Of Burnt Brisket And Feminist Manifestos
Tue, 05/07/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Francine Klagsbrun
Francine Klagsbrun

Here it is, almost Shavuot, with its dairy meals, and I am still fretting about my Passover brisket fiasco.

This is what happened: I prepared a brisket for the second seder in advance, following the no-fail recipe I have used on many occasions. It looked perfect when completed and covered with its delicious sauce. Busy with the seder service, I left it to be reheated in the kitchen. The next thing I knew, on my dinner plate and on those of my guests, lay some dried up slices of meat that tasted almost as bad as they looked. My beautiful brisket had been overcooked and turned into shoe leather.

The image of that brisket has remained with me, undermining my confidence in ever cooking that dish again. It has also made me wonder about my bona fides as a feminist. I have been involved for much of my adult life in women’s struggles for new roles outside their homes. I’ve been especially engaged with Jewish feminism, working in earlier years to have women ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement and thrilled now to see Orthodox women taking on rabbinic responsibilities. So why should I care so much about a piece of beef?

There have been a slew of books and articles in the past few months about women at work and at home, foremost among them Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” Sandberg, the super-successful CEO of Facebook, wants women to use their energy and intelligence to move into the highest ranks of industry, where they still remain a minority in spite of their advances in other fields. In her book and lectures, she urges women to push themselves beyond the stereotypes that hold them back internally — the messages they have received since childhood not to be outspoken or aggressive or more powerful than men. (“Aggression” in a woman, as we know, is “achievement” in a man.)

Her goal for women is a good and positive one, yet she has been attacked, largely by women, some of them feminists. One of the main attacks has dubbed her too elitist and out of touch with ordinary women’s lives. Well, I remember when Betty Friedan was criticized as elitist for not addressing the struggles of poor women or lesbians. Nevertheless, her book, “The Feminine Mystique,” 50 years old this year, led the way to changing the world for everyone.

The most insidious attack on Sandberg that I’ve seen came in a New York magazine cover story by Lisa Miller called, “The Feminist Housewife.” Actually, the piece doesn’t attack Sandberg directly so much as it shifts the conversation away from her emphasis on women’s leadership back to the old “mommy wars” turf. The subjects of Miller’s story are women who have opted to give up outside work in order to stay home with their children. (I’ve noticed over the years that whenever women get closer to aiming for top workplace spots, as Sandberg advocates, the media whips out its “babies vs. careers” articles.) These women call themselves feminists, because, they say, in leaving the workplace they have found the personal fulfillment feminism preached. By managing their children’s lives while their husbands go out to work, they have been awakened “to the virtues of the way things used to be.” The very things, of course, that Friedan and the women’s movement rebelled against.

But that’s OK. The women’s movement always supported choices for women. What bothers me about this article and others like it is that they create a dichotomy, not only between working and stay-at-home moms, but also within a woman herself, as if we need to be all one way or another. The women in this piece speak of cooking or knitting as though only they, by dint of not working outside their homes, can enjoy domestic pursuits. True, I don’t know many working women who make their laundry soap “from scratch,” as some of these women do, but I know plenty of working women who love to cook, and I know feminist activists who devote great care to their home furnishings or table settings. The point is that women — and men — are complex beings filled with contradictions and diverse interests that cannot be reduced to one or two attributes. In fact, we old-time feminists may not have emphasized those complexities enough to our daughters. They have had to navigate through difficulties they often felt unprepared for in the work/family conundrum. Still, many, like Sandberg, have found their way with great success.

Oh, my brisket? After reading Sandberg, Miller and the rest, I’ve concluded that obsessing about the burnt brisket does not really diminish my feminist credentials. It is part of those complexities and contradictions that exist in all of us. But maybe now it’s time to move on.

Cheesecake anyone?

Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.

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