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'Yentl' and confronting religious gender discrimination

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Imagine that someone told you that you couldn't pursue something or do something because of who you are. Imagine a group of individuals who shared that same attitude instilled in their institution run by people like them that you couldn't pursue something or do something because of who you are. Imagine no matter what negative reinforcement you experience because your interests and your passion wants so badly to be productive and contribute to that interest, that you still get nothing because of who you are, but you still pursue it anyway. In our modern age, we call this discrimination and institutional discrimination.

This past Saturday, in neighboring Brecksville, Ohio, a group of women decided to confront that discrimination by being ordained Roman Catholic women priests. Now, we all know that the Vatican, the human institution of the Roman Catholic Church has forbade women from priesthood for a long time. We all should know that Pope Emeritus Benedict released a statement in 2008 stating that women who become ordained and those who participated in that ordination will be considered excommunicated from the Church. Institutional intimidation would be enough to scare anyone who wants to pursue their interest, and contribute something productive to their spiritual passion by becoming a priest. But, these women persist.

There is one film that the author thinks can make this event and the perception of these women into context- 1983's Yentl. Based on the short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, it is also the directorial debut of Barbra Streisand. She also stars alongside Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving, and Nehemiah Personoff. The story takes place in early 1900s Eastern Europe. Yentl Mendel (Streisand) takes care of her father, Reb Mendel (Personoff), but is drawn to books that are not made for women at the time, and gets into a minor theological argument with the bookseller. To add to that, she reads the book she states is for her father while her father is tutoring a neighborhood boy about to make his bar mitzvah, and when he can't get something that is commonplace to her, she shouts it from the kitchen, and her father excuses it saying she has big ears. After he leaves with the impression anyway, Yentl and her father draw the curtains ("It's God I trust, I'm not sure about the neighbors") to continue secretly studying. But, her father's health is not the best, and they make plans to study more next week. As she cleans up dinner and tends to her father, being a musical, she contemplates her gender role with her intellectual passion with a song about a question she always asks("Where Is It Written?"). In another scene, her father is worried that she will never get married and bare children when she rejects another suitor before meeting him. The conversation goes back to her being taught Talmud and in ways, being taught to be more masculine then feminine, since her brother Anshel died when she was young. She tells him that he shouldn't feel ashamed for doing that, and that she loves him for doing that. He then thanks God for blessing him with a daughter like Yentl. Then, he dies, and Yentl continues to scandalize her little Orthodox Jewish village by reading the blessing over the body at her father's burial. As her house gets packed up, the neighbor women want to have her at their houses and give her so much work she won't even think about studying. When they leave her alone, Yentl, in her heart of hearts, decides to pursue her interest and passion in studying the Talmud. She cuts her hair, packs a suitcase, and flees the town before nightfall. She meets up with other Yeshiva students on the road, including a friend and peer in Avigdor (Patinkin), who help gets her to be a student at the Yeshiva he belongs to, and becomes her study partner. Since she is posing as a he, Avigdor introduces her to his fiancee, Hadass (Irving). You will have to see the film to see how it ends, and how Yentl navigates her intellectual curiosity with her with her other pursuits in a society that does not allow women to study Talmud.

What this film accomplishes (outside of passing the Bechdel test) is capturing a historical truth that women did pose as men to pursue their interests deemed "masculine" because their desire to pursue surpassed their entire will to live as a social inferior. Yentl posed as a man in order to pursue a profession that was not allowed her by society. She circumvented society's expectations of gender in order to make productive her interest. She was willing to break many of social rules and expectations in order to pursue her calling to learn. Is Yentl no different than these women priests? Is the Yeshiva wrong to discriminate against women when so many women wanted to learn and discuss the Talmud?

A lot has changed in the world. Many women pursue many professions once considered "masculine." In Yentl's own religion of Orthodox Judaism, there are women rabbis. Watch Yentl, and contemplate what is the Vatican's problem with women to not ordain them when the interest is there and the calling is present.

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