Brushing with Feminist Toothpaste

By Casey Tova Markenson

TOVA_01Inside my activist toolkit, there is a toothbrush. The toothbrush is for brushing teeth to end long, tired days. Days where you smack against strangers on your commute with delays, learn that all of your clients have unsolvable problems, and rush to the rescheduled AVODAH program after work. Those are the days that are best ended sharing toothpaste with roommates, foamy mouths cracking delirious jokes. Delirious, feminist jokes, in my case.

My year as a corps member gifted me with a community of Jewish feminists. They’re friends who I talk to about the sexism I experience, who support my evolving relationship to femininity. Friends with whom I share my small victories, and who offer insight when my confidence wanes. Our sense of shared history opens me to being critical and angry about patriarchy in Judaism, and our distinct personal histories challenge me to face the limits of my own privilege and experience.

That gift of community came from informal conversations in unexpected settings: on the subway platform; while brushing my teeth. It was a response to the lack of space that was available during AVODAH to have deep, frank, discussions about gender. As a corps member I advocated for domestic violence survivors; the devastating stories I heard at work every day left me hyperaware of gender’s role in antipoverty work. Gender’s vast intersectionality, its impact on our relationships to our clients, our co-workers, our housemates, our families, and our selves motivates my interest in conversations about sexism being more present in the AVODAH curriculum and in Jewish education. In the words of my colleague, Pippi Kessler, “at its core, feminism is about yearning for a world where everyone gets to be a full human being.”

The absence of programmatic support around those conversations has clarified my growing points; while connecting with folks who share my commitment to feminism, I’ve neglected my relationships with people who don’t. In learning how to acknowledge sexist comments, I’ve been careless about addressing dissenting perspectives. What is a Jewish educator’s role in facilitating dialectical dialogues? How can we call more people in to these conversations, rather than calling each other out?

Those questions carry over to my work at Ma’yan, a Jewish feminist non-profit in New York City. One of our programs, the Research Training Internship (RTI), is a 15-month activism and leadership boot camp for high school aged girls that culminates in a youth led research project (check out the last cohort’s project, a documentary about sexism in the media). The RTI responds to the lack of formal spaces to talk about the relationship between gender identity and Jewishness in a thoughtful, creative, and radical way. In addition to making space for young people to explore their own identities and equipping them with a feminist, activist toolkit, it creates a support system for young Jewish women; a community of Jewish feminists to lean on and learn from during high school and beyond.

Behind my toothbrush anecdote, there’s another silent truth. It’s that at the end of those long, tired days, not once did I want to brush my teeth. If I were living alone, I wouldn’t have. But living communally meant that I was held accountable for doing so. As a Jewish social justice community, we hold each other accountable to doing what we least want to do, to hearing what we don’t want to hear, to making uncomfortable and challenging changes. The programs that our organizations offer need to mirror the equal world that we envision. As alumni, how can we support each other in strengthening our individual and collective areas for growth? 

Casey Tova Markenson was an AVODAH corps member in 2012-2013. During her year of service, she advocated for low-income domestic violence survivors at the New York Legal Assistance Group. Casey Tova currently works as the Communications, Outreach, and Marketing Strategist at Ma’yan, a Jewish feminist nonprofit. She holds a Bachelors in English from Carleton College and will be starting an Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University in the fall. Her work has been published in Skyd Magazine, Jewesses With Attitude, and Tenth Muse

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