Workshop 3: Subverting Oppression , On My Jewish Marriage

By: Mati Engel

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Strapped into a ferris wheel

A sand timer placed into my open palms

The men buckled me in tight

for a ride I didn't know I agreed to go on

With each turn round

Another bachelor sat down

We circled for a time or two

And then made our way back down

What style home can we build

To which I’d respond,

well, that depends on what kind of wife you are hoping to acquire.

Am I saying the right things?

What is this thing they call desire?

Around and around

The timer’s insistence made me nauseous and dizzied

Every time we came back down

My stomach engulfed the full beating

There were times where no man sat down

I would make my rounds with an empty seat beside me

Looking over my shoulder at the other carts

who seemed complete

Around and Around

Until one round the timer broke

From the tension in my knuckles

The sand pouring down

The man’s throat

Sitting right below

And so the men unstrapped me

Because I was a liability

But the freedom was too bright

And the rays of light blinded me

Workshop #2: Subverting Oppression Through The Theatrical

Perhaps the closest and most resonant understanding I have when reckoning with systemic oppression, was my being victim to the Ultra Orthodox Jewish perspective on marriage defining my worth in society. Growing up within Ultra-Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy and then eventually returning back to Ultra-Orthodoxy, often times it felt as though my life both began, and/or ended, depending on my marriage prospects. It seemed, especially as a woman, being raised by a single mother, that I was being timed by how quickly I made it to the covenantal finish line. The milestone of marriage, is what determined my social standing and the respect, or pity, I earned within my community. Remaining a single woman, at the age of 26, guaranteed a reward of pity. Having stepped out of that system, because it no longer served me, I see now that my entire social economy was built around a valuation of partnership and familial security as an important means to social capital and social mobility. There was no way I could escape not being ready, interested or willing to sign my name to a contract that asked of me my full commitment. Nevermind the fact that my parents social standing, with their divorce and interesting life choices, had a direct impact on my own options. Everything in this system screamed to me that I was a failure for not reaching the finish line in time with my peers. And while in many cases the Orthodox community nourished my spiritual and communal needs, the emotional anxiety to settle down and wed was unavoidable in that system- unless you were able to contend with swallowing the pity your only other option was to pick up your belongings and go.

And here I find myself at the Divinity school at the University of Chicago, a step further along my spiritual journey in attempt to find the rest of my tribe, and think about intentional community alongside other seekers. I guess what shouldn’t be that surprising is that when turning my back to one particular form of systemic oppression, I just found myself walking into another form of it.

A few months ago, a Palestinian colleague and I got into a heated argument over the intellectual methodologies on offer in the pervading intellectual discourse of our academic institution. He rallied against the orientalist attitude that permeate our Western academic institutions, which to him, with a certain “Western” entitlement narrows what is worthy to be called acceptable “knowledge”. He found our academic institution to be intellectually oppressive. His feelings of intellectual marginalization within a discourse largely dominated around the needs and views of white Christian males, left me curious. As a Jewish and female scholar, also representing a religious minority, I couldn’t exactly relate to or understand the specificities of his contempt but I knew he was on to something important.  And so, I asked him very direct questions, in a classroom setting, which in that particular context and tone, eventually shut down the the conversation instead of opening it.

Several weeks went by, and with the insistence of our friends, we decided to make time for a coffee. And so we began our conversation, on completely new terms, each of us taking responsibility for our words, following a mission to find each other’s voice again respectfully through dialogue.

Maher’s introduced me to his research and creation of a systematic mapping of oppression, as a tool that is motivated in figuring out how to facilitate respectful and serious engagement amongst oppressed groups and those who hold positions in the dominant discourse- i.e are more privileged. Using this map allows for a bird’s eye perspective on what the system is and how it functions.

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Perhaps the most exciting part for me, as an avid learner, was the opportunity for me to share this systematic mapping to a group of thoughtful feminists as a means to grapple with systemic abuses of power. How often do we get to reflect on our location within our larger world order? How frequently do we get to sit with others in our community, and take stock of what the forces of power are that fuel our evaluation of determining what is of worth in our shared economy? And can we creatively entertain alternative forms of currency that can determine objective value?

The systematic mapping tool became useful in deciphering whether there is an opportunity for discontinuing the violence that abusive systems perpetuate. Whether the violence is deliberate or not, there needs to be sensitivity to the pain inflicted on the oppressed group, before we attempt at navigating change. Discontinuous violence means that an authentic encounter is possible between the oppressed group and the oppressor. While healing is packed word, that is rarely, if ever, linear, what we mean when we say encounter is that we meet each others pain of loss and experienced grief with compassion rather than with pity.

This moment of meeting is essential to our ability to recover. Without this encounter between the group that is subjugated and those who've oppressed, the possibilities for discontinuing the perpetuating cycle of violence look dim.

During our Thursday evening salon, everyone in the room was at a different stage in their process, coming in with varying levels of exposure to the activist discourse on systemic oppression . As facilitators it was important for us to dispel the shame often associated with privilege and with ignorance around topics of oppression. In preparing this session we came up on our own limits. And we asked ourselves, should our limited experience stop us from having the conversation?

The question I lead with ultimately became, how can I own my own learning about these topics? How can I allow my own process to withhold me from speaking and engaging? When will I be ready enough to speak? And when are we permitted to begin talking about these subjects? I personally didn't come to this project as an expert on systemic oppression, nor can I claim to have a full reckoning of the tragedies that systemic oppression produces. What I can say is that this has been an invaluable workshop for me as a facilitator, because it required a sensitivity and humility to speak to people’s varied human experiences.

What became evident was that each situation requires a closer case analysis of the particular issue that needs addressing. Systemic mapping allows us to see the bigger picture that by distancing ourselves we can collect more information to observe the dynamics of the abusive system. When imagining change, we began remapping what leading with a feminist economy might mean, by inserting values such as vulnerability, responsibility and care into our system and culture. Part of this was getting at the root of our current economic structure, that runs our system, as an attempt at weeding out the false beliefs, emotional anxieties and lack of personalization by those who influence the dominant discourse.

More on Systemic Oppression: Family Separations

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by Nessa Norich

I was raised by Jewish women who were raised by Jewish women. That means whatever it means to you, it’s just a statement of truth. 

That form of womanhood involved strong compassion, endless generosity and propensity to give (maybe sometimes to a fault), sharp humor and intelligence, and a love for community. My grandmother was an organizer of her local community. My sister speaks Hebrew arabic and French and directs money from the rich to the companies that invest in our future. My mother organized the New Year’s Eve town-wide intergenerational party to revolve around art. My aunt was a tenured professor. My cousin in this photo is a mother of 2 with a full time job RUNNING shit at the London Transport Commission. She’s probably the reason they finally put an elevator in your tube station. 

I was a child who felt safe in the world because I got to be near all of these women. We had the privilege that afforded us the opportunity to spend time together. To spend leisurely time together. To see each other on the holy days. To protect and nourish one another. To be together.

This has been so important to my life. To live in a country where we could achieve and still have a connection to our ancestral identity. That’s what the dream of this country was. Freedom of belief. Freedom of speech. Freedom of choice. Freedom to an education not influenced by religious belief. That was the image painted for me as a child student. Of course that’s never what this country truly was, because it always rested on the laurels of slavery. Slavery built our foundation, and will always be part of our DNA. So we’ve never really been co-creating the American Dream, we’ve been actively, and often blindly, denying it to people. 

Insult to injury. 

This country was already unsafe for migrants (among so many others who are victimized by systemic oppression). 

When we ramp up the deportation of immigrants, there are seeds of catastrophe that are planted. 

When we ramp up the deportation of immigrants we sow a seed of rejection. When Jews in 1930s Europe were suddenly forbidden from riding bikes in the streets, the dominant powers sent a message to the entire population. These people are no longer safe here. These people no longer have the protection of the system. These people are our enemies. Have at them. They are illegal anyway. 

When we separate families we deprive children the opportunity to be nourished by their loved ones. This is one of the cruelest punishments for a child imaginable. 

Love. To be deprived of love by those who would love the child most. Unconditionally. 

For today, I feel the most I can do is to write what I think and share it with whomever will read. Tomorrow will be different. I can do more.

With my entire heart, I will that this turns around. Make the work of this administration stop right where it is. It must come to a full stop. May whatever is driving it now, redirect towards a dream for everyone. To dream it. To manifest it. To share it.

Workshop 2: Constructing Judith as a Heroine

When we initially set out to learn about this radical Jewish heroine, we found it rather surprising that Judith’s narrative had been missing from the Jewish canon for well over a millennium. We discovered that the very first mentioning of the Judith story only appeared in early Christian apocryphal texts, obscure biblical writing, written at the end of the second century. And yet, despite the story’s clear Jewish content and various biblical allusions, Judith was nowhere to be found in the Jewish canon. This was news to us! Since for those of us who attended Hebrew day school, Judith, who’s name  literally translates as “the Jewess”, seemed like the leading Jewish feminist heroine of the Hanukkah story and so it amazed us to learn that her story and character had disappeared entirely from Jewish literature until well into the Medieval period.

Once we came to terms with the fact that Judith was missing from both the Jewish bible and original midrashic and talmudic literature, we found that the earliest talmudic mentionings of Judith appeared to surface 1000 years after the apocrypha, in the form of talmudic commentary, poetry and art.  For some reason the rabbi’s suddenly were motivated to resurrect her story, and readapt it in order to make her a symbol of radical Jewish determination and unyielding faith. Interestingly enough, the stories that began to surface during these later rabbinic periods described a slightly different version of the Judith we had come to know from her earlier appearances.

As with any great piece of literature, legend or myth, we do ourselves well to ask who is narrating our stories. Our personal libraries are filled with books that furnish our personal canons; works that shape our moral imaginations and sensibilities of how we evaluate human character and virtue. And so, by retracing the authorship of our inherited stories we identify who has been responsible for shaping the values we’ve likely inherited.  And in the case of Judith, the same applies! When looking more closely at the variety of authors writing about Judith, we can begin to see the implications for the kind of Judith we imagine given the different descriptions of Judith’s we encounter.

Workshop Highlights:
During our workshop we revisited the work of Joseph Campbell, whose scholarship explored understanding the role that mythology plays across ethnic cultures and religions. Campbell became known for his work, The Hero’s Journey which served as a synthesis, distilling the similarities of our passed down stories when comparing hundreds of myths and legends. The Hero’s Journey serves as human map, an all-embracing metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation that many  hero's across history and regions share. Campbell’s map includes a charted path that leads the hero’s through four essential movements of: separation, descent, ordeal, and return. 

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According to Campbell, “the ego can’t reflect upon itself unless it has a mirror against which to read itself. And this mirror is myth”. And so, The Hero’s Journey serves as a mythological schedule, that helps us understand where we are in our personal development. The journey becomes a scoreboard that helps us track our stories up against patterns of hero’s that have long existed centuries before us.

While Campbell’s work was crucial in helping us visualize and track heroic development in the stories we tell, we found it challenging to map our Judith heroine according to the stages he set out in The Hero’s Journey. This challenge brought us to the work of Maureen Murdock, a student of Campbell’s who shared our frustration in that she craved a more relatable model for female psychological and emotional development.. Looking at Murdock’s  version of The Heroine’s Journey we began to reimagine the  kinds of challenges a heroine/or hero might face; challenges that may exist internally within the hero/ine as emotional shadows that need courageous confrontation and don’t necessarily entail a call to adventure outside of one’s self. Murdock's work was refreshing to us because it offered us the freedom to construct and author our own stages of transformation and allowed us to reevaluate the variations of what a successful heroic return can represent.  The Heroine’s Journey allowed us to play with our understanding of societal associations of feminine and masculine values, and how those associations impact how we interpret as success.

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What We’re Reading This Week:

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The Sword of Judith, Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lahnemann

Judith, Deborah Levine Gera

The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock

Session #2: A Reflection on The Heroine's Journey

 

by Nessa Norich

It's astounding how many stories reside inside of each of us. We are like the pyramids of Tikaal, layers built upon layers at different stages of time, each layer as sacred as the last. As I excavate my memories, I realize the significance of each brick laid in my process of growth. When I hear the vulnerability and variability of our collective voices, I recognize that we are all heroic in the telling and listening. 

Within our forming collective, there is no one like me, there is no one like you. As I tell my story - it transforms from that which I carry, to the gift I give away. As I listen to yours, I have the capacity to feel your feelings, I learn your lessons, I experience your perceptions. I have the capacity to love and care for you, to regret or rejoice in what happens for you. I feel closer to you.

You are a hero and, as life continues on its cycles, you grow more valiant, more compassionate, more brave, more spacious, more vulnerable, more empowered, more more more. You grow into a magnificent oak tree with countless roots and branches. Together, we are a forest, connected at our roots, trading information that nourishes us, that ensures that we thrive. Our branches collectively reach towards the light, so that our leaves might purify the air, breathing in and out to generate more life for all the creatures among us. 

Like the forests, we matter (Latin: Mater = Mother & substance).

Our stories need to burst forth from underground and be told. By us and for us. We must step into the role of narrator and heroine simultaneously. A heroine is a womxn who survives, who remains compassionate in the face of all that is, who remains hopeful, who strives. As narrators of our own stories, we commemorate and celebrate our victories as they happened, creating a swelling symphony of and with the variations of our individual struggles. By showing each other how we fight, how we overcome collectively with grace.

 

Workshop 1: Speaking Ourselves Into Power

Judith Series:

In our process of human becoming, we deeply desire to be witnessed and seen in our unfolding. With this in mind, as a collective, we insisted on creating a culture of sisterhood to help us excavate the fullness of our internal landscapes that we so often hold tucked in. We created a space, on the fringe of society, where we could come together to validate, affirm and mirror back the beauty, vulnerability and courage it takes to manifest and permit more of ourselves to be seen.

We kicked off our Judith series, exploring the problem of othering and otherness. Through guided visualization, we revisited the times in our lives where we knew we were being sized up, objectified and limited in our human experience and perceived capacity. Moments where the multiplicity of our personality and our potential was not given the space to breathe, unfold, or be respected in its process of unraveling. We wrote these experiences into short monologues, putting words and voice  to these times when our voices felt muted and at times foreign to ourselves. Finally, we performed these anecdotes by interweaving them, sharing one narrative in solidarity and strength.

By revisiting these moments of discomfort we created a safe container to hold all of our stories. Finally the yelling, crying, anxious, desiring, silly, mischievous parts could come out.

We came together as sisters to serve as witnesses to each other’s process. By showing up to listen to each other more closely we created the spaciousness within ourselves for empathy and curiosity to see and hear each other into being.  To let our eyes see without judgement within this safe container.. We expressed our fears, our longings, quirks, ugliness - anything that wanted to come out that day to play. We welcomed all of it, transmuting the fear and discomfort into courageous openness. And though we began the days as strangers, through performing our stories we began to know each other and let ourselves be known.

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Insights:
Othering, is this strange and instinctive human behavior that enables us to make sense of ourselves in the world. Put simply, it’s a way we come to identify- what is me and what is not. As feminist theorist, Simone de Beauvoir puts it, “the category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other”.

When we other-ize,  it is often a way we formulate to ourselves who is on our side-- who belongs to us and with whom do we identify. Instinctively we other-ize, because without doing so we have a lot to negotiate; like how to compassionately exist alongside those we don’t understand.  

To resist the isolating estrangement of othering and being othered we courageously express our authenticity in community. We show up as witnesses for each other’s unique experiences without a doubt for their validity. When we seek out and create the spaces in which we can share, struggle, celebrate and inhabit ourselves more fully, we come to compassionately invite others to do the same.  We realized we couldn’t underestimate the transformative power of having compassionate eyes in this process.
 

What We’re Reading This Week:

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-The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
-Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly, 1973

-The Coming of Lilith, Judith Plaskow, 2005

About Our Work

 

About Our Work:

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Our work aspires to instruct women to explore their own personal narratives and spiritual identities through feminist consciousness-raising, using performance labs and evocative conversations that engage feminist social activism. Our creative vision is driven by a commitment to female self-understanding and self-discovery by designing environments for courageous self-expression. Our approach is to generate and integrate the intellectual, spiritual and emotional experience of women through embodiment, by using various performance and theater modalities. We use Jewish texts and foundational feminist historical and literary works to generate more depth and breadth in our personal and communal practices.

With this, our mission places an emphasis on creating a culture of sisterhood. For us, sisterhood is about women coming together as allies in personal development by prioritizing compassionate communication. We work at adapting intentional practices that enable more honesty and vulnerability in our shared spaces, i.e leaving intellectual jargon, defensiveness and fear at the door. Our work is to help women assert their own narrative agency by embracing play, personal creativity and actively contributing to a meaningful dialogue about their lived experiences.

Here is a space to answer to yourself-- what is my taste? what is my preference? where is my pleasure?

And finally, what makes my insides come alive?

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We see the Judith series as an opportunity for women to study what it means to embody themselves more fully and to dialogue and reflect on their own identity formation while being held and seen in a safe and intimate space. Judith was a complex Jewish heroine who’s story continues to inspire female strength and empowerment. Her story moves us to challenge ourselves to form our own heroine’s journey with personal integrity.