Editor’s note: This year, Zeek introduces an intergenerational Passover series of feminist plagues. We’ll publish a new one for each day of Passover. This project was inspired, generally, by the 39th Annual Feminist Seder held this March at the home of Barbara Kane and the conversations we had there about creating more intergenerational spaces for feminists and social justice activists, and, specifically, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s reading there of “The Ten Plagues According to Women,” which appears here. Over the past few weeks, I reached out to Jewish feminists between the ages of 17 and 70-something, asking each to use the 10 Plagues as a point of departure. To redefine them or reflect on what each sees as today’s plagues, from a Jewish feminist perspective. (These were all written before the Kansas shootings, and it’s with a sad heart we pay particular attention to the connections made between the death of the firstborn and gun violence.) —Erica Brody
By Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Plague #1 Dam, Blood: We women see blood in the water every 28 days or so, and until we’re ready to procreate, it’s a welcome sight. But when the blood doesn’t flow and we face an unplanned pregnancy, we must have the right to decide whether or not to continue it. The choice must be ours. Yet with increasing radical right conservatism and diminishing access to abortion and now even contraception, our choices are shrinking: A plague on all barriers to women’s reproductive freedom.
Plague #2 Tsfardaya, Frogs: The frogs who don’t turn into princes. The man who says he’s man enough to love a strong women but who bristles when you trounce him in tennis. The guy who says he loves smart women but who shoots you a dirty look when, at a dinner party with a bunch of intellectuals, you know who Foucault is, and he doesn’t. The man who defames lesbians – partly because they dare to not need men. The prince who says he believes in equality but, once he’s a husband, turns into a frog who simply can’t be bothered loading the dishwasher or changing a diaper. A plague on him.
Plague #3 Kinim, Vermin: They’re the right-wing religious fanatics who insist that women must be as subordinate to men as men are to God. Vermin are the Tea Party tyrants who would roll back the political and economic advances we’ve fought for these past 40-odd years. They’re the retrograde men (and sometimes women) who would keep us submissive and subjugated. They’re the modern Pharaohs who would send us back to Egypt, the narrow place. A plague on the vermin of the 21st century.
Plague #4 Arov, Beasts: Our beasts don’t always prowl in public; they attack in private, in the caves of our lives – on dark streets, in parked cars, in offices after hours, in shuttered bedrooms. Our beasts are men who abuse and violate women, physically, emotionally, and sexually. Men who rape and say “she wanted it.” Or, “She wore a short skirt.” Men who attack their wives and children behind closed doors, some with mezuzot on the doorposts. For years we were told Jewish men don’t beat or rape or commit incest. But they do. A plague on them.
Plague #5 Dever, Cattle Disease: This affliction comes from being herded like cattle into a one-size-fits-all beauty ideal that distorts women’s perception of a healthy female body image. It strikes girls at younger and younger ages. It’s the plague of self-loathing, of anorexia, bulimia, and endless dieting. It’s the herd mentality that tolerates fashion magazines whose models wear a size 0 while the average American woman wears a 12. The fact that women follow the dictates of “fashion fascism” is a plague, or should I say, a shonde.
Plague #6 Sh’chin, Boils: Boils are what we get when we’re sick of Doing It All. When we work outside the home for pay, and inside the home for nothing, with little or no help from The Other Adult in the house. Boils are what we get when we come home after eight hours on the job, then have to make dinner, start a wash, give the kids baths, put them to bed, organize their play dates for the rest of the week, fold laundry, and plan the next birthday party. And at midnight, when we’re dog-tired, The Other Adult in the house dares to get miffed when we choose sleep over sex. A plague on Doing It All.
Plague #7 Barad, Hail: A hailstorm of sexism pelts us from all directions: our boss hits on us in the coffee room; rap lyrics call us whores; stand-up comics get laughs at our expense; talk radio hosts ridicule Hillary Clinton’s thighs. Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist but disdains women’s issues. In the Jewish world, sexist hail looks like this: After 20 years of raising money for a Jewish organization, a female leader gets a lunch, while a man gets a gala testimonial dinner. Or, there’s a delegation of “American Jews” going to meet the Pope and all the Jews in the delegation are men. Or, there’s a conference on “The Future of the Jewish Family” and all the speakers are men. Which reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon that shows a panel of men sitting on a stage while the MC says, “The subject of tonight’s discussion is, ‘Why are there no women on this panel.’”
Plague #8 Arbeh, Locusts: This hurts to admit: There are female locusts in our midst. Women who eat their own. Women who compete with one another for male approval rather than compete with men for worldly rewards; women whose petty jealousies, back-biting, and toxic gossip renders them disloyal to their sisters; women so addicted to being “good girls” that they become passively complicit in maintaining misogyny and gender injustice. A plague on ladies who are locusts.
Plague #9 Choshech, Darkness: The dark hole in Jewish history. The people of the book have left too many pages blank. Too many women – half the Jewish people – have been invisible, unnamed, unseen, unrecorded or silenced by the arbiters of who gets written and remembered into text. We know about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Ruth, Naomi, and Esther. But how many other biblical women can we name? We know Henrietta Szold, Emma Goldman, Hannah Senesh. But how many other “famous” Jewish women can we – and our daughters – identify? We must name our foremothers, discover, document, and honor their lives. On every Seder table, two large kiddush cups must stand side by side – one with wine symbolizing the prophet Elijah, herald of the messianic age, and one with water, the source of life, symbolizing the prophet Miriam, who saved her brother Moses, and whose well water slaked the thirst of the Israelites in the dessert. Miriam who cursed the darkness and chose life; Miriam, without whom there would be no Jewish people.
Plague #10 Makat b’chorot, Striking the Firstborn: God killed firstborn Egytpian boys, not first-born Egyptian babies. Before that, Pharaoh condemned Hebrew boys to death, not Hebrew girls. Neither ordinance makes much sense, since even with fewer males in a population, females grow up to reproduce. Yet both Pharaoh and God targeted the gender that each people valued most, a reality we see reflected to this day, not just among Egyptians or Jews but in cultures all over the world. Son-preference is true even now, even here. Studies of young American couples reveal that most want their first-born to be a boy. And couples who’ve had two girls are more likely to try for a third child than couples who’ve had two boys. In all its forms, son preference, male privilege, male favoritism, is the origin of male supremacy, our tenth plague. This year, Sisters of the World Unite. Occupy Patriarchy! Chag sameach!
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, is a writer, lecturer, social justice activist, and the author of 10 books, including her most recent book, “How To Be a Friend to A Friend Who’s Sick” (Public Affairs). She lives in New York and tweets @LettyCPogrebin.
Spread the word about this intergenerational Zeek series, featuring Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Chanel Dubofsky, Avigayil Halpern, Susan Lubeck, Jacqueline Nicholls, Sarah Seltzer, and Rabbi Elianna Yolkut.
Hey, Zeek Readers! Be active participants in this conversation. Share your own list of modern-day plagues! Think about the themes that underlie or distinguish these plagues and respond in the comments! Share!
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