Pushed and Pulled in Israel


Traveling to Israel made me question whether my Jewish and feminist identities were as intertwined as I thought.

by Chanel Dubofsky

Israel, July 2003. In Tzfat, we sit on rocks. It is hot. There are six of us, although, in this area, my memory is unreliable. It’s a Shabbat afternoon, and we are a group of young American women in shorts and jeans listening to a talk about tzeniut, given by a vivacious, compelling woman with covered hair and covered everything else. She tells us about our bodies being our own, that they aren’t for public consumption, about how modesty is not just about the way you dress. I am buying this. I am more than buying it, I am trying to sell it to the rest of the group, who pushes back with feminist critique that, years later, I will use after I stop wearing only skirts.

I shocked myself that day in Tzfat with my willingness to accept so quickly and completely what was being handed to me. I displaced for a moment (for years, actually) my politics in exchange for letting myself be entirely vulnerable to Israel. Eight years later, I wonder about that vulnerability, having been to Israel several more times and allowing it to tweak and yank and plunder my Jewish identity every time, in every way possible.

Growing up, my relationship to travel was simply that I was desperate to do it, but never believed it would actually happen. Although my extended family traveled, my mother and grandmother, with whom I lived, never left the country. Though I was encouraged to imagine my life as widely as I could, my wanderlust seemed silly given our economic context, and I was surrounded by people who pictured themselves remaining in our medium-sized New England city for their whole lives, never mind leaving the country. I remember a friend of mine whose mother told her “not to even dream about it” when she mentioned traveling after high school.

At 23, I had graduated college, moved out of my hometown, lived in a city and then across the country, but still, international travel eluded me. The fact that Israel was the first country to which I traveled let me see everything differently. Not only had I broken another part of the cycle I grew up with, separating me again from my mother and grandmother who seemed to me at that time to be pure victims of their economic circumstances, but it was now really up to me who I would be as a Jewish woman. I did not imagine that I would have let myself get so caught up in a particular kind of observance, the sort that would affect my wardrobe and my behavior so thoroughly. It seemed as though traveling had knocked the wind out of me, so to speak, even on the first try. I was open to letting anything happen, Jewishly and otherwise. (On that same trip, I would become slightly tipsy and get my nose pierced on the boardwalk in Eilat.) I could be anyone now that I had proven myself brave enough to make it all the way across the world.

The results of that first trip were far deeper and broader than my pants embargo that would last two years. I opened myself to the possibility of being a different kind of Jew, certainly, but in some ways, I could have predicted that. I found myself listening to things I would have refused to hear before, because the truth was that I longed for Israel to make me more than a different Jew, I wanted it to make me a different person.

The real eruption—which I still feel, even now, and perhaps even more acutely than I did then—was the beginning of the push and the pull between my Jewish and feminist identities, which I once considered to be firmly intertwined. What did it mean that I could create a space in my feminism then for a Jewish practice that I can’t abide for myself now? How did I end up deciding that skirts were the way to an authentic Judaism? How did I manage, beginning that day, to ignore the fact that changing the way I dressed would not change my attitude towards observance and faith? Was it Israel that had made this possible? Or was it me, finally able to split myself wide open?

About the Author

Chanel DubofskyChanel Dubofsky
Chanel Dubofsky writes for the Sisterhood, Jewschool, The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and the Pursue blog. You can read about her adventures in feminism and other audacious notions at Diverge. She lives in New York City.

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