To the outsider, Shabbos meals were anti-feminist. Bubbie and/or Grandma both cooked and served the food, and sat at the table and listened as Zayde and/or Grandpa led the goings-on.
The men made kiddush, doled out the wine, gave us bread after the traditional washing of hands.
But you wouldn't want to "liberate" them, Norma Rae. Had you dared the women would have tossed you out on the doorstep by your ears. The kitchen was actually "her-space," and the women knew that we could gather there "getting food ready" and just let the men do the men thing.
We could participate in the table conversation or not, but it wasn't in the end "our" conversation.
"The neck turns the head," Bubbie used to say. Traditional Orthodox feminism is that the woman tells the man what to do, but subtly. Is it simplistic? Yes. Does it work most of the time? I doubt it. From what I saw from my grandparents, they did things together. Good marries are about half and half.
But you can preserve the image of who's running things.
Here is the positive about having a parallel gendered culture, for Jewish women. It insulates us from unwanted sexual attention. (Although apparently not Jewish boys, judging from the amount of literature now coming out about sexual molestation of them by male teachers...very disturbing.)
It's liberating to create safe spaces for expression. It values the role of mothers and enables questioning of relationship status quos.
But of course it's hurt as well. It does create the image that women are separate and inferior - even if it's a token image - because women don't "learn" or "lead" like the men do. It creates a disjuncture between home and work, because at work women absolutely can and do take charge. And it's not fair to men or women to shovel them into roles that don't necessarily fit.
It's important to emphasize that you can be spiritual and completely outside of religion, but if you choose a religion then your spirituality is intimately tied to actual knowledge of the religious texts. In my experience Jewish schools vary as far as education goes, a lot, but when you get a good teacher who really sits there and talks to you it can change your life.
And vice versa, a bad teacher is like eating pizza with a bug in it, you never want to eat it again and then it takes a really long time, if ever to dip your toe into those waters.
As far as me, I have an unbelievable aversion to any expression of sexist shit, but I also crave a warm and family-oriented meal, generally.
I also get a little bit panicky sitting with people for too long of a time, being much more comfortable thinking about the thoughts running through my own head.
So if I had to drive that train and run the kind of kitchen that my grandmothers did, it would sink me. But the notion of a place and a time and a structure, just stopping to hang out with family and friends to celebrate and be warm about our faith, is beautiful.
I wouldn't want to be "on display" in that kind of setting - I actually prefer the traditional ways of my youth, hanging back with the women in the kitchen. It feels more proper.
But the next generation is very different about it. I don't think that setup totally works for them.
But that's what feminism is, right? We get to choose what we want to do.
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter how we structure it, as long as nobody is trying to dominate anybody else.
Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.