Isard lectures on feminist identity in modern Judaism

Religion and feminism may often seem inherently contradictory. However, feminist Sonia Isard reminded students that they can equally express both aspects of their identities.

This past Monday, April 15th, the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) hosted a discussion entitled “Young, Jewish, and Feminist” with guest speaker Isard. She is the Associate Editor of Lilith Magazine, an independent, Jewish-American, feminist non-profit publication that boasts the motto: “Independent, Jewish & frankly feminist.”

The magazine addresses crucial issues facing Jewish women today including sexual misconduct, fashion and the Jewish American Princess stereotype.

The VJU typically hosts these kind of parlor discussions at least once a semester. Tara Sheridan ‘13, co-president of the VJU, with the help of Rena Blumenthal, Assistant Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and Advisor to Jewish Students, put the discussion together. Blumenthal met Isard while in Ukraine, working with Jews of the former Soviet Union.

The two of them agreed that she would be the perfect person to head the open discussion this Monday.

The group, of about 14 people, met in the faculty parlor and enjoyed pizza and drinks before Isard began the discussion. Isard spoke a little about herself and th history of her  developing interest Judaism.

She grew up in Philadelphia and went to University of Michigan for her undergraduate education, where she ended up going abroad to Russia.

It was in Russia that she became extremely involved in Jewish communities. She went on to graduate school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She was passionate about working at Lilith because of her interest in the intersection between Judiasm and Feminism.

The conversation began with the question of what it means to identify as a Jewish-feminist. Many students contributed personal stories of moments when they realized these two identities intersected for them.

After this introduction, Isard asked the group to pick a topic from one of the past articles published in Lilith.

The group decided to discuss individual fashion senses in Jewish religion, based off an article in the Spring 2011 Lilith magazine entitled “Standing Out” by Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Pogrebin asserted that she saw the issue of fashion Jewishly: “In the same way that Judaism expects us to embellish sacred objects, I believe that the human body deserves to be embellished.”

Furthermore, she stated, “It’s the job of human beings to improve upon and complete what God couldn’t finish…dressing the body is just another opportunity for us to elaborate upon what we have been given.”

These excerpts and more were read to the group. The article sparked several discussion questions: “What ways do you dress that express Judaism?”, “Do you think about self presentation in a way that your female predecessors did?”

The lecture also sparked discussion about appropriate ways to dress in synagogue as well as issues of younger generations dressing inappropriately at Bar/Bat Mitzvahs ceremonies.

Everyone was very actively participating and engaged in the dicussion. The group had lots of significant things to say based on personal experiences as well as their associations with Judaism and feminism.

Isard guided the discussion and ultimately ended by asking the group how their ideas and perceptions of these issues have changed over time.

According to Sheridan, a Jewish feminist study group has covered a range of topics this year, some of which include reclaiming and reevaluating women in the various Biblical stories and emphasizing the importance of working within Judaism to challenge what feels problematic to some people. The group also worked on creating new feminist rituals along with Talmudic law study.

This discussion built upon the conversations that have been occurring throughout the year.

Of the overall effectiveness of the lecture, Sheridan said, “Sonia did a great job harnessing the energy in room, and it felt like people could have kept talking. I think having Sonia here gave a fresh perspective and lead to a really fascinating discussion!”

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