Thoughts on muscles, Jewish women and strength

Jenna Rappels 

A few years ago, a young colleague came to work with a cast on her knee. When she explained that she'd had surgery for a torn meniscus, the blank look on my face was transparent.

"It's weird," she thought aloud. "No one old ever knows what the meniscus is."

She hesitated, then said: "No insult intended."

I assured her that none was taken, and she explained how the meniscus facilitates the side-to-side movement integral to sports performance. I nodded and wished her a refuah shleymah. Then I asked if she understood why none of the older women she'd encountered knew what a meniscus is.

Those of us over 40 simply did not have the kind of opportunities to partake in sports as did she and her fellow Millennials. That right didn't come until 1972, with the hard-fought passage of Title IX, which prohibits Federally-funded education programs from excluding participants on the basis of sex. It took another decade of court cases to ramp up girls' sports programs at U.S. schools and park districts.

That bright young woman's torn cartilage was a symbol of progress.

Let me be clear: I personally hated physical education class. Loathed it, despised it, still have nightmares about it. In junior high, I wore a powder-blue, polyester gym suit with a blouson top and horizontal stripes. We girls half-heartedly participated in gymnastics and badminton and exercises in "fitness"—which largely consisted of our gym teachers yelling "pull harder!" as we lined up and, one by one, attempted to do a single pull-up.

Virtually all of us failed.

"Oh, that doesn't work for women," my daughter said knowingly, upon hearing this story. "We're built differently. It's more effective for women to try to pull our arms in rather than up. Coach Fosco showed me. Just try to bring your arms together, and you'll be able to do a pull-up."

I demurred.

"C'mon," she said. "You can do it."

She was right. I was incredulous as I realized I had slowly lifted my body into the air on my own power. It wasn't a full-fledged chin-up—but it was close.

Now 19, Jenna has never known anything but a co-ed gym class, where both boys and girls wear sweatpants and participate in serious sports. She started playing in a youth softball league at age 10, learning how to snap her wrist and throw with power.

She didn't throw like a girl. She threw like a grrrl!

In middle school, she learned to compete in basketball, volleyball and floor hockey (her favorite). The emphasis was on developing skills, learning the rules of the game, achieving fitness and demonstrating good sportsmanship. It did not matter that she is not athletically gifted, or that, like her mother, she is built like…well, like a Jewish woman. By the time she was in high school, Jenna had moved on to kayaking, rock climbing and rappelling. She developed pride in her physical strength and endurance, and that confidence spilled into other aspects of her life—including her Judaism.

Today, Jenna is attending a college where Jews are a minority, as we are most everywhere in the world. She is often the only Jew in the room, and sometimes the first Jew her classmates have ever met. She cheerfully explains our faith, values and rituals to them, impervious to the cynical lens through which many of her compatriots view organized religion, ethical mores and tradition for its own sake. Her friends could not understand why she fasted on Yom Kippur—but darned if they didn't have a feast prepared for her when she returned from synagogue.

Rappelling at Devils Lake 

A woman who knows she can rappel down a mountain also knows who she is, and what she's made of. She has a powerful sense of herself. And knows what it's like—even for a fleeting moment—to feel invincible.

May she, and all the young women in our community, go from strength to strength.

Linda 2014
Empty nester Linda Haase considers lessons learned and progress made in her lifetime, through a Jewish woman’s lens.... Read More

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