October 26, 2012 On Patriarchs
Such is the legacy of our first patriarch Abraham: he put his wife into a suitcase. Abraham gave patriarchs their reputation not for naught. All parsha I learned of him depicted him as a stereotypical male on top. He wasn’t just dragging his wife with the luggage and frolicking with that Hagar lady; Poor Sarah died when he took their beloved son Isaac to have him sacrificed for the God.
I know there have been thousands of apologetics and many Jewish feminists who tried to explain the patriarchal legacy and show in many ways that Judaism is not, in fact, prejudiced against women. But in Hasidic Satmar I knew of no such modern sugar-coating and reinterpreting. Women were, by the knowledge of all, the submissive, duller sex. From when I was a snotty-nosed nursery student with a blue hand-me-down jumper and dirty-blond home-cut bangs, I heard Sarah’s story told as plainly brutal as above. Long ago, the teacher would say to us wide-eyed girls, Abraham heard a voice say: GO. Lech-Lecha, and HE went, and SHE was lugged with the equity. She died tragically because her husband was about to kill her baby — she just fainted and passed away at the news. The nursery teacher would ask us “why did she die at hundred and twenty seven years?” instead of asking “why in heavens name did she die of her husband killing her son, WHY?” When at the end of the week I took home a little camel on a paper-plate with raisin boxes for luggage and two pages of parsha questions, it never raised the problem with the narrative of killing a mother and her child. It was all sacred, no questions asked. Or at least no relevant questions asked.
Our education was so innocently dismissive of women it was as if feminist consciousness hadn’t even touched the tip of the Hasidic world. Patriarchy was a simple known fact of life. So was the assumption that women are weak, stupid and reliant on men. I heard that often from the many teachers who came after nursery, who taught us how to cook and sew as good wives. “Us women, what do we understand?” we all said with a good dose of self-deprecating idiocy. At eighteen I went for kallah lessons and I was taught all about MAN and how I, a woman, was to serve as his wife. I remember that feeling of my stomach tumbling as I walked up a steep shortcut and over to a private deck, knocked on the porch door which was answered by a sweet but frightening kallah teacher. Her table was a mess of sheets of diagrams with female ovaries and uterus and menstrual travel maps. Every week she would tell me with a coy smile and a very low voice what it is that I need to do to make men tick. I struggled to hide the excitement