Deborah the Prophetess stands before the people of Israel. “Listen,” she calls out, “did not the Lord, God of Israel command: ‘Go, march on Mt. Tabor…’”
“What about the children?” a heckler calls out. “Who’s taking care of your children when you’re out prophesizing in the middle of the day?”
You won’t find this exchange in any Bible or classical midrash. No, this is modern midrash — this is the Israeli comedy troupe, “Hayehudim Ba’im” (“The Jews Are Coming”) — nailing the experience of the Israeli woman in Israeli society.
Israel is a country that is obsessed with children, and so, by extension, motherhood. About five years ago, I participated in a program that helps Israeli women open up independent businesses. At 30, I was not the youngest of the women by far, but I was the only woman in the group who was not a mother and it was maybe because of this that I was consistently referred to as “Hayaldah” (the girl).
Strangely enough, it was Rebecca Traister’s on single women in America that reminded me of this little piece of my life. Traister’s argument is that the rise of the single woman in American society has led to unprecedented political change. Essentially, single women have become their own political bloc. It got me wondering why there is no equivalent movement in Israeli society. There is ample discussion as to how Israeli women tend to vote and what issues concern them, but there is no sense that the marital status of the women is taken into consideration in that discussion.
I thought about that “Hayaldah” and what it meant about womanhood in Israeli society. It occurred to me that perhaps there is no equivalent movement in Israeli society because, in Israeli society it is not age that makes you a woman - but motherhood. According to OECD statistics, Israel has the highest birthrate in the developed world. The average Israeli woman has 3 children, nearly double the rate in the other OECD countries, and the government funds up to four in-vitro fertility treatments a year. The law stringently protects a woman’s right to retain her job while pregnant, after pregnancy, while raising a child, etc. It’s enough to make American mothers weep in jealousy.
But this sheer focus on children, on motherhood, is exclusionary. What of the women who have no children - by choice, by biological fate, by the sheer matter of the fact that they are not ready to have children? Are they doomed to always remain “Hayaldah” in the eyes of society?
This is Israeli equality. This is limited and narrow feminism of the State of Israel. You are a mother. You are a girl. To be childless is to be without a political framework, without a political focus. Yes, Israeli law and Israeli society is concerned with girls’ education, with women in the army, with the prevention of sexual and physical assault against women. Yes, there is an allowance for that space of time in between coming of age, and ideally-in society’s eyes — becoming a mother, but there is no great dismantling of a societal rubric. There is no space to say, I am a woman, but I am not a mother. I have economic concerns and I have political concerns that are essential to me as an adult and as a woman.
“I don’t have children,” Deborah says.
“Oh, so you only have three.”
“No, I have no children. Zero children,” she insists.
“Oh, your husband is at home taking care of the children.”
It goes on and it goes on.
Deborah gives up.