Last week was the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and I went to a party held by a writer friend who lives in the Hudson Valley. He’s an Orthodox Jewish scholar who’s also a gay activist, and his friends are a reliably awesome blend of the queer, the Jewish, the feminists, the progressives and the Orthodox. Intersectionalities galore!
So in honor of the event, I was wearing my favorite feminist t-shirt, which I bought at the Jewish Museum in Berlin last year. In elegant Hebrew lettering, it reads: “Blessed Is God Who Made Me A Woman.” It’s not just a positive message, it’s a repudiation of a well-known line repeated by Jewish men in their daily prayers: “Blessed is God that he did not make me a woman.” The line deliberately reinforces the idea of male superiority and female degradation and is deleted from most modern Jewish prayer books. Jewish feminists like to flip the negative to the affirmative as a fuck you to the Patriarchy.
Not only did all my lefty Jewish friends love the shirt, but it turned out to have magical properties I hadn’t expected: it repels the ultra-Orthodox, specifically the Lubavitchers who prowl the streets of New York during Jewish holidays asking people if they’re Jewish and trying to get them to come to their religious events (they’re also known by the name of their movement: Chabad.) It’s the equivalent of evangelicals trying to get mainstream Christians to come to revivals and be born again. At Sukkot, the Lubavitchers carry lulavs (a wand made of willow, palm and myrtle branches) and etrogs (a rare citrus fruit) out into the streets as part of their proselytizing. According to the seasonal ritual, you’re supposed to hold the fruit and shake the wand in all four directions, sometimes while invoking a prayer. It’s fun, except when a black-hatted religious fanatic tries to stop you on the street to get you to do it in public, in which case it’s annoying. Also, there’s always something creepily Freudian about a dude asking if you want to shake his lulav.
Normally, when Lubavitchers ask if I’m Jewish, I say no. It’s really none of their business and I just want them to go away. But on Sunday when coming back from the party at my friend’s, the men saw the Hebrew lettering on my shirt and honed in on me. And then….a holiday miracle. They read the line praising God for making me a woman and pulled up short. And then they turned around and walked away. It seems the Chabad boys don’t want an empowered woman to shake their lulavs.