Emily Hilton

When your privates become public: V is for vagina at Limmud

When I was 13, I had to go to Jewish studies classes at my Masorti synagogue in preparation for my impending Bat Mitzvah.

The classes were aimed at giving us roots into our Jewish identity. I don’t remember much (I think we looked at a tanach once or twice), aside from one boy telling me  I had ‘legs like a chicken’ and the dawning realisation that if I wanted to make any friends at my new non-Jewish high school, I should probably stop talking about the Holocaust so much.

One Thursday afternoon, my wonderful rabbi came into the class to give us a sex talk. It was during this talk that I learnt about the halacha around male masturbation and ‘spilling your seed.’ Vaginal masturbation didn’t get a look-in however. We didn’t talk about menstruation either. In fact, during this sex talk I don’t recall the experiences of women being mentioned at all.

I was thinking about this lesson, 12 years later when, on the last night of Limmud Conference 2016, I spoke about my vagina to a room of over a hundred people.

First things first: there is nothing dirty about being in ownership of a vagina. They aren’t rude, or inappropriate or embarrassing. Talking about them in public shouldn’t cause anxiety, or self-consciousness. They are just another part of the human anatomy. And also they are pretty awesome in general — how many other body parts are self-cleaning? Yet most women I speak to, whether in a professional or social context feel some discomfort when it comes to talking openly about their bodies, in particular their genitals.

‘V is for Vagina’ was a session thought up by myself and my co-presenter Hannah Brady during a catch-up coffee back in September, where we lamented the fact that both of us are chronic over-sharer. We also both feel passionately about the importance of women taking up public space by talking about our bodies and how they influence the way we experience the world around us.

And so this is how we ended up cajoling a room of all ages and genders to correctly label the different parts of the vulva, whilst dipping into some of our favourite Orange Is the New Black youtube clips.

Myself and Hannah Brady presenting at Limmud Conference 2016
Myself and Hannah Brady presenting at Limmud Conference 2016

This year on Limmud it was wonderful to see the number of different opportunities there were to discuss and celebrate the issues and experiences that affect women and non-binary people’s lives.

From spirituality and menstruation to the halacha around abortion, there was something deeply affecting about these conversations taking place in a Jewish setting, where there was the option to connect a feminist and religious identity that I haven’t previously seen in such a diverse communal context.

Jewish women tell stories. It’s how we connect to each other and how we learn. The stories of our bodies can be just as meaningful as the stories of our ancestors and our matriarchs.

For me, speaking about how my relationship with my body was profoundly impacted by my first intimate relationships as a teenager was partly mortifying, partly extremely liberating.

From the open and engaged response from the number of people who attended our session, it seems there are people in our community that want to talk about these elements of our Jewish lives.

There will, of course, be people who will never want to use such a public setting to discuss these kinds of stories and that is, of course, ok. But in a world where women’s bodies are so scrutinised, so up for public debate,  it is an inherently political act for us to claim ownership over those conversations.

About the Author
Emily is a Jewish anti-occupation activist living in the UK. She has written for the Independent, +972 Magazine and the Guardian.
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