In a Newsweek essay on race and the Hillary Clinton presidency, In The Legacy of My Grandmother, Allison Samuels writes that her family has been fighting against racism and not gender roles. “In her [grandmother’s] world, being a woman in control wasn’t something she had the luxury of deciding to fight for. She was. In her lifetime— as well as my mother’s, and to some extent, mine—race, not gender, has been the defining narrative in my world.” Because of this fight, it is more important to her grandmother to see a black president. “I can’t afford the luxury of fighting two battles when one is so clearly a matter of life and death.
Samuel’s essay made me think about my feelings towards feminist Judaism, or rather my lack of feelings. At a recent function, I found myself surrounded by strong Jewish women passionately discussing issues of gender in Orthodox Judaism. At the time, I told myself that as a convert, someone new to the religion, my lack of passion towards the subject could be attributed to ignorance.
The idea or desire to become a rabbi just doesn’t fit into the Jew I am right now. I don’t want to read from the Torah. I could use my own personal mechitzah. I think it would lead to higher quality davening. I’m far more concerned with the fact that my fibromyalgia demands a book holder where there is not; I’m much, much less concerned with whether or not I get to speak from the bimah. For some Jewish women, these are clear issues of women being limited by constraining gender roles in the religion; for me, these issues don’t even make the top of my list of concerns.
Because of Samuels, I realized that I, too, grew up in a world without men. I never had to prove that I was equal to a man because there were no men around to use as a yardstick. I never had to fight for women’s rights, neither did my mother or her friends. My mother and her friends were single mothers who were full-time mothers and fathers. And though, only some were breadwinners, there was never a question of who had all the power.
I also grew up in a world where I was told that people “out there” thought I wouldn’t finish college because of my race, because of my class. I was told that when a person of color makes a mistake, all other people of color pay for it but that when a white person makes the same mistake, only that white person pays for it. Don’t make mistakes, I was counseled. Don’t embarrass your race, your people.
As a child, I was worried about making up for whatever education I lacked because I was a poor Hispanic attending overcrowded innercity schools that didn’t, couldn’t, match the education offered on a private school budget. When I, finally, understood why we lived on welfare, I realized that it was because we lived below the poverty line. That welfare put us just over the line so that food stampes ensured that we didn’t starve and Medicaid ensured that we didn’t die from illness. On television, I saw a world that was miles away from the poverty line I skirted and I knew that I was a “have not” and that statistically, there was a chance I might always be.
A little girl who had the luxury of choosing karate when her sisters took ballet doesn’t begrudge women who are fighting for equal rights for women. But that little girl, even when she’s all grown up, is too busy struggling against issues of race and class to jump on the bandwagon.