Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Rachel and Leah: Rivals into Allies?

November 13, 2021

It was my turn this Shabbat to deliver a d’var Torah (commentary) after the group discussion in Temple Sinai’s weekly Torah study class. This week’s portion, Vayetzei, covers Genesis 28:10 to 32:3, but the class discussion focused only on the final third. So I chose to center my presentation on an earlier section, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Here it is.

Like many of the parshot in Genesis, a lot happens during Vayetzei. Jacob sets out from his family’s home in Beersheva, both to flee the anger of Esau and to find a wife from among his mother Rebecca’s family. Lying down to sleep on a rock, he dreams of a ladder or ramp to heaven with angels going up and down. In his dream, God stands beside him and blesses him, saying his descendants shall spread out to the four corners of the earth and all the families of the earth will be blessed by them. 

Jacob wakes and names the site Beth-el, House of God, which is located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, near what today is the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank. 

Jacob continues on to Haran, which is quite a long journey, up through Syria into what is today Turkey. He meets his cousin Rachel at a well, much as Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s future wife Rebecca at a well. Rachel’s father Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel if he works unpaid for seven years; then on the wedding night, Laban tricks him by substituting Rachel’s older sister Leah—a parallel with how Jacob tricked his own father by pretending to be Esau. Laban requires Jacob to work without pay for another seven years in order to marry Rachel too. 

The Torah then enters into an extended section on the two sisters’ childbearing—or lack of childbearing. Eventually Jacob decides to return home, and there is an episode of one trickster tricking another trickster, with Jacob slyly arranging to get possession of many of Laban’s sheep and goats. That gets us up to the portion of Vayetzei that we read together today in class. 

But I’m going to return to that long section about childbearing and the relationship between Leah and Rachel. 

Rachel and Leah, as imagined by 19th century English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (It looks a little more like a romanticized Renaissance England than the ancient Middle East, don’t you think?)

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. “And God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah conceives and bears one son—Reuben—then another, and another, and another— four sons in a row while Rachel can’t get pregnant. 

Both of these sisters are in deep emotional pain. 

Infertility is certainly traumatic, especially in a society like the ancient middle east where women were valued only as mothers of sons.  “Give me children, or I shall die,” Rachel pleads to Jacob in a dramatic statement of how crucial childbearing was to her.

But I felt an even deeper identification with Leah. She was married, presumably without any say in the matter, to a man who didn’t love her. When her first son is born she chooses the name Reuben, saying “It means the Lord has seen my affliction. It also means, ‘ Now my husband will love me.” But it doesn’t help. Whenher second son comes, shge says, “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” And it doesn’t help. And then the third. She says, “This time my husband will become attached to me for I have borne him three sons.” And it still didn’t help.

She is doing everything in her power to win Jacob’s love —everything possible to fulfill the role expected of her, to provide healthy male heirs, everything that anyone in her world would ask of her—and it still doesn’t help. 

I imagine this desperate young woman, getting her hopes up over and over—this time it will work! this time it really will!—and each time it doesn’t. Haven’t we all been there at some time, trying so hard and yet knocked down over and over again? 

Perhaps when we were in our teens, infatuated with some boy or girl, convinced that If I wear my new red miniskirt, they’ll notice me! If I bake chocolate chip cookies, they’ll notice me! If I help them with their math homework, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, so sincerely, and of course they don’t notice.

Or perhaps at work, trying to get a promotion: If I stay until 6 pm each night, they’ll notice me! If I turn in the most thorough report ever, they’ll notice me! If I learn to play golf, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, playing by all the rules, and of course they don’t notice. Because you’re female, or Black, or you’ll never be one of the “old boys,” or whatever…. 

In those modern scenarios, the advice is clear: Leave. Find a new crush, find a new job. But Leah, as a wife in the ancient Middle East, had no option of leaving. And the stakes for her were so much higher than a junior-high crush or a promotion. This was pregnancy and childbirth—nine months of pregnancy, hours or days of labor, things that in those days truly risked death. But none of it made Jacob love her.

So the competition went on, dragging in other parties like a world war. After Leah’s fourth son, Rachel still can’t conceive and so gives her servant—her handmaid— Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. 

(Just an aside: The Torah has Rachel saying to Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.” Some commenters including Robert Alter say that “bearing on my knees” refers to an ancient practice of placing children on someone’s knees as a ritual of adoption. But writer Margaret Atwood chose to take this literally in her patriarchal dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale—this is the source for the horrible practice of the handmaid literally giving birth between the knees of the patriarch’s wife.)

But back to Rachel and Leah and their childbearing competition. Leah is ahead, 4 to nothing. But then Rachel’s servant Bilhah bears two sons by Jacob, and Rachel says “A fateful contest I waged with my sister, and I have prevailed.” You can imagine her doing an ancient Mesopatamian fist punch in the air. 

So Leah then gives Jacob her servant Zilpah, who bears two sons. This is starting to sound like the US-Soviet arms race. It parallels the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, yet in some ways it is more intense and painful because both siblings were so aware of it—two women living side by side  in the same family compound for 20 years, with close-up, unavoidable views of each other’s ongoing victories and failings. 

It’s horrible to think of these two sisters in a permanent state of war. Some of the commentators seemed to think so too: There are midrashim that weave stories of empathy and solidarity between Leah and Rachel. 

One midrash from the Talmud says that Rachel knew in advance of Laban’s wedding-night trick, warned Jacob, and he came up with a way to defeat Laban’s scheme.

Jacob gave Rachel signs [so that he would be able to recognize her on their wedding night].

When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed [when Jacob discovers the fraud and does not marry her].” She gave the signs to Leah.  (BT Bava Batra 123a).

According to the Rabbis, Laban would not have succeeded in deceiving Jacob without Rachel’s involvement. Rachel had to choose between her love for Jacob and her compassion for her sister, and she decided in favor of the latter. The most extreme description of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice appears in Lam. Rabbah, according to which Rachel entered under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice (Lam. Rabbah [ed. Vilna] petihtah 24).

I would like to think that, alongside the pain of infertility or being the second-choice wife, there was also empathy and solidarity between the sisters. Like the rest of the Torah, this parshah was written by men, from stories handed down by men, and this reproductive arms race may be their outsider’s view of what was going on within the family tent while the men were away with the flocks. 

Let’s look at what happens next, after Bilhah and Zilpah have each birthed two sons and the total son count is up to eight. Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, brings her some mandrakes that he finds in the field. (Mandrakes, having a root that is bizarrely shaped like a human figure, have been imagined in many cultures to bring fertility.)

Mandrake root / Photo by Jenny Laird

Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes, hoping to cure her infertility. Leah at first refuses, saying, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” But then Rachel promises that Leah can sleep with Jacob that evening in exchange for the mandrakes, and Leah agrees. 

Leah goes out to meet Jacob that evening and tells him. “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”

This is a truly shocking moment. Leah is in command for once—unlike her own wedding night, she has the power here. She is commanding Jacob to sleep with her. And not just commanding him, she is saying that she hired him, like you would hire a prostitute, like you would hire an ox to plow a field.

Perhaps her grief all those years was not just at being unloved—it was at being powerless, manipulated by her father in order to get more work out of Jacob, unable to choose her own fate. Here for once she is able to take fate into her own hands and turn the tables. Jacob in effect becomes a sex object here. 

It’s not pretty, but perhaps it was satisfying or even restorative for Leah. Perhaps Rachel wanted to give her this gift of momentary power. 

We don’t know. What we do know is that, three sons later, when Jacob is ready to leave Haran, the two sisters respond in unison.

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away fronm our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just what God as told you.”

In current slang, we might say there’s no daylight between the two sisters here. No rivalry, no disagreement. They have long been done with their father’s manipulation and are ready to leave—together—for Jacob’s promised land.


An emerging feminist filmmaker (who happens to be my daughter)

January 7, 2013

Normally Daughter is not thrilled about being a subject of this blog. But for once she asked me to include something of hers!

During the fall, for one of her freshman film classes at NYU, she produced the following montage.

She has had almost 1,000 viewers on Vimeo without doing any promotion. She’d like more views! So… if you feel like it, please share this link on your Facebook page, or with friends who might be interested etc. The link is

I’m very proud of her. Not just the production quality, but the ideas. I’d say something about the feminist apple not falling far from the mother tree, but there is altogether too much fruit associated with this issue already. :-)

The upside of being a biking widow

April 3, 2012

We’re entering the time of year when I become a biking widow — meaning that Sam is in training for a monster ride over the summer, and thus as likely to be found pedaling up Tunnel Road or over Mount Diablo as spending time around the house.

This is not so bad. I’d rather be a biking widow than a Sunday-afternoon-football widow. And today I discovered a bright lining to this cloud.

I replaced our back door lock!

Note the before and the after pictures:

This may not seem like a big deal, but I am just about the least handy person around. I’m a major feminist in theory, but not so much in practice when practice involves changing tires, finding studs in walls, or doing anything that involves power tools.

(In my egalitarian defense: I’m terrible at sewing too.)

A few days ago, the knob fell out of our back door. Sam said he would “get to it” this coming weekend. However, this coming weekend involves not just his bike training regimen but also hosting two Passover seders with a total of 43 people, so I figured maybe I should just deal with this now. Today I went to Ace Grand Lake Hardware with the pieces of the defunct knob/lock, bought a replacement set, and installed it myself!

Granted, there was no drilling, sawing or electric motors involved. I had to unscrew and then re-screw a total of four screws.

But I still feel like Superman and Martha Stewart combined.

One pathetic step for womankind, one big step for Ilana.

Adrienne Rich, z”l

March 29, 2012

A few words on the death this week of the poet Adrienne Rich:

Adrienne Rich /AP Photo by Stuart Lamson

I first encountered her work in the early 1970s when my high school boyfriend Ron was assigned some of her poetry. Today, almost 40 years later, I still remember the opening lines to one of those poems, “Trying to Talk With a Man,” about a marriage at the breaking point:

Out in this desert we are testing bombs
that’s why we came here.

I next encountered Rich in person, in the late 1980s, when I was living in Sacramento and involved with the local chapter of a national group called New Jewish Agenda. We were a motley collection of Jewish ex-hippies and Old Leftists and young yuppies who shared progressive politics and didn’t connect with the organized Jewish community. We needed a speaker at some kind of event… and somehow we got her phone number and called her…. and she came! All the way from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, to speak to our little group of a few dozen people, for free. Or maybe we paid her $50, I don’t remember. But she was already a National Book Award winner. She could have demanded hundreds or thousands of dollars. And she didn’t.

When I found Rich again — perhaps the most important encounter for me — it was shortly after I had given birth to my daughter. I was home with the baby, exhausted, disoriented, fearing I’d lost my identity as an independent adult forever, and wondering why I wasn’t feeling blissed out with motherhood like everyone else seemed to be. This was before the spread of mommy blogs, before Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, before all those jokey coffee table books about three-martini play dates. There was really nobody giving voice to the ambivalence I felt except maybe Anne Lamott and… Adrienne Rich, in her book of essays called “Of Woman Born.”

Now I’m looking for my copy to quote from it, and I can’t find it. But I remember an essay where she unflinchingly described the dark side of motherhood — the murderous impulses, the anger as passionate as the love. It was a stunning beam of light in the darkness. It helped me feel I wasn’t crazy. I carried Rich around in my head while I wrote my novel The Mother’s Group. If I ever get it published, she is one of the people to whom it will be dedicated.

With her death, I’m ashamed by how little I have actually read of her writing over the past four decades. And amazed by how much she affected me, especially given how little of her work I’ve read.

Adrienne Rich was one of our modern-day incarnations of a Biblical prophet — driven by a moral compass, speaking truth to power, and speaking it with precision, clarity and beauty.

May her memory be a blessing, and may there be someone like her for my daughter’s generation.

Cones, Steins and emerging modern art

May 16, 2011

Two American Jewish families with amazing modern art collections. Three strong-minded, independent women who were way ahead of their time.

And now… two simultaneous art exhibits on two coasts.

A Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso from the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, currently on display at the Jewish Museum

While visiting New York over the weekend for my dad’s 87th birthday, I stopped by an exhibit at the Jewish Museum on the Cone sisters of Baltimore — two unmarried women who were some of the earliest patrons of Picasso and Matisse, and who left a huge collection of works by those two artists as well as Gauguin, Cezanne, and Van Gogh to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Claribel and Etta Cone were raised in the Victorian era, and dressed in Victorian collars and skirts to the end of their lives. But under that conservative garb were souls who broke rules. Claribel became a doctor at a time when few women did so. Etta developed an intimate relationship for a while with Gertrude Stein that the exhibit suggests may have included sexual/romantic love.

Claribel Cone (left) , Gertrude Stein (center) and Etta Cone in 1903 / The Baltimore Museum of Art: Cone Archives

And as they shopped for shoes and clothes in Paris, the sisters collected works of avant-garde art that would have been seen by most Americans as garish, even scandalous. (One of their Matisses sparked a riot by art students when it went on tour.)

The Cones came from a German-Jewish family, with Cone the Anglicized version of Kahn (Cohen). Their art collecting was funded by family textile mills run by their brothers. And — here’s a piece of obscure Ilana-trivia that wasn’t in the exhibit — they were graduates of Baltimore’s Western High School, one of only two 19th century public girls’ schools in the U.S. that remains in operation as a single-sex school today.

It was a terrific exhibit. First of all, the paintings were great — colorful, bold, evocative. Those women had good  taste! But the staging was also great. The rooms were separated by transparent panels embossed with giant black-and-white photos of the Cones’ cluttered apartment so you had a feeling of being in their home.

Alongside their paintings were samples of the African and Middle Eastern textiles and jewelry that the women collected, as well as objects from their collecting life, such as a handwritten condolence note from Matisse to Etta upon Claribel’s death.

Front room of Etta Cone's apartment / The Baltimore Museum of Art, Cone Papers

As I meandered through the exhibit, I wondered about the working conditions in those textile factories that allowed the sisters the luxury of their European travel, shopping, and art patronage.

And what about the second exhibit I mentioned? I arrived home to  a Leah Garchik column in the Chronicle describing a new show at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art on Gertrude Stein, her brothers, and their art collection — The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. It’s accompanied by a biographical exhibit at the nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum called Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, which runs until Sept. 6.

Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906 / Metropolitan Museum of Art

I haven’t seen the SFMOMA Stein exhibition yet: It opens on May 21 and runs until Sept. 6, after which it will travel to Paris and New York.

But I highly recommend the Cone show at the Jewish Museum, which also runs until September.

Gertrude Stein wrote a story, Two Sisters, about the Cones. Their lives intertwined both in Baltimore and Paris. Stein introduced the Cones to Picasso, Matisse and others, and the Cones helped support Stein through their purchases. Both the Steins and the Cones built impressive collections that today are worth millions but at the time were edgy and controversial.

I love that women from these two families — who shared a Jewish heritage, offbeat independence, and visionary love of modern art — are now the subject of major museum exhibits at the same time.

Nerds and bimbos on the silver screen

October 6, 2010

This blog post is about my gratitude to Entertainment Weekly

Okay, so I don’t read Entertainment Weekly. I don’t watch TV shows about celebrities or read magazines about Hollywood. When I’m on the treadmill at my gym, I’m about 10,000 percent more likely to be reading a New Yorker story about the influence of the right-wing, billionaire Koch brothers on American politics than a story about the movie business. 

But I did go see The Social Network over the weekend. 

I enjoyed it, although that’s not the point here. Directed by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing, it’s a well-plotted, intelligent story of the rise of Mark Zuckerberg from nerdy Harvard sophomore to billionaire founder of Facebook. The plot is great, acting is great, main characters are fascinating, and it can spur all sorts of date-night conversation about values, friendship, and cutthroat business decisions, as well as about the line between fact and fiction in this kind of looks-real-but-could-be-totally-made-up drama. 

But the women. 

This was my second response as I came out of the movie theatre, after the above thoughts. 

All the women in the movie are bimbos, with the exception of the college girlfriend whose dumping of Zuckerberg eventually leads to the creation of Facebook.

The women in the movie are minor characters, and they spend all their time taking clothes off, giving blow jobs, snorting coke, getting drunk, and hanging on the arms of guys with status. Busloads of gorgeous girls stripping at frat-type parties. Clubs full of gorgeous girls getting drunk. Houses full of gorgeous girls partying and having sex. 

And this is a story that takes place at Harvard, for God’s sake, in the 2000s. And in San Francisco and Palo Alto

Those are all places that are pretty close to my own orbit. I was at Harvard, although it was 30 years ago. And I’ve reported  about Silicon Valley, although I’ve never lived the culture of a Web 2.0 start-up. There are certainly ditzy, shallow women in all these places (and ditzy shallow men ready to exploit them!), but I’ve never seen that as the dominant culture. 

In fact, it has always seemed to me that if you are a non-ditzy, non-shallow woman, Cambridge and the Bay Area are two really good places to be. 

So my first reaction was horror: My God, I hope that isn’t the reality for young women in their 20s today.  

Followed by a spurt of self-censorship: Oh, Ilana, there you go on your feminist horse again. 

Really, I felt predictable. Repetitive. Boring. I don’t know whether I was more fed up with Hollywood, or with my own reaction. It seems like I have spent my entire adult life going to movies and being angered by their depictions of women. 

At a certain point, you just stop getting angry. You get used to it — like smog, like trash in the streets. You don’t even see it. Or you see it, but get sick of pointing it out over and over again. It becomes much more interesting to talk about whether the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is accurate or not. 

But then a friend posted a link to this Entertainment Weekly story on her Facebook page. 

(Is this getting circular or what? Facebook posts about movies about Facebook? And then of course I’ll promote this blog entry on my Facebook page, so it will be a Facebook update about a Facebook post about a movie about….) 

In any case, EW reporter Jennifer Armstrong wrote:

Without sifting through the backstories of Zuckerberg and company for strong female figures, it’s hard to know what the filmmakers could have done differently while still hewing to some version of the truth. And it’s clear that they’re showing us, for better or worse, how women function in these particular boys’ worlds, which, apparently, is as objects to be conquered with fame and fortune. The Social Network certainly provides, if nothing else, strong evidence that we still need feminism, that we need to inundate boys with it in particular — and that we need to nurture math and science skills in girls more than ever before, so they have as good a chance at changing the world as these guys did.

Armstrong raised exactly all the right feminist points about The Social Network. I found myself cheering. I found myself saying, “Yeah! Now why didn’t I write that?” 

So here I am, writing it. 

And feeling unexpectedly grateful to Entertainment Weekly.

And telling myself to remember: Trust your instincts. Don’t self-censor. When it comes to the way our culture continues to objectify women, it may be necessary to be boring and predictable, to repeat the same critiques, angrily, over and over and over.