A Story From the Front Lines
Guest post by Rachel Kohl Finegold
Education & Ritual Director, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, Chicago
I share this story because it is often helpful, alongside halachic or philosophical argument, to look at a sociological reality that arises as a result of minhag yisrael.
For many years, I worked as a counselor and eventually a division head in a Modern Orthodox camp in the Poconos. This is a co-ed camp which draws kids from many NY/NJ communities (and beyond), including Teaneck, Brooklyn, West Orange, and so on. As anyone who has been in camp knows, the dining room often becomes a place of cheering and singing, even playful competition between bunks or divisions in camp. It was not uncommon for the girls’ side of the chadar ochel and the boys’ side of the chadar ochel to be engaged in this kind of cheering at each other. This would usually be the teens, who were most interested in what was going on on the other side of the room, but often the younger kids would chime in as well.
The boys and girls would get up on their benches and the boys would chant something like, “Back to the kitchen! Back to the kitchen!” and the girls would respond perhaps “You’re sleeping on the couch tonight!” It was obviously funny to them because they were playing on gender stereotypes, and it was fun to try and get the boys or girls mad! One of the chants that the boys would use would always be “Shelo asani isha! Shelo asani isha!” Although I would sometimes hear a few girls respond with “She’asani kirtzono!” they usually didn’t retort with that, because it didn’t quite pack the punch they needed to get the boys back. They would find a better comeback. Maybe “Boys smell” or, if we were lucky, something wittier.
I emphasize, once again, that these are kids who come from mainstream Modern Orthodox Yeshiva day schools, some single-sex and some co-ed. These were not just a few kids, but the vast majority of the 9th and 10th graders in camp chanting. My goal is not to reprimand the camp itself, because I do not think these perceptions can be formed in a single summer, or even multiple summers. These children had been saying these brachot all their lives – in school, in shul and in camp.
Even if we adults feel comfortable with the matbe’a of “shelo asani isha”, clearly, our children perceive an undercurrent of male superiority in this bracha. Whether we choose “she’asani yisrael” or some other solution (I have been saying “she’asani isha” for years, because I am truly grateful for being female and because there is liturgical precedent for it), we must recognize that the negative messaging is getting through. Even if our girls and boys absorb negative gender stereotypes from our surrounding culture, I would not want them to perceive them from within our holy tradition.