One Rock at a Time: Addressing the Impact of Feminine Norms on Jewish Girls

Report cover: “Jewish Girls and Gender Norms”

By Riki Wilchins

In 2012, following a workshop at the Women’s Funding Network (WFN) on the impact of feminine norms on young women of color, I was approached by two program officers.

They were from a Jewish Women’s Foundation, and while they said they had enjoyed the presentation, they wanted to know why I mentioned Black and Hispanic (and even lesbian and transgender) girls, but never Jewish girls.

It was a good question; so good, in fact, that I had no answer.

It was not that I was addressing an unfamiliar population. On the contrary, I had been raised in the tightly-knit Jewish community in Cincinnati, Ohio. My grandfather had studied to be a rabbi at Hebrew Union College.

Nor was I entirely unfamiliar with the impact rigid gender norms could have for American Jews. I had plenty of examples from within my own family – my brother, sister, and mother (not to mention myself).

But as Executive Director of TrueChild – an action -tank that helps foundations, schools, and public agencies address gender norms – I am usually asked to address “at-risk” populations. I simply had never been asked before about Jewish women and girls.

As I often do when presented with a new question, I decided to check the academic literature, to see what research on Jewish girls has been done, and what those studies had established.

What I found (and didn’t find) surprised me.

Clearly Jewish girls have well-known vulnerabilities when it comes to rigid feminine norms, as was been amply documented in a wealth of articles in popular outlets like Tablet, the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, and the NJ Jewish News (as well as a core of writers and community groups addressing the issue).

Yet when it came to formal academic studies, there was almost nothing, with the exception of a few dissertations by doctoral candidates. (One outstanding example was Stefanie Teri Greenberg’s 2009 paper, An Investigation of Body Image Dissatisfaction among Jewish American Females.)

The disconnect was striking: here was a population with known vulnerabilities, which almost no one was bothering to study.

And this absence was also reflected in the relative scarcity of intellectual collateral: white papers, exercises and model curricula, and toolkits that parents, educators, and agencies could use to better understand the problem and then help Jewish girls to think critically about rigid feminine norms.

In almost every direction, more was needed.

Like many other young women, Jewish girls who grow up learning to prioritize what I call the “three D’s” of traditional femininity – being Deferential, Desirable, and Dependent – have higher rates of disordered eating and body image problems, of engaging in social aggression, of becoming depressed, and of growing up economically and/or psychologically dependent on an older, stronger male partner.

For instance, many Jewish girls grow up hearing highly mixed messages about food and weight. At my own holiday table it was common to hear incantations of “Eat, eat … you’re all skin and bones!” combined with “Enough already with the desserts!

In my family, young female family members’ weight and body size was treated almost as familial or communal property, and (unlike the young males’) publicly commented on accordingly.

Some Jewish girls also receive mixed messages about achievement and marriage. They may be expected to get excellent grades, and prepare themselves for advanced degrees at name-brand schools that will lead to successful careers – all while identifying and attracting high-status males who can support them economically and psychologically for the rest of their lives.

As one mother described it succinctly, “[Girls learn they should] be attractive, be deferential, and get a really high wealth Jewish guy. So they have to put together and synchronize these things that are often at odds with each other … How can a girl be as brilliant as she needs to be to get into Harvard, but wear four-inch stilettos and a very short skirt, have the most expensive Bat Mitzvah, and date the richest boy in the congregation?”

Moreover, as this quote illustrates, because Jewish girls are often expected to (and often do) excel from a very early age, many also end up very stressed, with all the vulnerabilities to sexual risk taking, substance abuse, and depression that can come with sustained stress or anxiety.

What I learned launched me on a four-year trajectory to learn more about feminine norms and Jewish girls, what is known and not known, and how to focus parents, educators, and religious leaders on this issue.

Along the way, I’ve interviewed dozens of people, including a young woman in Palm Beach, a Conservative gay rabbi in Chicago, and a concerned mother in New York – to get their thoughts, experiences, and insights on gender norms.

As part of this learning arc, TrueChild has received project support from Jewish women’s funders, including the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

We have also been able to take advantage of the experience of knowledgeable and progressive community-oriented leaders like Jewish Child & Family Services in Chicago, Ma’yan in New York, jGirls Magazine, and Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.

As a first step, we have developed an accessible white paper based on the interviews we conducted. This report paper, entitled “Jewish Girls and Gender Norms: A Thriving but Vulnerable Population” (available online at www.truechild.org/JewishGirls).

As a second step with Dr. Dana Edell, we have developed JET (“Jewish girls Empowered Together”), a model curriculum of half dozen, easy-to-master exercises which any girl-serving group or agency can easily integrate into its existing programs.

JET will help them teach young Jewish women and girls to think critically about rigid feminine norms and their impacts (an overview of the model curriculum is also available at www.truechild.org/JewishGirls)

Accompanying JET will be a Parental Toolkit that supports parents (and educators) who want to explore these issues with their daughters, but are unsure where or how best to start. (As the parent of a precocious 10-year-old daughter, I have a rooting interest in its success.)

As a last step, beginning in early 2017, we hope to find girl-serving groups and synagogues that will partner with us in piloting and refining the curriculum or toolkit, so they can be made available to all who need them.

Our hope is this project might shed new light on the paradox of contemporary Jewish girls, who are both struggling and striving at the same time. As one of our partnering organizations in Chicago put it, “We need not one dialog, but many.”

Some of those who were interviewed told stories of very egalitarian families and communities: fathers who share household duties, and of very progressive synagogues where women took leading roles.

Others were focused on ensuring that their daughters would grow up in a more equitable and affirming world. And they are worried that their daughters – and their dreams for their daughters – might be being silently, if unintentionally, undermined.

Explained one mother, “[Mothers in our community] are starting to relate things that were not related before: eating disorders in girls, obsession with boys – which often leads to deferential behavior – the very few women who are running Jewish communities and very few Jewish female role models for girls. All of these things were separated in the past. Now it’s all becoming part of one big story that’s actually undermining our girls and our dreams for our girls.”

Another mother of four daughters told me how strangers would walk up after shul to ask if she was going to try one more time for a son. She wondered: if things were different and she had had four sons, how many of those people would stop by to ask if she was going to try one more time for a daughter?

In such small gestures are deeper attitudes made clear. These attitudes are far from unique to Judaism. On the contrary, the larger culture is saturated with messages extolling the centrality of males, and encouraging girls to find value in their attractiveness to and support for them.

What is unique is the interaction of Jewish traditions and culture with overarching gender expectations, as well as an how empowered and accomplished many of the women and girls I interviewed are – even as they struggled with some of the very same challenges rigid gender norms posed for the Black and Latina women I explored in that WFN workshop, four years ago.

Changing gender norms is crucial work – it’s an unspoken, and largely unaddressed, root cause of many of the challenges our girls face.

Yet norms and attitudes are slow to change. As one mother quietly explained, “It’s going to be like moving Mount Sinai, right? We have to do it one rock at a time.”

Riki Wilchins is Executive Director of TrueChild.