I’ve always been a slow reader. Lately, I tend to read several books at once, which probably slows my reading speed down further still, or at least it did that initially; nowadays, I’d like to think I’m getting in a better groove of juggling books, but still, My Name Is Asher Lev took me a long time to finish, and I suppose that’s partly because, at the moment, I do find it a little painful to read narratives about young Orthodox and/or formerly Orthodox Jewish men and their experiences in the secular world, particularly those that lead them to conclude secular America is a place of great equality for women. I suppose it’s true to some degree that women have it better outside the streets of Brooklyn’s Chassidic neighborhoods, but I can’t agree with the statements I’ve heard from several such young men, to the effect that, out here, in allegedly-nonreligious America (which is, of course, a false concept in and of itself, given how permeated even the most secular elements of US society are and have been for centuries with Judeo-Christian ideology), women are “emancipated,” everything is equal, as it should be, and totally devoid of misogyny. As a woman, I’ve never felt that to be so, not for a single day of my life. Being a woman in Western secular culture feels pretty damned painful. Women are devalued and subordinated within the world of Jewish Orthodoxy, yes, but I also know that we are devalued in equally painful and crippling—though different—ways outside that world; I and all other women to varying degrees, live with that devaluation daily. In the broader, secular culture in which I was raised, women’s bodies (or what the culture presents as interchangeable female body parts, sexualized segments of anonymous female flesh) are treated not as sacred, not as designed to be known and honored on an individual level, but as fuckable commodity, useful in the sale of things, and particularly useful in making men feel powerful.
Everything about the performance of femininity involves making oneself seem vulnerable and weak, or at least weaker than men. Sex for women under male supremacy, for example, means that we are supposed to not only accept, but enjoy being “taken,” done to, and sexually possessed—in a word, fucked (and this idea of the female body and sexual organs as innately passive, a receptacle for men’s sexual action, has many of its roots in Jewish belief). The idea of a woman’s body as sacred, unique—that is, not the female body, but rather, a female body—one specific physical self of one specific living and physical female person—is almost nowhere to be found in pop-culture. The female body of secular America is not a real person, with a unique mind, heart and intellect, so much as she is an abstraction, a concept useful in marketing things; she is needed chiefly to help men feel like men, and not, at all cost, anything like a woman—for under patriarchy women are to be weak, at least vaguely humiliated, and sexually vulnerable; particularly, we are there to make men feel good about themselves throughout the entire realm of sexual relationships.
A week or so ago, I reread a passage in Chaim Potok’s novel, in which the secular Jewish artist, Jacob Kahn, teaches the supposedly grossly ignorant and culturally misinformed Orthodox Jew, Asher Lev, the all important lesson of how to appreciate “The human body [as] a glory of structure and form.” Of course, for Jacob Kahn, and for heterosexual male artists throughout much of historical time, freedom to portray “the beauty of the human body” has translated into the “right” of heterosexual males to paint in the nude young female flesh—that is, the flesh of women, and generally only those who live up to patriarchal standards of beauty as men define them. Men say what they expect a woman to be if she is to be of value very clearly in the Western male tradition of paints. Only women who are, generally speaking, thin, large breasted, young, passively portrayed (most often the female nude has been painted by men in a supine position—she is laid out, spread invitingly on her side or her back, almost like a meal to be consumed, horizontal, or twisted and contorted, even turned upside down from time to time, legs up in the air in high heels–though this is more common in the world of fashion magazines and pornography–but she is almost never in an upright position). Such a standing position would suggest strength or action or powerfulness, traits only men are allowed to exhibit. And, most importantly, the female nude is interchangeable. What I mean by this last point is well illustrated I think by the following passage in which Kahn’s character explains to Asher:
I have asked the girl to pose for you today,” he said. I looked at him. “She is an excellent model and you will draw her in the nude.” I felt myself begin to sweat heavily and did not know what to say. “I want you to see the contours and rhythms with your own eyes. It is not enough to copy Titian and Ingres and Renoir.” I did not say anything. I was trembling inside. I felt a choking heaviness in my throat and chest. “Asher Lev, listen to me.” He was talking gently but with tense insistence. “The human body is a glory of structure and form. When an artist draws or paints or sculpts it, he is a battle ground between intelligence and emotion, between his rational side and his sensual side…[.] I looked over at the girl…she looked to be in her early twenties, had short raven hair and dark eyes…she wore a brightly colored summer dress and regarded me curiously…[.] “Asher Lev, the Rebbe told me never to permit you to draw this way. I have chosen to disregard the Rebbe. The nude is a form of art I want you to master….He spoke briefly to the girl….she was very beautiful. I did not even know her name. I saw the flowing curve of her breasts. I saw the line of shoulder and hip and thigh and leg…[.] I drew her that way and then drew her again in two more poses before…lunch. I ate the sandwich my aunt had packed for me. Jacob Kahn [Male artists with grey hair and a white mustache in his 60s] and the girl went out for lunch…[.] I went home in a daze….I saw the girl. I saw her body…I drew her with my eyes, letting my eyes move slowly across her.
Several aspects of this passage felt excruciating to me, both as a female reader and artist. Asher seems all the more intoxicated with seeing a woman naked when he doesn’t “even know here name.” And why is it that this old man with white hair—a wrinkled, practically ancient male—chooses for Asher a young woman in her twenties as the ideal “human body” through which he is to learn about beauty? The message is one that women cannot fail to learn from birth—we must strive to live up to the ideal of physical beauty that men have defined for us, all the while knowing that, even if we are able to meet this expectation at certain points in our lives, those moments will never be permanent. We will all, eventually, have days when our skin breaks out, when our bodies aren’t perfect, and we will all get old. Always a knowledge lurks in the background, gnawing at our brains in a way that ensures a thoughtful woman lives in perpetual fear, a kind of vague but no less menacing terror that there will always be somebody younger and potentially more attractive to replace her. If she has money, and low self-esteem (as almost all women in this culture do at some point–the low-self-esteem part, not the money), she may throw herself into cosmetic surgery, Botox, expensive chemical peels, and a myriad of other cosmetic procedures that hold out the promise of helping her look young, helping her to keep men’s approval and love (and what human being doesn’t ultimately need love?) One day, she knows that she will grow older, becoming, at least by the standards of pop-culture, unwanted, unable to embody aesthetic beauty ever again, and she is told that at this point, to the majority of men, she will become at best invisible, at worst, repulsive.
Once at UGA where I started off college as an Art major with a focus in drawing and painting, I took a drawing course taught by a female artist named Susan Hauptman, who worked in chalk pastels (the image beginning this blog is an example of one of her self-portraits); I remember her bringing in slides of a male painter whose technique she admired, but who, as she pointed out to us in his self portraits with women lovers, consistently painted himself clothed and standing next to younger and younger naked women. As he aged, his lovers never did; rather, they were simply replaced by newer women. Instead of remaining with the same partner he simply moved on periodically to a younger version. A few weeks ago, I heard an older woman on NPR make a statement that felt amazingly powerful to me, to the effect that wrinkles and gray hair on women are “badges of wisdom that free you from having to please others, especially men.” As a younger woman, I envied her self-confidence. Wrinkled skin and gray hair are not acceptable marks of distinction for women as they are on a male face, at least not according to patriarchal standards of beauty. A woman is forced to confront the realization that, in the eyes of many men if not the majority, she is constantly decreasing in value and in beauty; she is also fully replaceable. Interestingly, this may have something to do with the Christian church’s historical hatred of the figure of the crone–that is, the pre-Judeo-Christian woman healer, community leader, and priestess, who, among older, Goddess worshipping cultures, was considered powerful, wise, and of increasing rather than decreasing importance.
Later in the novel, Asher discusses Neoplasticism, Abstract Cubism and other 20th century art movements with some of Jacob’s (male) artists friends; at no point is a woman painter mentioned. Asher relates how, “Once the introductions and curious glances were over, they did not seem to care about my skullcap and earlocks. They only seemed to care about my painting.” This right to be judged by one’s merit, one’s soul and one’s artistic vision, one’s heart and one’s work—one’s intrinsic self—is a luxury only men know in secular culture (yes, still). Few men allow themselves to be fully aware of what a privilege this entitlement to be judged chiefly by who one is inside really is. In Potock’s novel, as in the world, women are not permitted to display physical strangeness and/or “ugliness” and still be considered remarkable (Asher is pudgy, red-haired, non-Arian looking, and, by secular standards, probably pretty damned ugly, certainly strangely dressed). But none of that matters, because men are artists, viewers, observers, active principles whose vision of the world continues to define it; women are made into passive objects of what beauty is as defined by the men.
Ironically, this ideological valuing of men’s interpretation of reality over women’s is heavily present in the Jewish tradition itself. Men’s brains were said by the rabbis to be more suited to serious study, more given to thoughtfulness than women’s. That sentiment is echoed by the constant and pervasive message made clear to women from birth in secular culture (though I have tried and found it very difficult to make the pain of this message real to men, despite the fact that it would help me immensely to feel they could somehow be made to at least understand what it does to a person’s mental vision of herself, and how inescapable it is) of both secular and pop-culture that women’s chief function is to be objects of physical beauty and desire for men—that we should want to be “pretty,” that caring more about beauty than study and thinking is part of our very “nature;” That women are only beautiful when we are young, and that the body of an older, mature woman is something hideous, something to be ashamed of, never to be treated as beautiful and worthy of being made the subject of great art, is, I would argue, an ideology at least partly rooted in the Talmud.
Jacob Kahn holds up to Asher Lev the work of male artists like Renoir and Ingres, Hopper and Picasso; he speaks to Asher as though men’s way of seeing the world represents an objective standard, the only aesthetic; when Asher defends to his father his choice to paint nudes, the term “nude” still only means young, naked women who practice femininity and can live up to patriarchal standards of beauty; the only weak explanation Asher can give for his choice is that it is part of an artistic tradition he must honor; But, motivated by religious reasons or not, his father is right when he says that sometime Asher may hurt people if he does not think in moral terms as well as aesthetic ones. This is true, despite the fact that both father and son think in male terms and not of women’s diminished humanity. Unfortunately, male artists have a long history of fetishizing youth in women, treating our body’s as suitable for attention only until we begin to show signs of aging. Given that men in general are also discouraged from showing emotion or feelings, apart from anger, men and male artists also seem deeply fearful about connecting sexual intimacy with love or caring for another, or with being fully known by her. Abandoning a woman when she begins to show the human signs of growing older means avoiding the terror of knowing and being known. One can begin again with someone new, less experienced, more naïve, easier to look at, and easier to hide from. Thus, Jacob’s model for “good art” and artistic “mastery” involves treating “the girl” not as a distinct and unique person whose inner being cannot be separated from her body, but merely as, “breasts…legs…flesh.” All of these can be easily replaced with the body of any other traditionally attractive young woman. She is not beautiful because she is herself, but because she represents acceptable looking “woman parts,” is but one representative of an interchangeable group known anonymously as “woman”—or in this case, the infantilizing “girl.”
If a woman feels degraded by being reduced to her physical self (which, unlike her intellect, interests, goals and achievements, is mostly beyond her control), she is discouraged from saying anything about that pain; such a statement might hurt men’s feelings, cause them to feel guilty, or require that they rethink their way of relating to women in general; and men must never be challenged or put upon like that. Men’s feelings, unlike women’s, matter in a world where women are expected to spend our lives soothing, nurturing, and giving to men, never causing them the slightest bit of inner turmoil.
I do not think most men realize how fully and carefully secular women are taught to be extremely careful and gentle with the male ego, to please men, at all costs, to the point where it’s an almost unconscious obsession for most women. I have dated men who have expressed frustration with me that I have a hard time feeling comfortable undressing in front of them, and my fear, of course, comes from being afraid that my physical body will “displease” them, given that it isn’t perfect. I remember one experience in particular, when, during sexual intimacy with a man, I finally worked up the courage to pull down my underwear in front of him, (a huge step for me, given my self-consciousness); I did so, with my back turned, so that only my ass was visible to him; when I did this, he suddenly seemed embarrassed for me; he had pressured me a little to let him see me, but at that minute, he muttered softly that I looked so exposed; that was the part of his response that I liked; it seemed like he was almost at war with himself—the part that had been told he had every right, as a red-blooded American man, to ogle me, a naked woman, battling with the part that felt concern for my feelings as a person; he seemed to feel suddenly guilty over potentially having made me feel uncomfortable; And I felt, in those seconds, his shock at how beautiful my body was, simply because it was mine, and his fear that he had hurt me made me feel less vulnerable. But, like a “real man,” he quickly recovered his composure and blurted out, “that’s a nice ass,” at which point I felt degraded, though I didn’t dare tell him that for fear he would leave me (and he eventually did); This is the sort of language men are taught to use towards women, the way they’re encouraged to look at and speak about us; for me, it felt as though there wasn’t anything about me or even about my specific body that he was praising; instead, I had been quickly reduced to “a nice ass,” and thereby, any power I might have had in the situation was undercut, so that he could feel in control again. His words reminded me of the ways men are taught to be with women—to help themselves feel stronger and less vulnerable during sex; He was proclaiming to me, in effect, that there were many, many “nice asses” out there in the world, and that mine was just one of them, nothing special, and, should he ever get tired of it or of me, he could easily leave me for whatever reason. He was the man in that moment, and I was less than nobody, both I and my “nice ass” having been defined as completely replaceable.
Something similar seems to happen in Potok’s novel. Readers are not told the young woman’s name—her story does not matter, either for the purposes of the novel or an overwhelmingly male tradition of art; only the men, male artists who paint her, Asher and Jacob, deserve full humanity, the freedom of being known. The woman who models for them, despite being in her twenties, is consistently referred to as “the girl,” a pejorative term, belittling in that it implies a lack of intellectual maturity. The argument is of course made that this is simply the way men talk, and a feminist reader ought not to be so sensitive. Yet, the demeaning feeling of being called “girl” throughout ones life might be better understood by imagining an alternate novel, in which, say, a woman painter, choosing to portray a twenty year old Orthodox Jewish male in the nude, consistently referred to her model as “the boy,” or “the Jew,” or more clearly still “the Jew boy.”
Men also demonstrate a sense of ease and entitlement about appropriating derogatory terms used in abusive or belittling context against women, as is demonstrated by Jacob’s instruction to Asher that he must never “become a whore” by compromising his artistic vision in accordance with the feelings of others. A whore, according to Jacob, is someone with no integrity or principle, one who enjoys being used, an empty void of fakeness and artifice with zero self-respect, a woman, one who fucks for money. The ways in which this expression dehumanizes women are clear, and no less present in a conversation between two men using the term metaphorically than they would be between two gentiles in which one accused another of “trying to Jew him down.” The origin of both expressions comes from the systematic oppression of a less powerful group—be it women or Jews—by those with power.
Later in the novel, Asher attempts to paint his mother’s pain and explains that he would be “a whore” if he did not follow his artistic vision, even if it hurts her. He laments that his mother is torn between him and his father, and though his love for her is touching, he demonstrates a total lack of concern for her plight as a woman that amounts to tacit misogyny. Asher is sad that The Master of the Universe pits good sons and good fathers against each other in ways that often leave mothers trapped painfully in the middle; he does not seem aware, however, that his mother has learned to put the lives of the men dearest to her above her own, that she lives her life, not according to desires for herself, but for the men she loves. Asher does not label himself as potentially being a “kike,” but a whore, because anti-Semitism has been questioned by men with power in ways that misogyny has yet to be; even as he identifies with his mother’s plight, the woman-hating spirit of the expression is lost on him. Women are expected to overlook these forms of dehumanization, the life long insult of being turned into somebody’s “girl” no matter how wise one becomes, because aging means shame for a woman, or the symbol of weakness, of “whoring” an insult so deeply tied to sexism and women’s pain. Having been instructed that aging is a failure on our parts, women may feel relieved whenever a man does this—assures us we can still at least partially live up to the label “girl;” this means we may have a few more years left of being considered desirable and able to be loved.
Jacob Kahn chose not to provide Asher with an older female model—or a male model for that matter—not because of an objective standard of aesthetic beauty, but because of a male supremacist one. Women are expected to feel elated over having our bodies viewed, sexualized, made anonymous and interchangeable for men of all creeds and ages for the same reason. The term “great art” however is actually highly subjective; what Jacob Kahn teaches Asher is, in reality, his own definition of a successful artwork—one which a female viewer might not find satisfying or transcendent at all. The version of “beauty” put forward involves a young man learning to separate looking at a woman’s body from knowing her as a person with human dignity, a friend, lover, equal. This of course would involve Asher or any man allowing himself to be known on a deep level by her as well; I think many men are terrified of this kind of exposure before women, with the risks of rejection, dependence, and abandonment it entails. Historically women have been expected to play along with the view that who we are can be separated out from our bodies and from sex with us. Yet, the treatment of male and female nudes by women is beginning to challenge this. Susan Hauptman finds beauty in “the human form” via self portraits of herself in her sixties, a specific, knowable adult woman; gay male artists like Joe Brainard and Frank O’Hara have provided beauty in the treatment of male nudes as well, though there is still a dearth of art dealing with the male nude by women.
If Hassidism instilled in Asher Lev the idea that the human body is sacred, and that it should not be viewed, painted, or photographed in a dehumanizing way, I personally am unable to pretend that the secular view of an objectified female body is superior, or more representative of women’s liberation for that matter. Part of the privilege men in the secular world hold involves looking hard at women, without empathy, feeling entitled to inflict the discomfort it can cause somebody to be scrutinized on the basis of appearance, using pornography without guilt or remorse, and having sex with as many women as they choose without fear of stigma or pregnancy. The patriarchal status quo manifests itself in different ways within and outside the Hassidic community. Interestingly though, as a writer, even when I have written in specific and loving ways about individual men’s nudity, those men have sometimes told me they felt embarrassed and exposed by my art. Yet women are expected to enthusiastically embrace the role of looked-upon-fuck-object with no need for sexual privacy, and to put huge amounts of time and energy into trying to be beautiful. If a human being is not beautiful, and she is female, after all, she essentially worthless under patriarchy. I, like Asher, have always loved drawing, and been fairly good at it, and part of me could certainly enjoying depicting men exposed in paintings, displaying their naked bodies at some gallery or other, as just so much pathetic, sexualized male flesh. Yet women are forbidden from viewing men in this way, assuming we would even want to (I suspect my own desire to create art like that from time to time stems from feeling so much anger at what men do to women). The idea that beauty might have something to do with the person or soul inside a body is a challenge to a patriarchal status quo, and, though ideas about the sacredness of the body are frequently written off by secular men as religious foolishness, as a woman artist, I really do wonder what men would feel like if they were held to such harsh standards of artistic beauty?