Can you paint with all the colors of the Torah?

By: Rachel Eisen

I’m not entirely sure why, but about a month ago, Jewschool posted a blog hating on Midrash Manicures, which just happens to be one of my favorite things ever. Jewschool harps on Midrash Manicures for reinforcing gender stereotypes and being anti-feminist. If you haven’t heard of Midrash Manicures, let me tell you about it: it’s a club at a Westchester, NY Jewish day school where students get to illustrate the weekly Torah portion on their nails. The club is run by a female rabbi who’s a teacher at the school and who also runs a blog about her own weekly Midrash Manicure. The club was featured in the New York Times about two years ago, which is partly why I’m confused about why Jewschool is still bothering to spend time being uncritically critical of it.

Okay, let me pause for second. I get that reinforcing gender stereotypes is bad. I really get it. I’m a feminist. I was raised by a feminist (My mom can tell you about being editor of an Ivy League newspaper in the 70s, about earning two doctorates, and making it as a female scientist). I went to a former women’s college known for producing some amazing female scholars and activists. So, really, I get it. Telling girls that they need to be feminine is Not A Good Thing.

But I don’t think Midrash Manicures is anti-feminist and here’s why. For one, it’s a club, not a class. Boys and girls are both allowed to participate (although the club happens to be all girls). Since it’s not a substitute for a class, it’s not as if girls are being told that to study Torah, they should paint their nails, whereas boys should sit in a class and read books.

Jewschool also seems to think that the club “trivializes” Torah. What I think they mean is that it’s frivolous, it’s not serious study. But then I look again at the New York Times article and see a quote from one of the club’s participants who, in painting the story of Noah on her hands, painted one of her fingers blue, and purposefully painted the skin beyond the nail blue as well, to demonstrate how massively overwhelming the flood waters were. And you tell me that’s trivial? An eleven-year-old who studies Torah, understands how damaging the flood was, and then can translate that into an interpretative art form? Please! Tell me again that this isn’t serious study.

And, most importantly, painting your nails isn’t necessarily feminine. Ask anyone (male or female) who paints their nails black or dark red or bright blue–not pink. Even more, just because something is feminine, doesn’t mean it’s not feminist. I actually think there’s something really subversive about Torah study through a traditionally feminine art form. Think about it: for so many years, Torah was kept out of the hands of women. In many communities, women weren’t allowed to study Torah or any sacred texts. Now that same Torah is literally in and on the hands of women. A female rabbi–let me repeat that, a female rabbi–teaching her students to take something traditionally not-female and interpret it through something so associated with female-ness? It’s standing up to the men of old who said we couldn’t even touch Torah and saying, yes, we can have Torah. We can have it, we can study it, and we can even make it female. We don’t have to do it your way.

This week’s upcoming Torah portion is Shemot, the first portion in the book of Exodus. The first heroes of Exodus are women: the midwives who defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. When Pharaoh confronts the midwives about this, they defend themselves by claiming that Hebrew women are so “vigorous,” that they give birth before the midwives can get there to deliver and kill the babies. And yet, Pharaoh still wants to kill the baby boys, not the baby girls, even in the face of evidence that women are strong. Pharaoh, like many men and apparently, Jewschool, doesn’t get it: even in doing something traditionally feminine, like being a midwife, giving birth, or painting your nails, women are powerful, and their actions can affect change. It is women, after all, who hide Moses, save his life, and then raise him. Moses is nothing without his mother Yocheved, his sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter. Yet we see women doing something feminine and some people are quick to condemn.

Let’s not forget the first lesson of Shemot, which is that strength and power can come in various forms. Sometimes, feminist actions can come about from subverting what is traditionally masculine and making it feminine instead. Women’s power and liberation doesn’t always come from performing masculinity. Is Midrash Manicures a perfect feminist program that deconstructs all gender norms? No, of course not. And femininity should not be the only option for women. But it isn’t always a negative thing, especially when it’s purposefully taking something that’s belonged to only men in the past and turning it on its head.

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