Women and Children First

It takes a village to raise a child. Parents, teachers, friends, mentors. We all know this. It takes a village to raise a child right.

When resources are scarce, we all know what we are supposed to do. Women and children first. Save the most vulnerable people in the room. Let the men, the stronger and more privileged people, go out swinging. Succor the people who can’t defend ourselves. Women and children first.

My American Jewish community, my “village,” suffers from both a genuine scarcity of resources, and from a scarcity mindset. Many of our families suffered extreme poverty only a few generations back. Now many of us experience relative plenty in this new world. Still, the old feeling of insecurity persists. What if we don’t have enough?

Our tendency towards isolation exaggerates whatever existing scarcity there is. How can we raise our children correctly, when we are still attempting to recover from the trauma of the Holocaust? How do we teach Jewish identity in diaspora? For many others, whose stories are rendered invisible beneath the broader story of Jewish wealth and privilege, these questions take a backseat to the much more pressing question of how to feed one’s children under late-stage capitalism.

We suffer from deprivation, both mental and physical. This deprivation comes out in stress, in ancestral trauma, in strange silences. It comes out in hoarding and panic around food, in endless stereotypical bouts of digestive problems. It comes out as anxiety or other forms of mental illness.

We all feel it. I believe that.

When we feel it, we forget to be honorable. We forget to save the women and children first.

My village prefers men. That has been true since time immemorial. When resources are scarce, we feed the boys first. We tell them they are beautiful, smart, worthy. We feed them the choicest pieces of meat. We applaud them when they raise their hands and we tell them whatever they have to say is worth hearing. We teach them they will go on to do great things in this world. Many of them do just that.

There is a reason why nice Jewish girls learn to bake challah and cook a decent roast instead of learning how to stand up for ourselves or how to present ourselves in an interview. There is a reason why parents “joke” hopefully that their daughters will marry a Jewish doctor or lawyer, not that their daughters will become these things ourselves.

In my village, women and children never come first.

Men first. Boys second. Good girls third, and by good I mean white-passing, nice, polite, quiet. The kind of girl who will cook a roast and have nice Jewish babies and never complain about her status in the world.

Somewhere far down the list, women like me exist. Women who are broken in body and spirit. Women who as children were offered up as sacrifices to the Jewish men, playthings to use to ease their anxiety and distract from their digestive pain and feel better about themselves. Girls whose purpose was to make men feel good. Girls raised to serve their purpose, let nice Jewish men and boys suck out our life force. Then die, early and without fuss, to be replaced by more fodder — more of the wrong kind of Jewish girl.

My village failed me. Now I bear the consequences. I can lie about the emotional scars but the body does indeed keep the score. From my auto immune disease to the agonizing pain in my hips and pelvis, from chronic burning acid reflux from biting back angry words to hatred sitting like a stone in my belly and sometimes vomiting food right back up. My body keeps the score. My body tells you exactly what I needed, and did not get.

Those nice Jewish boys have become nice Jewish men. They look at women like me as the bane of their existence. Why don’t I just do my duty, and die? Why don’t I hide my scars so they won’t have to see? Why don’t I go to a therapist who will lop off my anger, a nutritionist who will lop off my weight, to make their lives more comfortable?

It would never occur to them that they do not deserve comfort at the expense of a woman’s life, if that woman was me. Not when for so long they have been taught otherwise.

I am the dark daughter at the center of the story. I am Lilith, and I am returned from the dead, and I will not compromise with terrorists. I am Eve, and I will eat the apples if I please, along with everything else in the Garden of Eden that was Adam’s paradise but my insane asylum. I am generations of daughters born too dark or too mean or too broken or too angry.

I am too mean and I am too angry.

I know better than to think being good will earn me a place in the heart of the village that was supposed to raise me. I was raised on scraps and it has turned me mean. I was raised on cruelty and it has turned me into a forked-tongue serpent interested in learning the ways of shame and hatred. When I love myself, I become the monster in my people’s story. My people’s story, like every history, was told by the victors. Never before have women like me survived long enough to write our own stories.

Perhaps no one will read mine. Perhaps not for a long time. But still I am writing. Because I am alive.

In every child, there are two accounts. One is love. The second is hate. It takes a village to invest in that child enough to teach that child how to love. It also takes a village to teach a child how to hate.

The lesson for me, for people like me, this lifetime, is: love and hate are both worth doing. Both equally.

The key is not to teach yourself not to hate. Not to repress it. Not to run from it. The key is what you do with hate when you feel it. The key is whether you understand who the source of the violence is, and what motivations are driving them, and what beliefs make them your enemy. The key is to study your enemy at length, until you learn how to defeat these beliefs.

I am not afraid of my hate. Only, I regret very deeply the child I might have been. The child who if loved, would have learned the ways of love in return.

Still. I am an adult, now. And it is too late. My people do not deserve my love. They deserve what they have earned. We reap what we sow.

We all know we are supposed to save the women and children first.

I am what happens when we are dishonorable, and don’t.

Writes all the things. Photographs the light. Smiles at odd moments. Reads in the shower. Sings to the trees. Hopes a lot.

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