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Female Comes First

October 30, 2013

When I was ten years old, the rabbi’s wife and school principal at our synagogue quickly distributed blank note cards and pencils to our Sunday school class. She asked us to consider her question carefully and then to write the answer to her question on the supplied notecard. Her question was: Are you Jewish first or American first? After much deliberation and some confusion, I wrote my answer. In sloppy and uneven gray pencil strokes, my notecard read: American first.

The spokes of my identity are American, Jewish, and female. Now that I am in my thirties and I think back to the question asked in Sunday school all of those years ago, I realize that our gender was unspoken. We were not asked to consider if we thought of ourselves as females or males first. While unaddressed at that time, gender has always played an important role in my life. If I were to be asked the same question today, my notecard would likely not answer the question as stated, and read: female first.

No matter their race, ethnicity or religion, women are connected by past and current societal roles and life experiences. In biblical times, women were wives and mothers. Strong women, such as Rebecca and Sarah, play an important role in the bible. While female status in this time period is considered controversial, women have always had a powerful spiritual influence. Consider that a Jewish woman’s child is Jewish even if she marries someone who is not Jewish while a Jewish man’s child is not of this same status if he marries someone not Jewish.

Whether or not you agree with those delineations, to me, this conveys a clear message that as matriarchs, women were the important bearers of tradition, heritage and legacy. Women provided the foundation on which culture, faith and harmony were cultivated and sustained.

In 1915, my grandmother’s parents emigrated from Russia to the United States. My grandmother was the first in her family to be an American Jewish woman. How much of her life was affected by the parts of her identity that were Russian, Jewish, first-generation American and female? She eloped when she was just 15 years old against her parents’ wishes. Even though my grandmother later adopted a traditional lifestyle as a homemaker, she defied her parents and cultural gender norms earlier in her life in order to follow her own passions.

Grandma
Heather's mother-in-law and daughter
My mother-in-law was raised in a small village in Nepal. To abide by traditional cultural practices, women cater to their families first and think of themselves last. In many cases, marriage partners are selected and arranged by family members. My mother-in-law’s father selected her marriage partner for her after she finished high school. While she may not have chosen to marry at that time, she did what was expected of her and she became a supporting wife and loving mother. Even though it was not customary for women to work outside of the home, my mother-in-law was a teacher for almost twenty years. In addition to her work, she was the primary caretaker for the children and responsible for running her household. She proves that while women may not have always been considered equal to men in Nepali society, they have always maintained a central and driving role in the happiness and success of the family life.

Like me, my mother was born in the United States. We share the same identity as American Jewish females. While my mother was expected to marry in her early twenties and have children soon after, which she did, she also later became a businesswoman. She did not set out to run a business; she had planned to be a homemaker and was happy in that role. In her transformation to businesswoman, however, my mother developed a new identity as an entrepreneur in which she espoused the importance of defining your own path and exerting your own independence. As a businesswoman, she was able to showcase her work ethic, talent and intelligence and to model confidence and success on her own terms.

Seven months ago, my grandmother died. She carried with her secrets of a rebellious youth and guarded truths. Shortly after her death, my daughter was born. Her middle names, Maya and Lily, are her great-grandmothers’ names and they reflect her mixed heritage. My daughter is American, half-Jewish, half-Nepali and female. In her deep brown eyes, I see innocence, clarity and curiosity. While she does not know it yet, she is an extension of her great grandmothers’ and grandmothers’ legacies.

When my daughter is older and contemplates the spokes of her own identity, she may wonder who came before her. I will tell her the story of a beautiful woman who followed her heart at the expense of family approval. I will also share the stories of a woman selfless enough to put all other needs before her own and a woman who capitalized on her potential to blossom into a self-made entrepreneur. Of all of the stories I share, the most important lesson may be that while my daughter is Jewish, Nepali, female and American by birthright, she should always be herself first.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Heather Subba

Heather Subba lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. She works in the field of educational publishing.

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