Who The Folk?! Jessica Fishman

Jessica Fishman’s stomping ground – and accent – is Minnesotan despite having lived in Israel for 10 non-consecutive years. Fishman is coming back to the Twin Cities for a week as part her national book tour to promote her memoir “Chutzpah & High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land,” the story of her battle for religious equality and inability to get married without conversion – despite being Jewish. Learn all about Fishman in this week’s Who The Folk?!

What led you to writing this?

I feel like I’ve always been a bit of a writer, and I studied journalism and marketing in college. At one point, when things stated getting difficult here, I started writing in a journal. I kept it in a drawer and read to friends. Then for my MBA, we had to do a blog for a class on online entrepreneurship. I realized I had this content in my desk drawer and used that. I put it up and people really liked it. Then I thought maybe I could write for people and not just myself.

Then there was this time where I went through a difficult period and I felt like this identity was being taken away from me. I was really heartbroken and I turned to writing. I wanted to take a negative and turn it positive, and raise awareness and work towards social justice. It’s probably the best therapy I had. It helped me understand what I went through.

How hard is it to be THAT honest with yourself?

Bearing wounds for others is as difficult as doing it to ourselves. Understanding and processing is what helped me get past them. In the end, something positive came out of the experience. It became bigger than me. It became a desire to take my story into something bigger for people who are discriminated against.

For people who don’t know, what happened?

In Israel, the definition of the law of return comes from Nuremberg. Anyone with one Jewish grandparent is Jewish. The reason for that, when Israel was being formed, was the founders wanted a safe haven for anyone persecuted by Nazis. The ultra-orthodox saw this as not halachic. That created, funny enough, purgatory for a lot of Jews in Israel: You’re a citizen, you have the full duties of citizenship, but you don’t have the basic human rights of getting married or buried in a cemetery. If something would’ve happened to me, I would’ve been buried outside the wall.

I was going to get married, but he gave me an ultimatum that I needed to convert, and I was unwilling to convert. I didn’t need a bunch of antiquated rabbis in a patriarchal system telling me who I was. Even if I wanted to get married by the rabbanut, I didn’t want to be in a marriage where I was stuck if I didn’t want to be. I will say we spent quite a few months of me trying to find a solution and him becoming more resolved to the ultimatum. In the end we broke up. The rabbanut won. I probably dodged that bullet. But I wished that it wouldn’t have happened without my identity being called into question. There’s a lot of the dirty details in what I went through and the emotional roller coaster I went on, the process, and how I went through it; that is where the real story is and what the processing was like.

How were you affected by that?

I’m the daughter of a convert. Grew up in a very Jewishly-active family. My dad was the president of Beth Jacob, my mom was the president of the local Hadassah chapter. I went to Talmud Torah, I went to Jewish camp. My whole identity was Judaism. My mom was the matriarch. She built that and pushed us to be active Jews. Yet, when I get to Israel, she’s not good enough? Her parenting is what led me to move to Israel.

Why take on this cause?

When I see an injustice, I speak out. It affected me personally and I was pretty shook by it. I was in a relationship and I got an ultimatum instead of a proposal. People never seem to follow the laws there when it comes to driving, but I realized this law is followed very strictly. It ends up imposing a value system on secular Israelis. I grew up more active than most secular Israelis Jews. This comes from the rabbanut telling people Reform and Conservative Jews aren’t really Jewish. Our communities are some of the biggest supporters of Israel. I took this on because I want to take my experience and turn it into a story that people could relate to. It has some really devastating effects on people. When it comes to the Kotel and Women of the Wall, it has great visuals. My fight was behind four walls. It’s why the book was a good medium to tell my story. It’s not a fight for converts; maybe as a convert, you’re bearing the brunt of it. This is without a doubt an affront to Conservative and Reform Jews.

Will it be great to get home?

It’s going to be a very busy month. The strange thing about living here, I’ll always feel different no matter how used I get to the culture. When I get to the U.S., the Israeli part of me comes out. It’s a strange feeling to always feel not fully a part of one place or another. But I can meet a lot of people and organizations that are very diverse. I hope to plant some new seeds in people’s minds that may not be aware of the situation and not understand the impact.

We have TWO copies of Jessica’s book to give away! E-mail [email protected] to win. Get additional opportunities when you share and comment on the Facebook post. We’ll draw the winners on Thursday morning. Books will need to be picked up at the Sabes JCC.

Jessica will be at Temple Israel, on 6 p.m., March 10; Adath Jeshurun Synagogue on Shabbat morning, March 11; St. Paul Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy event at Beth Jacob at 7 p.m., March 16. Shir Tikvah at 6:30 p.m. on March 17; and Beth El Synagogue, following Shabbat lunch, on March 18.

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