by Ivy Helman”

Where are the Jewish Feminists? by Ivy Helman

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oLast month in my regular post, I suggested that a lesbian who passes as an Orthodox man subverts Jewish traditional gender roles and understandings of sexuality at the same time she is conveying something true about her own relationship to the Holy One.  Not a single comment challenged me on that proposition.  Not one.  Why?  I think I know the answer.

While I absolutely love this site and have been a regular blogger now for three and a half years, I must say there are whole worlds of ideas, insights and conversations that we are missing. Whenever I write a blog on this site related to Judaism, it is rare that I receive a comment from someone Jewish (at least recognizably so).  And, as the above example illustrates (especially if you were to read the comments of said post), no one even recognized the problematic nature of such a suggestion or challenged me as to how I think it would accomplish subverting gender roles and traditional views on sexuality.

The fact that I am the only regular Jewish contributor writing about Judaism in this blog doesn’t help. The last one left over two years ago. Also as far as I can tell from regular reading and a few searches, the last guest blogger who was both Jewish and wrote about something related to Judaism was about this time last year.  Where are the Jewish feminists?  Not here. Continue reading “Where are the Jewish Feminists? by Ivy Helman”

Gender Identity, Religious Identity and Performance.

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oWhen I cover my head in respect for the Holy One, it feels right. This act touches on a religious truth of who I am. To me, it not only matches who I am, it also expresses something about who I strive to be and the relationship I want to have with G-d.

Seeing Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, I think she’d say something similar about herself. Her outward appearance touches to the very core of who she is and who she has had the strength and courage to become.   Not only that, it feels right.

Sure, there is a wide gulf between the public nature of Jenner’s cover photo and my public head covering, yet, in these two examples, I see a number of connections. First, there is the real possibility of harm and danger. Second, there is a link between outside actions that express something true about the person on the inside. Third, value is placed on the agency and autonomy of the individual carrying out those actions. Finally, there is a performativity connection between religiosity and gender. It is the last point that I find particularly compelling.

I don’t cover my head anymore on a daily basis although I used to before I moved to Europe. Even though it doesn’t feel right, with the rise of anti-Semitism, it seems like the safe and unfortunately prudent thing to do. I also don’t wear any signifying my religion except for a small star of David earring. In 2014, by the Jewish community’s own account, anti-Semitism grew 200% in the Czech Republic alone.  Statistics seems to support my actions.

Jenner too, like so many members of the trans community, now has the real threat of violence against her person. While her public persona may make her somewhat safer, too many trans men and women have been harmed and even murdered just for being themselves. In fact, many trans people live closeted lives because of this danger and the fear of rejection from family, friends and the larger society.

While not minimizing the fear and danger, I want to return to the more theoretical link between gender expression, gender identity and religious identity. In 1990, Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. For Butler, what we think of sex and its connections to gender as masculinity and femininity often come down to a person performing gender in a way that is socially recognizable. People wear clothing, do actions, speak words and use body language that marks them as woman or man and therefore individual agents adhere to societal constructions of gender at the same time they reinforce societal expectations for men and women. Butler’s suggestion is that gender performances, that subvert “normal” discourses on gender expression, show the ways in which gender is culturally constructed. They also disrupt what has been seen as somehow inherently natural. In other words, biologically-sexed females acting, dressing, speaking and behaving in ways typically associated with masculinity disrupts what it means to be both a woman and to be masculine. This would be impossible if things were as natural as society thinks they are.

One of Butler’s goal, in my opinion, is not only to expose the culturally constructed nature of sex/gender, but also to open up individual agency to perform gender in ways that would disrupt the power these “natural notions” have over peoples’ lives. Subversive gender performances, for Butler, creates more freedom in society and would hopefully undermine blanket misogyny and disrupt patriarchal power.

Yes, Butler has often been criticized in many ways, including the attempt to erase any notion of substance behind personhood and its gendered expression especially as it relates to transgendered individuals. Butler has spoken to this specific criticism saying on that, “…others have a strong sense of self bound up with their genders, so to get rid of gender would be to shatter their self-hood. I think we have to accept a wide variety of positions on gender. Some want to be gender-free, but others want to be free really to be a gender that is crucial to who they are.”20150128_132833

In the end, what is essential for Butler is individual autonomy and freedom to be. Performing sex/gender is one possible way to get there. Let me suggest another that builds off Butler’s ideas of performativity. Religiosity is a type of culturally-laden performance. After all, what are kippot, hijabi, nuns’ habits, ministers’ robes, etc.? They are religious markers tied up in gender identity.

Just as masculine women subvert and disrupt social constructions, couldn’t a Jewish lesbian perform gender in a way that she passes for an orthodox man (or woman)? Doesn’t this disrupt what it means to be both lesbian and orthodox? I think so. This passing person also destabilizes the power of orthodox men to define womanhood and women’s sexuality. She defines for herself who she is. She may very well consider herself to be orthodox and masculine, just as masculine women consider their masculinity as part of who they are.  She may connect deeply with Jewish orthodox feminine styles of dress.  Nonetheless, her outward performance expresses something about her commitment to G-d and who she is as a Jew at the same time it subverts received religious notions of gender and sexuality.  Another example is a woman minister who wears priestly attire including the black shirt and white collar.   She too disrupts power relations, gender assumptions and, for some people, the very notion of women and ordination.  Religious performance is powerful stuff.

To go back to the point I made at the beginning. I think expressions of religiosity are similar to expressions of gender. In addition, claiming for one’s self a religious identity subverts patriarchal notions of gender. Yet, most importantly, performing a religious identity often expresses an inner truth. In both of these ways, religious identity performances could create freedom, disrupt power-over and destabilize patriarchy just as Butler hopes gender performativity does.  I would modify Butler’s approach somewhat to say, “I think we have to accept a wide variety of positions on gender [and/or religious identity]. Some want to be gender-free [and/or religion-free], but others want to be free really to be a gender [and/or religious indentity] that is crucial to who they are.”

Do You Eat Animals? Ecofeminism and Our Food System by Ivy Helman

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oCarol Adams in her article “Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals,” argues that ecofeminists should be vegetarians, since ecofeminism is, among other things, action-based and “one’s actions reveal one’s beliefs,” (129). According to ecofeminism, the patriarchal domination of animals and nature is linked to the oppression of women. For her and many ecofeminists, the survival of our planet rests on two foundations: first, fixing the conditions of women and other oppressed groups and, second, envisioning differently our relationship to the natural world. In other words, a better arrangement of human relationships requires better human relationships with the environment. Vegetarianism and veganism are two ways in which ecofeminists opt out of the patriarchal system of domination and exploitation and help create a better world.

But, does one really? Does adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle really have such an impact on the world? Yes and no. Yes, because it has been shown that raising animals to eat uses exorbitant amounts of fuel, water and land, not to mention, the larger environmental impact of farm run-off in the forms of disease-carrying manure, valuable topsoil and harmful pesticides. Yes, because animals are often inhumanely treated, housed in horrible conditions, genetically and/or hormonally-modified and cruelly killed. Continue reading “Do You Eat Animals? Ecofeminism and Our Food System by Ivy Helman”

Liberation Lessons for Pesach by Ivy Helman

Each year we read the story of our exodus from Egypt during the Pesach seder. The story is one of human liberation from oppression. Yet, most of the imagery we encounter, the drama of the story so to speak, involves nature: a river that saves a baby, a burning bush, the plagues, the re(e)d sea, the wilderness, lack of food and water and the promised land itself. What does this mean?

In general, it means that human liberation is intimately connected to the liberation of all of creation.  In particular, the exodus story can teach us many lessons about environmental justice.  I’m going to explore five of them here: do not manipulate nature, use water wisely, form a connection to the land, imagine G-d differently and treat humans, animals and the land well.

Continue reading “Liberation Lessons for Pesach by Ivy Helman”

Being Scared: Fear and Authenticity by Ivy Helman

meblogMy partner is a lawyer who works with asylum seekers and other immigrants here in the Czech Republic (ČR). She’s amazing at her job and I’m constantly in awe of her passion and commitment along with her righteous anger at systematic injustices. In fact just last week, her workplace, together with a consortium of other immigration organizations in the ČR, helped organize a demonstration in the center of Prague to protest the Czech Republic’s refusal to admit Syrian children and their families into the country. She invited me to attend the event with her. I went.

It was my first time attending a public demonstration in Europe. It was moving to see many of her co-workers there and inspiring to listen to the passionate speeches against xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, the plight of the Roma people as well as the need to come together and welcome diversity. In addition, there were signs in Czech, German and English saying “No One is Illegal,” “End Xenophobia,” “Do Syrian Children Have to Wait for their (Nicholas) Winton?” “I want to have a Syrian Friend!” and “Refugees Welcome!” I wanted to hold each one of those signs! Continue reading “Being Scared: Fear and Authenticity by Ivy Helman”

Education, Anti-Semitism, a Counter Narrative and a Different World by Ivy Helman

meblogIt’s pretty common knowledge that education changes lives. It opens doors, improves health, promotes gender equality, decreases poverty, promotes civic involvement and has many other benefits. This is true for basic literacy campaigns as well as sex education, access to school for girls and institutions of higher education. Yet, what is taught in addition to how it is taught matters a great deal.

In a few days, I’ll begin a new semester teaching “The Jewish Experience in Central Europe” for Anglo-American University in Prague. As a scholar, a Jew and a feminist who recently moved to Prague (in the heart of Central Europe), this course hits home.   It is also timely given rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Coincidentally, this is also the first time I’m teaching a course solely on Jewish history. Continue reading “Education, Anti-Semitism, a Counter Narrative and a Different World by Ivy Helman”

Operating out of the Good: Interpersonal Interactions and Oppression by Ivy Helman

How humans treat one another matters.  Oppression is not only systematic; it is also personal because humans reproduce societal forms of oppression in interpersonal relationships.   Take sexism for example. Sexism, at its worst, manifests itself in intimate relationships through physical abuse, emotional violence, mental manipulation and/or controlling behavior.

This isn’t the only of form of interpersonal oppression that exists between humans.  Humans oppress one another in many subtle (and not so subtle) but equally harmful ways.  For instance, there are also racist remarks and sexual harassment.  Yet, that’s not what I want I want to focus on here.  Instead, I want to look at interpersonal forms of oppression in which agents often believe themselves to be an agent of the good.

Let’s probe two examples.  As the reader will see, each example has its own motivating factor, its own concept of “the good” and at least one oppressive outcome. I believe all of these agents think they are doing what is best for another person and do not necessarily understand the ways in which they are reproducing oppression. If they did, I’m pretty sure they’d modify their behavior, or at least I hope they would.

Example #1

Last month I wrote about a job that I quit because they were so critical of me that I felt like nothing I did was ever good enough.  They treated everyone, regardless of experience, exactly the same.  More than that, the way in which I was made to feel completely inept at teaching dragged down not only my opinion of myself but upped my level of stress as I tried in vain to do better in their eyes.  After months of constant criticism and a poignant discussion with a colleague, I realized that nothing I did would change the system. Likewise, my evaluations would continue to focus on the negative and write off the positive. The corporate culture valued, encouraged and systematized multiple forms of critique with the assumption that this system produced better teachers and better experiences in general. They even had “satisfaction surveys” at their holiday party.  Who does that?empty-exam-hall

Clearly, the company operated out of the assumption that their method of consistently negative feedback motivated people to fix their mistakes. Rather, it inculcated high levels of stress, constant second guessing and poor self-esteem. That’s why it is oppressive. While it motivated me temporarily (I gave my three-week notice after three months of trying to do better in their eyes), no one can operate within that system for long. It is no wonder their turnover rate is so high. I can think of a million other ways to create better teachers.

Example #2

Two weeks ago, I experienced the worst vertigo in my life. I’m not one to rush to a doctor at the drop of a hat so for me to spend the day in the emergency room, something is wrong. Yet, my treatment here in Prague was awful. In the end, I went to three different hospitals before I was seen. The first nurse we went to turned me away saying I wasn’t bleeding and the doctor would not help me. Another office within the hospital took my insurance card and my passport about ten minutes after I arrived. After an hour of waiting, and watching the staff struggle with a patient seizing and puking up blood in the hallway of the treatment area, I was told that it would be hours before I would be seen. I was the only patient in the waiting room. The doctor told me that she did not consider my symptoms to be an emergency and that she was there to help the emergencies. What made matters worse was that she made it clear that she wasn’t going to treat me until she was sure no other emergencies would arrive. How can one be sure no other emergencies would arrive? Clearly, that would never happen. She literally said, “While I can’t technically turn you away, I want you to know you will be waiting a long time.” She was turning me away the only way she could by making me the last patient to receive treatment.

stethoscope-23441288983461x1ZClearly, the doctor felt stressed and overwhelmed. She was trying the best she could. Her concept of the good was to help only those patients she considered to be emergency cases. Yet, she also was extremely quick to judge how she thought I was feeling and made me feel that my experience was insignificant. Rather than value my experience and take what I was saying seriously, she behaved oppressively. Yet, to me, the worst part of the treatment was her telling me that if she could, she would turn me away. I’m speechless.


Because of these experiences I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we treat each other and the ways in which our behavior replicates societal oppression. What bothers me the most is that these people thought that they were acting within the framework of the good. I’ve been wondering whether their definition of the good is wrong. If it is not, then why is their behavior, motivated by a definition of the good, not actually doing good? How could behavior be modified to better align with definitions of the good?

In both of the examples above, I would say that their intentions within their understanding of the good are generally correct (creating better teachers and helping emergency cases first when swamped), but it is the way they are put into practice that produces oppressive behavior. Here, analysis of individual interactions and experiences needs to be assessed as well as corporate models that require certain interactions. Is there a way to do so outside of individual human initiative? From where does the motivation come? Do I, the receiver of poor treatment, have the moral responsibility to call them out on their actions?

I’m not sure how to answer these questions. On the one hand, I believe that they may not be aware of the ways in which their behavior oppresses others, so I should speak up. Yet, on the other hand, people who behave oppressively need to take responsibility for their behavior.

What I am sure about is this: humans often oppress others even when they act out of a common definition of the good. Yet, operating out of the good requires that all of our interactions create experiences that are liberating and life affirming. Failing to do so only replicates oppression. Humanity has a long way to go.

“Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue:” Finding Hope in Justice-Seeking Movements. by Ivy Helman

20140903_180423For the past few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about racism in the United States and rightly so. It is clear from the lack of charges and the repetition of similar crimes across the United States by different members of various law force communities that some people because of the color of their skin are immune to the consequences of their actions and others, also because of the color of their skin, are often the victims of such actions. Criticism, here, in the forms of protests, federal inquiries and outrage are essential.

I am reminded of oft-quoted part of the Torah: Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:20, one that I saw on some of the signs Rabbis carried with them in the protests. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” (from the JPS translation). G-d tells those early Israelites that justice is a requirement not just for their survival in the Promised Land, but also if they want to have good, long lives. Later tradition, from the Talmud to Rashi and beyond, interpret this passage as a call for a just court system within Jewish society.  Likewise, all who use the system should have the principle of justice in mind.  There is also a lot of conjecture as to why justice is said twice. Many modern scholars call attention to the way in which religion and state were considered one in same for this time period and much of human history. Continue reading ““Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue:” Finding Hope in Justice-Seeking Movements. by Ivy Helman”

Ignorance and Invisibility by Ivy Helman

20140903_180423According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Jewish population of Czechoslovakia numbered some 357,000 in 1933. By 1950, it was recorded to be 17,000. To be sure, some escaped to Israel or the United States. Yet, within the modern boundaries of the Czech Republic, some 77,000+ perished. You can find the names of the dead inscribed on the walls of Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue. The Jewish community here remains extremely affected by the effects of WWII and the lingering legacy of communism.

How much of that did you know? Did you know that Prague is home to what the Nazis once wanted to call the “Museum of an Extinct Race”? Did you know that most of the synagogues in this entire country are boarded up, torn down or used for something else? Did you know that the entire Jewish Quarter of Prague was almost destroyed until someone stepped in and persuaded others to preserve it? Did you know that Western media is saying that Jewish life in Prague is undergoing a grand rebirth, while at the same time, most tourists leave Prague thinking there are no Jews here anymore? Continue reading “Ignorance and Invisibility by Ivy Helman”

Writing: Changing the World and Ourselves. By Ivy Helman

I still remember the first tim20140903_180423e I read Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. It awoke something within me. Her use of language, the power of her writing and the ease with which she created new words taught me so much about the world around me and about the way the language, and subsequently its use in writing, shapes lives, choices, abilities and destinies. She also taught me about myself.

I was hooked, but not just on Mary Daly. Shortly after I finished her book, I moved onto other feminists writing about religion like Katie Cannon, Judith Plaskow, Alice Walker, Carol Christ, Rita Gross, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Farley and Starhawk to name just a few. All of them, in fact every feminist I’ve ever read, has shown me the way in which words have power and how words speak truth to power. Ever since, I’ve wanted to be the kind of writer whose words carry a power that not only affects people but also inspires a more just, more equal, more compassionate and more humane world. In other words, I wanted to be a writer activist.

Yet, I’ve always carried around with me a sneaky suspicion that people don’t consider writers true activists. If you aren’t holding a sign, screaming or participating in some sort of public demonstration or civil disobedience, then you have no right to call yourself an activist. Is that really true? Continue reading “Writing: Changing the World and Ourselves. By Ivy Helman”

A New Perspective on the Story of Ruth by Ivy Helman

20140903_180423When I think about having returned to the Judaism of my family, I often think about a short phrase that is on almost all of the conversion documents I’ve seen. “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d.”  It comes from the Book of Ruth and is a powerful phrase in and of itself.  Imagine choosing a journey to a foreign land and being so committed to the person you are traveling with that you are willing to forsake the religion and practices of your people to join hers, even when she extorts you to return to your home.   Think about the kind of trust one needs in another to be able to leave everything behind and follow another path.  That is ideally what the convert to Judaism has chosen: to leave behind their past, setting out on a new religious path.  In fact, it is often frowned upon to ask a convert about their religious past because it is as if it never existed.

Besides these documents, I’ve also encountered the Book of Ruth early in my training as a feminist scholar of religion.  I read many commentaries on the story of Ruth, but what I read never spoke to me.  Yes,  two women were bonded in a deep friendship (perhaps as lovers) struggling to survive and avoid bouts of harassment from men. They also defied patriarchal standards of the day.  Sweet and touching, yes.  A good example of the importance of friendship between women, definitely!   What I 20140904_125500didn’t get then that I do now are the values elevated in these two women.

First, what struck me is just how much our pasts are an important part of who we are.  In many ways, they help to shape our futures.  Ruth’s past built within her the values necessary to make the decision to journey to a foreign land with another woman and without what, could be thought of, as adequate protections.

Continue reading “A New Perspective on the Story of Ruth by Ivy Helman”

Choosing Well by Ivy Helman

pei headshotI’m moving to Prague in the Czech Republic at the end of August.  (In case anyone is concerned, I will still be a regular contributor to this blog.)  In part, moving to Europe feels like diving headfirst into the unknown.  At the same time, it also feels right.

A full-time teaching job still did not materialize again this year despite my best efforts.  I’m beginning to see the blessing in that since a full-time job would have made the decision to go that much harder.  Yet, the decision to move wasn’t easy either.

My plan in Prague is to teach English to local business people as well as feminism and ecology at Charles University.  Neither of these plans is solid.  I don’t have any job offers yet.  I could go there and everything could fall through or I could go there and decide to do something totally different.   In many ways, it’s up to me.  I’m not sure if I have ever placed myself into a situation in which I have so much freedom.  At the same time, I’m also quite nervous about the entire situation.  At least I’m not moving to Prague alone. Continue reading “Choosing Well by Ivy Helman”

Exhaustion and Inspiration by Ivy Helman

Wading in the waters of Prince Edward Island.

Change takes time.  If society takes years to change, religious institutions seem to take decades, maybe centuries.  That ubiquitous intersection of religion and feminism seems neck high in mud and muck.  Some religious institutions claim divine inspiration for keeping their chins down, jaws clenched and footings strongly moored in damaging sexist ideologies.  This is wrong.  But I’m tired.  I feel as if the feminist movement is draining too much out of me for not enough change.

Perhaps an example will clarify.  This Tuesday I taught the first session of a six-week long summer course entitled, “Theology through Women’s Eyes.”  An odd title that could mean many things, right?  It does not even imply a feminist approach to religion and the college’s course description did not either.  I learned from my department’s chair that the last professor to have taught the class shied away from the course having any specific reference to feminism as she was a practicing Catholic theologian and she worried about the effects of that association for her professional career at Catholic universities.

Are you kidding? We are stuck there?  Still?  I personally know a great number of Catholics in academia and outside of it who wear their feminism proudly like Margaret Farley, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Rosemary Radford Ruether to name just a few.  Obviously, not everyone does.  Yet, when religious institutions threaten to and actually excommunicate those who dissent from their teachings, I can see genuine issues with being an “out,” so to speak, feminist.  At the same time, I’ve always thought that the minute someone censures me I’m finally doing something right.  I’m being heard by my intended audience.  Thank G-d, right?  Those are the people who need to listen anyway.  That is my measure of success. Continue reading “Exhaustion and Inspiration by Ivy Helman”

Sexism and “Jerusalem” by Ivy Helman

headshot2Three weeks ago, I played a video entitled “Kingdom of David: Rivers of Babylon” from the PBS Empires series.  The series first aired in 2003.  For the first time, and I’ve played the video in class for probably six semesters in a row, I noticed that all of the biblical scholars, archaeologists and rabbis interviewed to discuss the Torah, the history of the Jews, the Talmud, the exile and the prophetic tradition were men.  This reminds me of a few months back when a female colleague of mine discussed about an encounter she had had with the producers of another documentary about the Hebrew Bible.  They had only interviewed one woman.  When asked about this decision, the producers told her that their audience finds men more authoritative than women when it comes to explaining topics of a religious nature.


Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, an older woman walked into the liquor store where I work.  She wandered around for awhile and then appeared somewhat overwhelmed, which is usually my cue to inquire if the customer needs help.  She said she was just fine.  Five minutes later she was still wandering the store apparently unsure what to purchase so again I approached her and asked if she’d like some help.  She seemed somewhat desperate at this point and asked for my opinion on the Irish Cream Liquors and which one tasted the most like Bailey’s.  I told her I wasn’t exactly sure.  I had not tried them all but the one she was holding in her arms was very popular and we sell quite a bit of it.  She continued to hem and haw explaining to me that she was having a bunch of old ladies over for lunch.  She intended to offer them sips of Irish Cream afterwards.  Then out of the blue she looked at me and said that she still couldn’t decide so she was going to ask a man for his opinion.  This man also happened to be my boss.  He said that he hadn’t tried it, but that it was very popular.  His words, exactly the same as Continue reading “Sexism and “Jerusalem” by Ivy Helman”

Feminist Musings on Mother’s Day.

photo1Happy Mother’s Day!

Yes, I said it, but Mother’s Day invokes within me a certain hesitancy. Now before you say, “Well that’s because you don’t have children of your own so you don’t understand what it is like to be a mother or because your relationship with your own mother is awful, you hate the day.” I would respond that that is an unfair assessment of the situation. First, Mother’s Day doesn’t bother me because I don’t have children. (By the way, I find the idea that I don’t truly understand love or commitment and/or motherhood because I don’t have kids unbelievably condescending. Yes, motherhood can give one gifts and insights but those can also come from other areas of one’s life and/or other experiences.) I am also not hesitant about Mother’s Day because my mother and I have an awful relationship.  We don’t. In fact, it is quite good.

Rather, Mother’s Day bothers me for three reasons. First, it often seems fake. People seem to go through the motions because it is expected and not because they sincerely want to honor their mothers. Second, I often wonder if Mother’s Day isn’t just some consumer-driven, capitalist, patriarchal creation asking us to buy expensive cards and “remember” all our mothers have done for us this one very special day of year.

Third, what are we celebrating about mothers?  Most of the cards at the store and advertisements on television (if we would take them as research on what the general sentiments on Mother’s Day are) honor a mother’s love, support, guidance and acknowledge the child’s needs.  They thank mothers for all they do.  Continue reading “Feminist Musings on Mother’s Day.”

Pesach, Patriachy and the Unfinished Work of Liberation.

headshot2Pesach, or Passover, begins tomorrow at sunset. It has always seemed strange to me that a festival centered on liberation begins with a focus on housework and cleanliness to the point where one is almost a slave to the process of chametz (leavened food) removal.  Not only that, but the spiritual interpretation of what the chametz represents adds to this conundrum.

The Rabbis of the Talmud teach us that chametz represents egotism and arrogance. The divine instruction to eat only unleavened bread for the festival of Pesach is a call to cultivate humility because they believe that our inflated sense of self-worth causes harm to other human beings as we value ourselves and our lives more than them. As we remove the chametz from our homes, we are also supposed to be removing the self-centeredness, arrogance and egotism within ourselves. Cultivating humility redirects our attention to all those parts of our lives that have suffered by being too self-centered, including our relationship with the Holy One. Continue reading “Pesach, Patriachy and the Unfinished Work of Liberation.”

The Politics of Miztvot by Ivy Helman

headshotRecently, Ben of Ben’s Tallit Shop commented on an older post of mine on this website entitled: “How Literal is Too Literal? My Experience with Tallit Katan.   He wrote, “In my opinion, it makes sense to first try the mitzvah of tzitzit in private for a month or two to ensure you are undertaking it for the right reasons.  Making a political statement is not a valid reason (though some people, I imagine, would argue otherwise).  Mitzvahs and politics don’t mix.”

First of all, this comment is both sexist and patronizing!  A man would never suggest to another man to do what he suggested I do and “try the mitzvah… in private… to ensure you are undertaking it for the right reasons.”  I’d dismiss it entirely if I was that kind of person, but I’m not.  Sexism and patronizing aside (as if one could do that really), I would like to engage with his thoughts on the mixing of politics and mitzvot because I think that can lead to great reflection and insight for Jewish feminists.

Not all mitzvot have an inherently political nature, but many do.  In fact, one could even argue something as seemingly apolitical as lighting Shabbat candles could be political.  Lighting candles ushers in Shabbat peace for one’s household and ideally for one’s community even if that peace is only for one day a week.  Since this is at odds with the world’s political environment of fighting, war and violence, it could be interpreted as a political act.  After all, won’t every day in the redeemed world be Shabbat? Continue reading “The Politics of Miztvot by Ivy Helman”

On the Path of Holiness by Ivy Helman

headshotGrowing up, there was a way in which I always felt excluded from holy things.  There was the holy: blessed water, sacred oil, priestly blessings, consecrated priests, pilgrimage sites, religious buildings and communion to name a few and then there was everything else including me.  Yet, I was a good kid who always (or almost always) did as I was told.  Doing good works is not contrary to a Catholic childhood or education.  In fact, it is an integral part of Catholicism, but there is also a competing notion that good works are in a different ontological category from holiness.  While goodness merits salvation, salvation is not connected to being holy.  Holiness was granted; salvation was earned.  In addition, holiness also seemed more distant because men had more access to holiness than women did.  Only men could be ordained and priests consecrate the Eucharist, celebrate the sacraments and bless people and things.  These are all holy things and the closer one interacts with holiness, the more holiness is bound to transfer onto the person coming into contact with them. Continue reading “On the Path of Holiness by Ivy Helman”

“Never Again…” by Ivy Helman

headshotEvery year, the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance, GLILA, sponsors an interfaith service on genocide.  During these services, the community gathers together to remember, to mourn, to heal, to honor and to work towards a world in which Elie Wiesel’s words, “Never Again!” ring true.  Three years ago, we focused on the Shoah and the year after that the Armenian genocide.  Last year it was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and this year our focus is Rwanda.  Part of this preparation is self-education.  I would like to share with you a few of the things I have learned through my own research about the Rwandan genocide as well as some reflections on this difficult, yet extremely important topic.

In many ways, the Rwandan genocide is a direct consequence of colonialism as well as a United Nations’ failure to respond to warnings.  Before colonization, first by the Germans and then as a spoil of WWI for the Belgians, the Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa peoples lived in relatively peaceful coexistence.  Yes, there were acknowledged differences between the three groups based on caste-like descriptions, but they also all spoke the same language, practiced the same religion, intermarried, and co-existed together for a long time.  Generally, the Hutus who made up 85% of the population were the lower caste, so to speak, and were associated with labor and farming, while the Tutsis, 14% of the population, were the herders.  This occupation often generated more wealth and prestige than farming did, so Tutsis were also long associated with the elite in economic and political terms running small chiefdoms and the like.  According to Philip Gourevitch in We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, these were fluid categories of sorts where it was possible to become part of another group through the acquisition or loss of wealth (see page 47).  Continue reading ““Never Again…” by Ivy Helman”

My Experience of Community by Ivy Helman

For many feminists, expheadshoterience is crucial.  Experience has long been associated with feminist epistemological theories which suggest that reflection on and analysis of one’s experiences offer crucial insight into society.  In the history of the women’s movement, this insight and analysis has many times translated into direct action to change the way our society functions.

Experience too has been problematized by various postmodern and postcolonial feminist theorists.  They rightly point to the situated-ness of all experiences along class, race, gender, ethnic, religious and other lines.  (For more on these ideas, one could read Postcolonialism, Feminism & Religious Discourse edited by Laura E. Donaldson and Kwok Pui-lan.)  The context of each and every experience is different.  It would be unwise therefore to assume that experiences produce adequate knowledge about societies and how they function.  For example, the experience of white middle-class British women living in India during the British occupation is very different from her indigenous contemporary and completely different from lower caste men and women of the same time period.  It is important to remember here that patriarchal privilege rears its head and favors some people’s experiences over others, often codifying an experience as “the experience.”  When we talk about experience then we should acknowledge that there is no such thing as a generic experience.  In fact, some post-modernist feminist thinkers think that situated-ness can color experience so much that our experiences may not even be reliable descriptions of the way society functions. Continue reading “My Experience of Community by Ivy Helman”

Check the Box: Diversity and Hiring Practices in the University Setting by Ivy Helman

ivyThe postcards are arriving again.  Little boxes.  Race.  Gender.  Ethnic background.  Veteran status.  As I read the cards, they all mention that they won’t be directly associated with my application.  Once I fill out each card, I’m supposed to mail them back to the appropriate university.

As I debate with myself the problematic nature of the little boxes on the cards, I also wonder if maybe the cards should be associated with my application materials.  Without the card, my CV sits right next those with potentially more opportunity, more support and more privilege as if we are equals.  This seems problematic.

Universities that truly want to embrace diversity must take into account how oppression and privilege have affected the candidates that apply for a position.  People cannot choose who they are or the situations they have faced.  This situatedness and society’s system of inequality and privilege directly affects a person’s employment potential.  Very rarely do black women born in a lower socio-economic class have the same educational opportunities as an upper-class white man.  At face value then the white male will appear more qualified because of all of the opportunities he was able to take advantage of, while the black women’s CV may not read as well.  Perhaps, she had to take more time to complete her Ph.D. and could not attend every American Academy of Religion meeting because she did not have the money.  This does not automatically mean she is less qualified.  Continue reading “Check the Box: Diversity and Hiring Practices in the University Setting by Ivy Helman”

An Ethics of Anger by Ivy Helman

me bio-suitSometimes I feel angry.  I would say that more often I’m upset, disappointed, annoyed or just plain frustrated.  These are easier emotions for me to handle because I tend to shy away from confrontation and conflict.  Of course, when they come up I can deal with them but I’d rather put time and energy into fruitful communication before difficult conflicts erupt.  Nevertheless, this doesn’t always work and other people handle situations and communication differently than I do.  So how does one approach anger?  The anger inside one’s self?  Another’s  anger?  What about when two individuals are angry with each other?  I would like to spend a little bit of time treating each one of these scenarios separately and then conclude with a few general remarks about the importance of empathic feelings of anger over the situations of others.

First of all, everyone handles anger differently.  I’m not sure that there is only one correct way to approach it.  Personally, I use anger as a reflective tool.  Why am I angry?  What happened or didn’t happen to provoke my anger?  Is my anger an appropriate response to the situation in which I find myself?  Are there some concrete actions I can do to right the situation?  These questions allow space for me to not only explore my feelings and ground myself, but more importantly they give me some space between what made me angry and whatever action or inaction I take toward that feeling of anger. Continue reading “An Ethics of Anger by Ivy Helman”

Two Reflections for the New Year: 5774 By Ivy Helman

ivyIn June, my friend, Shifra, and I became Co-Chairs of the Ritual Committee at our shul. During the past few weeks, we have occasionally turned to one another and said, “I can’t wait for the High Holy Days to be over!”  Then, we have paused realizing what we have said and have sworn that we didn’t mean it.  We don’t.  Truly, we don’t.  But we are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of detail required for the days to go well.  There are babysitters to find, flowers to pick-up and drop off and pick-up again, kiddushim to organize, chairs to arrange, musicians to contact, mahzorim to bring up from the basement, bulletins and programs to coordinate, volunteers to recruit, parking to find for Tashlich, carpets to be cleaned, pianos to be tuned and so much more.  Thank G-d there is a committee and a community to help us, but we still have much of the organizing and synchronizing to do.  It’s a lot for two people who also have jobs, family and other responsibilities to fit in as well.

What concerns me more than anything in all of this organizing and busyness is that I won’t be personally prepared for the High Holy Days.  These days require personal, spiritual and relational work which all takes time.  I can’t show up on Yom Kippur morning and expect to have an amazingly deep spiritual experience if I have done nothing to prepare myself for it.  To me, this would be the irony of all ironies: the one who has spent the past three months making sure the shul is ready isn’t prepared herself.  Since the last week of August, I have been setting aside time away from the details to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Within the personal work I’ve done, I have found two inspirational and meaningful reflections which I’d like to share with you. Continue reading “Two Reflections for the New Year: 5774 By Ivy Helman”

On Fasting and Feminism by Ivy Helman

headshotOn July 16th, I fasted for Tisha b’Av, when Jews commemorate the destructions of the temples in Jerusalem among other events.  On July 23rd I attended, as a member of GLILA, iftar, hosted by the Tolerance and Dialogue Student Association of UMass Lowell.  Iftar is the traditional nightly break-fast dinner during the month of Ramadan.  On Saturday, July 27th, I read in the Boston Globe an obituary of a sixteen-year-old girl who lost her battle with anorexia nervosa.  That small paragraph obituary gave me pause.  I have literally spent this last month steeped in mine or my friends’ religious practices of fasting.  That young woman spent much of her last years of her life fasting to the point of death.   How does a religious feminist respond?

Religious fasts regularly praise the virtues of self-denial and self-sacrifice.  Abstention from food is thought to be spiritually purifying.  The theology of fasting frequently seeks to humble the adherent in which the practitioner seeks to garner favor or be seen as worthy in the eyes of the divine.  Fasting, especially in Christianity, also separates body and mind. Continue reading “On Fasting and Feminism by Ivy Helman”

The Inter-Faith Youth Initiative and Feminism by Ivy Helman

ivyFrom June 25th through July 2nd 2013, I participated, as one of three Jewish mentors, in IFYI (Inter-Faith Youth Initiative), an inter-faith immersion experience for high school and college-age youth sponsored by Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries (CMM). The mentors and the rest of the staff guided, encouraged, empowered and supported 30 participants. Throughout the week, I also led an art interest group and co-led an affinity group with Beau Scurich, the Muslim chaplain at Northeastern. The entire community of participants and staff gathered around the week’s theme: the ways of truth and love. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always,” (emphasis added).

IFYI was not only an exercise in how to live out the ways of truth and love, but it also became a vehicle through which the participants and staff expressed to the larger world what the ways of truth and love meant to us. Here is some of what the ways of truth and love came to mean throughout our journey together. Continue reading “The Inter-Faith Youth Initiative and Feminism by Ivy Helman”

Tikvah v’hashamayim (Hope and the Heavens): A Jewish Perspective on Redemption by Ivy Helman.

headshotThe Torah is bursting with hopes over-fulfilled.  Abraham and Sarah hoped for a child and gave birth to a nation.  The Israelites hoped for freedom from slavery and eventually received an entire Promised Land.  We understand hope and, in so many ways, we live on it, as hope has sustained us for thousands of years.  Today, our hopes inspire our actions and motivate us to work for peace, justice and equality.   In Jewish terms, we call this goal or vision of a better world in the here-and-now: redemption.

Yet, redemption does not just appear out of thin air or because we wish it.  Redemption and the hope of it requires work and cooperation with the Source of All Life.  As Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I have put before you life and death… [therefore] choose life…”  This cooperation could be a simple commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world (some times translated as social justice).  For others, choosing life could mean more observant religious practice.  It could also be a combination of the two.  In the end, though, I think both hope and redemption require choosing life in some form or another.

Just as how we choose life depends on who we are, how we achieve this redeemed world depends on how we understand G-d’s redemptive power.  Some of us think redemption will come through the moshiach (a savior), Continue reading “Tikvah v’hashamayim (Hope and the Heavens): A Jewish Perspective on Redemption by Ivy Helman.”

Review of “The Book of Mormon” by Ivy Helman

IMG_5998My friend and I won two tickets to “The Book of Mormon” showing as part of Broadway in Boston.  Having known nothing about the musical, we were curious and excited to be going.  Nearly two weeks later, we are still discussing how we feel about the production.  We agree that overall we like it and there are some very funny parts, but we are also troubled and disgusted by it on a number of levels.  Moreover, the fact that we like it makes us quite uncomfortable.

As a Broadway production, the cast was amazing!  The songs were creative.  Characters were dynamic and showed marked growth.  “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” was outright brilliant with its use of humor, satire and fear to explain the Mormon preoccupation with hell as punishment for immorality and/or disbelief. Continue reading “Review of “The Book of Mormon” by Ivy Helman”

The Roman Catholic Theology of Womanhood by Ivy Helman

The Vatican has creIvy Helmanated an entire theology of womanhood without the input of a single woman!  Searching the Vatican archives reveals a wide range of documents pertaining to women, some of which mention women tersely only in their capacity as workers needing protection (Rerum novarum, 1891) and others are fully dedicated to describing the status, role and mission of women in the family, society and the world (Mulieris dignitatem, 1988).  Within the documents, as time passes, women become their own category of theological importance.  This is due to the influence of feminism on the status and roles of women across the globe.  Yet, there is vehement anti-feminism in the documents as well.

I searched the documents myself, curious as to what the Vatican had to say about womanhood and wrote a book on the topic published by Orbis in Febrary 2012 entitled, Women and the Vatican: An Explanation of Official Documents.  I would like to lay out that theology now.  Continue reading “The Roman Catholic Theology of Womanhood by Ivy Helman”

Purim and the Value of Courage by Ivy Helman

Ivy HelmanThe Jewish Festival of Purim and the book of Esther offer us an opportunity to reflect on the value of courage from a feminist perspective. The online Webster’s Dictionary defines courage as, “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” In religious discourse, courage is often categorized as a virtue or a moral principle. Aristotle (384BCE – 322BCE), one of the most famous of the virtue ethicists, believed a virtue like courage should be practiced according to the mean or the right amount. Too much courage leaves one rash, possibly too reactionary and hot-headed while too little makes one cowardly and weak, but just the right amount in a given situation leads to moral behavior. Virtuous living leads to happiness, or perhaps is itself happiness, for Aristotle.  Yet, as a feminist, I understand the worth of courage differently.  To me, the value of courage lies not in individualistic gains nor in personal happiness but in its use toward achieving justice and equality in society.

In the book of Esther, we read about Queen Vashti and Esther both of whom demonstrate courage. (There are many feminist commentaries on the inherent sexism of the book of Esther. While I acknowledge the need for such critique, I am not approaching Esther from this perspective as much as I am approaching it from what we can gain from the actions of the women in the story.) As the book opens, King Achashverosh asks Queen Vashti to parade her beauty at a feast for him and his guests. She refuses to be paraded and thus objectified. Men in the king’s royal court react harshly telling the king that if he lets her get away with such disobedience other women will surely follow suit. This is surely problematic for the kingdom as well as their households. Vashti is replaced as punishment. Continue reading “Purim and the Value of Courage by Ivy Helman”

%d bloggers like this: