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Gender and the Identity Politics of OTD Lives and Narratives

Tue, December 18, 10:15 to 11:45am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Skyline Room

Session Submission Type: Roundtable


This roundtable picks up on important threads developed at the last AJS conference, on the role that gender plays in differentiating between the diverse experiences of ex-Orthodox Jews who go “off the derech” (OTD). While OTD scholarship is at a critically nascent point, often searching for a “sameness” that consolidates this group, we hope to enter a perspective of difference into the analysis of OTD life and literature. We are interested in exploring the impact of gender and other identity-based inequities that begin within Orthodox communities, on the attempts of their members to exit them. We ask, how do gender discrepancies within the Orthodox world differ from those in the secular world, and how do these differences express themselves within OTD communities and their narratives? How does the construction of gender within the fold shape the kinds of resources one has at their disposal when attempting to leave, including those that can lead to publication? If gender is socially constructed, how do the genders of OTDees change as they transition between different societies, leading to a kind of OTD-transness? We explore these questions through an analysis of OTD lives and narratives as represented in OTD scholarship and literature. Shira Schwartz (moderator) is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, working in ethnographic and textual traditions. She studies shifting gender roles in contemporary Orthodox women’s yeshivas, and explores the internal constructions of masculinity and femininity within Orthodox and OTD life, as well as rabbinic texts. Leah Vincent, bigender OTD author of CUT ME LOOSE: SIN AND SALVATION AFTER MY ULTRA-ORTHODOX GIRLHOOD, will explore the intersections of trauma, gender and OTD life, particularly in relation to genderqueer and trans OTDees, as well as dynamics of consent between OTD men and women. Jessica Lang, is Professor of English at CUNY Baruch and co-editor of the upcoming volume OFF THE DERECH: ORTHODOX JUDAISM IN THE MODERN WORLD (SUNY). She is a literary scholar, particularly of American Jewish women’s fiction and brings a gendered analysis to life-narratives of OTD women authors, particularly around physical and emotional intimacy. Zalman Newfield is Assistant Professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. His book manuscript, DEGREES OF SEPARATION: IDENTITY FORMATION BEYOND ULTRA-ORTHODOX JUDAISM will be published with Temple University, and explores life-transitions outside of ultra-Orthodoxy. He brings perspective on the formation of transitional identities within changing Orthodox and ex-Orthodox cultures. Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford, studying identity performance in the work of Jewish women poets. She brings a critical perspective to the construction of gendered identity itself through OTD literature, especially around “coming out” OTD narratives and the “frum closet”. As a mixed disciplinary panel, we hope to generate insight into the identity politics that organize and persist in the lives of OTDees on both sides of transition, and look to bring attention to these marginalized identities, which are often flattened into one-dimensional categories.

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