I noticed an article this week about an upcoming contemporary dance performance as part of Jewish Body Week, and my curiosity was awakened; i started surfing around on line to find out more. In New York there is a whole week of artistic, literary, cultural and political events about the Jewish body, including yoga and spa events, a presentation by transgender poet Joy Ladin, and a workshop called Mapping: Women, Jewish Mysticism and the Body.
Those last two events in particular really sparked my interest. About ten years ago I presented a workshop at an international conference for eating disorders professionals about Jewish women and body image. The room was overflowing with therapists, nutritionists, nurses and other clinicians curious about the unique experience of Jewish women and their bodies. Last year I led a retreat called the Queer Jewish Body as a Sacred Vessel; and in a few weeks I will begin co-leading a workshop series called BodyLOVE.
So what is all the hoo-hah about Jewish women and our bodies?
This is an old photograph of my grandmother, probably from the 1940s or '50s. I remember her saying to me once, "it doesn't matter if you're comfortable; it only matters if you look good." (probably commenting on my sensible shoes.)
She was always the raven-haired beauty, never seen without every hair in place and every wrinkle smoothed.
She calmed her nerves with chocolate stashed in secret places.
She denies ever having made that remark, but she laughs when she says it. At 99 years old, she can still fire off a searing remark about another nursing home resident's bad wig or atrocious lipstick.
I have had countless conversations with Jewish women about some aspect of their bodies they were taught to despise–nose, lips, hips, butt, upper arms, wild curly hair, the list goes on….In a culture that glorifies Barbie and Kate Moss as the beauty standards, anyone who deviates from that norm has probably wrestled with demons of self-loathing.
That would make most of us deviants, right?
These hips, oy vey
they swish and sway
they're soft and round
they take up as much space as they please
these hips that show my zaftig shape
These hips I learned to hide and hate
In truth my hips have served me like
the hands of a skilled carpenter or the feet of a dancer
my hips have saved me and protected me
These hips have much attitude
so don't even try to f*#% with me because these hips will take charge
The hips of a Jewish woman are a powerful thing…
–Excerpt from "Poem for my Hips"