“Makom,” Hebrew for “place,” is also a euphemism in the Talmud for the word “vagina.” Merging those two definitions, the editors of a new volume of testimonies in poetry and prose have compiled a rich and varied edition of what it means to be an Orthodox woman managing #MeToo narratives, postmodern feminism and the trauma of sexual assault.
“Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity” presents emotional and often difficult testimonies that grapple with topics the editors point out are infrequently discussed in the Orthodox community. Two of the editors, Sarah Ricklan and Rebecca Zimilover, spoke with JewishBoston about assembling the book, plus the inspiration they found in Eve Ensler’s trailblazing “The Vagina Monologues.”
In what ways did Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” influence your project?
Rebecca Zimilover: One of the editors, Sara Rozner Lawrence, conceptualized “Monologues from the Makom.” She recalls that when she was studying at Stern College for Women, there was no space for her and her friends to talk about women’s issues. They were inspired by [Eve Ensler’s] “The Vagina Monologues” and created a version of it for women who grew up in the Orthodox community. They named it “Monologues from the Makom.” In the Talmud, the word makom refers to a woman’s vagina. It was clear from that first performance in someone’s apartment there was a need for this kind of conversation.
When did you realize these performances could become a book?
Zimilover: After a couple of shows of “Monologues from the Makom,” it was then performed at the 2017 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference. Some JOFA staff members took an interest in the project and wanted to expand it. Although [the project] is no longer affiliated officially with JOFA, they were the book’s primary drivers.
How long have you been working on issues of sexuality and gender in the Orthodox community?
Sarah Ricklan: It started for me when I went to Israel for my gap year between high school and college. I went to Maimonides School in Boston, which was a coed school. I was not as aware of Jewish feminist issues back then; I felt like I was getting an equal education to the boys. I was in classes with boys; there were no limitations for me. Then I went to Israel for the year and attended an all-girls seminary with students from schools that were quite different from mine.
Many of those schools weren’t coed, and the girls weren’t learning the same things the boys were learning. I realized there were a lot of opportunities that boys had that girls didn’t have within Judaism. I had friends who were boys from high school who were at yeshiva programs in Israel at the same time I was. When I compared my experiences with them, I realized I was learning at a very high level within my program, but it wasn’t the same as what the boys were receiving educationally. That didn’t seem right to me. That situation started my journey with grappling with Orthodoxy and feminism.
When did you start working on Orthodox feminist issues?
Zimilover: As Sarah said, there were things I was aware of, but my school was very clearly segmented between what the boys were getting out of school and what the girls were getting out of school. I went to what was, ostensibly, a modern Orthodox high school. However, our teachers were far more right-wing than most of our parents. For context, I had a teacher who came to class one day and said, “It’s a very special day, girls. We’re going to let you look at a page of Gemara.” It was clear that there was a difference between what the girls were getting, educationally speaking. I was always aware of it.
I’m a trained social worker and spent a lot of time studying these issues in graduate school. But editing “Monologues” is the first thing I’ve done outside my career that allowed me to work through some of the issues I’ve been thinking about since I was 17.
As you edited the book, were you surprised at the prevalence of sexual assault in the Orthodox community?
Ricklan: I think I was surprised and not surprised. Obviously, sexual assault happens in our communities. There’s no reason to think our community should be any different. But after reading those pieces about sexual assault and lack of consent, I hadn’t realized this was something that was going on so frequently.
How has the #MeToo movement and related issues, such as consent and assault, been handled in the Orthodox community? Can they be handled better?
Zimilover: One of the things that consistently appeared in the submissions was the sense that, “I’m from the Orthodox community; I’m not supposed to touch boys. So if I was assaulted, it must mean I did something wrong.” The victim-blaming narrative is not uncommon among sexual assault survivors. But there is this added layer when it comes to people who think, “I grew up in a community that tells me I’m not supposed to touch boys or even be alone in the room with them. If I am, that’s the reason this happened.” There’s a story in the book about a girl who was assaulted in summer camp, and she says, “Telling anyone what happened to me would mean admitting that I touched a boy, and that is not OK.” In addition to the regular shame and sense of “I did something wrong” that sexual assault victims often experience, there is this feeling of, “I broke Jewish law and that’s why this happened to me.”
Ricklan: In that same story, the author asks, “Was my skirt too short?” There is self-blaming in the non-Orthodox world as well when it comes to sexual assault. “Was my shirt too tight? Was I wearing something too skimpy? Did I ask for it?” And I think that can be made much worse when you have rules about what you can and cannot wear.
What do you hope people will take away from “Monologues from the Makom”?
Zimilover: I want this book to be in school classrooms and synagogue libraries. I want people to understand that these are conversations that could happen anywhere and everywhere. These conversations need to happen. I hope people will see their lives and experiences reflected in this book and beyond.
Ricklan: I want people—Jewish men in particular—who are not as familiar with the Jewish female experience to read the book. Giving voice to the female experience from childhood through adulthood—which I think this book does very well—is eye-opening. I want people to understand that an [Orthodox] Jewish woman’s experience can involve being told that they’re not equal, that they must wear certain clothing, as well as all the things women go through if they are sexually assaulted. Then layer on the shame, the rules and the lack of opportunity to talk about these issues. I hope people will see what their peers are going through and be sensitive to that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.