Women in Jewish History

I hope I have done my part to introduce you to Multicultural Kids Blogs.

This group of mother-bloggers does so much more than introduce play-dough recipes or headbands or exciting new ways to discipline; the focus is multicultural, but it is absolutely that! We are blogging from different countries, varied cultures, holding different religions, speaking different languages, but all holding the belief that children are uniquely wonderful and the world can be good and not terrifying. This is a group of women raising up leaders. I mean it. 🙂

So. In honor of Women’s History Month, dun duh duh duhhhhn!

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My last post was about the power and need for diverse dancers. I learned so much in the process.

For this post, I wanted to celebrate Jewish women in history. I had much to learn. I found someone.

Just one person. Here she is.

But first, a letter to my daughter on the subject:

Dearest Daughter,

You are not alone, ever, and you are not alone as a Jewish girl. You come from a long line of women with talent, with purpose, with healing in their hands.

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From Sarah, mother of faith, to Rebecca, Leah, and on and on and on, until you. Along the way, there was unfairness, the hazards of earth, of dwelling in lands where women have had to fight. Or be silent. You come from a lineage of leaders and teachers, scholars, doctors, tearing down walls, raising money for the poor, for the weak. The women who led the suffrage movement, in Europe, in America, in South Africa, those fighting for the oppressed, the women tending almonds, defying fathers, mending conscience and making a way for civil rights, working to ensure safety for all workers. The women who composed and read original poems, somehow everyday of their trapped lives in disgusting, degrading concentration camps. They have sat on the Supreme Court, have had the ear of kings, have fought for children and their children and their children and not just for us. For every woman’s children. For the right to exist.

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My daughter, “brave” ought not be the exception when we have so many powerful examples of skill, of intellect, of decision. Starting with you, with me, your grandmothers, great grandmothers. But really—where do we start in delivering a history lesson on the feminism of  such giants, those who started movements and rose up, solid.

I want to be great, strong, and giving in this life. I can’t wait to study these women with you, dear. Let’s see who inspires us; let’s see what we learn about history, the need for justice, kindness, and a woman’s strength.

Let’s take a little walk and simply start, sweetie.

Ms. Gertrude Weil, who lived from 1879-1971. Let’s look at her. She was born and died in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

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From what I read, she didn’t have such fancy digs, didn’t rule a country, or meet with many dignitaries. She was first-generation, German-Jew. The Jewish Virtual Library only supplies one paragraph about her. Upon further inspection, you see that:

She was instrumental towards the equality for voting, founding North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association. Really, it seems that she toiled and spent all of her energy on that.

Chapter One describes her background and formative 
years as a young girl growing up in the thriving Southern 
town of Goldsboro. This chapter emphasizes her unique 
background as a first generation German Jew educated in a 
new school system based on the German method of education. 
Unlike many young Southern schoolgirls, Gertrude was 
expected to continue her education: attending Horace Mann 
School at Columbia Teachers College in New York and later 
Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The Horace Mann 
years are also included in Chapter One. *

* from The Emerging Political Consciousness of Gertrude Weil: Education and Women’s Clubs, Wilkerson-Freeman

Ms. Weil left North Carolina first for Horace Mann, as written above, and then later, to Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts (my birthplace, incidentally), where she was the first North Carolinian to enroll. Fine, still not so amazing or deserving of deep, solemn “wows”; after university, she returned to her family and hometown in Goldsboro. She did not accept status-quo, did not meet the minimum requirements, but exceeded every expectation.

Gertrude Weil asserted herself, kept growing as leader, and raised money for numerous organizations. This is fairly basic, but then, you remember this was the deep south. It was often assumed that women did not need a formal education. Women could simply be lovely and comfortable, provided they were white, Anglo-Protestant, perhaps.

She, on the other hand, was decidedly Jewish, an impassioned zionist, a woman who served the aged, the voiceless. She served and served and served, in this hometown where an angry mob lynched Leo Frank, the only Jewish person to by lynched in America. This was a deeply contemptuous, heated case which brought up much distrust of Jews and anti-semitism, bringing the Ku Klux Klan into town to march. Many say this was the action that gave way to increased anti-semitism. And yet, Gertrude did not shy away; she didn’t lose her voice or her nerve to stand up straight.

She pushed the envelope, pushed the agenda called “equality and fair treatment, justice for all”.

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Our Gertrude (can we call her Gertie?) is seen on far left. She founded the League of Women Voters, working to topple sexism and provide women with equal, deserved voice. Name a societal ill or negative regional issue–Gertrude toiled fastidiously, working towards labor reforms. This is a woman who did not merely complain or simply raise money at a cake walk; her beliefs mirrored Judaism’s take on justice and the responsibility and joy of every person: to extend aid to those in need, to recognize basic rights for everyone, to not tire of doing good, or blessings called mitzvot.

Ms. Weil did not stop at suffrage or battling in a fight for improved working conditions for laborers, she also sought equality and dignity for African Americans, bringing together a an integrated, bi-racial group inside her home. The world, rather, the south, wasn’t not ready for integration at that point. They probably weren’t ready for a strong women, let alone a strong Jewish woman. And yet…within those confines, she built swimming pools, places for these disenfranchised blacks to have physical community rather than miss out altogether, thanks to hate. She of course wanted more than that.

She worked in the place she knew, using her love and knowledge to spread equal-sized rainbows of joy, to spread dignity and the right to improved social responsibility. Gertrude didn’t simply stay in the north, enjoying Radio City Hall, letting North Carolina “do its own thing”. Gertrude worked right down to her roots, to improve the town, city, and state.

“She is a key transitional figure who successfully crossed from the Victorian era to the twentieth century and emerged as one of the generation of “New Women”: educated, independent and willing to take a public political stand.” (Wilkerson-Freeman).

And that is important, right? Not simply being a fixture of society’s eyelash-batting expectations, but being beauty that is tough. Deciding to have some moxie, some verve, to advance something greater than our own position or self.

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There is yet another facet of her influence–alongside her mother, Gertrude Weil helped rescue children who would otherwise experience persecution in Europe, prompted, perhaps by the plight of her very own relatives.

This is what I call “legacy”.

This is who I want to be: a woman who never shies from doing good, a woman who uses every molecule of her being to set the wrong things in society, right.

Thank you to Gertrude, for showing us a woman who uses her intellect, love, and compassion, to fight.

Thank you for encouraging us to cultivate a joy in hearing our own voice and ability to change laws of state.

Melissa

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Ballerinas of Color: A Change in the Ballet World

Since this post, Misty Copeland was named American Ballet Theatre’s very first principal ballerina who is black. What a celebration; the world needs and wants to see this absolute star in such a deserving role. 

It is said that every girl wants to be a ballerina, pink tutu, the whole nine yards. If making it as a dancer is setting oneself for brutal rejection, what then for the fledgling dancer of color and diversity? How long does it take to break-out of Old-World norms? What place at the barre is available for girls of color and heritage? Are there any women who have pursued a career and art-form deemed useful for a Latina or black body?

Multicultural Kids Blog calls-upon the strength, courage, and intellect of women for our Women’s History Month. Who’s in?

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My story begins with a little girl. My girl and a strong example.

“I would be her. I’m her,” she said, smiling into the page and into Sierra Leon. Into a story of sadness, then, also redemption and healing. My four-year-old dancer wound her stuffed Little Mermaid’s orange hair around her pointer before placing it in her mouth to whittle down the nail. It’d become habitual in the last few months.

She was enthralled, no, we were enthralled in the true story of Michaela DePrince, war-torn orphan turned professional ballet dancer. Michaela did not simply escape the odds in being a black dancer in a virtually all-white art and business; she escaped warring Sierra Leone on-foot, through jungle and past beasts, with the other orphans and their director. Additionally, she had been abused, unfed, barely clothed, called “cursed” and “devil’s child” because of her speckly-white vitiligo spots. Today she uses her voice and body to continue that healing and lift up others.

No matter your skin, no matter your circumstances, no matter about money, you life can go somewhere. You can believe in your gift and get there. 

The story goes, one day, while standing alone at the orphanage gate, a magazine page blew her way. She caught it and her world changed. It was a ballet dancer, en pointe. She desired that strength, that beauty, despite circumstances, despite her skin condition. A seed does not check skin color, race, religion, or where the recipient is, class-wise. A prayer, a desire was set deep inside that little Michaela. I’ve already told you too much. I was crying tears of joy with my girl and when she asked, “Where is Sierra Leone?” And when she sweetly assessed, “They need healing” and, “Look at her point!“ and, “She is me, Mom”, I knew we’d found the right book.

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More books featuring strong girls and women from Multicultural Kids Blogs, including a fabulous book about Janet Collins, first black artist to join the Met Opera. (To dance in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she would have had to agree to paint her face and body). deprince

See, girls people need to see what strength looks like–from a variety of backgrounds, skin color, in every arena. Our girls need to see more than lily-white dancers; they need to see themselves in every person and position, to develop empathy and do some cheering-on. To see themselves not dainty, but sprouting power, turning fear and inner-criticism on its head. Little Michaela, back then, Mabinty, needed to see herself on that magazine cover, somehow, standing on the hope of that sinewy, strong leg and pointe.

Those in the ballet-world, those who love children and believe in equality, also have the privilege of showing girls of color, showing all of us, a new possibility. Misty Copeland is another black ballerina who beat the odds and has become renown. She was one of five living in a one-room motel, just trying to survive the day-to-day, when a teacher saw beauty in the 13-year-old. Misty began training very very late in the game. She had never before even heard classical music or a thing about tondu or turnout. Beauty is beauty, though.

Or is it…Misty, like other diverse dancers, was told that she just didn’t have the look. That black bodies just aren’t cut-out for ballet. Feet too big, bodies too curvy, all these problems. Other dancers were asked if they would bleach their skin.

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Ms. Copeland, soloist at the illustrious American Ballet Theatre in NY, told the New York Post, “For young African Americans to feel that they have a chance to see a brown face on the stage – that ballet isn’t this white world that’s untouchable to them – I think having that visual does so much. I think it’s so important for them to see me and to hear me.” (Maureen Callahan’s article for the NYPost). Her presence and the work of other dancers is massive. They are still working out kinks in civil rights, maybe. Ballet is a bit staid. Sometimes you have to get cast as a flaming Firebird. 

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Misty is now a force of vision, a force that plucks-out promising dancers from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the safe oases usually situated in poorer neighborhoods where it would be more than easy to not-really-aspire, to not break-out into a widely-considered white, rich, snobby hobby, to only safely-dream. Misty is the face of Project Plie, an arm that reaches down and works to diversify the stage and behind-the-scenes. The elite ABT works with The Boys and Girls Club, granting merit-based scholarships and incredible internships to change lives and bring the ballet world further-into the 21st Century to reflect the myriad of beauty in a myriad of bodies.

I know, why stop here? There is Maria Tallchief, Yuan Yuan Tan, Evelyn Cisneros, first women who have climbed the high rungs of Prima Ballerina, Principle Dancer, all elite, uncompromising women who were beautiful pioneers in their field. There are the Filipina ballerinas, the Japanese wonders, the women who are simply, dancers. It doesn’t have to be about race.

“Just as all white people don’t have droopy arches, nor do all black people have “the wrong bodies,” Victoria Johnson points out. “Turnout, epaulement and virtuosity operate the same regardless of the color of one’s skin”. Amen. (Quotes form Ms. Johnson’s post in Dance USA). 

Talent, opportunity, and training are what enable excellence.

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“As a nation, we perpetuate separate white and black cultural identities. There are positive as well as negative aspects to the practice, but drawing that line means that it shouldn’t be surprising that there are few blacks on the ballet stage as there are also few blacks in the audience,” states Virginia Johnson, artistic director, founding member and former principal dancer of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

There can be black ballet companies, but to mix the two arenas has been an exciting, but tough battle. I was a young teen when I experienced Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. I had never before seen such long, strong bodies moving like that. Revelations changed my life. If we’re talking history, Judith Jamison is a hero. She premiered in AADT in 1965 and changed the atmosphere all over NY and throughout every city. She was unapologetic, telling stories with luscious, long movement and that magnificent revelation. She was strong.

Judith Jamison No Money in Dance

It’s about encouraging, training, and raising-up strong women. This is the work of teachers, parents, and dancers, in every neighborhood. It’s the belief that we can do better and that every child, every young woman, deserves a chance to train and not be cut-off or alienated. It is a call to recognize and then cultivate beauty. To call forth those young women and men who are more than skin, more than predictable. They shall be the dancers, the storytellers, the remarkable ones.

Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince, and a handful of precious powerhouse dancers are raising their voices and creating change. They are pulling young people into new lives and thus transforming generations. Their work is the work of redeeming.

This change, this call to equitable truth is just beginning and will leave trails of gold dust across the stage of our kids’ hearts.

These dancers are historical figures even now, pirouetting across the stage, wowing us in grand battement.

Here are some links to marvel at:

Brown Girls Do Ballet Blog

Misty Speaks on the Relevance of Ballet

Michaela Becomes a Dancer!

Love, strength, & the greatest rewards,

Melissa