The USCJ reveals what it thinks about women

Everyone knows that to find out what kind of person your date is, look at how they treat the waiter.

That is to say, it is our unthinking actions which betray our deep-rooted assumptions, and I’m afraid I’ve got some pretty miserable assumptions to discuss here.

You may have seen, of late, reference to the Rabbinical Council of America and its gracious permission for women to occupy “appropriate leadership roles” just so long as they remember they have no business trying to be rabbis or respected Torah scholars or synagogue executives. This has garnered some indignation in feministic Orthodox circles, but at least the RCA’s honest. The Conservative Jews, nominally egalitarian in all regards, have to resort to more subtle ways of reminding us ladies what our proper place is.

The USCJ, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, sends out packets of greetings cards periodically, as a marketing thing. Cards you will be Proud to Send, the cover blares.

Oh really?

Compare the latest “Mazal Tov” cards for “A Baby Girl” and “A Baby Boy.”

The Girl card depicts a diaper-clad koala, sweetly asleep on a huge pile of fluffy pink-shaded blankets. The Boy card is a collage showing a wide-awake bear, a blue car, and the words “cute little guy.”

I accept that our society has different roles for boys and girls, and that training in those roles starts at birth. Of course cards acknowledging births are likely to reflect incipient gender training. But let’s unpack the symbolism a little bit. This, after all, is the USCJ thinking it is just speaking to the waiter – just sending us some nice greetings cards. Let’s see what it’s saying.

The little boy is wide awake – he’s engaging with you, the viewer, with his world, He already has a personality – “cute little guy” – and his “Mazal tov” is in Hebrew. And we’re associating him with a car – an expensive machine, and one which imparts freedom and independence like no other. This boy has the will, the tools, and our societal permission to do as he likes. This boy is going places.

The little girl, on the other hand, is completely passive. Not only is she asleep, she doesn’t even have control of her bowels. Her diaper-clad behind is certainly cute, but does it need to be stuck so pertly in the air? We don’t see the little boy’s behind. Princess-and-the-Pea-style, the baby girl is so delicate that she needs a huge pile of blankets – fluffy, domestic, nurturing – to sleep upon. Indeed, the blankets dominate the page – the little girl is more or less incidental.

Now, at this point you’re at liberty to say “Good grief, Soferet, aren’t you over-reacting a bit?” After all, it’s only some greetings cards. It’s only speaking to the waiter.

The problem is that the active, important little boy with his car and the passive, insignificant little girl and her heap of blankets grow up to be adults. And the USCJ nominally accords equality to men and women.

But now look at the bar and bat mitzvah cards, celebrating the child’s entry into the adult Jewish community.

The bar mitzvah card, for the young man, is heavy with Jewish motifs. A Star of David, the public symbol of Jewish identity. A tallit, the ritual garb of the synagogue, its knotted strings symbolising the commandments. And a sefer Torah, the holiest object in Judaism, representing Judaism past, present, and future, God’s connection with the Jewish people.

And the young woman? What does her bat mitzvah card show? Is it a similar collection of symbols, redolent of entry into the world of grown-up Judaism? Does it depict Torah, mitzvot, Jewish identity, participation in the community as an adult?

Does it heck. “Screw you, waiter,” says the USCJ, reminding us that whatever other good qualities they may have, we should have some serious reservations about sustaining a relationship with them.

That other flagship Conservative Jewish institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, is perfectly happy to proclaim its commitment to traditional women’s roles – in that particular case, promoting an event where the women’s role was sexual object intended to titillate (reference, if you will, that diaper-clad behind we mentioned earlier) – so it shouldn’t surprise us that the USCJ represents an adult woman’s Judaism thus.


Pretty flowers and a ladybug. That’s your Judaism, ladies. Hope you enjoy it.

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