There is a dress that is sprawled out over the stool in the corner of my bedroom. It is a beautiful, gauzy white dress with an intricate sky blue detailing in the middle. It is one of my favorite dresses. And on Tuesday I will wear it.
I bought it from the Fox Hills Mall just before I left to go to Israel three years ago. I wanted to wear white on my Shabbat in Jerusalem, as the Kabbalists believe that Shabbat is a taste of the world to come, right down to the white of our garments. This was the closest to white that I could find, but it didn’t matter that it wasn’t all white; to me, there was perfection in the blue.
It reminded me on the little blue flowers on the Corelle dishware in my mother’s cabinet, or the Ottoman style fabrics that would make me think of my great grandmother’s life in Turkey. Yet it was long and dramatic, a statement of sorts. Just like the girl who would be wearing it.
I remembered how proud I felt wandering around the Old City in it wearing a white cardigan over my shoulders. I will never forget walking through the courtyards just above the Kotel and how it flowed around my body; the magic in the fabric was unmistakable. I would wear it many times after that, including on Tu B’Av, where Jewish women would go into the fields in white dresses and dance, and from there the men would pick a wife.
I am an American citizen, the third generation of proud Jewish women living here. When my family came here in the early 1900s, the world did not know of Auschwitz. It could barely conceive of the birth of a Jewish state. We were Jews seeking a better life, where the boys wouldn’t be sent to war and my family could be safe.
I remember sitting in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen with its warm wood paneling, cooking the delightful delicacies passed on to her from the centuries of life in the diaspora, and how thrilled she would be when she got an envelope that said jury duty.
“I love it,” she would say in that honey husky tone that was uniquely hers, yearning for another letter to call her for service. She hoped to learn and to understand the American justice system, to be a part of something bigger than herself, as my grandfather blared C-SPAN in the other room. How she told me in secret how she missed working and going to school. She was born in 1918; two years before the women got the vote.
Her daughter and I got into many battles together. My mom was born in 1945, almost 25 years after women got the vote. Being a woman in this country for her meant not necessarily pursuing her dreams the way her brother was able to, because women had certain expectations put on them. But she believed, even as the medical bills piled up in and the hair fell out of her head due to chemo, that this was the best place in the world to live as Jews.
“How can you not love this country?” she would yell at me when I would write one of my questioning American blog pieces. And there, watching her die and my opportunities fade as I tried to take care of her, I wondered how she could.
Neither of these women lived to cast their ballots in this presidential election. Six months ago, my mother was wrapped in a white shawl and buried in the ground in a pine box, per our custom. And on Tuesday, I will be wearing white too.
It’s because when I was 18 I discovered a copy of The Vagina Monologues in my mother’s bathroom. She didn’t understand those words of Eve Ensler’s, but I did. It was my voice as a woman who grew up in a town where girls were supposed to be quiet and accept their treatment at the hands of men. I was already 5’11 and had a voice that boomed, and a brain that was just as smart as anyone else’s. Why should I be silent?
My words spoke better on paper than they did in my vocal tones, scary as they may be. Yet they were meant to capture the distaste of what the world told me to be as a woman, let alone as a person. How I was told my aptitude for the written word was no match for the power of math and science. Yet even though I understood and respected logic and reason, I understood the heart is just as powerful. Why should I be silent?
Standing alongside me were the women who I came to know throughout my life, beautiful and strong, yet somehow felt silenced in telling their stories. They couldn’t speak their truths, ranging from sexual assault to health issues and discrimination in the workplace, for fear of retaliation. I understood the fears, yet I knew that their stories were also mine and should never be shamed or scrutinized. Why should I stay silent?
When the suffragettes of the early 1900s donned their colors, of purple, gold and white, they saw that we could be so much more. We didn’t need to stay silent. We were voices in this place just as much as others. We were battered and bruised, with women who pursued the presidency such as Victoria Woodhull (actually the first female candidate for president, even before the suffragettes were successful in their quest for voting) described as Satan incarnate. And we got that right, and for 96 years we have exercised it accordingly.
Now, after 96 years there is a woman running for president on a national-level ticket. She believes in what I believe in, as does the Democratic Party platform, so I am casting my vote for her. There is far too much to lose in this race as women if we don’t; I sometimes wish the men in our lives would see that.
For over 24 years, she has faced opposition to who she is as a woman: One who doesn’t stay silent. Who is ambitious and determined, and has every word thrown at her in the book. So have we all who have decided to take a different path than our mothers, who decide not to hide behind what we should be and instead strive for what we could be. We are loud and strong. She wears white. And we must too.
So Tuesday, I will wear white when I go to cast my ballot. The blue pattern in my dress, I realized, is to represent my matriarchs who gave my faith to me. Our Jewish faith instructs us to wear our prayer shawls with a thread of blue, and I believe truly that we pray with our hearts as much as our words. And my vote is a holy act.
My mother and grandmother believed in and loved this country, probably a lot more than my questioning mind does. They would have loved to vote for a woman for president. I am but one, but as one I am the culmination of generations and years of love and proud heritage, and will vote in their spirit. That is what I will be on Tuesday, standing with the rippling fabric that once flowed with divinity in my homeland, and will flow around me again.
My mother would always say to me, “Remember who you are.” I am an American Jewish woman, one of many. And on Tuesday we will wear white.