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.