Ariadne Wolf: A Jewish Perspective on Change

 Ariadne Wolf:  A Jewish Perspective on Change

Modern Jewish life is about blending the old with the new. We pride ourselves on being innovators, but we are afraid to leave the magical and rich parts of our past behind us. We want to honor our ancestors, who fought and died for the right to practice Judaism safely, but at the same time we know we must let go of certain parts of the past that no longer serve us. We know we must move forward, and that is both a source of anxiety, and a source of joy.

            I was recently “let go” from what turned out to be a very short-term position with a synagogue. Since then, I’ve found myself wondering what it means to me to be Jewish. I wonder why I left a job that I found myself overqualified for, in favor of a job for which I was, once again, very overqualified. I wonder why I returned to my Conservative Jewish roots, even though I spent much of my childhood struggling like hell against the confines of Conservative Judaism’s obsession with the far-off historical past. I wonder why I enjoyed walking to work so much, swinging my purse against my hip, even as I bristled against the confines of the long skirt I felt obligated to wear, and the blowout I felt forced to endure against my own aesthetic wishes, and the fact that despite being a full-time employee I was forbidden from parking in the synagogue lot and instead had to park half a mile away and walk. I wonder why it feels so normal to me, even necessary, to be surrounded by members of my own ethnic and religious community, even as I fight to escape from the strict dictates of a culture that has yet to even partially transcend a history of patriarchal bounds and the muzzling of its best and brightest women.

            I have become one of a generation of lost girls. Every Jewish woman I am friends with floats on the edge of Jewish society, without a synagogue, without a Jewish partner, without a sense of belonging within the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life. We sit back and watch as the elders of “our” organizations, the leaders of our synagogues and nonprofits and advocacy groups, make decisions we cannot agree with. Most of these leaders are men, but not all; most of these leaders are white, but not all. The vast majority of these leaders sincerely wish to do good in the world, but these leaders also unfailingly betray the most tender, most vulnerable members of our community, in favor of the bottom line. Those Jews like me, who are queer and not wealthy, who dare tell the stories of the harm our community sometimes does to its own members, we often feel unwelcome. I go to religious events and I hover in the background, alternating between rage and boredom, between tuning out the rabbi’s words and hoping, always in vain, that she might say something unexpected, something that makes the often-empty practice of ritual feel worthwhile.

            I worked at this synagogue for six weeks hoping that someday, I would go to work and find myself doing something that felt worthwhile. Surely, there was an instant when I arranged the rabbinical notes and felt myself to be doing something truly important with my life; surely, engaged in a conversation with my boss and a neighborhood rabbi about transcendental meditation, I felt myself to be doing something with true spiritual depth. When another staff member squeezed my hand to ease my migraine, how about then? Did that feel special? Important? Good?

            Yes, I suppose so. I suppose that there, in the midst of my own people, I felt as though I truly existed. I felt seen, and I felt that I mattered. I suppose that this feeling is why I put my life on hold, my real life, to pursue my childhood fantasy of finally fitting in to Conservative Judaism, even though I spent my actual childhood trying to escape it.

            I felt as though I existed, but I also felt the same old raw ache, the same soul-crushing rage. I felt the defeat of a warrior queen, of every warrior queen born into the bosom of my community, and crushed there. I felt myself, speaking up when I was not spoken to first, volunteering an opinion that was not asked for, offering encouragement to members who had legitimate complaints, offering words of censure to the rabbi when she violated my trust on her, bordering on idolatry, and made comments I found offensive, or callous or downright cruel. I pushed back, or tried to, when I discovered that my boss was very far from hiring a second administrator, and instead expected me to do both my job and the other, without extra pay or actual promotion or even a clear acknowledgment that this was taking place. I found myself the victim of the sort of everyday exploitation, the backbiting, the office games and gossip and inappropriate emotional displays, that abound in every dysfunctional office environment I have ever had the misfortune to find myself working in. I found myself horrified, typically, by the fact my boss and the rabbi, two high-powered women, seemed chronically unaware of their own power, and particularly of their own power to do harm to those around them.

            I understand now, far too late to preserve my dignity, that in this synagogue, the office is the vulnerable part, the scapegoat, the one that is to blame. The series of “mistakes” made by the office, prior to my arrival and then including my arrival, reflected a series of necessities gone missing: supplies lists never made, communication never centralized, instructions that never left my boss’ head to reach my ears. I found that the office was “the girl” of this synagogue, the one expected to be bright and shining, cheerful and kind, a balm to the emotional neediness of more powerful players in the organization without asking anything in return but appreciation. Appreciation, as ever, is not enough. It is not enough for women. It is not enough for me.

            Somehow, amidst a series of non-crisis crises and non-dramatic psychodramas, I managed to reclaim my voice, and find my womanhood. I discovered that the women I have admired my entire life, the skinny, apparently smart, high-powered women who run every institution formed from patriarchy and according to patriarchy’s bylaws, are in fact not so admirable. I discovered that these women are overworked at their own whims, miserable from the stresses they put on themselves, constantly guilt-ridden without the necessary tools to ease their own deep pain. I discovered, and not for the first time in my life but hopefully for the last, that women who play the game of patriarchy well are never truly in power. They sometimes hold powerful positions, sometimes appear to be capable of making powerful decisions, but it is an illusion. At every staff meeting, the supposed leaders of this synagogue would look at one another, uncertain, unclear who was supposed to begin the meeting, if there was no man to begin it. No one would facilitate. No one would review the notes that I took. No one was accountable for actions taken, because the name of the game, of course, was to avoid any change at all.

            I appreciate the lessons I learned from this role, as I appreciate what I gained from a childhood spent in the sweaty, too-tight, yet well-intentioned embrace of my community. I will take these lessons with me, wherever I go. I will, however, make sure to go, and to go now, while I am still young enough to start over, while I can still make sure I do not end up like these women. I do not wish to become a stranger in my own life. Better a stranger to my community, than a stranger to myself, and to my God.

            My community is afraid to change, but change has come. I live with another Jewish woman, my housemate, and neither of us go to temple, except occasionally to haunt Urban Adamah, an outdoor sort of synagogue in an open tent, with dancing or seated in folding chairs. We make decisions now, for ourselves, about who we want to be, and how we want to interact with our community. Perhaps our community will want us back someday; I hope so. In that case, our community will have to work for it, to ease longstanding sexism and classism, to disidentify with whiteness, to turn itself into a place where I can be proud to stand, instead of a lasting shame. I have had enough to do with shame for one lifetime. I am ready for goodness, instead.

Ariadne Wolf

Ariadne Wolf works cross-genre in Creative Nonfiction, Fantasy, and Experimental Fiction, Screenwriting, and just about everything else you can think of. Her creative nonfiction essay “Mermaids Singing” was initially published in Rascal, and Rascal has nominated the essay for the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Perspectives has nominated her short fiction story “Granny in the Forest” for the 2019 Best Small Fictions Anthology. Wolf’s publishing credits include DIN Southwest Literary Magazine, Ashoka University’s Plot Number Two, and others. She has many credits to her name as a journalist in the Corvallis Advocate and the Willamette Collegian. Wolf has completed her MFA in Creative Writing and she is currently taking a page out of Janis Ian’s (song)book and Searching for America.  


  1. I can't claim to have any special insight into Jewish philosophy but i will say that those who struggle within any system of belief that doesn't fully accept them are soldiers of a different cloth. My respect.

  2. Strike another blow for decency and diversity.

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