Empowered by Orthodox Judaism

Nora Yagolnitser pictured here

I am a student at UC San Diego, unremarkable in many ways, but you may already know who I am. I am that girl who sits in the first few rows of your lecture hall and outspokenly voices her opinions. I am that girl you’ve seen handing out donuts in Revelle Plaza, candles on Library Walk, or freshly baked bread in Argo 4. I am that girl who wears the long, patterned skirts around campus; I’m told they are pretty eye-catching. Quite often, I start to introduce myself to a student I’ve never met, and they’ll say, “Oh, I know you!” What you mean is that you think you know me. And some of the things you think you know about me might be based on my identity as an Orthodox Jewish woman. But are you sure you know that about me?

About a month ago, a friend of mine met me for dinner fuming over something she’d heard in lecture that day. In a course about “Culture and Society,” her professor had described women in the Orthodox Jewish world as passive objects, or perhaps victims of men’s laws. This narrative bothered and concerned my friend, and when she shared it with me, I felt the same. My friend did not feel as though she had the authority to speak up during the lecture, but as an Orthodox Jewish woman myself, I feel passionately about correcting misinformed or misguided information about my religion. I wrote an email to that professor the next day and told her a little bit about my life. While the professor responded respectfully and clarified her opinions tactfully, I realized that this is a story worth sharing with more of the UCSD community. So here’s what I know about me.

First and foremost, I have chosen my lifestyle. I dress according to a code of modesty, I participate in certain religious rituals specific to women, and I pray in a synagogue that separates men and women. I choose to live the way I do, unlike the way my family raised me, because I am empowered by Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism the way I know it is woman-centric. The Jewish legal code often centers around protecting and affording rights to Jewish women, and if you read Jewish texts thoroughly, you would have no trouble finding numerous instances of powerful, prestigious, and influential Jewish women. Sarah the matriarch in the Five Books of Moses, the prophetess Deborah in Prophets, Queen Esther in the Writings, and the sage Bruria quoted in the Talmud are some of my greatest role models. Anyone claiming that traditional Judaism “oppresses” women simply hasn’t done their research.

One of the reasons most commonly cited by people who think Jewish women are “oppressed” relates to dress code. In fact, my friend told me her professor had described Orthodox women’s dress by placing both hands on her throat, almost in a choking motion. It saddens me that anyone would view the way I dress in such a way. It is ludicrous to imagine that the code of Jewish modesty, which addresses guidelines for women and men, would ask women to choke themselves on impossible necklines. In truth, one element of Jewish modesty as it pertains to women does include wearing necklines that reach the collar bones.

Women like me who dress this way have chosen to do so. Women like me dress this way because we value our bodies. In fact, our choice to reserve our bodies for certain contexts and certain people’s eyes only reflects the dignity and self-esteem we feel as women. Personally, I find my dress code liberating, not restrictive, and empowering, not oppressive. You may choose to reflect your self-confidence differently in your dress, and I respect your right to do so. All I ask is that you take a moment to understand me and my choice before you judge what it says about me.

I encourage you to write back to me with a comment below. I hope to frame this opinion article not as a final statement, but as an invitation to open dialogue. As we walk around our campus, observing our fellow students and making our snap judgements, let’s listen to more voices than just the one inside our own heads. Let’s learn each other’s names and stories instead of hypothesizing blindly about the mysterious “others” we encounter. Now that you know a little more about me and my community, I’d love to know more about you and your world. Let’s keep the conversation going. What story will you tell?


Nora Yagolnitser is a staff writer for The Triton. We welcome responses to opinion pieces. If you’d like to submit a response, or comment on a different issue affecting the UC community, please submit here.

  • Gabi Benisti

    Wow, so proud of you Nora. You always blow me away with your incredible insight and self awareness. This is so well written and sincere. Keep standing up for your values and being a true light for us all, Jews and non-Jews alike

  • Jason Childress

    (Fair Disclosure: I have known Nora from the days when her plump little heiny rocked a pair of Huggies, right up through the days when we co-wrote the greatest novel in the history of Western literature, and on into the bold future she now inhabits with such inimitable grace and passion…so okay, maybe I’m not exactly Joe Impartial here.

    But with that said…)

    I’m not a religious person myself…but if I DID practice religion, I like to think I’d do it the way Nora does: proudly, yet with modesty; sincerely, and always with respect for others. Nora’s appeal to people of different beliefs to reach out and try to understand one another other is the kind of idea we need more of in this world.

    Mazel tov, Nora! You’ve leapt from the preposterous indignity of saggy diapers to a wisdom and understanding beyond your years in what seems to me the blink of an eye: a dizzying transformation, which leaves me breathlessly awaiting the next installment of your bright and shining destiny.

    For I am
    and, indeed, remain
    your ever-proud
    and staunchly admiring

    *Funcle Jace!* 😉

  • lirani

    Your comments are also highly relevant to how many Muslim women who choose to cover up feel. Thanks for writing this and refusing others’ scripting of what feminism or self-respect looks like.