In 1996, B'not Esh, a Jewish feminist collective, inducted two members whose similarities, to the untrained eye, were obvious. Both Rosie Pegueros (b. 1950) and Marla Brettschneider (b. 1965) were Jewish, feminist lesbians who were leftist, politically-engaged academics who loved the ritual and music of Judaism—especially alternative, feminist forms. But there the similarities apparently ended. The events of the fifteen-year gap in their ages, as well as their disparate cultural and class backgrounds contributed to huge differences in their lives, personalities, and world-views.
Founded in 1981, B'not Esh meets annually for five days over Memorial Day weekend at a Catholic laywomen's retreat center called the Grail, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. There are 31 members. Membership is by invitation. There are no elected or appointed leaders; no chair-persons, spoke-persons, or other hierarchies. It is, at best, a congenial anarchy.
Rosie and Marla started thinking about our roots, our experiences and history in B'not Esh, and considered the origins of our personal commitments to Jewish feminism. Out of these explorations emerged essential questions about the pros and cons, and need for feminist spaces today. Here we share with Bridges' readers parts of what we discovered about ourselves and the importance of B'not Esh as well as the meaning of feminist communities.
It was a funny way to become a feminist. I admired the nuns who were our teachers at St. Teresa's in San Francisco. They could be gentle and loving yet disciplined and exacting teachers. I credit them with giving me a superb education under economically difficult circumstances. I once overheard a conversation between two Sisters lamenting the fact that they had been assigned to the poorest parish in San Francisco.
They could be imperious and terrifying also. I was puzzled and appalled when, to punish the boys, they'd make them wear dresses. I wish I could remember what infraction brought about that punishment but it seemed odd for the Sisters, who wore full-length habits, to punish boys by making them wear dresses.
They seemed all-powerful until one of the parish priests came around.
Then the Sisters became subservient, bowing and scraping for the priests. From an early age, we knew the hierarchy of things: the Pope was at the top, then the Cardinals; then the Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, Lay Brothers, Sisters, and then regular people, like us. As my understanding of the system grew, it seemed to me that power resided with the priests and those above them because they were anointed; they could say Mass. Sisters did not really have power because they were not anointed; they were just the Brides of Christ: We had all seen pictures of young nuns taking their final vows, dressed in white as brides. Yet, the nuns had a power that was difficult to describe; they certainly had power over us.
In 1958, Pope Pius XII, who had ruled the Church since before World War II died. Television was not as ubiquitous as it is today, and I cannot remember if we saw the pageantry of the choosing of the new pope on TV but we certainly had it described to us in great detail by the Sisters. That exclusive male dominion became even more exclusive when the new pope, John XXIII, was to be chosen by only the Cardinals, often called the Princes of the Church presumably because one of them could be chosen to be the Vicar of Christ on earth.
I attended Presentation High School, an all-girls Catholic. It was freeing in its way. We did not have to compete with boys; I loved that and it was my first taste of true sisterhood, which I would come to crave in my adult life. Furthermore, the Sisters, even though from the same order as those who taught in my elementary school, were not as scary as the ones who taught there. It was in high school that I really started thinking about power, about who had it and who did not. It was also where I first had the inklings of the importance of class.
All of the children in my elementary...